In the first installment of Sound Ideas, several topics on the uses of
sound in haunts was covered. In this segment, the components of sound
systems is covered.
The components that make up a sound system include a sound source, an
amplifier, speakers and the connectors and wires. Think of this as the
sound chain. Every link in this chain is an important part of sound reproduction.
Skimping on any part of the chain results in loss of optimum sound. A
great amp and speaker combination will still sound bad if the tape player
can't run at a steady speed! The best CD player is useless unless the
amp and speakers can reproduce the sound.
Volume and Distortion
A certain killer of ears, speakers and amplifiers is excessive distortion.
Basically, distortion 'colors' the sound and causes amplifiers and speakers
to overheat and fail. You hear distortion as a fatiguing 'fuzzy' sound.
A simple test to recognize distortion is to take a small radio and turn
up the volume until the music loses its clarity. Unfortunately, at about
the same time, you will hear a marked increase in apparent volume. The
volume increase is due to the nature of distortion overdriving the audio
components, and thus producing more volume. In this case, louder isn't
better. Any distortion you can hear is bad for audio components. The cost
of repair is far greater than the little extra volume you might get overdriving
your amp or speakers. If you discover your system begins to distort before
the volume is sufficient, you will need to obtain a higher power amplifier,
or more efficient, higher rated speakers, or both.
Amplifier Shopping Tips
Usually a 100 watt per channel stereo amplifier will give adequate coverage
for most haunts. Getting a higher power amp is always better. Having the
power in reserve means cleaner sound going out to the speakers. Getting
a professional audio amplifier built to take the physical abuse of a haunted
house is highly recommended. They are usually rated conservatively, have
internal cooling fans, and more robust components.
Points to look for when purchasing a high-power amplifier for haunt use:
- To protect from amplifier failure in the event a speaker should fail
and short out, or a pair of speaker wires accidentally are connected
together, check power ratings for multiple speaker impedance, i.e.,
8 ohm, 4 ohm, and 2 ohm. Verify the amp can deliver its rated power
under a 2 ohm load. Most amps will not. This will tell you whether the
amp can take low resistance loads under high power.
- Although not absolutely necessary, a 70 volt output is a plus, and
is very handy for haunts requiring long wire runs over 75 feet.
- Almost all amplifiers have low distortion at very low volume settings.
Verify distortion ratings are at rated output, not just minimum distortion.
For example, a rating like 0.1 percent distortion at 100 watts continuous
is a far better rating than .001 distortion without an output qualifier.
- Ignore peak power ratings. They are essentially useless. If you cannot
find 'continuous' or 'RMS' power ratings, look elsewhere.
- If you require multiple sound sources to feed a single amp, check
that the amp has a pre-amp section that combines the inputs. Each input
should have a volume control and the right kind of connections for your
- Check that a power amp has volume controls. Its always handy to be
able to control the main volume from the amp.
- Check the speaker connections. Heavy duty, screw-in binding posts
- Check for an external fuse. In the unlikely event a fuse does go out,
it is much easier to replace from the back than having to take the unit
- Check for a comprehensive, long term warranty. A full coverage one
year warranty tells you this unit is built tough. A 90 day warranty
is average. A 15 or 30 day warranty should be avoided. Most manufacturers
offer a mixed warranty, like 90 days parts and labor, 1 year parts.
Longer warranties mean better quality, but it also means higher cost.
- Get solid rack mount capability. Even if you don't use the rack mount
feature right away, the better amplifiers have solid rack mount fronts.
Usually, only commercial quality amps have them, most home stereo amplifiers
do not. This is a great convenience if you ever have the need to consolidate
your haunt's sound system. The rack mounts should support the full weight
of the amplifier and maintain a solid feel in the rack.
- Ensure the frequency response doesn't vary widely over the amplifiers
range. For example, a rating of 2 dB or less over a frequency range
of 20-20,000 hertz is acceptable. This is a good gauge for quality components.
