Joel Beckerman and his Man Made Music company are responsible for some of the most recognizable brand themes and sonic identities for big names in the entertainment world including ESPN, HBO, Hulu, just to name a few.
Now, he and his team have ventured into a new frontier: using sound to give life to the Cartoon Network area at the new IMG Worlds of Adventure theme park in Dubai. Opened in August of this year, IMG Worlds of Adventure is the largest indoor theme park in the world at 1.5 million square feet. It features three roller coasters and five different themed zones, including the Cartoon Network area, which comprises 200,000 square feet of space alone.
Their challenge? Create the proper acoustics for a section of IMG World of Adventure’s giant covered dome in the middle of the desert — preserving the sound quality across hundreds of thousands of square feet of the indoor theme park.
The results? Man Made Music’s audio landscape captures the “warped, weird, whimsical world” of Cartoon Network programming. They crafted the ambient soundtracks that animate and help create the fun, fanciful feel of the area. Not only did they create the music, but they also engineered the logistics of piping it across an expansive indoor space under incredibly demanding circumstances.
We had the chance to ask Joel about his work designing the sound of the Cartoon Network zone at IMG Worlds of Adventure:
C101: How did you become involved with this theme park project?
Several of the Turner creative team from this project — Simon Dean, Elliott Haag and David Ryan Robinson — heard me or were aware of a speaking engagement I did at an entertainment conference in Barcelona, about my book, The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy. The book primarily is about the role of sound as our lives as human beings, and how we can apply these learnings to make people’s lives better.
The Cartoon Network team was interested in how everyone at my company, Man Made Music, thinks about harnessing the power of sound in experiences. They checked out some of our work and reached out to us. There were a few conversations between our respective teams, and we were so excited by the challenges and the potential for creating a completely unique soundscape for Cartoon Network in the largest indoor theme park! It just seemed like a great opportunity, and we loved their thinking about how sound could help address some of their challenges and make this space feel special and distinctly Cartoon Network.
C101: Have you worked with any other theme parks in the past?
Not per se, though, we’ve had a lot of success in creating soundtracks for large-scale spaces, like fan experiences in stadiums, including connected apps, kiosks and in-game moments like at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium. We’ve also created soundscapes for visitor galleries and interactive games for museums, like key areas of the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. We’ve also worked on projects for large flagship retail stores and company headquarters…
Interestingly, if you look at this work together with all our experience in entertainment with companies like IMAX and the Academy of Motion Pictures, and having scored over 50 television series, we feel right at home with the kind of stories that need to be told in theme parks. It’s a great match with our skills, and an exciting new area for us to play in!
C101: Can you explain any differences between designing the audio system for an indoor park versus one that is outdoors?
The two sets of design considerations are actually quite different.
An outdoor audio system is designed keeping in mind that audio dissipation is going to occur. Since most outdoor spaces fairly open, sound energy tends to dissipate quickly and the resulting visitor perception of volume levels tends to vary dramatically depending on conditions like where a person is located in the space, the amount of wind, surrounding noise, and other factors.
At Cartoon Network’s theme park area (IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai), there is a glass roof, faux buildings, and concrete reflective floors so the opposite issues occur—the sound tends to reverberate in the space and sound reflections build up with certain frequency ranges being overemphasized over others, which could adversely affect the experience.
Our team had lots of conversations with the system designer to consider how to place speakers in areas to minimize the buildup of echo and overemphasis of certain frequencies, as well as excess reverberation that could create an unpleasant and ‘loud’ or unnatural sounding soundscape.
And of course we had to keep in mind all these factors in the design of the soundtrack itself and think about ‘hollowing out’ certain areas of the frequency spectrum in a way that would make the soundscape seem completely natural.
C101: While I’m sure you have some source material to work with in a project like this, where do you like to look to for inspiration?
Our team actually puts a lot of thought and effort into finding inspiration for each project. We really start with thinking about what we wanted visitors to feel in the space. After talking with the Turner team, we recognized that was a sense of fun, and curiosity. We also wanted to trigger a desire for visitors to explore the whole space. Everyone agreed that the soundtrack should feel bright and whimsical, but NOT surreal or cartoony. The other thought was how we wanted to give this a bit more of an ‘outdoor’ feel. The dark ceilings certainly give the impression that there is no ceiling—but the sound had to help create the illusion that no matter what time it is in actuality– it was always ‘eternal afternoon.’
Our inspiration was to think about how in a walk in the woods you might be able to ‘experience’ nature well before you even see it — a brook, rustling of trees, animals in the forest, subtle wind—and that the exact quality of those sounds gives you a clear sense of time and place. So for Cartoon Network’s space, we set out to create what we all call the “Cartoonasphere” — which we thought of as a unique soundscape that exists when you pass the threshold and find yourself inside the Cartoon Network, at IMG.
