NEW YORK METRO

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, by David Weiss

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Is your current universe lacking zip? Could your energy level be boosted with safe transport to an alternate dimension — to the sound of an enveloping rock/electronica soundtrack? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it's time to book a trip, not with NASA, but to New York City to experience SonicVision at the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org).

An awe-inspiring new 38-minute digitally animated music show with a playlist picked by Moby, SonicVision is playing out for the foreseeable future in the museum's Hayden Planetarium Space Theater. Aptly described by the AMNH as one of the world's largest and most powerful virtual reality simulators, the 6,550-square-foot dome is now the home of a mind-and-body experience that has definitely never been done before, bolstered by an ambitious surround mix featuring 23 channels of discrete sound and the music of artists ranging from Radiohead to U2, Coldplay, Queens of the Stone Age, Goldfrapp and many more.

Anthony Braun, executive producer, says, “For the visitor who's experiencing it, this is a new kind of audio-visual experience, in which you're truly immersed in the content.”

“I wanted to really elevate the music; that was my ambition for the show,” adds Chris Harvey, SonicVision's creative director. “I didn't want to talk to anybody about religion but give people a glorious, transcendental experience. It's a new form of entertainment in that it's not a high-impact edit, not a movie, not a narrative. Its power lies in how intimately connected it is to the music and how integrating the experience in the circular theater is.”

Created in association with MTV2, SonicVision was the result of the dedicated work of a diverse team of sound mixers, animators, video jockeys (VJs), editors and media artists up against a short deadline — approximately six months — that would have been unthinkable only a year or two ago. But with a staff of museum artists who had the design of two previous planetarium shows under their belts, along with the huge gains in available computer firepower, Braun and Harvey's group were able to hit the ground running in April of 2003.

“Up until then, the museum animators had only produced science shows, and, of course, there you're held to scientific accuracy restrictions,” Harvey says. “But they're all artists and had been playing with ideas that wouldn't fit into a science show. Then, taking those ideas for possible scenes or moments, I designed a kind of flowchart for this show, an overall structure that I felt would be open and modular enough that I could plug a lot of things into it, but would give the show a beginning, middle and an end. To make this flowchart, I also used a very long list of songs they were already considering, some of which had been recommended by MTV, some of which the staff had chosen and some of which Moby had recommended.”

Harvey and Braun worked closely with re-recording mixer Peter Hylenski, sound designer Paul Soucek, audio editor Russell C. Baird Jr., director of engineering Benjamin Bernhardt and chief video engineer Jeff Gralitzer to make sure that the audio and video components of the show would translate to the unique environment of the planetarium's dome. In a space outfitted with three Meyer CQ-1 zenith speakers, eight Meyer UPA-1P sky speakers, 12 more Meyer UPA-1P horizon speakers, Meyer PSW-2 subwoofers, and 430 seat shakers and 79 floor shakers from Aura Bass Actuators, Hylenski, who already knew the dome intimately from mixing the planetarium show Search for Life, had the equivalent of 23 channels of surround, plus ample low-end reinforcement.

As he settled into the dome to mix with his two mobile Pro Tools Plus systems, LCS Matrix3 matrix mixer and TC Electronic System 6000 reverb — often at late hours to stay out of the way of the space shows playing to paying daytime museum audiences — Hylenski knew he would have one serious problem to deal with. “The biggest challenge was that the tracks that came from Moby were all stereo,” he points out. “So you've got a playlist of stereo tracks, and you realize you've got a 23-channel surround system and you have to make something out of it. Also, wherever you sit in the dome, you're getting a different mix. It's touch and go.

“What I was trying to do was take the stereo tracks and find different things that would be interesting if you move them into other areas. You can't move elements of a stereo track, but things work really well if you can isolate and filter them. At the beginning of the show, when the dome first comes to life, a voice spins around the room. Those are all taken from a stereo track, filtered down and added back in again, so I was able to get motion. Usually, the stereo track will be the foundation, and I'll bring the filtered sound just underneath it so it has the energy to pull your focus.”

Armed with the flexible routing and spatialization processing firepower of the LCS Matrix3, Hylenski was able to augment the visual atmospheres and often roller-coaster-like motion by locating music and sound effects anywhere he heard fit. “Every speaker in the system is discreetly addressable by the Matrix3,” he says. “We can send a piece of audio to one speaker group of, say, 12 speakers and spread it out. I can also move things through the dome by drawing paths through trajectories — it's limitless what you can do. A lot of this carried over from Search for Life, as well, moving over matrix groups and apex versus horizon, coming up with different ways to use the dome so it doesn't seem as static as a stereo field.”

Because it involved an extremely dense type of multichannel audio, mixing for the planetarium and its 69-foot-wide, 38-foot-high dome-shaped perforated aluminum screen gave the show's creators a chance to create a sound field completely unique to the space. “I found that using the height of the dome works out,” Hylenski explains. “The depth of field isn't stereo anymore, so you rotate and flip sound. Instead of doing left and right from the sides, left is the top of the dome and right is the rim. Or you do pseudo-quad. Anyway, to take the space and create more space, you can't say, ‘I'll put one element on one side of the dome and put the other here.’ It's got to be almost multisource for each person. There are a lot of speakers in there, so it's a big comb filter as well, and you have to EQ a lot of it out. It's a delicate balance.”

To add to the solid sense of synchronization between the music and the dazzling imagery, Harvey's VJ friends, who often operate in the real-time performance realm, had some additional tricks up their sleeve when creating the animation for two specific scenes. “They use a lot of audio responsive software to drive the animation,” he says. “I know from experience one of the most expensive and labor-intensive things you can do is synchronize to audio, so I thought this would be a clever way to do it.

“One program we used is software called FiLMBOX [by Kaydara], which had already been customized for their planetarium to work in real time through their seven [Barco 812] projectors for the White Zombie song, ‘Blood, Milk and Sky.’ On top of the dome there's a huge, beautiful sun wheel of sparks, which was, in fact, driven by the audio — it's subtle, but definitely connected. The other audio responsive tool is actually a plug-in for After Effects called Trapcode Soundkeys in the ‘Heroes’ scene. The birth of all these home movies is triggered by David Bowie's voice.”

With the audio mix complete, the source material was transferred from Pro Tools to a Tascam MX-2424 hard disk recorder, where it plays out to the Matrix3 in AES/EBU digital format before hitting Apogee DA-16 converters and going straight to the speakers.

The resulting show is loud and extremely crisp without being anywhere near deafening. It's all the better to appreciate the subtle acoustical placement and visual amazement that constantly takes place throughout SonicVision, which deserves recognition as an important advancement in the field of digital art.

“Early on, I said that I wanted to use science without mentioning science, evoke spirituality without mentioning religion, and give people a psychedelic experience without drugs,” Harvey concludes. “I feel very strongly that audiences are ready for a new kind of entertainment. The kind of short attention span that we've all been trained to expect has its place, but that's not all there is, and I think that it's in music that most people find an alternative. SonicVision appeals to that appetite: We give audiences all the shock that they want, but with a real respect for their ability to appreciate beauty.”


Send your Metro news to david@dwords.com.






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