What does it sound like to sling-shot around Jupiter or to crash land on Venus? What does it sound like when molecules rapidly vibrate around each other or when you’re able to fly through a nebula? Writing music for a visual medium can be challenging enough as it is, but when you’re attempting to rhapsodize upon experiences that people have a hard time wrapping their head around it can create a whole new realm of difficulty. I mean, how do you summarize the feeling of approaching a star that’s ten times more massive than our Sun? But aside from the creative aspect, the task of writing music for planetarium productions is completely different than writing music for any other visual medium.
Writing music for a planetarium show with a custom Conklin 7-string bass.
At the Louisiana Art and Science Museum my main job title is Master Projectionist which means I run the shows on a daily basis. But that’s not all I do. One of my other duties is working with the production team. I not only write, perform, edit, and mix all the music for our in-house seasonal shows but I also record the voice over narration that takes place in our own little recording booth here at the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium. I’m pretty much responsible for what you’re hearing when you see one of our seasonal sky shows.
The process of producing a planetarium soundtrack is quite different than, say, composing for a movie. When I write for a movie I have a scene in front of me. I can fast forward, rewind, play a scene slowly, and overall get a feel for what the audience is going to be seeing. However, when I write for the planetarium I only go off of recorded dialogue and my imagination.
Let’s look at the process it takes to develop the soundtrack for our new Seasonal Sky Tonight show.
1 – Getting the Script
It all begins with a script from the producer. Once I get the script I like to make the font on the document large enough to read at arm’s length. This script is going to be read in a recording booth so it has to be set down on a stand and read from the side.
I then print out two copies and I go through and number each paragraph. This way I can converse with the voice-over artist in the sound booth and we can be on the same page with where we’re at in the script and if we have to go back to a certain point.
Now that I have my script, it’s enlarged and easy to read, and it’s numbered and organized, we then call up our voice over actress and set a date to record.
2 – Recording the Voice
At the planetarium we have a recording booth just behind our 60 foot dome. This booth is also just above my recording computer station. So I’m underneath the booth on a different floor. All the wires run up through the wall and into the booth and I communicate with a microphone and headphones.
Margaret Lawhon after recording a voice over track for a seasonal sky show
The voice over actress we use is Margaret Lawhon. You may have seen her in this season’s American Horror Story as a news anchor or you may know her voice if you’ve seen Battle: Los Angeles. She’s great to work with and she has a nice clear voice that works well with the music that I write.
Multiple takes are then compiled into one master track.
Whenever I record a voice-over performance I like to do multiple takes of each paragraph. There are several reasons why I do this. For starters, the first read through is always ok but I find that with the second and third take things get smoother. By the third read-through the paragraph becomes less regimented and more conversational. I want the final performance to sound like there’s someone in the planetarium speaking to them and not dictating lines on a page. Second, I use a very powerful tube microphone that picks up every little nuance in the room; this microphone is so powerful that it even picks up the sounds of traffic outside. Well, sometimes during a read-through I’ll pick up the sound of rustling, a page being turned, a microphone cord hitting the mic stand, etc. Having multiple takes allows me to cut out the segments with distracting interference and replace it with something better from another take. Believe me, I do it quite a bit. It’s time consuming but necessary to get a clean sounding final performance.
All the breaths have to be cut out and volume curves have to be drawn in to smooth out the silence.
3 – Voice Editing Once the voice recording session is done we move on to the voice editing phase. This is by far my least favorite part in all this. Editing audio is a time-consuming and tedious task. I basically go through each take, word by word, sentence by sentence, and pick out the best performances. I then compile all these best takes on to a main track. All these best takes will eventually form one paragraph. Once I’ve done the entire show this way I have a lot of chunks of audio that I then have to go through and meticulously clean up. I go in and take out all the breaths before and after sentences and I even go in and take out any breaths that happen in the middle of a sentence. Once that is done I draw volume curves before and after each chunk of audio so you don’t hear the audible difference between the active and inactive space. But the editing is not done. I then space out the paragraphs in sections that require pauses and musical interludes. These planetarium shows are run off of computer scripts that call up data sets and full-dome videos. Sometimes these scripts take a while to load and I’ll have to space out the audio appropriately to compensate for the time needed. Now that I’ve edited the audio, spaced out the sections the way I want them, and rendered everything as one track, I then hand this off to the producer who, in turn, spaces out the audio again in regards to how the animation will work. I get these