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Mixing Live Sound On The High Seas

Inside The Cruise-Ship Industry By Dan Daley
Published March 2018

Making Waves

The cruise-ship industry is booming, and with it a number of career opportunities — for those who can meet the unique challenges of mixing live sound at sea.

Taking a pleasure cruise may be a lot of fun, but it’s also become a very substantial part of the economics of live sound. Over 13 million Americans were expected to have taken cruises in 2017, virtually all of whom will have attended a number of concerts, musicals and other live-music performances aboard those ships. They were not part of the 32 million concert tickets Pollstar says North American consumers shelled out $3.34 billion for, but if each of those cruise-goers saw three shows while on board, they would have more than doubled concert attendance in the largest music market in the world. If it seemed like a new club or venue was opening somewhere every week in recent years, by comparison the cruise business will have added 48 new vessels between 2017 and 2019, with added capacity of over 80,000 more customers. Many boarding those ships might be coming for one of the 65 music-themed cruises listed by aggregator Theme Cruise Finder that satisfy aficionados’ desires to be immersed in rock (19), jazz (15), country (6) and other genre-specific cruise tours each year. To host them, those vessels — each usually bigger than the last and often using their onboard entertainment options as competitive differentiators — will have multiple clubs, lounges and theatre venues aboard, all requiring professionals to mix and manage their live sound.

Like their terrestrial cousins, live music productions on cruise ships have become so complex that they require the same production technologies found in Broadway and West End theatres, and need significant production-rehearsal facilities. Three years ago, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Florida International University (FIU) created the Royal @ FIU World Stage Collaborative, a production partnership that includes a dedicated 130,000-square-foot rehearsal facility in Miami. And pro-audio manufacturers have been capitalising on the expanding cruise niche; Meyer Sound, for instance, have sound systems aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Of The Seas and Cunard’s Queen Victoria, while Digico have been making inroads aboard Holland America’s fleet.

The Meyer Sound installation aboard the Celebrity Solstice.The Meyer Sound installation aboard the Celebrity Solstice.“The professional audio business has definitely discovered the cruise business,” declares Alan Edwards, principal audio design consultant for Nautilus Entertainment Design, a San Diego firm that develops live-event and performance spaces on cruise ships and other venues. Edwards, who mixed live sound on rock and theatrical tours before he joined the aptly named Nautilus firm 18 years ago, says that, like on land, rider-friendly brands abound on the seas, including Meyer Sound, d&b audiotechnik, JBL, Yamaha and Digico. Technology choices tend to be torn between the need to be as close to the cutting edge as possible, in order to attract top talent for shipboard engagements with the lure of not having to transport their own sound system, and staying with the tried and true, as cruise lines seek to keep their technology platforms as consistent across their entire fleets as possible, for maintenance and training purposes. Shipboard sound systems also need to be especially robust against the salt air of the high seas (see ‘Salt Rock’ box).

Those Who Serve

As any Royal Navy veteran will tell you, life aboard ship is not for everyone, and that applies to cruise ships as well, no matter how nicely appointed they seem in the brochures. Those who mix live sound will likely be expected to do so in more than one venue on board, mixing a combo in a club and a concert on the fantail in the same day, as well as a captain’s cocktail reception in the afternoon. They are considered crew members (though with the equivalent of a low-level officer’s rank — cruise ships, like merchant vessels, have a quasi-naval hierarchy), and will work tours ranging between four months on/two months off to six months on and one month off, depending on the cruise line’s practices and schedules. And as crew members, they will have other assigned duties in the event of an emergency, such as traffic direction or lifeboat communications.

Salaries vary, but can be substantial enough considering it also includes meals and lodging on board (mess and a berth, in nautical terms). Audio technicians will earn between $80 (£56) and $120 (£84) per day at sea; thus a four-month stint would average about $12,000 (£8492). However, there is rarely a day completely off during that period.

Edwards says many cruise mixers find a rhythm to the schedules, using time on ships to hone their craft and save money while using time ashore to build contacts. They’ve got to be exceptionally self-reliant, as well — there’s no running down to KMR Audio or B&H Photo to pick up a spare XLR lead at short notice. The European and American audio crew members tend to stay a few years — Edwards says the cruise gigs can be a good transition stage for those just out of media-technology colleges, and cruise technology directors are regular visitors at institutions such as Full Sail University, which is in the Orlando area and near to Florida’s huge cruise industry. Others, though, prefer to see at least some live-sound mixing experience before they hire.

From left: Nautilus Entertainment Design's system designer Alan Edwards, Holland America FOH engineer Daniel Rasmus, Holland America audio manager Andrew Gautreau, and stage manager Jerald Millena.From left: Nautilus Entertainment Design's system designer Alan Edwards, Holland America FOH engineer Daniel Rasmus, Holland America audio manager Andrew Gautreau, and stage manager Jerald Millena.

