Mixing for the stars. Engineers who have moved from stereo to surround mixing have had to grapple with such complexities as bass management, surround panning, phase relationships and deciding how — or whether — to use the LFE and center channels. The absence of a single standard for 5.1 has only complicated the engineer's task. Where should the speakers be placed in the room? Should one mix for a lowest-common-denominator system in which not all five speakers are equal, or should one assume that the end-user's playback gear meets professional specs?
However complicated these questions may seem, imagine a scenario in which one is asked to mix for 26 discrete channels in a three-dimensional space that uses a vertical — as well as a horizontal — plane. That was the challenge put before Benjy Bernhardt, sound designer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. In late 1999, as the refurbished Planetarium was preparing to celebrate its reopening — and the new millennium — with the Tom Hanks-narrated show Passport to the Universe, Bernhardt oversaw an unprecedented multichannel production that included 23 speakers placed throughout the ceiling of the building's Space Theater, plus a sub channel, a channel for seat shakers underneath each chair in the audience, and a separate channel for a floor shaker. That same system, with a few modifications, has since been used to produce the Planetarium's current show, The Search for Life: Are We Alone?, which features narration by Harrison Ford.
“This is an all-encompassing experience,” says Bernhardt. “It's an immersive, virtual reality theater unlike anything else I know. There are other domes out there, but they have much simpler systems for audio and video. We're on the cutting edge of both.”
The audio mix system at the Planetarium consists of two Pro Tools rigs feeding effects (by sound designer Paul Soucek), music (by composer Stephen Endelman) and narration to a Level Control Systems Matrix 3 processor equipped with Space Map three-dimensional panning software. The LCS functions as the venue's mixing console, sending automation and panning data, as well as audio signals, to the 26-channel array. The two Pro Tools MixPlus systems — Soucek's sound effects system and Hylenski's Pro Control-equipped rig — connect to the LCS LX-300 interfaces via 24-channel ADAT Bridge interfaces. This method was chosen because, at the time, the LX-300 units did not have AES/EBU inputs; they have since been upgraded to accommodate AES/EBU.
The Space Theater's speaker system is an all-Meyer rig, consisting of three CQ-1s in the apex of the dome; eight UPA-1Ps circling the dome about midway down; and 12 more UPA-1Ps near the horizon line. Three Bag End S18E-1(s) subwoofers reproduce the LFE channel, along with seat and floor shakers made by Aura.
Unlike a conventional theatrical production, the Hayden Planetarium shows are not mixed live. Instead, they are recorded onto Akai DR-16 Pro hard disk recorders for synchronized playback with the venue's custom Zeiss Mark IX projection system and the Digital Dome, which consists of seven custom DVS High Resolution video players and a Zeos projection and edge-blending system. However, because of the Planetarium's unique speaker array and physical configuration, the mixes needed to be done on-site. That meant that, in order to work on The Search for Life, Bernhardt and his crew — mixer Peter Hylenski and sound designer Soucek — had to set up their respective Pro Tools and LCS rigs in the Planetarium while Passport was still running. Basically, the team would roll in their gear after the audiences left and work through the night. The following morning, the equipment would be disassembled and put back in a secret room until that day's show ended.
The setup and breakdown task was managed by Jeff Galitzer, who also oversaw maintenance and repairs on the gear, and assistant Russell Baird. Other key crew members included Gretchen Schwartz, creative director for the Search for Life production, and John Sacrenty, who, as show control programmer, ran time-lines during the mix, synchronized devices and helped spot timings.
“People always seemed surprised that we were mixing the show in the Dome, but there was no other logical — or faithful — locale to do this kind of mix, especially with all the spatialization we do via LCS,” says Soucek. “In essence, the Dome is our studio.”
If the logistics of mixing in a dome theater between feature presentations are unprecedented, the creative challenges of such a large-scale multichannel production are also one-of-a-kind. “It's different from what people are used to,” says Bernhardt. “It takes a lot to wrap your head around it. You have to create an environment that's dynamic and interactive, the way life is.”
Hylenski, who has years of experience with LCS systems, most recently mixing for the Broadway production Seussical, says he relied heavily on LCS's Space Map feature. “Space Map allows you to draw visual representations of your speakers onto a clean slate, so you can create a view of the dome showing where the major loudspeaker areas are. You connect sets of three speakers together using what's called a ‘triset,’ and the system does the math. As you drag a sound through this map, it moves through the soundfield.”
From a sound design point of view, the Planetarium projects are complicated by the fact that space, supposedly, is silent. “So I've been told by so many scientists!” says Soucek, who was formerly the co-owner of Planet 10 Post, an audio post house that was acquired last year by Livberty. “But we wanted to define an underbed ‘spirit’ of each place we travel to, and that was done using organic elements — mainly wind and water — and treating them to within an inch of their lives.”
Given the success of the first two shows in the new planetarium, Bernhardt expects to get busy soon working on a third production. That will probably mean setting up and tearing down the Pro Tools/LCS rig every day, while Search for Life is still running. It won't be the first time — or the last — that Bernhardt and his talented crew will undertake what many would have regarded as impossible.
ATR-102 gets Lodged in Lower Manhattan. The mastering studio known as The Lodge has become the first such facility in the New York metro area to acquire the ATR-102, an Ampex recorder modified to accommodate two tracks on a 1-inch tape. Lodge president and chief mastering engineer Emily Lazar says, “When I first heard it, I knew the 1-inch ATR would be the perfect addition to the technology we have here already. The incredible sound of the machine was the primary reason for purchasing it, but 1-inch also makes a great archive format. These days, with so many digital formats to choose from, record label executives, producers and artists tend to question not only media stability, but also whether or not the current formats will become obsolete.”
Lazar says she became intrigued by the ATR-102 after hearing that three of her favorite-sounding recent albums — Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, Mark Knopfler's Sailing to Philadelphia and Elton John's Songs From the West Coast — were mixed to the 1-inch format. Other users of ATR's 1-inch 2-track include producer/engineers Chuck Ainlay and Ron St. Germain, and mastering great Bob Ludwig, who is also a proponent of ATR's 2-inch, 8-track machine, designed for surround mastering applications.
Compared to the ½-inch ATR-102, the 1-inch version offers a lower noise floor (by a full 3 dB), which allows recording at lower levels for more detail and transient punch, according to ATR founder Michael Spitz.
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