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Creating a Planetarium Soundscape: Part 2 – From Studio to Theater

Part 2 - Creating a Planetarium Soundscape

In the first part of “Creating a Planetarium Soundscape” I covered what it was like going from script to the voice-over recording process.  But now we’re going to go into what it’s like to actually craft the music, sound effects, and 5.1 surround sound mix of a planetarium soundtrack.

4 – Writing and Recording the Music

recording music at work

Here I am crafting a planetarium show soundtrack.

I write and record all the planetarium music at my house. In the past, I’ve tried to do this at work by bringing all my gear to my office. However, having to run shows all day and getting side-tracked in my other duties keeps putting a damper on my creative flow. I’ve found that the best way to get the music done is to render the voice-over file at work and then bring the thing home with me. At my house I have a whole arsenal of instruments that allow me to craft an entire soundtrack.

Planetarium video and audio project

Syncing video and audio up on Cubase

Until recently I have been unable to view the show while writing music—I could only go off of the voice over recording. Now, I’m able to take home a video file courtesy of our producer and actually watch while I write.

color code the project

I color code all the different topics so I can create songs of an appropriate length

But what I’ve always done is taken that audio voice recording and then spliced it up into sections. I then color code the sections based on story topic. So, I’ll have the intro of the show in blue, then we get into the constellations and I’ll color that green, maybe we’ll get into something about the Sun and I’ll color that yellow. This helps me visually see how long of a music cue I have to write for. Some planetarium shows have 5 or 6 chunks of different topics. Knowing how many chunks I’m working with will let me know how many key changes I’ll need to do. I don’t want to have one long show that’s all in one key, i.e. D major. So as the show goes on I’ll change keys enough times so that when we get to the last segment of the show I’m able to change back to the original key and bring it all around.

In order to craft this soundscape I have a lot of different tools at my disposal. I’ve got a collection of electric and acoustic guitars; keyboards that are loaded with a variety of sounds; VST plug-ins that allow me to manipulate string sections, horn sections, and just about any other section of an orchestra I want; I’ve got drums all over the place; and I’ve got just about any kind of bass you’ll ever need: 4-string piccolo bass, 5-string tenor bass, 7-string bass, upright bass, acoustic bass, all with and without frets.

NS design upright bass

Jay Lamm guitars
conklin 7-string bass with Jay Lamm
Jay Lamm studio with instruments

Using 2 Ebows on fretless Warwick with piccolo strings.

Using 2 Ebows on fretless Warwick with piccolo strings.

A little known fact is that most of the “string section” sounds you hear in my planetarium music is not violins and cellos. What I actually do is use a combination of guitars and basses in different tunings and play them with a device called an “Ebow.” I play and harmonize each instrument over and over again until it sounds like there are a dozen of me.

Here’s an example of something that sounds like an orchestral string section that is actually a large combination of different guitars and basses played with an Ebow.

5 – Mixing and Surround Mix

The mixing phase of things is like making a cake: you’ve got all your ingredients and now it’s time to proportion them out correctly so that it’s all satisfying when cooked together. You don’t want to have the drums too loud or the voice-over too soft. It’s a delicate balance and everyone has their own methods and ideologies of what makes a good mix.

For me, this is the stage where I add effects to the voice over: Compression to even things out, Reverb to let it sit in the mix just right, EQ to boost certain frequencies I might be lacking, and a tad bit of something called a “DeEsser” which calms those cranky “S” sibilance sounds that plague a mix.

towards the end of working on planetarium

That’s a lot going on; that’s a lot to mix.

Mixing is a tedious business and can take quite a long time to do right. You’ve got to get a good mix going and then you have to test it on several different devices to make sure that it sounds good on everything. With the planetarium, however, I’m doing a lot of guess work. I’ve sort of figured out a formula by now on how to mix certain things OUT of the mix—so to speak—knowing that once it’s played on the Planetarium system it’ll sound different.

This doesn’t even take into account my super secret method of doing our own 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Yes, I record everything and then develop it for a 5.1 surround sound mix. I’ll leave some instruments out of the main mix and then later on pull those instruments in and dedicate them to just one speaker in the dome. My super secret method of developing our own surround sound mix deals with isolating certain frequencies, moving things around in the space, and dividing tracks up into dedicated groups. It’s a very boring procedure and seeing as how it’s super secret I won’t bother you with it right now.

But what I will talk about is the surround sound special effects.

sony vegas surround sound automation

A 5.1 automation tool in Sony Vegas

In the Planetarium we don’t just have a 5.1 speaker system, we have a system that wraps around you—not just on the sides. So if you sit in the center of the dome and something comes up from behind you, I can make it sound like it’s actually coming up from behind you. As you fly through the rings of Saturn I can make it sound like the icy rock chunks are whizzing past your head. This all deals with dragging my finished product into Sony Vegas, the software I use to automate my surround sound effects.

Yes, Cubase can mix and automate in 5.1 but I find it’s far easier to mix and do my automation in Sony Vegas. Not only that but since we have a Sony system here the Vegas program can export the files in a format that is best used for us: an AC3 file.

I like to do these sound effects separately from the audio soundtrack because if I have to move these sound effects around at a later date it’ll be easier to do without having to open up the original audio project. The Sony Vegas project is just for automating sound effects and rendering the final product as a Surround Sound AC3 file.

All these sound effects are done by either taking the video file from the producer or actually videotaping the show and then lining up that video with my sound file. Once the video and audio are lined up I can add rain sounds, wind sounds, volcanoes erupting, whooshing, whizzing, bleeping, bloops, bips and beeps with ease. I have a huge library of stock sound effects that I can drag into the project and then move around via a surround sound mixer automation button.

Now the mixing phase begins again, but just for the sound effects. Now all that’s left is to render the audio file and put it into the planetarium system. Swing by the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium and Exxon Mobil Space Theater at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum sometimes to check out one of the finished products. Our seasonal Sky Shows are currently playing before Super Volcanoes and The Great Planet Adventures.

And, of course, my new age/planetarium CD is available on CDBaby at:

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