A Different Culture

While a sound mixer’s job is essentially the same on a ship as it is on land, being at sea has some distinct differences. Fundamentally, music is just part of the larger cruise experience rather than the focus of it. Thus, says Andrew Gautreau, audio manager at Holland America Lines, volume has to be carefully controlled. “They’re not on the ship just to see the show, so it’s a totally different mindset,” he explains. Paul Riley, manager of global entertainment technical operations for Miami-based cruiser Royal Caribbean International, notes that a mixer working a four- to six-month tour will mix for entirely different demographics during that time. “Weekend cruisers to the Caribbean are here to have a good time and they want it loud,” he says. “But the same week the ship will go out on a 14-day cruise from San Diego to Miami through the Panama Canal, and that’s an older demographic. You have to be able to judge what the audience wants to experience.”

Furthermore, sound travels in unpredictable ways on ships, borne through their steel hulls and superstructures. Ship designers have learned to try to group entertainment venues together and away from cabins, and when necessary will use isolation techniques commonly employed in recording studio design to minimise mechanical coupling that can especially telegraph LFE far and wide throughout the ship. Gautreau says at times those in cabins directly adjacent to the BB Kings Blues Bar franchises that are aboard most Holland America Lines boats are able to hear the guitar solos at night: “It’s often up to the mixer to walk the line between delivering enough SPL to let the audience feel the music, but not disturbing those guests who aren’t in the club.” (See ‘Acousticians Of The Caribbean’ box).

JR Guenther is entertainment sound supervisor for Holland America.JR Guenther is entertainment sound supervisor for Holland America.JR Guenther is the Entertainment Sound Supervisor at Holland America Line, but he began his cruise career as a sound mixer and still fills in that position himself in a pinch. He says the two sides of the coin are that ocean-going mixers will get their hands on some of the best technology in the industry, but they’ll have to be prepared to be highly flexible, both professionally and socially. The day might begin with a magic show that requires tight sound cues and conclude with a rock concert that needs to be punchy without being overly loud. “The audiences are mixed ages, interests and nationalities, so you have to be sensitive to all that,” he cautions. “Not everyone can handle the range of what you’re asked to do.”

Guenther says live-sound mixing on a ship is closer to mixing a record than a concert — levels need to be very precise and the mix anodyne rather than edgy, and while line arrays are the order of the day now, the systems are also heavily zoned, with numerous fill speakers intended to keep overall volume down. “If you think of the difference between a Coldplay show and an AC/DC show, the ship is Coldplay,” he says.

Mixing at sea is also its own social ecosphere. Crew members have their own bars and cafeterias, and technicians and musicians will mingle there after the evening’s performances. And the mix of people is culturally broadening. “You might have an Argentine drummer, an American keyboard player and a Ukrainian guitar player, and they’ll all be excellent musicians, because of the variety of music they have to play,” according to Guenther. You won’t lack, he says, for interesting company.

Front-of-house engineers aboard cruise ships will be expected to mix a wide range of material — anything from dance shows and musicals to late-night rock concerts.Front-of-house engineers aboard cruise ships will be expected to mix a wide range of material — anything from dance shows and musicals to late-night rock concerts.

Rock The Boat

Mixers — and everyone else — will occasionally experience rough seas. Oceanic turbulence will rarely reach the point when it will curtail a show, but Gautreau says he’s seen a few performances over the years cancelled when dancers have trouble maintaining their balance. Outdoor concerts on a ship’s pool deck are high enough above the water — as much as 100 feet above the waves — to avoid having to deal with the ocean spray. However, the wind on the open sea at that height can play havoc with phase. “There’s not much you can do about [wind], except maybe put some foam on the microphones,” he says.

Indoors or out, monitors will almost always also be mixed from the FOH console. Gautreau says it’s rare for artists to bring their own monitor consoles, something that will usually only occur on music-themed charters, but when they do, they will plug into the Optocore fibre loop that Holland America venues are installing along with new Digico consoles. And just as the FOH mixer is also the monitor maven, so is he or she the system tech, as well. If a problem is encountered, they can reach out to manufacturers’ tech support by email, satellite phone or Skype over the ship’s Internet (which is also connected via satellite), but don’t count on any video tutorials. “The bandwidth simply isn’t there on a ship,” says Gautreau, who adds that he’s handled his share of late-night panic calls from shipboard venues over the six years he’s worked on cruises.

