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At California Academy of Sciences, Meyer Sound Gives Morrison Planetarium an Otherworldly Experience
Morrison Planetarium, a key attraction within San Francisco's all-new California Academy of Sciences, has been designed from the ground up to offer the most compelling outer space experience one can have without leaving planet Earth. Cantilevered out over the Academy's coral reef tank, it mimics the 30-degree tilt of our planet and houses a state-of-the-art digital AV system that features Meyer Sound self-powered loudspeakers throughout.
"With 290 seats and a 78-foot seamless projection screen, this is the world's biggest digital planetarium and, as far as I'm aware, it also has the world's most powerful planetarium audio system," comments Blair Parkin, founder and managing director of Brighton, UK-based Visual Acuity (www.visual-acuity.com), the technology consultant to the project.
Three Meyer Sound CQ-1 wide-coverage loudspeakers act as the main left-center-right (LCR) system, augmented by nine UPJ-1P VariO loudspeakers as side and rear surrounds, plus another UPJ-1P loudspeaker mounted at the zenith of the dome. The lower end of the frequency spectrum is handled by eight Meyer Sound X-800 extended range subwoofers, while a Matrix3 audio show control system with two audio matrix processing frames allow the system to be configured to suit the wide range of content expected to be played at the planetarium. Wild Tracks hard disk playback system is used as the source of all audio content in the planetarium, including the pre-show area. John Monitto, Meyer Sound's director of technical support, handled system layout.
"There are a number of different playback modes which the Academy will use," adds Parkin. "We have an in-house show called Fragile Planet, with music composed by Michael Stearns. In this show, we are using the audio system dynamically, moving channels around the dome. This uses the full 13.1 channels. The reason we have a speaker at the zenith is that we wanted to spatialize audio over people, not just around them.
"Then, for 'normal' surround content that comes in from other planetariums, there is a 5.1 setup, and there will be another setting for presentations—an LCR type configuration where you can combine the input from on-stage microphones with background music from the computer," Parkin continues. "We also have the capability to link our audio with NASA so that the audience can hear a two-way conversation between the two sites."
Parkin says that planetarium environments create a range of acoustical and logistical challenges that Meyer Sound's engineers helped to solve. "The Meyer Sound team came in and made the dome as acoustically neutral as you can get," he notes. "There are places where there are less than six inches between the screen and the structural sphere, so the positioning of the speakers required physical modeling with Meyer Sound and the architects. In fact, some of the enclosures had to have their connectors moved so that they could fit in!"
This ability to tailor products to meet the planetarium's requirements was key to the project's success. "Meyer Sound's people are brilliant," adds Parkin. "In a planetarium, to be able to see anything shiny behind the screen is a disaster. So one of our people worked with the factory to matte down the grille screens, and it wasn't a problem. I was amazed that with a company of that size, you can go right up to the person who is building your speaker on the shop floor. Meyer Sound gives us the scale and quality of a mass manufacturer, but they are very approachable. It's a great combination."
The deployment of Meyer Sound loudspeakers at the Academy extends well beyond Morrison Planetarium. Systems integrator BBI has installed a show sound system based on UPM-1P loudspeakers and UMS-1P subwoofers for the Water Planet exhibit in the Academy's aquarium, as well as a flexible cinema and presentation solution in the multipurpose Hearst Forum 3D theater featuring UPQ-1P and UPJ-1P loudspeakers, together with 750-P subwoofers. (A variant of the 650-P originally developed for cinema applications, the 750-P offers extended low frequency response.) Elsewhere, Meyer Sound MVC-5 loudspeakers are used for P.A. and paging in some of the Academy's largest and most reverberant public spaces.
Dean Do, assistant director of A/V Electronics at the Academy, adds: "Meyer Sound is a premium brand and the people we worked with really lived up to their name. They listened to our needs, took our ideas onboard, and in some cases made suggestions to improve them. As a company, they are very knowledgeable, but also very friendly to work with."
Morrison Planetarium's architect was Pritzker Prize-winning Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy; installation contractor was Nashua, N.H.-based Sky-Skan. Ove Arup & Partners served as the project's engineering and sustainability consultant.