The “Cartoonasphere” has a very distinct vaguely musical ambiance that sets it apart from the rest of the park, a vibrant but quiet musical drone that also masks sound from around the park, mashed up with deconstructed ‘bits’ of musical themes from their best-known television shows, mashed up with some natural sounds like birds and insects. The key really is that a lot of what you experience is very subtle background sound with moments that are little flourishes of foreground or midground sound.
C101: How much tweaking is needed (like adjusting speaker positioning or volume levels) after an audio system like the one at IMG is installed?
We actually have our own twenty-channel proprietary audio system we call the MMX (Man Made Experience) in our studio facilities that allows us to do rapid-prototyping and approximate site conditions as we are creating soundtracks. This gives us the opportunity to try out a lot of things, see what works and what doesn’t, and provides a good starting point for an installation. And once on site, our team spent a full day making sure that the audio played consistently across all the different areas of the park, and made numerous small tweaks in the soundtrack. Speaker angles were only adjusted once. Most of the changes had to do with volume and compensating for sound reflections.
C101: What kind of data do you collect to determine how to position speakers and other equipment? What kind of research and testing is done in the early design stages?
Typically, it’s about working with the project engineering team and in particular, being very thoughtful about the placement of speakers and angles to determine uniform speaker coverage in the design while maintaining phase coherence in the program. This can be mapped on the design drawings in a given space, and certainly the choice of specific types of speakers are a critical factor. However, especially in an enclosed space, there’s a lot of ‘art’ that comes into play, and a fair amount of subjectivity. In the final analysis we have to tweak mixes by ear. We of course use an SPL (sound pressure level) meter to make sure we are achieving consistent coverage and aren’t going crazy on our choices. On some projects where music is more of a featured element we employ some fairly sophisticated frequency response testing using a special rig, but that wasn’t needed for this project.
C101: What are some tricks to keep sound and music from bleeding between areas of the park – especially an enclosed one like this?
Luckily the engineering team for the space installed a ton of sound insulation in the roof of the park that helped cut down the bleed considerably. But the biggest trick with controlling bleed in this project is really baked into the creative vision of the program. The “Cartoonasphere” concept led us to think mostly about creating fake silence. Not real silence, which for the most part doesn’t exist in the real world anyway, but a soundscape that you would mostly feel rather than hear. We were never intending to make a big, loud statement with sound. It was always about coming up with a solution that would provide a natural sound barrier from the other areas of the park, while setting a very distinct mood and sonic moments, and triggering emotions.
Even if you have a momentary distraction with a loud sound coming from one of the rides in a neighboring area of the park, the soundscape pulls your attention immediately back to the Cartoon Network space. We always think of soundscapes as needing to be both functional and emotional.
C101: To what extent are park designers and officials involved in your process? Do they just give final approval, or are they more involved from the start?
They set the benchmarks on overall volume and left the rest to the Cartoon Network creative team and us.
C101: Are the effects and soundtrack something that is constantly played, or is part of the design having sections of the soundtrack that are quiet or silent?
We created plenty of moments of perceived silence in the program. Real silence would actually have felt very stark and not very engaging, and visitors would have been very aware of all the attraction noises from the surrounding “worlds.” The key really is contrast in volume and composition — there are moments that feel ‘quiet’ and moments that feel more immersive and fun. It’s an incredibly important balance where there’s just enough to pique interest and drive exploration in the area.
C101: How long is the total amount of unique music? How frequently would the soundtrack repeat itself or repeat parts of it?
The goal was to make a program that would feel like it never looped. To let you in on the secret, the total soundscape loop is one hour long, but it contains eight quite different ambiance sections that segue from one section to another imperceptibly, and there are technically eight different “takeover” musical sections where the deconstructed Cartoon Network show themes are identifiable. We like to make sure we’re thinking about both visitors and park employees when we create soundscapes. We actually ran the soundscape in our offices for a few days in the development process to make sure we felt that we would feel good about the sound if we were hearing it day in and day out.
C101: Do you have more plans for work or projects in the amusement industry?
Absolutely! We’re already looking forward to working on several new ones. We are in this amazing moment where technology is facilitating a new generation of creative opportunities to deliver incredible experiences to visitors at scale. And people have realized that the innovative use of sound and music has never been more important to everything from overall park experience, individual attractions and in emerging areas like VR, AR, and even rudimentary AI (artificial intelligence) through automated voice. Great sound is essential not only to suspension of disbelief, but especially in these new technologies it’s a primary way to guide narrative attention and advance a story in new ways.
We’re also working on projects where sound will play a significant role in what we call “next level intuitive” in park wayfinding through a special “semiotics of sound,” customer loyalty programs and return visits, and even in helping create a more distinctive and cohesive park experience across spaces, devices and attractions. There are still others where sound drives longer retail engagement which inevitably drives sales. We’ve also co-authored some new audience research to measure the impact and effectiveness of our work and guide development, and started to develop software to help us achieve new ways to control some of the effects we’re creating. I feel like we’re just beginning to uncover a whole world of amazing new possibilities!
We’d like to thank Joel for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.