The Melbourne Planetarium is housed within Scienceworks, now a part of the Melbourne Museum. The Planetarium is a 150 recliner-seat theatre featuring a 180 degree visual dome. At the time of this production (before the digital full-dome projection was installed) multiple banks of slides were used to create visual panoramas and overhead vistas within which are projected video footage. Immersive multi-channel surround audio combines with the expanded visual to create a stylized heightened sensory experience.
The Melbourne Planetarium produces 3-4 shows per year, each running for around 45 minutes. 4 different shows are programmed throughout each day, each show aimed at a target age group. Launch Pad was for early-teens and presents an overview of our planetary solar system in the form of a Top 10 Radio Countdown programme.
Producers - Monica Zetlin & Tanya Hill
Sound design, music and 6-channel mix - Philip Brophy
Premiere season - Melbourne Planetarium
Launch Pad is a comical/light parody of excessive/bombastic Top 10 Countdown formats. Two 'radio DJ' characters narrate and guide us through our solar planetary system. These characters appear as voice alone, and are full of hyperbole in their delivery - while imparting scientific data about each of the planets.
The sound design is not dissimilar to the process employed in Escape From Andraxus: various source sounds were recorded then processed and manipulated for dynamic spatialization in playback at the Planetarium.
The music score for Launch Pad involved composing 10 discrete instrumental tracks/themes which reflected a perceivable 'character' for each of the planets. More often than not, the score works in direct counterpoint to the parodic tone of the 'radio DJ' characters. A range of musical genres was employed as basic frameworks for each section of the narrative. For example, Venus features sexy electronic choir effects while Mars features pounding toms and heavy metal guitar, and so on. The bulk of these tracks have since been reworked to form the live set of The Planets - also available on CD on Sound Punch Records.
The exceptions to this format are the Opening and Closing themes. The Opening Theme is based on a love TV variety/entertainment show - think THE LOVE BOAT, Barry Manilow and the Miss Universe Pageant. The Closing Theme extends this theme but is then laid with mock jazz solo on a piano - as in the way live TV show bands always do solos during the closing credits to let people know they're 'real musos' and not just hacks. The Opening Theme appears on the Decomposition CD on Sound Punch Records.
While Escape From Andraxus featured a complex integration of sound into music and vice-versa, the integration for Launch Pad is less complex and more clearly delineated. This is so that the music is clearly identified as a reference to Video Hits shows. Consequently sound effects and atmospheres are fewer and less present than they are in Escape From Andraxus, thereby create a lighter, more entertaining feel. Nonetheless, Launch Pad uses advanced surround sound digital editing functions which allow for hyper dynamic movement and dispersion within the multi-channel sound field of the Planetarium.
Neptune (minimal teutonic techno)
Venus (lush erotic electronica)
Pluto (symphonic ambient)
Mars (metal rock remix)
Asteroid Belt (chemical big-beat)
Mercury (trippy rock freak-beat)
Uranus (weirdo electric lounge)
Jupiter (electronic muzak)
Earth (cheesy jazz groove)
Saturn (dub+bass melodica)
The audio configuration at the Melbourne Planetarium features a 6-track multi-track played through 6 discrete speakers. There is no spatial encoding involved as the multi-track (a DA-88) is linked directly to a set of amplifiers and connected speakers. The spatial lay-out is an unusual one that simulates an expanded screen above, in front of and below the listener as they lay in a recliner seat at 140° recline.
A timecode sub-track of the DA-88 serves as the master for the major components of the Melbourne Planetarium's audiovisual infrastructure at the time of this commission:
1. 3 Betacam video decks (each with their own projection, 2 of which are on moveable skews)
2. the DigiStar programme (which generates wire-frame simulations of mapped data from a database of star constellations and their position within the solar system, and projects these computer animations onto the 180¼ dome screen)
3. a custom synchronizing programme called Spice (for sending action lists and sequences to control and trigger movements of the video projector skews as well as the banks of over 40 35mm slide projectors)
This system has since been replaced by a full-dome projection – SkyScan Digital Sky – promoted as a seamless visualization system for 180° set-ups, though lacking in the hybrid charm of the earlier system.
Producing the sound design for a Planetarium show is not as straightforward as working on a film. Firstly, there is no 'single screen' to work to. Production involves working with 4 separate time-coded tapes for synchronization:
1. an 'A-Roll' of video
2. a 'B-Roll' of video
3. a flat-screen output from the Digistar system, representing the dome animated dome projection on a 360° circular disc
4. a low-light fish-eye lens video shot inside the Planetarium showing the slides and video being projected onto the dome (the light does not pick up the DigiStar projection)
Prior to receiving these 4 tapes, extensive planning is done while the show is being developed and edited. In the case of Launch Pad a demo voice-track was recorded to provide an initial timing guide to produce an animatic. This was then checked for sound Effects timing to ensure that voice narration was separated or spaced away from any major sonic events (explosions, etc.). The animatic was then locked-off and an EDL of trigger events for Spice, markers for the voice track and time-code positions for sound events was generated. The actors were then recorded in a studio and then repositioned over the rough vocal guide-track of the animatic. Once these voices were in place, the rest of the sound design and score could be positioned.
Working in such an open-ended format as a Planetarium show demonstrates the fluidity that exist between pre-production and post-production in sound designing and film scoring. because there is no actual 'shoot' pre- and post- are merged, and in the process one can see the value of preparing simultaneous to the creation, production and placement of the multiple image tracks.
Spatialization mixing is largely intuitive within such a system. All sound design for launch Pad was done on an ASR10 workstation with an Output Expander. All immersive and dynamic spatial events and gestures are handled through MIDI editing, using extensive controller data to generate precisely articulated movement. Whereas shifting audio data through multiple speakers mainly relies on panning and volume, MIDI manipulation affords an expanded palette of possibilities (pitch, filter, LFOs, gates, envelopes, FX algorithms, etc.). The mix is checked at a number of stages in the actual Planetarium. Notes are taken on how the sounds are sitting in the space, and then the MIDI data is edited back at my studio.
The music score is also produced on an ASR10. All instrumentation is complexly routed through MIDI manipulation throughout the surround soundfield. By working with both sound and music within the one system, great flexibility is available in the mixing and merging of the two. No clashes occur as there is always a way to alter or modify micro- or internal details of sound or music data at any one point.
The final mix is mastered with light compression (mainly for voices) onto a DA-88 tape. The output level of the tape is controlled by the Spice programme onsite at the Planetarium.