Podcast: How Attraction Designers Make Music Soar

May 19, 2021, 6:12 PM · Music is one of those elements that can elevate an ordinary attraction into something great. But what makes that musical magic happen?

Find out in my conversation with Brian Yessian, the chief creative officer for Yessian Music, a multi-studio collective of producers, composers, music supervisors, research creatives and recording artists that has worked on many theme park attractions around the world. Most recently, Brian has been working as the music director on SkyFly: Soar America, a new flying theater ride from Dynamic Attractions that will open at The Island in Pigeon Forge in Tennessee this summer.

Brian and I talked about the development of new ride and its music, as well as how he and his team have created soundtracks for other attractions, including ones at Chimelong Parks, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Bollywood Parks Dubai, and - closer to home - the Wings Over Washington flying theater in Seattle that I also enjoyed.

You can listen to the entire interview on our podcast, Building the World's Best Theme Parks. Or watch the video below:

Here is an edited transcript:

Robert: What were what feelings were you looking for in the music for this attraction? What composers or works inspired the sound that you were going for here?

Brian: We were really trying to find a great way to connect with the tourists that come to Pigeon Forge, which are, I would say, mainly Americans. So we took we took a lot of cues from Americana music and even the likes of national music like John Philip Sousa. Maybe not an American composer, but Gustav Holst is another inspiration for us. You'll be able to tell the inspiration from his famous piece, The Planets, which is very exciting. John Williams is always a big inspiration for us, especially on projects like this, because of his film scoring techniques and the big sweeping scores that he creates.

Robert: You're working with Nathan Padgett as the composer on this particular project. Tell me a little bit about him, what he brings to the table and why you picked him for this.

Brian: Nathan is a great orchestrator and orchestral composer that we've worked with for well over a decade. He has just such an acute sense of sound and can connect with individual orchestral players very well. The reason is because he's a multi-instrumentalist, so he plays various instruments - as does his wife, so they sometimes combine forces on some of these projects, as well. It's really important when we get to record a live orchestra that you understand how each of the individual players play, and he has such a great ear for that - and a great sense of creating memorable melodies and themes. For a project like this, having a strong hook is of monumental importance.

Robert: Let's talk about that live orchestra for a moment, because this wasn't something that was just put together in front of a keyboard synthesizer. You've got a big live orchestra for this one - 70 musicians recording in a studio in Nashville. Tell me a little bit about that whole process and the cost/benefit analysis of using a big live orchestra for something like this. Not everyone does that.

Brian: They don't. We've worked on a lot of attraction work, and whenever we can work with an orchestra, it elevates that attraction to a level beyond. A lot of the big theme parks - like Disney or Universal - they do live orchestra for almost everything they do. It really sets a high standard for the industry. A ride like this, I think, is going to really benefit from having these live players. It creates a human connection. You can create some great sampled orchestras through your computer, there's no doubt. But when you have live players playing on a session like this, it really brings it to life. We work with orchestras all over the globe - from Budapest to Bratislava, Seattle to Salt Lake, London - and we were fortunate enough to record here in Tennessee and create a homegrown experience for this project. So there's a connection between Pigeon Forge and the players that they're supporting here in Tennessee, which is fantastic. And the Nashville players are some of the best in the world.

Robert: You didn't record this at some nondescript studio in the middle of no place. You had a pretty sweet little space that you were recording this.

Ocean Way studios in Nashville
Photo courtesy Dynamic Attractions

Brian: We did. We got to record it Ocean Way studios in Nashville, which is one of the premier studios in the country - if not the world for that matter. It's a really unique and very special place. There are so many artists that have come through that space, and orchestras for that matter, and actually an old church that they've converted into the studio, so the acoustics in it are amazing. It still has the stained glass in the windows, and they have one of the most amazing sound boards in the world. And the microphones - oh my God, the microphones. They have, I think the only place in the world that really rivals the microphone collection they have, because it's all vintage microphones - we were using upwards of half a million dollars in microphones, is Abbey Road in London.

