New York Metro

Jul 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By David Weiss


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Headphones, iPods, boom boxes, radios, living room stereos, computers, TV speakers — all perfectly legit outlets for the on-the-rise producer. But there are other less-obvious destinations for new recorded music. The Hayden Planetarium inside New York City's American Museum of Natural History is home to a stunning new space show called Cosmic Collisions. The 429-seat planetarium stands as one of the world's largest virtual-reality simulators, and with a 23-speaker discrete surround setup and low-frequency butt-kickers in every chair, sound is a huge factor in creating that reality.

Lawrence Manchester (above) recorded Marcelo Zarvos’ classical score for Cosmic Collisions.

In Cosmic Collisions, Robert Redford narrates as simulations and visualizations fly audiences through the galaxies. Film composer Marcelo Zarvos (The Door in the Floor, Kissing Jessica Stein) is credited with the vibrant classical score (with composer Robert Miller contributing one section), and his multitalented collaborator Lawrence Manchester assisted every step of the way.

“It was an orchestral palette that told a story where the main characters are galaxies and comets,” says Manchester from his Pro Tools HD — equipped mix suite at Avatar Studios. “There's a challenge there: evoking human emotions in a story about space.”

First, Zarvos scored to QuickTime movies, with rough animations serving as storyline reference, while NASA and museum astrophysicists programmed supercomputer clusters to finish the final renderings. Sheet music in hand, Manchester then flew to Prague, where he met a 50-piece orchestra at Smecky Studios, the scoring stage for Barrendoff Film Studios, and recorded 23 minutes of music in one 14-hour block.

“I brought five TLM 50s and an 8-channel Millennia HV-3D mic pre with me,” Manchester says. “What I like most about that combination for recording an orchestra is that it's clean and reliable. We had consulted beforehand with the show's mixer, Peter Hylenski. He was in favor of recording with a Decca Tree and getting a good, natural room sound with the orchestra, concentrating on the natural ambience.”

Manchester returned to Avatar, where the tracks were mixed not once but twice — first by Manchester in 5.1 listening on ProArc and Yamaha NS-10 monitors with a Bag End sub, only to be turned over to Hylenski for the full-blown 23.1 in-dome mix. “We mixed in a 5.1 environment,” Manchester notes, “but I knew that image wouldn't hold up in the dome because there's lots of speakers, and depending on where they sat in the space, each person would hear something different.

“I knew if I provided Peter with individual orchestra, string quartet, piano, percussion and electronics 5.1 stems, he would have great flexibility to matrix it into the multispeaker playback for the dome. The approach was for him to take the mix, which sounded cohesive as 5.1, and then spread it out into the space however he felt would be tasteful and most effective.”

Although they're not usually as well-funded as a NASA-partnered show, the sonic backdrops for New York City's myriad art installations can be equally inspiring. One of the city's emerging specialists in this field is Mike Skinner, an active drummer/producer who creates thickly layered soundscapes for museums, galleries and performance spaces.

Recently working in the laid-back confines of Brooklyn indie fave Headgear Recording, Skinner was recording a live sound installation called “8-Track Attacks.” Ten antiquated 8-track recorders, some of which are matched pairs, are miked and arrayed in a 360-degree circle, recording to Pro Tools though a Trident 80C as they play out dense, slowly evolving mosaics of sound and noise whose cycles may be hard to predict, but are anything but random.

“The idea of using the 8-track machines and these archaic formats came out of the idea that music is so easy to steal digitally, download and walk around with,” says Skinner. “I miss the idea of people being in the same space to experience music. I wanted to craft something that would be three-dimensional, but also with a lot of components so, depending on where you were, it would be a different sound in the room.

“Each one of these is a 90-minute tape, so every track is 22-and-a-half minutes long. If I'm doing a feedback guitar track, I'll sit there for hours with it going, but it doesn't record over itself; it'll just accumulate more and more layers of sound on the cartridge. I'll play those all at the same time, and it creates dense, very murky textural environments.” Skinner also backs up the tapes in his G5-equipped home studio running Logic.

At Headgear, Skinner supplemented the recording by constantly blending digital and analog resources. Present were a Roland HandSonic electronic percussion module running through a Schuman PLL square wave generator/octave pedal, as well as a simple screensaver toy that he plays off a Mac laptop through an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer to create unusual sounds.

“These pieces have movement, even if they're not going somewhere,” he says. “You get these loops of sound that your brain will start to recognize, and the longer you're exposed to it, the more sense it starts to make.”

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