- Test before buying! This is especially true if you are looking at
a used amplifier. Run it at high output and listen for noticeable distortion
for at least 10 minutes, longer if possible. If anything doesn't 'sound
right', move on.
- When evaluating a used amp, check for signs of physical damage such
as dents, or a lot of paint scratches. Look for loose screws, or loose
panels that may indicate kitchen maintenance. Look for any indication
the unit may have gotten wet, or had a soft drink spilled into it. Be
sure all parts of the amp function smoothly and have a solid 'feel'.
Ok, with all that said, use your judgment when selecting an amplifier.
Only you know your specific needs. If a home stereo amp works for you,
use it! But be aware that home units were not designed for the demanding
needs of a commerical environment like a haunted house.
Be sure to check out the new combination amplifier/speakers designed
for computer sound systems. They offer compact size, matched components,
multiple inputs, and on the high-end, give superior sound quality and
volume in a rugged enclosure. Usually these units have seperate left and
right speakers that can be placed almost anywhere in a room. Three-piece
units have a seperate subwoofer unit. These are slightly more difficult
to place in a room, but can offer better sound quality. Let your ears
be your guide! A reliable tape player with a continuous 30-second tape
cassette combined with a combo amp/speaker makes a great sound system
for almost any room in a haunt.
Its easy to spend a fortune on speakers. You could get almost any used
stereo speaker to work for ambient house sound, but standardizing on one
type gives you better control over your soundscape and your budget. One
solution is to buy small speakers like the Radio Shack Minimus 7 with
angle mount brackets for placement high on the wall. A less expensive
solution is to buy surplus speakers in small quantities and build your
own enclosures. In his book, "Building a Portable Modular Dark Attraction",
JB Corn describes an excellent design for a triangular custom-built haunted
house speaker system. As he points out, the speaker and enclosure doesn't
have to be pretty to be functional, and it is less attractive to potential
theft or vandalism.
The ambient track can be produced from a single tape or CD player and
amplifier, and distributed by multiple speakers. If you produce a single
tape to use as your ambient soundscape, it should be at least as long
as the average time it takes for guests to go through the haunt before
starting over. This keeps it from sounding repetitive, and thus losing
its effectiveness. Put the tape or CD into continuous play and let it
run the entire time the haunt is open.
Usually, the ambient sound system requires a more powerful amplifier
than scenes because it is driving lots of speakers over longer wires.
Pay close attention to speaker connections. Connecting speakers has two
important aspects, the physical connection and the electrical connection.
Ignoring either of these can either deliver great sound, or melt your
For the physical connection, use at least 16 gauge or larger wire to
connect speakers. This ensures that the power the amplifier delivers gets
to the speakers instead of getting used up in the wires. Try the wire
used for low voltage landscape lighting. Its readily available, inexpensive,
and very rugged. It has more insulation than regular speaker wire and
can take more abuse.
To physically connect the speaker wires, use electrical wire nuts to
connect the wires together. Its a secure connection, and is easily removed
Electrically, speakers look like coils of wire to the amplifier. If not
connected correctly, they can appear like a short circuit, overheating
and damaging expensive components. Connecting two 8 ohm speakers in parallel
results in 'one speaker load' of only 4 ohms. Connecting together four
8 ohm or two 4 ohm speakers in parallel gives a 2 ohm load. This is getting
into heavy load for an amplifier. Connecting two 8 ohm speakers in series
gives one 16 ohm load, and two 4 ohm speakers in series gives one 8 ohm
For series connections, always connect the (+) terminal on one speaker
to the (-) terminal of the next speaker. For parallel connections, always
connect (+) terminals together, and (-) terminals together. This keeps
the speakers all moving together, delivering the maximum amount of sound
Series and parallel connections can be combined to produce the desired
impedance (coil resistance) needed by the amplifier. Taking advantage
of this feature, you can wire as many speakers as you need and still correctly
match the output needs of the amplifier.
Generally, for ambient 'background' sound, a 10-20 watt, 6-8 inch speaker
serves very well when placed in a small enclosure. Its frequency response
may be less than "stereo quality", but it will work. If the
speaker system includes a 'tweeter' (a high frequency speaker), the sound
quality is greatly improved.
