Recording Historic Guns
Above: A WWII Vickers gun, shortly after firing.
Many of the recordings covered in this post were used for projects while at Splash Damage, for weapon audio design for Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Batman: Arkham Origins and Dirty Bomb.
Recording guns is hard, the logistics of getting everything to the session is a challenge, not to mention the actual recording process itself. Many factors can impact the recordings you end up with, what the weather is like, are you in a forest clearing or a desert, or some sort of range. What mics do you use and how close or far away do you put them. Do you want all mics facing the shooter? What recorders do you use and where do you set your gain, and how do you avoid shooting someone’s dog (I did one session at a National Park with a huge area cordoned off for firing/recording, however some dog walkers don’t seem to care about casually wandering past a weapon shoot, thankfully that session was firing blanks! And we were very careful)
I recently did a historic machine gun recording session, not as big a setup as usual, fewer mics, and fewer guns than previous sessions which made it easier to manage. The line up included 3 Vickers guns, a Maxim (the gun the Vickers was derived from), Lewis, BAR, SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) and this SMLE with periscope attachment. It was a huge honour and lots of fun to be able to record these historic and rare weapons, some of which are museum pieces.
WWI Lee-Enfield, with canvas breech cover and pouches.
Lee-Enfield with periscope attachment, allowing shooter to remain in trench cover.
The Lewis gun top (without magazine), BAR below.
One of my favourite guns to record is the Lewis Light Machine Gun, it has an interesting visual appearance due to its cylindrical top mounted drum magazine and the large air cooled barrel. Featured in Star Wars with minimal physical alterations as the Empire’s T-21 Light Repeating Blaster.
Sand-trooper with T-21 – altered Lewis gun prop.
And it sounds fantastic, with some mics positioned in particular places to pick up the mechanical elements it becomes a little like a giant sewing machine. I’ve recorded 3 Lewis guns on different occasions, in 2 locations. Here’s a clip from my most recent session at the Bisley National Shooting Centre of a few bursts with the audio from different mics one after the other.
(Change the quality to 480 or 720p)
The gun was shot on a 100 yard range, with a sandbank wall behind the targets, and wooden sleeper tracks placed vertically to make partial walls either side. The range is part of a larger site lined with trees, itself part of a complex with other ranges in use. Some of the recordings have extraneous distant fire in them.
Some things worth pointing out –
You can hear the DPA 4060s (max rated peak spl 134db) just on the wrong side of being driven hot, I like to set gains nice and high for sounds with loud transients, I’m not afraid of smashing limiters, but here the mics are just slightly getting hit too hard. You can hear it drifting from good to bad where the shots become spikes without tails as the mic is recovering from the spl. You’ll hear this more aggressively in the next example.
2 DPA 4060s eagerly waiting to get slammed by very high spl sound waves.
The Schoeps CMIT5 is a beautiful mic, but here this is completely the wrong place for it, it couldn’t get any closer without being driven too hard, and for practical reasons we couldn’t move it any further. Ideally I’d like to try it 50 to 300 meters away comfortably picking up lovely bright and clear distant shots.
The Oktava MK012s were positioned just at the start of the partial side walls of the range, so the recording here is super wide.
The DPA 4062 (kindly loaned for the session) was attached to the gun, placed near the front of the stock, this very low sensitivity mic is the high spl version of the 4060 above and designed to handle a max peak spl of 154db. It’s wonderful for capturing the mechanical elements and you can really hear that in this recording of the Lewis.
The Neumann TLM102 at the end captured the character of the environment the most.
For comparison, here is a video of the Lewis recorded at the same location, but in 2013. This is the Neumann RSM191 which was positioned just in front of the sandbank behind the targets, facing the shooter. It has a really clear series of reflections as the sound rattles between the sides of the range.
Cheers to Splash Damage for allowing me to share this and the next video.
And again the Lewis gun, but from 2012 and this time a different location – Black Park.
You can hear the automatic gain compensation on the handy cam, allowing the crunchy transient to come through before locking down the level, coming up again for the tail.
The DPAs all sound awesome here, but i didn’t include the ones that were too close and got utterly thrashed!
But you have to hand it to the SM57 and the Nagra 4S, such a huge, smashy sound.
You wouldn’t usually use AKG C414 mics outside, especially not on a wet muddy day as this, but the tail is thick and smooth so was worth doing.
The next video is of a Vickers Sidecar gun from the Bisley 2014 shoot. The Vickers guns were water-cooled and belt fed, which makes for an interesting sound with certain mics. This was absolutely one of the highlights of my audio career.
The first mic is the Neumann U87 (kindly loaned from Pinewood) in the exact same position as the Neumann TLM102 was in the previous video, but the character is very different. It has a classic war movie sound to it and a more pleasing tail.
You can hear the DPA 4060s being slammed even harder here than in the previous video.
The DPA 4062 wrapped in foam and strapped to the Vickers Sidecar left handle, and has picked up the mechanical elements of the gun really well (the squeezy horn on the right also sounded awesome)
And the Tascam, while not the nicest of recorders with built-in mics, still manages to pick up the belt and casing drops well.
At the end of the video I included a tiny clip of one of the other WWII Vickers guns having just been fired, steam rising from the water collecting can.
This video shows the French Chauchat, often referred to as one of the worst guns of all time, it performed admirably during the shoot needing very little maintenance.
Without doubt my favourite recording of the day, the Chauchat captured by the MKH40 sounds incredible. I’ve included a couple of short bursts here, and then to highlight the sound of the environment I’ve included an extra clip which replaces the audio using just the first shot from several bursts, before switching to the tail.
I’ve just done this to demonstrate how the sound propagates through the environment over time (around the time of the 2nd second shot of a burst), and so using just the first shot of several bursts allows us to remove the sound of the environment to an extent, although it does sound a bit odd here.
At some point in the future I hope to share more weapon recordings, with more mics and from more locations, but that’s it for now.
Thanks to everyone who helped make the shoot possible, and got involved on the day, can’t wait for the next one!
Attaching the DPA 4062 to the WWII Vickers.
Being driven into firing position.
Various empty belts, boxes and can.
Lewis magazines, Vickers bolts on the left, Semi-circular Chauchat magazine on right, and tools.
From bottom to top – WWII Vickers, WWI Vickers and the Maxim.