June 21, 2017–As a sound guy, Greg Stone usually deals with guitar feedback, making sure backup vocals don’t bury the lead singer, and keeping drums out of the monitors.
So when Nimitz Foundation staff approached him about setting up the sound system for the Pacific Combat Zone revamp, Stone had to think about it.
“I had to spend a few weeks trying to wrap my head around it,” the owner of Hill Country Ears admitted.
He decided to take on the project, and now is thrilled to have been a part of something that big and meaningful.
For those who have yet to attend, the Living History Reenactment in the Pacific Combat Zone is an immersive experience of Allied forces taking an island.
The show includes explosions, gunfire, a tank, a landing craft, and, incredibly, a flamethrower. Augmenting the action on the field is an uncannily realistic soundtrack designed to place the audience inside the action.
“We didn’t want to create such an awe-inspiring event that it triggered PTSD, but we wanted to make it family friendly and still portray as close as we could to what it was really like,” Stone explained. While working on the project, military veterans would wander in. “We would bounce it off them. When we got a thumbs up from the WWII guys, we felt we had it dialed in right.”
The hardware and software required to recreate the sounds of a Pacific War battleground went beyond doing sound for a cover band at a wedding reception. Stone’s crew ran over a mile of cabling to 18 speakers. A 40-channel soundboard powered by 8600 watts was used to control 16 wireless microphones and 23 other inputs.
“Vendors were constantly calling to say what is this for and why are you ordering so many of this part,” Stone said. “I had to send photos to vendors every day so they would understand what we were doing.”
Andrew Alexander, who works as the audio engineer and “mixologist,” designed the software from scratch, making every show’s sound track unique.
“Originally we were going to just have a recorded CD play the same sounds for every show,” Alexander said. But they wanted a more realistic soundscape. “The goal for me was to make sure the sound is not the same every time, so that aircraft have random trajectories that start in a different spot and go a different route every time.”
They accomplished that by programming random sounds in 5.1 surround sound over the heads of the audience of 450. No two shows are ever the same. The crew is also able to manually trigger sound effects of planes, cannons, and explosions. Gunfire is live. Although the actors use blanks, the reports are loud enough that every viewer is given ear plugs. Explosions are real, with charges and sound effects used to train Navy Seals. While the battle is not real, the danger is.
“Every guy out there has to be on top of things,” Alexander said of the cast of 50 soldiers. “They are trained exactly where to be at exactly what time, including which guys are allowed to be ‘casualties’ and where they are supposed to fall. If anyone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, they can get hurt.”
For Stone, who normally hangs speakers in churches and dance halls, knowing where to place a speaker on a simulated island was a new challenge. So he had help from Hollywood in the form of Marvin Schroeder, Living History Director, who has worked with the Nimitz Museum since 1985. Schroeder boasts dozens of film credits for prop manager, wrangler, armorer, actor and re-enactor.
“Marvin was an inspiration to us all,” Stone said. “We’d never had to hide anything like that. So he taught us how to make speakers look like a wall, or an entrance to a tunnel. It was a full team effort.”
Schroeder’s experience helped boost the realism of the show.
“I was going for people in the audience to be the third unit, to feel the thunderous-ness of being in a battle,” Schroeder said. “Except for veterans, most people have never experienced that.”
Ironically, making it more “real” meant making it more like a movie.
“If we were actually attacking something like that, you would take cover,” he said. “But here, in ‘movie world,’ you’ve got to see the actors.” So Schroeder designed the battlefield more as a movie set. “That’s why the audience is positioned behind the troops. It’s as if you are on a ship sitting offshore, watching the battle unfold. What you are seeing is them taking that bunker, you feel the heat backlash of that flamethrower, and that flag going up, knowing that is not the end of the war. You feel that at any time, you might be going in.”
With the first new shows in April and May completed, Stone is able to contemplate his role in recreating this experience.
“It’s a thrill to be a part of something this big in Fredericksburg and in the country, really,” he said. “This is being visited by people from all over. Attendance is up, and there are regular sellouts. It’s impressive to sit back and listen to people applaud.”
But there is special applause that means more.
“We did a lot of this for the veterans,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to see them. There are not that many left and we are lucky to have so many here. It’s been a thrill.”
The next Living History performances are on July 1 and 2. For schedule and tickets, visit www.pacificwarmuseum.org/your-visit/living-history/
Information on Hill Country Ears at www.hillcountryears.com