To call the Gettysburg Cyclorama experience install impressive doesn’t come close to adequately describing the end result or the efforts that went into creating it. The summer 2008 audio installation at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was the culmination of a project that began with one of the most ambitious art restoration efforts ever undertaken in North America. The subject, a 360-degree painting of the “Battle of Gettysburg”, along with the setting created for it and the Tannoy-heavy audio install that literally surrounds visitors, are all equally massive.

To get a true sense of scale it’s best to start with an explanation of the Cyclorama painting itself. Created by French painter, Paul Phillippoteaux and first exhibited in 1884, the Cyclorama had previously been installed, in pieces, at nearby Cemetery Ridge. Now, after a five-year conservation effort undertaken by Olin Conservation, Inc., the Cyclorama can be viewed as originally intended.

Viewing the painting on its own is an experience in itself. It’s a stunning 377 feet in length and 42 feet high – the largest painting of its kind in the US. With the addition of a three-dimensional battlefield diorama occupying the space between the painting’s bottom edge and the visitors’ viewing platform, and a canopy placed above it to hide lighting, audio fixtures and architectural features from view, visitors literally find themselves immersed in Pickett’s Charge. But what really brings this depiction of the third and final day of the 1863 Civil War battle to life is the sound and light show, which includes a suite of Tannoy V Series loudspeakers placed to optimize the effect of a soundtrack created by Donna Lawrence Productions.

The audio system was created jointly by A/V Designers PPI and Electrosonic, explains Andrew Kidd, Business Development Manager and Senior Technical Consultant at Electrosonic, who chose the individual Tannoy components as the primary loudspeakers for the build. In conjunction with Bob Haroutunian of PPI, Lighting Designers Ted Mather and Tim Becker of Available Light, and Producer/Director Donna Lawrence of Donna Lawrence Productions, Kidd and Electrosonic set about creating a system that would dramatically enhance the viewer’s experience of both the Cyclorama and the accompanying soundtrack and lighting design.

Visitors view the 360-degree work from a raised viewing platform 36 feet back from the painting, so that the horizon line of the work is essentially at eye level. “You’re absolutely surrounded,” says Kidd, “by both the painting and a sound and light show which tells the story of this point in the battle.”

Achieving their goal of bringing the painting to life and creating the auditory illusion that visitors are indeed at the centre of a battle presented challenges specific to both the medium, as well as the manner in which the painting is hung. “As I understand it, the painting is actually composed of several layers of canvas, so there was no way we could put speakers behind the painting, but we really wanted sound to appear to come from the painting,” Kidd says.
To achieve that effect one ring of 16 equally spaced Tannoy V12’s have been mounted around the circumference of the painting off the rear catwalk railing above it. These are used primarily for effects and are paired with a second ring of 16 Tannoy V12’s mounted discreetly in the diorama below – roughly corresponding to the placement of the upper row of Tannoy. “Each of those top and bottom pairs, we fed them exactly the same signal so the sound appeared to come from the middle of the painting,” says Kidd. Each speaker, however, has its own DSP channel so that any EQ, level or delay required to enhance the sense of the sound coming from the centre of the painting can be adjusted at that point.

Lawrence’s concept for the sound design was created in close collaboration with principal recording and mixdown engineer Chris Greenwell, at Downtown Recording in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to a variety of pre-recorded period music, contemporary choral works, and a narrative written by John Styron and voiced by Glenn Close, Lawrence’s sound design required that certain effects, such as cannon and musket fire, appear to travel from one area of the painting to another. “To whiz over your head, and disappear behind you,” explains Kidd. To achieve that, 16 additional Tannoy V8’s, each on their own source channel, were mounted at roughly the same radius as the outer rings of Tannoy, along a lighting catwalk located above the audience’s viewing platform. Eight third party subs on a single channel are similarly located.

Finally, to complete the illusion, 4 Tannoy V8’s on a single source channel are mounted directly above the viewing platform pointing down. “In all there are 34 independent channels of sound,” says Kidd. “All fed by a pair of Fostex 24 channel HDD player/recorders, synchronized with each other and the lighting rig via a master SMPTE track.”

To imply that ordinance is literally flying over the audience’s heads, individual effects are assigned to one or more of the paired painting channels, and subsequently panned in an arc across the intervening rings of speakers and the diameter of the space. An additional 12 Tannoy i6 AW loudspeakers are also used in the entryway to the space to provide program reinforcement for those entering to view the Cyclorama.

An equal amount of detail and care was taken to ensure that Lawrence’s soundtrack achieve the optimum acoustical balance in the space. “They prepared as much as they could in the studio, then brought the ProTools rig to Gettysburg,” Kidd says. After the system was fully installed and an initial tuning completed by Tony Peugh, the Electrosonic onsite A/V system engineer, the soundtrack was remixed in the actual venue by Chris Greenwell, with initial assistance from Jim Flynn, consulting mixdown engineer – “They more than mixed it,” Kidd adds. “They moved channels around for days, taking it from a 2D to a 3D experience.”

While Kidd could have considered another product for loudspeakers, the choice of Tannoy, he says, came down to his background and experience with the product. Though Kidd has been with Electrosonic for 32 years, he cut his teeth in the business as a broadcast audio engineer in the UK. “I’ve been using Tannoy speakers for decades. I know them. I know what I’m going to get. They’re relatively small. They have a very even sound and work very well for this kind of mixture of sound effects and narration.”

“They’re very even, very easy on the ear,” he adds. For this installation that was of prime importance – The whole point of the audio install was to provide clear, defined sound reinforcement to complete and enhance audience experience discreetly.

That’s a job Tannoy traditionally does exceptionally well, and the Gettysburg install is no exception. Now, as the project approaches the two-year anniversary of its grand opening, well over a million people have filed through the gallery. Some of them, like the Civil War veterans who originally viewed the painting in the 19th century, have been literally brought to tears by the experience.

As an artifact, says Dru Neil, Director of Communications & Marketing at the Gettysburg Foundation, the Cyclorama is a tangible link to the late 19th century and to the veterans who first viewed the painting in its original form. “The whole point of the experience, now and historically, was to make you feel as if you are surrounded by the event taking place on the canvas. The sound that’s now added to the experience just takes that to another level. It’s a phenomenal experience.”