Setting Up an Outdoor Theater: The Sound

We started this conversation with the more difficult process of determining the proper visual necessities for a successful outdoor theater. I opted to get the worst out of the way and, as a result, believe the remaining piece to be less involved and potentially less costly.

Unless your outdoor theater plans do not aspire beyond a silent film festival, audio is still a relevant aspect of any theater experience. Up until the advent of High Definition I more often than not placed my audio set-up on a substantially higher platform that anything else. My current indoor theater is inclusive of an Onkyo 7.1 receiver that I had taken days to tweak to optimal performance levels. Although audio and surround sound remain incredibly important to a great percentage of theater enthusiasts it does not hold as much weight when taking things outdoors.

Those of you old enough to have experienced an actual drive-in movie might have fond memories of the tinny sound pumped through a single speaker, hung from the window of your car. Eventually, drive-ins evolved to provide the movies’ sound through an available frequency easily tuned in via your car’s radio. It is still a far cry from the continually impressive sound systems of today’s indoor theaters but it got the job done; and that, for better or worse, is how I have approached the means by which I provide the necessary audio for my own "drive-in."

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Your audio options, both in terms of price and availability, are far more abundant than that of the video projector. Whether it’s an old, retired receiver collecting dust in your closet (like mine) or the internal speakers that some (but not all) projectors have built in, how far you decide to go with the sound to fit your movie and gaming needs are once again up to you.

What I might suggest, and what I had previously decided on for my own outdoor theater, is selecting a mid-to-low level HTiB (Home Theater in a Box). They are extremely common, easy to find, and come in any number of price points. They offer a high level of convenience and provide for a more compact set-up process. In addition, the majority (if not all) HTiB’s come with a built in DVD/Blu-ray player. By having this feature bundled in with the package you have the option to easily switch between starting the evening’s festivities with a movie and ending with a competitive racing event of Motorstorm Apocalypse.

Over the years, and as my audience has grown, I have updated my sound option to a Sony 5.1 receiver.  It provides for more flexibility in terms of additional source connections, as well as allowing for a greater variety of speaker connections. Most important, it has given me that extra boost of power. Make sure that whatever receiver you use has the necessary wattage to accommodate for an outdoor setting. Recievers with too little power will not provide you with the experience you're looking for and will constantly be in jeopardy of "blowing" due to overstrain.

What type, and the number, of speakers you connect to the receiver of your choosing I've found to be most important. Keep in mind that all this time and effort in setting up your theater will still be in an outdoor environment. Unless your surrounding is fairly enclosed the sound that you produce won’t be bouncing off any walls or ceilings as would normally be the case in a home theater. Therefore, I would suggest using speakers that can accommodate for some higher volume levels and a fair amount of bass.

Over the years I’ve toyed with a variety of different speakers. In my early, ambitious stages of outdoor theater enthusiasm I even attempted to set up a 5.1 surround for a showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It worked, but the effort involved and the length of speaker wire needed resulted in a sound that, although impressive, was just not worth repeating. What I have consistently used over the past several years has been a set of old, yet reliable, Sony tower speakers. Although they have larger speakers to help with the low-end bass frequency - as well as the necessary high-end speakers to smoothly even out the action - I have also recently added a subwoofer and center speaker; all of which I’ve had for many years that have not seen much use. This is just another example that what you have may already be all that you need.

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(Don't mind the Joker mask - that was the night we presented The Dark Knight)

By adding a subwoofer I have taken a great deal of strain off the left and right Sony speakers and it has made a world of difference.  Earlier this season I had a showing of Tron Legacy. It's one of my favorite sci-fi movies but the low-end bass rattled my Sony speakers to the point of much concern.  The subwoofer resolved that problem and the sound has since been a huge improvement.

The biggest suggestion I can make with an outdoor theater's sound system is by including a center channel - especially if the focus will be on movies. As the majority of a movie's dialogue is presented through the center channel, not having one can make for constant adjustment to the volume. Those quiet moments in a movie you'll find yourself turning the volume up considerably higher so that the dialogue can be heard through the left and right speakers, only to frantically turn the volume down again when an intense action sequence kicks in. Including a center channel and subwoofer, along with the necessary left and right channels will even out the sound and provide for a much better experience.

Before I end this let me provide you with a few additional, helpful tips to keep in mind when you start to develop, test, and perfect your own ODT.

Safety First – Sure, this might mean safety for the kids involved but what I really mean is being conscious of the safety of your equipment. You’ll come to realize that after you’ve set everything up there will be an abundance of wires, cords and power strips begging for little feet to trip over – bringing everything crashing down. Whether you tape your electrical to the ground or throw a rug over it make sure everyone is aware. Use caution tape or safety cones, it doesn’t matter. Either way, you’ll be better off.

The bigger the screen the more it has the potential to mimic the sail of a ship. Make sure that the oversized kite you’re playing Ratchet and Clank on won’t just up and fly away like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz - secure it to the ground, tie it to a tree or bungee it to your garage.

Bugs in the summer can be a nuisance. Mosquitoes can be repelled with a liberal dousing of Deep Woods Off but they, among many of their bug brethren, will continue to show an interest in that projector lamp that pierces the darkness. Even the smallest of God’s creatures can project themselves to titan-like proportions should they land anywhere near that light source. It’ll make a close game of Split Second end with crushing consequences as their image blocks any and all action on the screen. A working solution to those with high populations of insects is to place a small fan next to the projector’s front lamp. The blowing should be enough to keep most of those winged nightmares from interrupting your evening’s festivities.

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This last suggestion is one that I feel is the most important. Having good neighbors can make or break a neighborhood’s sense of community and they are also hard to come by. My family has been fortunate to have wonderful neighbors for the past 12 years. Because of this we will almost always extend an invitation for them to join us for a movie or round of outdoor gaming. Whether or not they accept should not have any bearing on the entertainment that is selected for the night. In other words, know what you’re about to project. Playing as Kratos, as he disembowels all that get in his way, may not account for a moment’s pause from you or I. My neighbors, on the other hand, might be less inclined to accept our next invitation. Know your surroundings and who inhabits them, realize that sound does carry, and give your neighbors a heads-up each time you start to get that itch. Have fun, but be considerate.

And that's pretty much all there is to establishing your own little piece of outdoor movie/gaming nirvana. I guarantee that should you take the plunge into the world of the outdoor theater (or backyard theater) you’ll find yourself hooked. You’ll constantly be thinking of ways to improve the sound or the picture. For me, it has become an obsession with streamlining the set-up and tear-down process. Each year I get closer to how I really want things to work - how they should be presented - and the quickest, most hassle-free method to do so. Now, go forth and create the ultimate outdoor gaming rig. Make me jealous! If you live in a region that experiences winter you’ll have months to plan, research, and prepare for next year’s unveiling. I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours. And, as always, feel free to comment or ask questions. I love to talk all things outdoor theater and would feel priveleged to help anyone along the way.