The Sound of Fear: Interview with Ian Austin of Circle of Ash Haunted Attraction

When you’re trying to scare someone, sound is very important. Imagine a horror movie without creepy suspense music, horrifying sound effects and musical “stingers” that make you jump out of your seat. Boring! And when you’re trying to scare someone in real life, sound is an essential part of the immersive haunted-attraction experience.

Come this way!

Right this way…

We’re talking with Ian Austin, technical director and part owner of Circle of Ash Haunted Attraction in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s been scaring people for years, and it turns out that BEHRINGER has been helping him do it.

Ian has a pair of BEHRINGER MX3282A mixing boards that have been with him through ten years of fog, damp, dust, freezing cold, and thousands of screaming guests. They’re one of Circle of Ash’s most reliable tools of terror.

Hi, Ian. Can you tell us about what you do in your role as technical director of
Circle of Ash?

There are a lot of technical systems to keep track of in a haunted attraction. They include everything from house lighting, set lighting, prop animation and control, pneumatics, intelligent/DMX theatrical lighting, fog systems, computer network and sales/business systems, guest timing and flow control, video/projection systems, and audio!

My role is to make sure all of these systems are operating properly, reliably and to make any necessary changes or repairs to keep things going. We do a lot of in-house development at Circle of Ash, which sets us apart from many other attractions, and it allows us to create things that no one else has, which means our show is unique and more exciting every year!

All of these systems work together in a tightly choreographed and controlled manner which sets the mood and environment for our guests, puts them on edge and allows our cast of characters to deliver great interactions and scares.

If any one of these systems is not performing reliably, it can mean serious problems for our show, so great care is taken in selecting equipment and components, installation and testing of these operations. A haunted house is one of the roughest environments for any electronic gear!

How long has the haunt been in business?

Circle of Ash has been in business since 2001. This current season marks our 13th, providing safe and scary Halloween fun to Eastern Iowa. We started as an outdoor attraction – set up in a creepy pine forest and operated that way for 9 years. After our 2009 production, we moved to our current home in a warehouse in downtown Cedar Rapids: 412 7th Ave SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401.

How important is sound to a haunted attraction?

Sound is the glue that holds the entire show together. It’s our job to put people in situations that are outside of their comfort zone! We attack every sense, removing visual (in dark areas), or over-stimulating guests with light/video. Smell and touch are also heavily used in our show. But audio is the common factor – from the moment you get out of your car, to the moment you run back to it screaming with a monster chasing you – we control everything you experience.

Audio is used to accomplish three major tasks in our show. The first is to set the mood. Each scene has a specific soundtrack that matches what’s happening with the characters and the set. It may be slow and creepy or it may be fast and shrill. Things are loud and that’s the point!

The second purpose of audio is to mask off what is happening in other areas of the haunt. Our system is designed to let you hear and understand everything that’s happening in the scene you are in, but you won’t notice the sounds and screams coming from the group of customers on the other side of the wall.

The third purpose is to deliver any story or messages we need our customers to hear. These messages may be the rules of the haunted attraction they are expected to follow, or delivery of important story elements to reinforce what the haunt characters are doing. Sometimes the audio is the scare itself, like when the group activates a sensor and a loud crack of thunder hits from the large speakers next to them!

Would you tell us a bit about your sound system?

Our sound starts with inexpensive, easy to replace computers and some custom software we wrote to route audio out of each interface to the PC. Most of our audio PCs have large, multi-channel sound cards in them with 8, 10 or 12 channels each.

The software takes our mp3 or wav source files, routes them out the appropriate channels, sets pan, volume and any special effects we want to apply, such as reverb, compression or delay, and saves that configuration. So when the computer boots up, the audio tracks start playing automatically. Some tracks are looped, while others are looping playlists or triggered by sensors in the show. Ease of show set up is very important, as it can take several hours to get the show online!

The audio then routes through the BEHRINGER MX3282A mixing boards. This allows us to mix in microphones for cast/crew announcements before and after the show, or for emergency situations (such as fire or weather issues). Some scenes also have several layers of audio that need to be mixed together, and we do that at the board level with the MX3282As. From there, the signal is amplified and sent to loudspeakers mounted throughout the show.

Overall, we use nearly all of the 64 channels of audio capability the MX3282A boards give us, with nearly 40 unique destinations throughout the attraction.

I see that you have 5 different attractions at Circle of Ash this year. How do you manage sound for that many different experiences?

Most of the audio management happens at the PC level. It’s simply a matter of loading a different show! “The Haunt” is our biggest show and has the most complicated audio profile. The audio routes for that are pretty much locked in by opening night, and they don’t change much throughout a season.

With shows like “LOCKDOWN” (our most intense and scary attraction) or “Halloween Homicide” (our murder mystery), the audio requirements are much different. Halloween Homicide is a single blanket of audio that gets routed everywhere, which is very subtle and ambient. This allows guests to easily interact with the characters to collect information they need to solve the mystery!

