Sound: Recording battle sound for Illyriad

In the field location recording of Medieval Battle.

A few weeks ago saw my first foray into recording sound for Illyriad. Much travelling was involved – well, London to Leominster day return by National Rail which I assure you, is more gruelling than one might expect. This took me to a medieval re-enactment of The Battle for Mortimer’s Cross. As far as re-enactments go, this was a smaller one but that’s no bad thing since at others (yes, I’ve been to a few) there are commentator, crowd and even tank (not so medieval) noise to cope with. Unless you have the budget to set up purpose made scenarios for your location recording in the middle of nowhere with no noisy interruptions, this sort of thing is the bane of a sound recordist’s life.

The idea of this little jaunt was to mostly record battle noise along with anything else that seemed appropriate. Medieval music as well as a blacksmith were also captured (whereby I mean recorded as opposed to taken prisoner!).

Readying for battle

The other bane of a sound recordist’s life is that what you record doesn’t necessarily sound like what you recorded. Let me give an example. In film work, much of the audio is re-recorded after a scene was shot. This is done so that extraneous, unwanted sound is removed, and replaced with, cleanly recorded sound from a studio. By doing this, the film sound can be tailored to exactly the way the sound designer wishes it to be. It’s not uncommon for a scene in a film to be left with absolutely no original sound whatsoever, dialogue included.

Anyway, back to the point. For this reason, when replacing sounds, it is quite usual to use something other than what is seen on screen to make the sound for an object. A good example is newspaper. Instead of a broadsheet, a piece of cardboard actually makes a more convincing newspaper sound (imagine gentleman sitting on train, shaking his paper out to better see each sheet). Another classic is horse hooves – these are very difficult to record. I mean how would you get the horse you were recording to run in time with the one on screen?! Even with the horse recording edited to fit, it would have been recorded outside and again, have a lot of extraneous noise. Instead, it’s done in a studio with, you guessed it, coconut shells.

My point being that a recorded medieval battle does not necessarily sound like one. In fact, I’d wager that most people’s first guess would be that I had just gone and rattled around a few pots and pans in the kitchen drawer. And don’t get me wrong, these people are very particular about their authenticity. The cause of unrecognisable sound won’t be through lack of having the right equipment, armour not made from the correct materials or in the correct way or substandard weaponry. I still have a lot of usable sound, it’s just it won’t be quite enough on its own.

This train of thought brings me to another closely related point though. If Hollywood (and yes, I’m sure I generalise here) wanted to make the sound of a medieval battle, they would craft it from other elements. Surely, you should here the ringing of swords as they clash against solid armour? The chings and chinks of the melee should be ear splitting, no? It seems this is an illusion fabricated by film to convince the public all the more of its authenticity. It is however wrong. So, I could go down a similar route (and I’m sure I will to a certain extent) but do we want Illyriad to sound like Hollywood?

The victors stand proud

Instead, this made me realise, that though I don’t want a battle to sonically resemble a kitchen being turned upside down, it should still sound real. Gritty. It won’t always be sunny in Illyriad, and not everyone here is a hero, so perhaps, sometimes, you’ll hear the rain, the mud, the lowly cry of a feeble army cowering before a mighty foe. Sometimes that might be you.

Though I currently have little plan as to how Illyriad will be shaped sonically, this at least gives me an ethos to begin moving forward with. It’s something I had already known instinctively but before now, just hadn’t quite found the words for.