Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

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Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War

Being in the "Horse Capital of the World," we surely have enough experience to know that a horse sounds much like it did 150 years ago. However, back then a horse's role was very different than today. In a new documentary, "Unsung Hero: The Horse in the Civil War," produced by Witnessing History, LLC for HRTV (Horse Racing TV Network), the role of the horse in the American Civil War is explored in-depth with rarely-seen photographs, documents and artwork. To a sound designer's delight, there are simulated battle scenes, troop movements, and other war action. Some are new videos of re-enactors, and others are artwork and photos. The opoortunity to bring these to life with sounds and music is why we love what we do. Dynamix Productions has previously produced soundtracks for two Civil War documentaries ("Long Road Back to Kentucky" and "Retreat from Gettysburg"), so our cache of sound effects has been growing. We even did field recordings during two re-enactments as well as studio recordings of Civil War-era weapons.

Every documentary requires its own approach as to how realistic or dreamy the sound effects are. In "Long Road Back," many scenes were very specific with close-ups of cannons, guns, and fighting. These took on an almost movie-like feel. In "Retreat," we backed off some and chose more ambient sections, with a sprinkle of realistic moments. It had many scenes of soldiers marching, so we created large troop movements from scratch by layering walking and marching with different shoes and surfaces. In "Unsung Hero," there are minimal re-enactments, so general background sounds supported by emotional music lift the visuals. More horse sound effects were used in this documentary than the other two. Each story is unique, that's why there were three different approaches to one era of time.

Dynamix Tech Notes


How do you record a cannon? Very carefully! Actually, it pays to buddy up with the gunners and learn the sequence of operation. During a Civil War re-enactment several years ago I needed to record cannons for a documentary. By talking with the crew I learned what orders were given during certain phases of loading, firing, and cleaning. I was located a hundred feet or so from the cannons, so I had to carefully watch hand signals. I also learned that the sound of live round cannons are very different that blanks. Thankfully they weren't going to shoot live rounds that day with a crowd, so I had to settle with blanks - still very loud.

The largest technical challenge was the extreme sound pressure, or loudness. You actually feel the shock wave hit you when a cannon is fired. A tiny, delicate, and sensitive microphone wouldn't handle this very well. I had to use microphones that could handle the loud sounds, the same kind usually used for percussion. To increase my success rate I recorded each shot at different levels, reducing it on each shot. The last bit of the technical puzzle was a recorder capable of recording high dynamic ranges. These cannons were definitely louder than the threshold of pain (130 dB-SPL) and a jet engine at 100 feet (150 dB-SPL). Because of tremendous advances in technology, my recorder was able to record at least 48 dB more sound level than what was available just 15 years ago. That's a factor of almost 100,000. It's pretty much the difference between a cannonball and a mountain.

Neil Kesterson

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