Imagine this, teams of horses, galloping, squealing and gracefully pulling cannons across an open field. The guns are quickly detached by the Royal Artillery troops and, upon command, fire the guns and the loudest boom you’ve ever experienced reverberates through the open field with white smoke covering the sky. Birds flee in despair, children start to scream and cry while their scared parents run to take them away, helicopters fly close above and police sirens echo in the distance. All the while your ears ring, your body is shaking from the blast and before you realise where you are, you hear the second command from the soldier followed by the second cannon fire.
No, I am not describing a war scene. This is a Royal Gun Salute as it happens in a Royal Park in central London (UK). Forty-plus rounds, fired at ten-second intervals acting as a sign of respect or welcome upon various important Royal occasions. A fun day at the park. And why am I writing about this? Because I was recording these salutes over the duration of two years and I was planning to finish my recordings this summer, but, as with most things that were put on ice because of COVID-19, this plan had to be adjusted and turned into something new. Before we talk about the new plan, let’s take a step back and give you some information on how this all started.
Back in 2017, I was working in central London on a film project for two years. The company was based in a Grade II listed building right across from Green Park. For those who are not familiar with the term, a Grade II building is a building of special interest with both historic and architectural significance. This means it is an old building and recording inside said building sounds amazing. And Green Park is one of the second most popular parks in London, located between Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. One day while I was working I heard a massive explosion. It was so loud that I felt the floor vibrating. So loud, that I heard it from inside a soundproofed studio. So loud, that I was in shock. For those who don’t remember, 2017 was not the best year for our humanity. It was a year that for months had people on high alert because of all the terrorist incidents that were happening around the world. The blast I heard in my studio happened two weeks after the London Bridge terror attack. Seconds after the first explosion I hear another one. I get up, open the window, and put my head outside. It is happening again, I feared. To my surprise, I couldn’t hear anything else abnormal. No police sirens, no people rushing to get away or even being scared. Normal. I hear the third explosion. Confusion. No one was reacting to it. Fourth explosion. If everyone was acting normal to this, I decided to do the same. I closed the window, got my recorder out, and started recording. Normal. And it sounded great. After my initial shock wore out I could enjoy how beautiful this sound was reacting with the room.
What I later discovered was this. On special days, such as anniversaries and birthdays, Royal salutes are fired from various locations in London and across the UK. In London, salutes are fired from the Tower of London, and also either Hyde Park or Green Park, depending upon the occasion. The basic salute is 21 rounds, fired at a ten-second interval, but in Hyde Park, an extra 20 are fired because it is a Royal Park. In the parks, The King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery fires the salutes. The guns used in the salutes are The Ordnance QF 13-pounder used by the British Empire between 1904-1940. The Ordnance QF 13-pounder is a 3-inch (76.2 mm) L/23 gun and blanks are used during the salutes.
What I couldn’t find were the exact timings that these salutes were taking place making my plan of getting close recordings of the salutes difficult to implement. I have always been fascinated when working on the creation of the sound of a gun and the recording process behind getting the raw sounds for it. I wanted to have that sound in my library. I wanted to create a sound effects library from different perspectives, interior and exterior. In order to achieve this, I had to cheat a bit. A multitrack recording of the salutes was impossible due to the fact that this is a public event. I made the decision to make as many interior and exterior recordings as I could, and later align them to give the impression of a multitrack recording with options of different microphones, perspectives, and locations. Unfortunately, this summer’s gun salute was cancelled, which meant I would have had to wait one more year in order to complete it. I decided to change my perspective and share the recordings for free as part of a mini library to the sound community, as a thank you for all the support I received throughout these last months.
My online search landed me on a list of upcoming dates that the salutes were about to take place. Luckily, the next one was only a week away, which gave me some time to prepare, and it was happening right next to where I was, Green Park. I tried to find the exact location inside the park but I couldn’t. I had to improvise on the fly and find a good spot for the recording.
It was a working day, which meant I couldn’t carry equipment with me. The salutes were happening around 13:00 giving me enough time during lunchtime to do the recording and return back to work. I followed the crowd into the park and found the restricted area the marshals had marked and started walking along the line looking for a good spot away from the crowds. Found my spot and took out my portable recorder, set the gain to 1, and sat there waiting, looking at the empty part of the park not knowing what to expect. Suddenly I heard the squealing of horses and saw them coming into the centre of the empty field pulling six QF 13-pounders. I heard the first command and turned the microphone to that direction, and.. BOOM… I cannot put into words my reaction (I didn’t edit it out of the recording, have a listen) - with all the excitement I had forgotten how loud this gun is. I could feel the energy in my chest. The second round fired and I was able to compose myself and carry on with the task. The six cannons were 50 metres away, facing towards my location and they were firing in alternating turns, which made it easy for me to follow without guessing where the next shot was about to come from. After 41 shots they brought back the horses, mounted the cannons, and pulled them out of the park. I returned back to work with a smile on my face and a sense of reward.
