The Importance and Implementation of Surround Sound

Implementing surround sound has always been one of my greatest joys in sound design.

Last year I had a customer approach me who had been working out an idea for a seance room for his home haunt.   You can imagine how excited I was to learn that they were looking to implement a 5.1 Surround system!

The scenario was simple.  There was an animated, talking skull in the center of the room that interacted with guests while summoning and warding off spirits from the afterlife around the room.  The 5.1 setup entailed using the center channel as the “talking head, or narration” and the signal controlled the animation to the skull.  Left, Right, Ls and Rs channels were used to have the disembodied voices “float” around the room in a question and answer fashion.   The LFE or Sub-Woofer was used for the occasional Thunder to invoke a bit of dread and doom.

Music and atmosphere played consistently on a looping 1 Hour track on both the Left and Right speakers.  From a sound design perspective, it was just a matter of assigning the voices to different channels over time, and allowing for movement from one channel to the other in seemingly random directions over that 1 Hour period.

We designed the track so that customers would hear a similar scenario start every 10 – 15 minutes during that 1 Hour loop.  And I’m happy to say it was a great success!

Now we know that most haunts are designed to encourage a more rapid flow of customers.  That’s not to say that surround would be out of the question if designed to give the effect in shorter time frames and even lead people from one room to the next.  You can also think of surround speakers merely as audio channels.  In this case you have 5 channels (or perhaps 7 depending on your gear).  Why not a soundtrack that has effects play in succession that lead down a corridor?  A disembodied voice, the sound of walking feet through water, creaking boards, someone above you or below you?  It does lend itself to some very creative scenarios once you layout the design and start engaging the sound design.  And that LFE?  Mmmmm…  low frequencies.  Explosions, Thunder, Growling, Rumble…. Instead of a subwoofer, why not rig the floor with a ButtKicker for some moving and shaking as customers walk through?  So many possibilities!

Another reason my client went with surround as a home haunter was the accessibility and lower cost of components.  You can purchase surround sound systems now for incredibly low prices that will do the trick.  And, plugging in a loop-able DVD that’s preconfigured for your scenario is an easy way to get up and running fast!
Which leads me to the most captive audience I can think of.  The Escape Room guest.  Here is a perfect opportunity to use surround in so many different ways.  If we boil it down, you are really just asking your sound designer to assign sound effects to various areas of your room at particular times in 1 Hour.  (Unless of course you are going for triggered sounds).  But the use of surround in an Escape Room can certainly lend itself to an immersive experience in practically any scenario or theme.  And again, the entry costs are minimal in a basic setup using consumer, off-the-shelf surround systems to do the heavy lifting for you.  Imagine the experience of being in a room with a Pirate theme and the ocean waves crashing all around you; the deep creaking and bowing of the ship is accentuated in the LFE at the same time Lighting and Thunder jolt you as you’re solving your mystery aboard a ship doomed to crash against the rocks in 1 Hour if you don’t get out in time.  Wind and the sound of gulls move from one side of the room to another to give that much more reality to the theme.  You get the picture.

The possibilities are almost endless, and something I would love to see more Escape Room and Haunts take advantage of.  Affordability, ease of setup and versatility all add up to a great experience for your guests, and a lot of fun for you and me to start creating something a bit unique or at least tremendously memorable for your customers.

Let’s get started shall we?