The Making of Tour of the Solar System

Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System has evolved significantly over the two years from the inception of the idea to the final product. Audience feedback, particularly from the BVI community, has been very valuable for us to learn and create an accessible, educational, and enjoyable planetarium show. Below is a short (4:40) documentary documenting that journey and a discussion of some of the lessons learnt along the way.  

The Pilot Show

Our new show was preceded by a pilot BVI-accessible show called ‘Dark Tour of the Universe.’ This 1 hour show explained astronomical objects and phenomena using a combination of narration, sonifications and tactile models. It was made in collaboration with our sister project, Tactile Universe. Visuals were intentionally excluded. This was built with an exciting collaboration between ourselves and Acoustic Engineers from Arup

We considered this an overall success with positive feedback, including from qualified teachers of children and young people with a visual impairment (QTVIs). One of which commented: “It was so good to be the focus of a presentation, rather than an ‘add on’ with adapted resources or being part of something that isn't wholly accessible” (Rachel Lambert, Newcastle Vision Team). However, three lessons that we learnt were:

1. It is crucial to provide clear context to the audience before playing the audio.

Audiences are not used to the idea of representing light or data with sound and it is difficult for them to quickly interpret the sonifications. Therefore, we decided we should include sonification ‘training’ for the audience to introduce the concept of turning light into sound. Additionally, we should ensure that the narration gives sufficient information for the audience to interpret what they hear.

2. Visual representations need not be excluded.

Combining visuals with audio provides another method of communication for people with varying levels of sight. We received this feedback from our partially and fully sighted audience members. Including visuals, even when the target audience is BVI, is also advocated by blind Spanish astronomer Enrique Pérez Montero.

3. Using tactile models as a mandatory part of the show limits reach and dissemination.

We received many requests to share our pilot show from planetariums and other communicators. However, whilst audio files could easily be shared, tactile models are more prohibitive due to the challenges and costs of manufacturing them in large quantities. Therefore, we concluded that future shows should be available online as audio-visual files and tactile models should be considered an optional addition. 

Listen to a short preview (2:56) of the pilot show 'A Dark Tour of the Universe' (audio only) below.

Dark Tour of the Universe - Trailer.mp3

Credits: Narration and clip production by Leigh Harrison, Music by James Reevell, Variable star data from Kepler Space Telescope, Data sonification by Mitchell Alan and Kim Jones from Arup and Kashlin McCutcheon. Overall design and direction by Chris Harrison and Nic Bonne. 

The Creation of Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System

Building on our pilot, we set out to create a 35 minute audio-visual show about the Solar System that would be an enjoyable and educational experience from the soundtrack alone. The show was to be created in both full-dome planetarium format (with surround sound) and in flatscreen format (with stereo sound). Here we outline our design approach and our lessons learnt. 

Concept and Design Approach:

The audience imagine themselves inside a spacecraft that is equipped with a ‘sonification machine’ that turns light into sound. To ‘train’ the audience ‘pre-flight tests’ are conducted, where lights are played around the spacecraft and the audience can listen to their sonification. The audience are then taken to various locations to learn about the stars, Sun, Moon and planets. At each point they are presented with sounds as well as visuals.

Unlike most shows, we created the soundtrack before the visuals. At various stages we sought feedback from members of the BVI community (including children and adults), BVI astronomers, and QTVIs. This was crucial and led to various changes to our initial designs. For example, we originally used ‘spacey’ synthesizer sounds to represent the planets, but the suggestion from our feedback groups was to represent them with more recognisable and easily distinguishable musical instruments.

We also included an inspiring role model for our BVI audience, by using real blind astronomers as the ‘tour guides’. These are Dr Nic Bonne and Dr Enrique Pérez Montero in the English and Spanish versions, respectively. For translations into other languages one of these is chosen. 

Balancing Science and Music:

A challenge when designing the show was to find the correct balance between scientific accuracy and producing a musically-pleasing result. Based on our consultations from the feedback groups it became clear that something that is musically pleasing to listen to was very important for the show to be engaging and enjoyable. The science being discussed should still be represented with the sounds, but it was not always necessary to accurately tie this directly to the data or properties of interest. Therefore, a composer was recruited to help with creating the soundtrack. 

The starting point was to find pitches to represent the Sun and eight planets.  We wanted the smaller rocky planets to be represented by higher pitches and the gas giants to be represented as lower pitches. However, the exact choice of pitches was based on musical judgement such that when the Sun and all the planets were heard together, it would produce a pleasing sound.  The Sun acts as a musical “pedal point” for the planets’ pitches which create a blend of a B flat minor chord and a G flat major chord. Based on the feedback we received, the distinctive timbres of woodwind and brass instruments were chosen to represent the rocky planets and gas planets, respectively. The sound of the Sun is a composite of a pure tone, noise and pre-recorded fire crackle sounds to give the overall impression of a powerful ‘burning’ object. The same musical notes and instruments are used to form the motif of the background music. This consistency creates an overall musical effect for the whole show. 

This was all put together into a final full musical composition for orchestra called 'A Sonic Journey' by Leigh Harrison that you can hear in the video below.

Sponsors and Credits

Audio Universe: Tour of the Universe was part funded by grants from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Royal Astronomical Society. Support was also provided by the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth. Support for the Italian translation came from INAF

The show is directed by Chris Harrison. The principal sound designer was James Trayford. The planetarium production and visualisation was performed by Theofanis Matsopoulos. Musical direction and composition was by Leigh Harrison. Script editing was carried out by Steve Toase. In the English version, the voices are played by Rachel Lambert as the captain and Nic Bonne (as himself). 

Valuable feedback and consultation was supported by Newcastle Children's Vision Team and the VIEWS group Newcastle

The Great North Museum: Hancock supported the development of the show through hosting events with focus groups for feedback and allowing us to use their planetarium for development. 

The following people provided valuable inputs, ideas and feedback during the development: Anita Zanella, Aishwarya Girdhar, Amrit Singh, Jeff Cooke, Phia Damsma, Garry Foran, Rubén Garcia-Benito, Miranda Jarvis, Liz Milburn, Enrique Pérez Montero, Stefania Varano.