The Challenge: Period-Appropriate Sound Design

Sound design helps viewers lose themselves in movies and television shows. When it’s done well, the effect is so subtle that you don’t even consciously notice it. Rather than thinking about the clanking and chugging sounds of a steam engine, you just feel like you’re there on the platform, watching a train pull away. Henninger’s audio engineers work to impart that sense of realism to all of the projects they work on, but sometimes a project or a series comes along that requires special attention. “American Titans,” a series airing on American Heroes Channel, is one such program.

“American Titans” uses cinematic recreations and expert commentary to reveal what it took for the founding fathers of the Fortune 500 to steer the Industrial Age into the Gilded Age. The series chronicles the great achievements of men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Edison, Tesla, and Hearst while also delving into the greed, ambition and jealously that sometimes fueled their accomplishments.

While filming the recreations, the production team recorded great field audio and dialogue. The series’ producer wanted a robust mix for the show containing plenty of sound effects and natural (“nat”) sound, so the editing team added a number of sound effects to the show during the video edit. Certain scenes, like one showing the drilling of the first oil well in Pennsylvania, have benefitted from the Henninger audio team’s attentions as well.  The oil well scene, while not long, takes place in 1859 when an oil well would have been built without any gas or diesel engines or electric tools. At that time, everything was steam-powered or hand-tooled, so our audio team had to quickly establish the scene by creating the sounds of something being built with very rudimentary equipment. The resulting mix helps transport the viewer to a specific time and place.

The series also features a lot of moving antique still images and black & white line drawings that set up period scenes, and the series’ producer asked our team to help convey those moments in the mix.  The program contains quite a few pre-1900 New York and other city street scenes that our audio team has helped “fill out” with period-appropriate sound effects.  Since the series revolves around inventors and innovations, there are a lot of machine shop scenes and scenes that take place in factory interiors that required very particular sound design as well.  Lastly, nearly all of the events in the show happened before the advent of automobiles, so street scenes feature the sounds of horse-drawn carriages, streetcars and trolleys. There are also plenty of scenes featuring the sounds of steam-powered locomotives that help underpin stories of railroad tycoons. In general, our team worked closely with the series’ producer and offline editing team to keep the audio for the series as organic and true to the period as possible.