Robert: Does that allow you to do more with the music, when you're recording in a facility like that?

Brian: It does. We had so many microphones and Decca trees lining the entire space. In an attraction like this, which is a multi-channel mix, the way we record is that those microphones are surrounding the entire orchestra, plus we have point-source microphones at each of the instruments individually, so we just have a lot more control and can make that sound really immerse the audience in the theater.

Robert: In traditional film scoring, you're trying to match the action that's on the screen - you're trying to amplify, draw something out, contrast - you're playing with that dimension of the visual. Here you've got another dimension to play with. It's not just what's on the screen, it's what's happening on your seat. How do you work that extra dimension into the sound design of this entire experience?

Brian: That's a great point. We have to take our cues from what's happening visually of course in the film, and then - since we've worked on so many of these fly rides over the past decades now - we've really learned how the programmers work with the actual ride vehicle themselves in relation to what the content is on screen. We like to have early discussions about that, as well, so we can get an understanding of how the ride vehicle movement is going to happen - whether it's banking to the right or the left, or forward or back, because some of the rides now are very adventurous and the ride vehicles can get a bit more aggressive than they were in the past for a typical 'soaring over a landscape'-type film.

Then you have the effects that are happening on these rides. So there's special effects like water or scent, and so we have to also respond to that. So when we're looking at the visual, we have to think about if there could be water spraying as we're going through a waterfall or if there's going to be a scent, how can we emotionally connect with that special effect in a musical way or from a sound design perspective?

And then there's new technologies where they are putting speakers behind the headrest, so that we can utilize new ways of bringing sound to people, or the butt kickers under your seat. How do we respond, musically or sound design-wise, to that motion? So there's a lot to think about, but it's always exciting - always a challenge - and a lot of it, truthfully, will happen on-site, too, because we may make a little adjustments or tweaks when we're in the on-site mix process, to make sure we're really hitting those moments in the ride vehicle movement.

Robert: In composing, there's a difference between something like this, which is basically a travelogue, and something that's more of a narrative IP-based attraction. What are some of the considerations that you have, both as a musical director then also communicating with a composer, about how you're going to be dealing with the context of what you're presenting on the screen?

Brian: It is quite different from working with an IP. One of the attractions we had worked on was Krrish in Bollywood Parks Dubai. We had a lot of fun with that one, [but] we're working with set themes and melodies that come from the film that people are familiar with, so we had to adhere to arranging those melodies in a way that people would be familiar with. On something like SkyFly: Soar America, this is a blank slate for us. We get to come into this project and start from scratch - really start thinking about melodies and themes, and how do we want to approach this and then experimenting a little bit. It's a little bit more wide open, where we get to have a lot of back and forth with our clients and the creatives and the director and talk about where do we want to take the theme and how are we going to connect with our audience. It's a great opportunity because when we create this, it's a unique melody and thematic idea that's only going to be played at this attraction.

Robert: What do you do to get into an audience's head - the head of the audience that hasn't shown up yet and may not show up for months or years depending upon the development timeline for this project? How do you anticipate how an audience is going to react? How do you think about how you want to connect with them when you're in the design and development and composition process?

Brian: There's a lot of sampling from our own families at home. When we're playing music and if we hear our kids or other friends or family, humming something after a few times playing it, then you know you're making a connection there. Someone's remembering this is melody. So we do that a lot.

Because we have such a global reach and work with our offices in various locations, we like to share works in the developmental stage with our teams, to kind of get reactions of how people in different areas of the country or the world that we work with respond to something. It's a lot of trial and error, I think, but for our company, this is our 50th year in business, so we have a lot of experience working with guests and with audiences to figure out what is going to make them feel something or connect with a piece of music.

Robert: When we started this conversation, we were talking about this as an American attraction, primarily for an American audience. What have you learned over the years about some of the regional differences that you have to consider when creating a composition and sound space for audiences in various parks around the world, and what are some of the things that are just universal that always hit no matter where you are?