These days contemporary cruise ships are competing less with each other than they are with Las Vegas or Disney theme parks. They offer entertainment options on a par with what Vegas Strip hotel theatres have — in fact, they often host the same touring companies — and the same goes for music concerts on board. The big difference is, the ships do it with far fewer technicians manning the boards. For instance, Royal Caribbean’s largest ships have three primary venues, each holding between 750 and 1300 people, and each one will have assigned only one audio mixer, one lighting tech and a few stage hands. “The equipment is the same as you’d see on any rider in any major concert venue,” says Riley. “But it’s pretty amazing what we can accomplish with far fewer people than Las Vegas or Disney.”  

Acousticians Of The Caribbean

Entertainment aboard cruise ships increasingly has to compete with that on shore. Passengers are not going to want to sacrifice booty-shakin’ low end on the dance floor because physics happens to get in the way. But that is exactly what happens when more subwoofers get put into clubs and discos aboard cruise ships, where the entire hull and superstructure can become one titanic resonator.

“Ships, like everything else, have a natural frequency-resonance range,” explains Jim Barath, principal in acoustical consultancy Sonics ESD, in Monterey, California. He puts that range at about 1.5 to 12 Hz, well into infrasonic territory, along with buildings and bridges, and lower even than the 5-15 Hz thrum of an ocean liner’s propulsion systems.

Barath’s introduction to cruise ships came in early 2016, when a major cruise line asked his company to install a giant-screen theatre aboard one of the line’s vessels. Using many of the same techniques used to isolate terrestrial large-screen cinemas, the installation revealed something surprising: the ship’s first 90 days at sea produced plenty of noise complaints, but virtually none connected with the theatre, despite the fact that its sound reached 130dB SPL at times. Instead, it was the boat’s clubs and lounges with live music and DJs that were provoking some passengers’ ire.

That led the cruise line to commission Sonics ESD to begin addressing the acoustics of all of its seafaring music venues. Barath says they use many of the same techniques and acoustical-treatment solutions they apply on land, but with interesting twists. For instance, they’ll use isolators to decouple the music venues from a ship’s superstructure, but it’s not your typical ‘hockey puck’. Instead they’ll deploy wire-rope isolators — heavy-gauge, military-grade aircraft cabling used to dampen extreme vibrations to below 25Hz. Other solutions include the use of cardioid subwoofers and similar enclosures to contain LFE, as well as loudspeaker systems designed for tight dispersion-pattern control. In some cases, electro-acoustical solutions are employed, such as EQ filtering and noise shaping.

The cruise venue projects recall the effort that NATO forces put into quieting submarines to avoid detection during the Cold War, says Barath, who once taught at the US Naval Academy’s post-graduate school. But the real goal is to create an environment in which the live-sound mixer doesn’t have to adjust for noise. “We don’t want the music mixer to have feel they need to hold back,” he says. “We want to build the venues so the music can be as loud as it needs to be.”

Salt Rock

One Systems manufacture a range of loudspeakers designed to handle all weather conditions.One Systems manufacture a range of loudspeakers designed to handle all weather conditions.

You’ll see lots of familiar brand names on cruise ships, but not every pro-audio product is necessarily seaworthy. For instance, a manufacturer may assert that their products are weather-resistant or even weatherproof, but they likely haven’t been tested in a salt-infused environment like the sea. A PA speaker used in a ship’s pool area might have an enclosure that utilises fiberglass construction, which helps make it resistant to corrosion and rust. However, the back of the speaker grille might be covered with a low-grade stainless-steel mesh; that single component would hardly warrant notice on land but at sea it would corrode quickly. In other instances, the product itself might be perfectly adapted to the harsh ocean environment but the bolts used to install it or fly it aren’t. “Run your finger down a railing and you’ll be able to feel the salt crystalised on it,” says Paul Riley of the Royal Caribbean line.

Resistance to salt can be measured by the International Protection Rating (IP), an IEC standard that classifies the degrees of protection provided against the intrusion of elements like dust and water in electrical enclosures, expressed in a two-digit value whose first digit applies to solids and its second to liquids. An IP54 rating, for instance, would indicate a product is protected from limited dust ingress and water spray from any direction, while a more desirable IP68 rating denotes total immunity to dust and the ability to withstand immersion in water over a meter deep. The standard aims to give users more detailed information than vague marketing terms such as waterproof or water-resistant.

Other solutions for battling the sea include using AV systems whose main components can be racked in a climate-controlled locker with positive air pressure to keep salt and humidity out, while an iPad is used to wirelessly mix the sound for the pool deck stage.

Alan Edwards at Nautilus Entertainment Design says a few manufacturers offer products that fit the bill off the shelf, such as One Systems’ loudspeaker enclosures that use marine-grade metals. Others might provide a complete renovation of a system’s components after a certain length of time at sea, a service he says Meyer Sound offer in some cases. “When the ship comes into dry dock every three years, Meyer will take the PA apart and install new components,” he says. “Even marine-grade materials will eventually corrode. It’s the harshest environment on earth.”