Perched on the flank of Mount Hollywood, Griffith Observatory has been a Los Angeles landmark since it opened in 1935. The observatory is perhaps best known to moviegoers as a key location in Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. In late 2006, after a four year closure for a massive $93 million remodeling project, the observatory reopened to the public with what is literally the most star-studded show in Southern California: the new Samuel Oschin Planetarium.

After the old planetarium theatre was gutted down to its concrete shell, a new 300-seat astronomical showplace was built housing the world’s best available technology, including a Zeiss Mark IX Universarium, twin Evans and Sutherland Digistar 3 laser video projectors, and a perforated aluminum dome projection surface (at 75 feet, one of the world’s largest). To support the images with audio of comparable depth and definition, the theatre also boasts an audio system built around 18 Meyer Sound self-powered loudspeakers, with each loudspeaker individually addressed by an LCS Series Matrix3™ audio show control system.

“In terms of sound we’ve definitely made a leap from the 1960s into the 21st century,” says Patrick So, the observatory's theatre program manager. “For example, we now have the ability to move sound to precisely follow the images projected on the dome. In our first show, we used that capability for sound effects like Galileo’s footsteps, a crackling fire that moves from one side to the other, and a front-to-rear effect for the ‘big bang’.”

While the old plaster dome allowed horizon loudspeakers only, the new dome enables the 18 Meyer Sound self-powered loudspeakers to be placed behind it. Seating in the new theatre faces largely in one direction, rather than being in a circle as before. To provide proper coverage, the loudspeaker configuration is a combination of left-center-right and full 360-degree surround. Three CQ-1 wide coverage main loudspeakers serve as the main LCR cabinets, augmented by a fourth CQ-1 cabinet dedicated to anchoring the position of the narrator's voice. Overhead, at about 60 degrees above the horizon, a circle of four UPA-1P compact wide coverage loudspeakers supply “top sky” sounds, while at about 30 degrees up another circle of 10 UPA-2P compact narrow coverage loudspeakers reproduce the “mid-sky” sounds. Some of the “sky” loudspeakers are permanently programmed to serve as fill for the live presenter’s voice, while all are available as needed — and in any combination — for music and sound effects. A pair of USW-1P compact subwoofers, also flown behind the screen, supplies sub-bass.

Design of the planetarium’s new audio system, along with theatrical lighting and centralized show control for all program elements, was entrusted to the consulting firm of Auerbach Pollock Friedlander. S. Leonard Auerbach was principal designer for the overall project; Paul Garrity was the principal in charge of sound, video and communications systems; and Greg Weddig served as project manager and associate designer.

According to Garrity, the planetarium’s advanced audio systems were based on designs the firm had developed previously for the Hayden Planetarium in New York and the Denver (Colo.) Museum of Nature and Science. “We used a Matrix3 for mixing, matrixing and processing in prior systems and found that, compared to some other multichannel systems out there, Matrix3 is more user friendly and easier to program,” says Weddig. He also cites Matrix3's SpaceMap® multichannel panning as a key to providing complete freedom in creating spatial sound effects. “SpaceMap allows you to create what, in our case, was a three-dimensional loudspeaker layout. You can drop virtual speakers in between any two speakers — left or right, front or back, up or down — and then move sounds as you want using the graphical interface. It’s much easier doing it that way then by entering in coordinates.” The reliability of the Matrix3 system is also crucial to the planetarium, which runs several times a day, every day of the year.

All sounds, including sound effects and the original musical score, are played back by Wild Tracks™ hard disk playback in the Matrix3. The Matrix3 communicates seamlessly with a Bowen Technovation Astro FX Commander show control system, with some cues timed within the system and others coming from the live presenter; a beloved tradition from the old planetarium carried forth into the new technology era.

According to So, the sound system has played a pivotal role in the success of the new planetarium’s first presentation, Centered in the Universe. “I remember when we were creating scenes and just projecting the visuals, it looked great. But when you add the sound in, you suddenly get the total experience. Without the sound, you don’t have the full emotional impact.”

The show's sound was programmed by Los Angeles sound designer Drew Dalzell using Matrix3's CueStation™ control software. Dalzell leveraged the Matrix3's dynamic spatialization capabilities heavily. "The movement of sound in space in this show would have been difficult without Matrix3," Dalzell notes, "as we have more movement going on than in a typical theatrical 5.1 mix. All of the system EQ and alignment was also done within Matrix3, which saved quite a bit of money we otherwise would have had to spend on external gear. Overall, I was happy with the results."

Weddig is similarly impressed with the results on Centered, though he recognizes the system’s full potential has yet to be tapped. “We set out to give (the planetarium staff) a palette of sound reproduction tools that would allow them to create whatever they wanted in the realm of the dome, so no matter who they brought in as creative sound designers, they would not be limited by what they had for playback in the planetarium theatre. The Meyer Sound Matrix3 and self-powered speakers are the key tools in that palette.”