After the Green Park recording things got a bit trickier to plan. The summer had already finished and the next salutes were always taking place on a workday. The lack of information available as to what exact time they were taking place, along with the fact that I had a busy schedule, did not make things easier. Luckily, I had access to most of the rooms in the Grade II building and I could easily record the salutes from inside of the building when they were occurring. I always had my portable recorder with me and with the sound of the first fire, I was ready to record. Each time I choose a different room to record in. Unfortunately, things were not as easy as they seemed. By that time everyone that was in the building got used to hearing the loud cannons blasting in the park and took that as an opportunity for a break. Which meant people were opening-closing doors, walking around, using the elevators, etc. making it difficult to get all the recordings that I wanted without interruptions. You will notice that some of the recordings only have a few fires from the cannons because of that reason.
The next exterior recording took place in Hyde Park. I somehow managed to find the exact time the salutes were starting and made arrangements to be there. This time I could carry my shotgun along with my portable recorder. Hyde Park is a huge park, so I had to arrive early to find the exact location the Royal Horse Artillery planned to fire the guns from. With the help of a few marshals, I found out where the guns are usually placed and I started looking for the ideal position to stand away from the crowds. The good summer weather, in combination with the Royal gun salutes, had attracted a large number of people to the park making it impossible to find a good recording spot. The further I was walking, the further I was from the guns. Due to the large crowd, I was forced to go to the opposite side of the park, behind the cannons, something that did not make me happy because I wanted a more direct sound. I placed my portable recorder in an ORTF configuration, with one microphone facing the guns and the other facing the opposite direction to record the reflections from a different perspective. With the shotgun, I was following the action.
Same as before, horses pulled the guns in the centre of the park, the first command echoed in the distance, and the first shot was fired. This time I was prepared, I kept my cool and l did not react to the sound. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for all the children that were present at the park with their parents. And here goes my rant. Parents… Why? WHY? Why would someone want to expose a child of 1-8 years old to this explosive sound? And as I was expecting before the start of the salutes, all children started crying and their parents were trying to calm them down and take them away from that area. Along with the children I was crying inside as well, the beautiful tail of a cannon firing in an open field was ruined. To make matters worse, I could hear distant police sirens and helicopters. You could see the disappointment in my eyes while I was recording. If someone took a photo of me I would immediately go viral as the new meme, one of those that you see with everyone having a great time at a party and one guy in the corner not having fun. Knowing what I was recording was not what I wanted it to be, and at the same time not having any options to change the outcome of the recording was not pleasant. So I just kept recording.
As the project I was working on came to an end, I lost access to the old building. No more random recordings, everything had to be planned in advance. I managed to free up my schedule for one of the salutes taking place to the now-familiar Green Park. Having recorded there before, I now knew how to approach it with a clear head. The topography of the park allowed me to be away from the crowd and in a short distance from the guns. The weather was good and I had everything coming my way. So I thought. I arrived early to set up, confident that I could get the sound that I wanted only to discover it was windy in the park. Not a strong wind to worry about the microphones as such, but strong enough to shake the leaves on the trees and create that white noise that you don’t want in your recordings. I followed the same setup approach as before, ORTF for the portable recorder with one microphone facing forward and the other facing back, and following the action with my shortcut. Everything ran smoothly but I knew the wind going through the leaves would have an effect on the tails of the fires. Before leaving the park after the end of the salutes, I scouted for an alternative perspective so I could capture the guns the next time. Unfortunately, this will not happen this year, maybe next summer.
This brings me to my next point, if there are people interested in getting together and recording the salutes next year, I am more than happy to organise it. We can make a recording plan of various locations we can record the salutes from, close perspectives, more distant and around the park in between buildings. A crowdsourced recording session (followed by a trip to the pub). If this is something that interests you, send me a message. I’ll make a list of names and contact you closer to the day.
I could go on and write a lot more about the recordings, the editing, and the mastering process and how I approached it - maybe I will do a follow-up blog sharing more about it.
Until then, keep an eye for the crowdsourced recording call and drop me a message if you use the sounds, it will be nice to hear them blasting out my speakers again.
Download Links: Dropbox
Ordnance QF 13-pounder Wikipedia
Sony PCM D100
Sound Devices MixPre-D
Universal Category System (UCS) compliant