Iconic, intimate, in-sync: Developing the audio experience for the Bob Dylan Center

People walking around a gallery inside the Bob Dylan Center.

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At the Bob Dylan Center, our specially-developed audio technology immerses visitors as they curate their own intimate journey around the archives of this icon of American music. 

Tulsa, Oklahoma. It might not be where you’d expect the Bob Dylan Center to open but it feels right when you’re here. With the city reinventing itself as the next musical hub in the vein of Austin and Nashville, an interested audience is right on the doorstep. And you can imagine die hard Dylan fans making the pilgrimage too: located just off Route 66, close to the historic Art Deco district and next door to the Woody Guthrie Center, it’s right at a cultural crossroads. 

When Art Processors was invited to the site to lead the development of an audio experience through the entire space, the team jumped at the chance. “This is one of the most exciting projects of my career because, well…it’s Bob Dylan! We’re helping tell the story of one of the biggest names in American music,” says Kyle Slagley, Art Processors Senior Project Manager. “One day, I'll be able to tell my grandkids, ‘Hey, I worked on that.’” 

The aim of the center is to tell the story of Dylan’s career and why he holds such a prestigious position in musical folklore. With six decades of possible content to draw upon, it’s a big task with any number of ways to approach it. But one thing was always for sure: music was bound to be integral to the experience.

The exterior building of the new Bob Dylan Center showing a mural of the musical icon.

Driving decisions

In fact, the center is rich with all types of AV. “As you walk through the opening galleries,” explains Kyle, “you see many screens playing clips on a loop from Bob's early career, home movies, never-before-seen interviews, videos of famous recording sessions and performances. And there are listening booths and interactives scattered throughout.”  

With so much audio in such close proximity, it was never an option to have it all playing aloud. And post-Covid (and the 1990s!), nobody wants to be taking headphones on and off a hook as they watch every video or listen to each song. 

We could have created an app tapping into the BYOD trend. This has a ton of advantages but we know most visitors are going to be music nerds like us so sound quality is key. Another consideration was visitor agency. We wanted people to pick and choose their journey—to have an intimate, individual experience where they deep dive into their personal passions. Visitors become their own curator of Dylan’s archives. 

A group of people listening to audio delivered synchronously by the audio guide Art Processors developed for the Bob Dylan Center.

Audio answers 

Our response to all these challenges? A wand matched with illuminated icons. With the iPod handed to them at the entrance, visitors activate audio in their headphones by swiping glowing symbols near displays and key exhibits. It’s as simple and sleek for visitors as it sounds but in more technical terms, here’s what we did…

We developed our core app—which provides audio playback, positioning, proximity detection and an experience engine—a stage further. In other locations, visitors use the app to choose which content to listen to from a list of exhibits. At the Bob Dylan Center, the idea is that visitors barely need to operate the device. “The experience is eyes-up and intuitive, encouraging visitors to engage in their surroundings not peer down at tech,” explains Nic Whyte, our co-founder and Chief Technology Officer. 

That’s one of the reasons the experience uses an in-house fleet of iPods. Familiar to users, visitors aren’t distracted by the need to learn a new technology as they navigate the center. But their biggest advantage is that they do justice to the music of Dylan, playing high-quality audio custom mastered and encoded for the Bob Dylan Center to give visitors a rich and vibrant audio experience.

We matched the iPods with beacon touch points so that when people move between experiences or floors, the device fades out audio and provides the right directions on what to do next. This ensures the experience is responsive and that all visitors need to do is tap, tap, tap away at what interests them.

Two women read panels inside the Bob Dylan Center while listening to an audio guide developed by Art Processors.

Eyes-up and in-sync

One of our key challenges was ensuring that there are never any moments when audio overlaps or is out of time. “There’s no room for a lag between what you’re hearing and seeing,” adds Nic. “It breaks the spell.” So the system delivers audio to headphones in near-real-time, no more than 50 milliseconds of latency, better than the broadcast standard for lip sync.

All the content throughout the center uses a master clock. The iPods continually receive information about the state of all video and interactives in the center via a server we built. Every time an iPod touches an activation point, it can instantly work out the split second that the video is playing at, and triggers the corresponding audio. The result is perfect synchronicity, ensuring visitors hear the audio they want at exactly the right time. It’s this level of precision that allows the audio to be so affecting for visitors. 

“The hearing sense can be forgotten inside exhibition spaces,” believes Nic, “but here, sound enhances the visual experience. This is especially true in personalized and shared moments.” At listening booths and two, gamified interactives—a digitized jukebox and a recreation of a studio environment—people are brought together, listening to the same stories, sounds and songs. “In these moments, it becomes a shared, multi-sensory experience,” says Nic. 