LOCKDOWN, however, is a full-on assault of the senses. This show uses just a few distinct audio sources – and it’s very loud, low and ominous. The whole building shakes and it’s designed to make our guests as uncomfortable as possible.

Our “Midnight Ghost Hunt” doesn’t require any audio at all, as it’s a real-live ghost hunt in our facility. We use all the cool toys you see on the TV shows and record what happens. Obviously, this is a very different experience than our haunted attraction, and it is not our goal to artificially create anything during the ghost hunt. We actually shut down the entire show before they start.

Finally, The “Osborn Experience Comedy Hypnosis Show” runs on its own dedicated audio system. We use a smaller, newer BEHRINGER board for that show as well, and it travels throughout the year. During October, we provide a Halloween-themed version of the Hypnosis stage show, complete with intelligent lighting, music and props! This is a traditional theater-style show instead of something a guest would walk through. We use a laptop with software to generate the audio cues, but since each show is different and unpredictable, we needed a way to trigger things at the appropriate time from the sound booth.

When did you start using BEHRINGER mixers in the haunt?

We ran one of the MX3282A’s starting in 2003. I had owned it for a few years before it found its way to the haunt for live bands and shows, but as the haunt grew, and I had less time for live shows, the MX3282A found a permanent home at the haunt.

Circle of Ash's hard-working MX3282As

Circle of Ash’s hard-working MX3282As

Around 2005, our sound needs expanded once again and we purchased a second MX3282A and have been running quite happily ever since! Another expansion is planned for 2015, so we will have to see what’s available from BEHRINGER with the routing capabilities we need.

What do you like about the MX3282A?

We chose the MX3282As because they had the routing capabilities we needed. With 8 sub groups, 2 mains and 6 usable Aux Sends per board, we get 16 unique destinations per board. We have 8 additional hard-wired destinations that do not require the boards, so with just the two MX3282As we have with 40 channels of routable audio on a budget the haunt can afford!

Over the years, the MX3282As have held up extremely well. We’ve never had a serious problem with either board, and they function reliably. The haunt is one of the dustiest places you can put a board, especially with all the fog and dirt that ends up in the air. During outdoor performances, we have to contend with moisture and the poor boards had to be able to endure both freezing temps and hot summer days. The most maintenance we’ve ever done is a post-season cleaning where I pull off all the knobs and slider caps and vacuum everything. Then they get immediately deployed again for the next year of scaring people!

Did you create any of your own sound effects?

Yes, we produce a lot of our own audio and video effects in-house. We have a ton of very excited and talented people who participate in the haunt, and these type projects happen all year long.

What’s the scariest sound in the haunt?

Scary clown

Yikes!

I think the answer to that will depend on who you ask! I’m not particularly fond of clowns, so I think the scariest sound is the laugh of our long-time resident, Bubblz the Clown. Gives me chills every time I hear it! Others will tell you it’s the loud thunder claps, or the screams coming from our woman-in-white projection effects.

“Circle of Ash” is a great, creepy name. How did you decide on it?

When we moved from the pine forest to our indoor warehouse, we were forced to change our brand from “Frightmare Forest”. We had to move because the state wanted to build a highway through that location. We had a few ground rules when choosing our name. First, it had to be location agnostic. We never wanted to have to change brands again. It needed to be portable, from a warehouse to the stockyards, to a farm – wherever our location took us. Second, it had to be easy to spell and contain no words that were made up. Three, the Internet presence had to be available and widely unused. Google helped us verify that, and the domain names for the properties were available. Finally, we really wanted to have some sort of tie back to our roots. We had named one of our earlier shows at the pine forest “Circle of Ash”. That show had a giant lit circle carved into the floor of the forest and the trail led right past it. We had gone through 100′s of suggestions for a name, and “Circle of Ash” is the one that we all agreed on!

If you look at our logo, you’ll find the imagery of a Phoenix taken from Greek mythology. The Phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically reborn, and it obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. That is more or less what we did when we moved from the pine forest to the warehouse. We had to rise from the “ashes” of the previous haunt and create something new!

“Lockdown” looks really unique. Just how scary is it?

LOCKDOWN is terrifying. After the first time we did the show, the cast got together in our green room. We looked at each other and someone actually said, “I feel bad about what we just did.” Coming from people that LOVE to scare others, that should give you an idea of just how intense LOCKDOWN can be. We don’t have too many people brave enough to try it… you really are putting a lot of faith into the hands of strangers when you do. But if normal haunted attractions don’t do it for you, LOCKDOWN just might!

Scary mask

Gulp!

Any advice for someone braving Circle of Ash for the first time?

Come to the show ready to have some fun and be scared!

All of your questions can be answered on our website, and if this is your first visit to a haunted house, please take the time to read the FAQ. It will help you be prepared. Our website is at http://circleofash.com/ and we have shows all month, through the first weekend of November.

Additional information about the The Osborn Experience Comedy Hypnosis show can be found at http://www.osbornexperience.com/

Thanks so much for talking to us, Ian!

Thank you!

Circle of Ash logo