Smaller speakers may not deliver the volume needed cleanly, or have a
limited frequency response. Larger size speakers become too unwieldy for
general use, but can serve well as scene speakers.
Always evaluate your sonic needs carefully throughout the haunt. There
may be a place where that clunky old stereo speaker might just work out
Going beyond a single speaker in a box, there are several facts of speaker
design that must be considered before the speaker will function properly.
The volume of the enclosure, the size and characteristics of the speakers,
the crossover, dampening material, and so on. There are several in-depth
books that cover speaker design in detail. Start with the speaker design
booklets from Radio Shack. They are relatively cheap and are very easy
70-Volt Speaker System
The 70-volt speaker system was specifically designed many years ago to
connect dozens of speakers with long wire runs. It is simply a series
of speakers connected to transformers. The amplifier is connected to a
large transformer that supplies power to the 70-volt distribution line.
Each speaker has a transformer that 'taps' power from the distribution
line, and converts it for use by the speaker. This method is extremely
useful for very long wire runs. It keeps the cost of wire and speakers
low - but adds the additional cost of the transformer. Unless you are
using wire runs in excess of 100 feet, the 70-volt system may not be cost
The selection of sound systems for scene use depends on the needs of
the scene. Some scenes require reproduction of loud, very low sounds (heartbeats,
machinery) which require subwoofers. Moderate volume speech or music needs
a normal, full-range speaker. Low volume voices or high-pitched sounds
only require a small, well placed speaker.
Low frequency, loud sound is the realm of the subwoofer, usually a large
speaker in a specialized cabinet. An all-in-one subwoofer amplifier/speaker
combination gives the best combination of cost, size, sound quality, and
power. Units of 100 watts or greater are more than sufficient. Do not
overlook the subwoofer speaker systems designed for automobile use. They
are built to reproduce high volume levels in very rugged enclosures. Put
simply, this combination "kicks"!
For situations needing moderate sound level, for voice or music, a 6-8
inch speaker in a small enclosure, like the ambient speaker, will work
well. A combination amplifier/speaker for computer sound is excellent
in this application, too.
For high pitched sounds, or whispers, a small, well-placed speaker will
do the job. For example, in a dark hall where there is suddenly a ghostly
whisper "watch out!", use one of those digital recorder/speaker
combinations. It comes with a 3" speaker with a small built-in amplifier.
It definitely cannot reproduce the full range of sounds at any volume.
But, it is excellent for the 'whisper' application.
Where the sound is coming from is important. Pay close attention to speaker
For an ambient, background sound for your entire haunt, try placing the
speakers overhead facing downward. This is useful for several reasons:
they deliver better sound coverage with less spillover into other areas,
the speakers are away from prying hands, it takes less wire to connect
them, and they are more accessible for repair or replacement.
For scene sound, conceal the speakers in or near the area where the sound
is supposed to appear. Having the electrocution sounds coming from speakers
above the electric chair is less effective than from just beside the chair.
Scene speakers are easily concealed with paint, thin black cloth, or placement
in dark shadows.
Small portable cassette players are excellent for haunt use. Their rugged
construction, small size and minimal power requirements fit perfectly.
They connect easily to portable computer amplifier speakers, or to larger
Always attempt to keep a backup in case of failure of your components.
This includes copies of all the tapes used in the haunt, a spare tape
or CD player, several spare batteries, a spare AC adapter, cables, and
so on. Its far easier to take the few moments to quickly replace a failed
piece of gear than to go without it all night.
Never forget maintenance. Proper maintenance is a must. Its one of the
most boring and tedious jobs ever, but if you don's do it, you will spend
a lot of money for repairs and replacement. Keep all outside and internal
mechanisms clean and well maintained. This includes cleaning tape heads
and rollers, removing dust, using CD cleaning discs, keeping the outside
cases clean, and carefully storing cords. TIP - save the spools that wire
comes on. Use these spools to carefully wind your cables back onto when
you're storing everything. While you wind the cable onto the spool, pass
the wire through a damp cloth to remove any dirt.
