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Pro Tools at the Battle of Trafalgar (part 1)

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How far would you trust your computer, or your hard disk recording system?
Most of us trust them well enough in the controlled conditions of the studio,
where barring accidents the system will be pretty much the same as it was the
day before, it will crash or do unusual things with accustomed regularity (every
few days or every few minutes according to how new the software is), and by
and large it will do its job reasonably effectively and earn its keep. But as
you know, the occasional crash will occur just when you have completed a particularly
difficult edit and before you have saved the change, or just when you are demonstrating
the merits of your studio to a potential customer. But in the studio, at least
you always have the option of doing it again. In live work, there is no second
chance. Would you be as happy to use a computer in front of a paying audience
for something as demanding as hard disk audio? Despite the risks, someone has
to be bold enough to do these things or we will never make progress. Computers
are already used regularly in the theatre, albeit for much less demanding tasks
as channel muting, but someone had to be first to take the risk of not doing
it in the old manual way.


Sound designer Peter Key recently took the bold step of using Pro Tools live
at a re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar. Not on board ship fortunately,
but at one of the National Trust’s Fêtes Champêtres at West
Wycombe park in Buckinghamshire. If you don’t know what a Fête Champêtre
is, and neither did I before I went, it is a whole evening of entertainment
where the visiting public dress up in period costume and consume picnics from
wicker hampers under the light of candle lanterns. The climax of this particular
Fête was to be the restaging of the battle on the park’s modestly
sized lake. A tall order I thought, but the visual spectacle turned out to be
very satisfactory.


One of the requirements of the sound was that the area should maintain a period
look as much as possible, which rather ruled out loudspeaker towers. Sometimes
limitations can be turned to advantage and eight sets of speakers were hung
in conveniently located trees around the spectators’ area, and there was
even a cluster in a tree on the island in the lake. Another requirement was
that the production should be historically reasonably accurate, although since
the real battle took place during the day, the late evening re-enactment was
slightly lacking on that point. The desire for accuracy however led to Peter
Key booking a trip on the oldest sailing ship still afloat, the Maria Asumpta,
for a three day passage from Gloucester to Devon. As well as recording the sounds
of the ship Peter was going to have to earn his keep by acting as a crew member
too. Fortunately for Peter, his booking was cancelled since it was judged that
a more experienced crew member would be necessary and, as you may have heard,
the ship went aground during the voyage and was destroyed with the loss of three
lives. The sounds had to be collected from other sources. The same was true
of the cannon fire effects. The Trafalgar Gun Company were booked to provide
real cannon fire for the event, so Peter went and recorded some of their cannon
in advance to use on the recorded sound track. As often happens in theatre,
the real sound didn’t match up to expectations since the recordings couldn’t
capture the thump of the cannon, nor the sound of the cannonball flying through
the air, which apparently is audible. The cannon effects were made from the
creative use of sound effects libraries and the results were judged to be excellent
by the cannon experts, so if they were satisfied the general public ought to
be. Another historical question was whether orders on board ship were given
by drums or trumpets (What no radio or PA in 1805?). One so-called expert said,
yes a trumpet was used. On being quizzed further on the source of this knowledge
it turned out that he had remembered it from David Collison’s 1975 sound
design of an exhibition at Madame Tussaud’s! Peter went to the extraordinary
lengths of checking through old naval records where he managed to find that
there was indeed a trumpeter on the payroll.

David Mellor

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David Mellor