A woman listens to audio played by the Jukebox interactive at the Bob Dylan Center.

Singing off the same hymn sheet   

Creating an end-to-end audio experience when we’re in charge of the entire exhibition design and interactive elements is one thing: doing it when there are multiple vendors involved is a whole other ballgame. Led by design studio, 59 Productions, we had to bring our technical and creative A-game to this project to make sure the experience felt cohesive and integrated for visitors. 

With members of the wider team based in Tulsa, New York, Melbourne and London, it was an agile, collaborative process according to Kyle. “All the exhibits have to work with the audio experience so we worked very closely with the other vendors so everything was designed and built in an aligned way, and then tested and iterated,” he says. 

“The audio couldn’t feel bolted-on at the end,” agrees Nic. “The design of the interface—typography, color, and use of negative space—matches the look and feel of the exhibition, as do the sound effects you hear when pressing buttons on the jukebox and other interactives. All that makes the audio experience feel like an integral part of the exhibition, not an auxiliary element.”

And it’s worked. Rob Keniger, our Senior Mobile Engineer on the project was on site just ahead of the launch for final testing. “It's a very viscerally satisfying experience to just tap and hear what's happening on screen,” Rob admits. “Although it's been hugely technical getting it to this stage, the beauty is that no user would ever even think about that because it’s so simple to use and really integrated into the overall experience.” 

And when fans start flocking to the newly-opened center, what will their reaction be? “I think it's gonna blow their minds,” says Rob. “It’s an amazing place to visit and see these extraordinary exhibits.” 

 


 

About the Bob Dylan Center®

To be anchored by a permanent exhibit on the life and work of Bob Dylan, the Bob Dylan Center® is committed to exploring the myriad forms of creativity that enrich the world around us. When it opens in the Tulsa Arts District in May 2022, the center will serve to educate, motivate and inspire visitors to engage their own capacity as creators. Through exhibits, public programs, performances, lectures and publications, the Center aims to foster lively conversations about the role of creativity in our lives.

As the primary public venue for the Bob Dylan Archive® collection, the Center will curate and exhibit a priceless collection of more than 100,000 items spanning Dylan's career, including handwritten manuscripts, notebooks and correspondence; films, videos, photographs and artwork; memorabilia and ephemera; personal documents and effects; unreleased studio and concert recordings; musical instruments and many other elements. More information at bobdylancenter.com.

About the George Kaiser Family Foundation

The George Kaiser Family Foundation is a Tulsa-based charitable foundation dedicated to providing equal opportunity for children through investments in early childhood education, community health and civic enhancements. Part of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the American Song Archives operates the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Center, and preserves and maintains the archives of these and other important American artists. More information at gkff.org.

About Olson Kundig

Now in its sixth decade of practice, Olson Kundig is a collaborative design practice whose work includes cultural and museum projects, exhibition design, commercial and mixed-use design (including wineries and sports facilities), private and multi-family residential, hospitality projects, places of worship, interior design, product design and landscape design. With deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, the firm and its staff of over 250 work with clients around the world. More information at www.olsonkundig.com.

About 59 Productions

59 Productions is a multidisciplinary design studio with a passion for story-driven design. The studio's work spans a broad range of disciplines including design for the stage, exhibition design, architecture, projection-mapping and large-scale events, as well as VR, AR and interactive design. Regardless of the medium, 59's approach is based on the harnessing of innovative thinking, extensive research and world-class design skills to create memorable storytelling experiences. More information at 59productions.co.uk.

Key Consultants (Exhibition Design): Olson Kundig, Exhibit Design Lead; 59 Productions, Installation, Interactive and AV Design; Jennifer LeBeau, Filmmaker; Sean Wilentz, Historian & Author; Lewis Hyde, Author; Ellipse Studio, Content and Copywriting; Tillotson Design Associates, Lighting Design; Coffman Engineers, Exhibits Structural Engineer; Art Processors, Audio Guide; Brown Bag Creative, Graphic Production; CREO Exhibits, Exhibit Fabricator; BBI Engineers, Audio/Visual Integration; Black Buffalo Ironworks, Gate Fabricator.

Key Consultants (Architecture): Olson Kundig, Design Architect; Lilly Architects, Architect of Record; Crossland, General Contractor; Wallace Design Collective, Structural Engineer; Phillips + Gomez, MEP and Fire Protection Engineer; Erik Burke, Façade Mural Artist.