Brian: When we first started doing this, coming from a perspective of working in the U.S. and obviously our film industry and entertainment industry is by far the largest in the world, so you kind of come at things thinking, well, we know how this is supposed to go. We know what people are going to respond to. Then you get into [other] parts of the world like China where they don't have the exposure to what we do here, or the Middle East, you find that people do respond to music differently or their ear is tuned a little bit differently into what they respond to or what they like sonically. We learned a lot over these last years about cultural differences - what people respond to.

We don't pretend that we're going to be very complete experts in other cultures' musical tastes, so we asked a lot of questions. We study music and what are people listening to in these regions - from back in history to current music- and find ways to connect and understand culturally what the differences are. The world's only becoming smaller, and everyone's hearing music from all over the world now in various forums and via various mediums. The Netflix and the Hulus and the Peacocks, they're all bringing in content from different parts of the world, and so I think we're all exposed a lot more to a lot more variants and in variety and music. So now we are able to kind of take that knowledge and apply it to all of these forms of working.

Robert: What was your favorite part of this project?

Brian: Being able to record a live orchestra just makes me really happy. It puts me in a very happy place. Working with musicians is definitely my favorite thing, so that was one of the highlights, for sure. Even getting into the sound design process, this is a fun one because of what the queue and preshow is bringing to life - this whole steampunk and factory kind of atmosphere. So we had to really create some interesting factory and mechanical sounds that are going to bring this all to life. When people come from the Island outside, where all the shops and restaurants are, into this attraction, we're really wanting to transport them into a completely new place, and we have to do that immersively with sound. How do we get them out of the mindset of being on a boardwalk and bring them into this environment and think that they've been transported to a completely new place? The sound design aspect is a lot of fun to be a part of.

Robert: What do you hope that audiences take away from this attraction?

Brian: I just hope that they get a new sense for travel and seeing our beautiful country. We've all been cooped up for a long time now this last year, and I think this is really going to renew people's excitement for traveling around the country. There's so much to see in this country alone. I hope that with the music, we really connect with a lot of the visitors, especially from some of the patriotic little influences that we have in here. We're pretty excited about that.

SkyFly: Soar America opens this summer in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Stay tuned for more detail.

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Replies (1)

May 20, 2021 at 10:18 AM

Sound design and music is an oft-forgotten and ill-addressed part of theme park (and attraction) design. People forget how much sound plays a role in making an experience feel real and convincing. Roller coasters can create all kinds of forces and intimidating views, but the reason why the front seats on coasters are so popular is because they provide unencumbered air to create that sound of wind rushing through your body as well as the unimpeded sound of the wheels accelerating along the track. When enhancing roller coasters with VR was the latest fad a few years ago, I think it failed to catch on because the headsets couldn't create the necessary sounds to immerse riders in the virtual world they were seeing in the headset. The lack of sound (and music) created a disconnect to the virtual world that riders could see and feel when the movements were properly synchronized with the coaster movements, but couldn't fully immerse themselves into without those sounds and music.

I also think about all of those iconic soundtracks that you're humming days after you ride. A great soundtrack can allow you to relive those experiences without waiting on line (Soarin' immediately comes to mind). The music may simply feel like background or atmospherics, but if you've ever been on an attraction when the ride op has to cut in during the ride to reprimand a guest, you realize how much that music lends to an attraction.

Music has been one of the primary failings of Galaxy's Edge, and why some fans get the feeling that something is missing from the Star Wars land, but just can't put their finger on it. In Galaxy's Edge, Disney took a daring approach of making it as realistic as possible. Imagineers argue that if you were living in the Star Wars universe, you would not be hearing John Williams' iconic melodies playing in the background while shopping in an interstellar market. However, prior to Galaxy's Edge, guests' experience with the Star Wars universe was watching it on a screen with those familiar themes billowing with the action. Star Wars has always been defined by its music, and while Black Spire Outpost looks and feels like an intergalactic market, it's missing that critical connection to Star Wars without that music.

Music is a HUGE deal in theme parks, and you can instantly tell when a park takes its music seriously.

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