Always allow sufficient ventilation for any piece of equipment. Heat
is a sure killer of amplifiers. Never block any cooling vent holes or
fans. If the unit cannot cool itself, it will fail. The tops of amplifiers
should never get too hot to touch. If gets too hot, turn it off immediately
and replace it. In this case, its better to lose the sound than to burn
down the show!
Also, never let any equipment get wet. If liquid accidentally spills
into a piece of gear, turn it off immediately and unplug it from all connections.
Try to shake out any liquid. If it is just water alone, letting the unit
air dry for several hours may be all that is needed. If the liquid is
anything else, take the unit to a repair shop for cleaning as soon as
Cheap Source of Equipment
An excellent source of recordings, tape players, CD players, speakers,
and amplifiers (and almost anything else) is your local weekend yard sale.
Regularly attending yard sales within a few miles of your house can result
in many bargains. I've purchased several portable tape players in good
working order for only 50 cents each! The secret of successful bargains
is to try before you buy! Bring a cassette, two to four AA batteries,
and a set of small stereo headphones with you when you go shopping. This
gives you opportunity to test out any portable cassette player before
laying down your money.
Use the same care for your haunt equipment as you would take for your
home stereo equipment, tapes, and CDs. After all, its the same kind of
- Clean and inspect all equipment before packing. Get repairs done immediately
- Wrap equipment in plastic bags and store in secure, padded containers.
- Store speakers and electronic equipment in a dry place, with a moderate
temperature variation. A closet in your house is good. Your garage or
storage trailer is bad.
- Store tapes indoors, away from temperature extremes, and away from
Recorded Sound Sources
Soundscape recordings are available anywhere that sells music. Blockbuster,
Best Buy, K-Mart, Wal-Mart, discount/closeout bins, yard sales, flea markets,
catalogs are all great sources. If you use prerecorded sounds, be sure
to get public performance releases from BMI or ASCAP if you're a commercial
haunt. The cost is reasonable and gives you lots of flexibility. For example,
the rate for a blanket license for a small radio station can be as little
as $800 a year! Non-compliance penalties can be severe. Check with them
first before using pre-recorded materials.
Don't rule out recording your own sounds. You'll be surprised how many
sounds are around you which work in a haunt. You don't need expensive,
elaborate equipment to record your own sounds. Just a good tape recorder,
microphone, tapes, headphones and imagination are all that's needed.
Be patient and listen, useful sounds are all around you! Here's a fun
example: Find a long guy wire or clothesline, put the microphone against
the wire, then rap the wire with a piece of metal. You've got a ray gun
sound! Tape dogs howling, babies laughing, washing dishes, water spraying
against a wall. Playing the sound back while dragging the tape gives astonishing
Make lots of tapes with individual sounds and don't forget to label them!
To combine, or mixdown your sound collection into soundscapes, you will
need at least one tape player to play the recorded sounds, and a recorder
to sequence the sounds.
Basic Equipment for Recording
Use a 'track sheet' to first assemble the sequence of sounds you want
to record. Listen to all the source tapes and position each tape to the
start of the sound. Arrange the tapes in the order they will be used during
Use a new tape in the recorder. Put the source tape into the player,
press play, then carefully use the record and pause buttons to record
just the section you want on the mixdown tape. You can add audio effects
units between the tape player and recorder to add echo, reverb, pitch
shifting and all sorts of special audio effects. With the addition of
an audio mixer, you can use several tape players at the same time to layer
many sounds together.
Always keep a list of what you have handy, otherwise mail your duplicates
to me! In stores, always look for the sound effects and ambient sounds
sections. That's usually where the Halloween sound effects are hidden.
I only get a blank look from the store clerks when I ask for the "Halloween
Sounds". Try the New Age section for natural sound collections. The
Movie Soundtrack section is good, too.
Index Sound Ideas Part 1
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