We chatted to Sarah Angliss, regular Hack Circus performer, musician, artist, and sound designer, about her recent work constructing a complete audio experience for the restored HMS Alliance. A version of this interview will appear in Hack Circus issue #3 in June. (And they never, she tells us, say "Dive!")

Tell us about the HMS Alliance project – how were you brought on board? 

HMS Alliance is the last surviving World War II era submarine. Building work started in 1945 and she was in service from 1947. Alliance patrolled the oceans and conducted cloak and dagger missions throughout the Cold War (to this day, no-one will say where, officially, but I’ve heard the rumours). I was hired to work on the project by museum designer Henry Lyndsay, after he read some of my thoughts on museum audio in the journal Museum Practice. 

Alliance is a rarity as almost all her original fixtures and fittings are still in place – from the periscope, diesel engines, sonar equipment and underwater telephone to the ladders, bunks and heads (toilets and sinks). But it’s an odd feeling walking through Alliance as none of her equipment is running (although a lot of it is still in working order). And of course there’s no crew, so you really don’t get a sense of the hubbub on board when she was an operational vessel with 65 hands working, living and sleeping on board. And that’s where I came in. Henry wanted me to use sound to evoke the submarine’s past – we were both keen to create the impression of a inhabited, working space, while avoiding the perils of the dreaded museum dummy. 

As soon as I stepped inside Alliance, I sensed her acoustics were very unusual and knew it was important for people to experience those directly. I didn’t want to rely on an audio guide – kit that looks flashy but actually isolates visitors from the natural acoustic and from one another behind headphones. So I recommended a scheme involving 50 speakers dotted all over the boat, by equipment, tannoys, mess tables and so on. And I created an ever-changing, naturalistic sound piece which played through the speakers, suggesting sounds were coming from people and equipment all over the submarine.

Crucially, this wasn’t a static soundtrack, like an old school museum tape recording. It’s made of hundreds of tiny events which play randomly but also relate to each other, using simple algorithms. For example, after three climbs up a ladder a hatch closes, then someone makes a report over a tannoy. I found this approach gave the impression of a living, working space. I also specified a few extras, for instance tactile transducers in the floor plate of the engine room, so we could shake the floor, giving the visceral bass you feel when the diesel engines are working at full pelt. We also put in a few triggered sounds here and there - for instance, the sound of dice being thrown in a game of uckers, men turning in their bunks or a mewing cat lost in the Ward Room (Alliance brought a cat back from one mission).

I worked closely with Henry, actor Colin Uttley and curators from HMS Alliance to create this soundtrack. And crucially, I called on the museum’s volunteer guides for technical help. The guides are all retired Royal Navy submariners so are brimming with stories and information about life on board. So was Chris Munns, the museum director - a former Commodore, Chris helped Colin with a highly-technical script for a fast-moving emergency dive.

My work was part of a huge refurbishment of HMS Alliance. Backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and a huge amount of local fundraising, Alliance has undergone an extensive conservation programme, from patching up holes in her casing that were letting in rain and pigeons to polishing up the equipment in the control room. 

My audio was one of the finishing touches, along with some scenic work from designers Diarmuid Byron O’Connor, Lottie Sweeny and Graham Taylor. Contractors DJW were also asked to reanimate some of the dials on board. They did so using Arduinos and servos.

What were some of the technical challenges in designing an acoustic experience inside a submarine?

It was tricky to reconstruct certain technical details on board, for instance, how the machines sounded and how certain commands were spoken. The submarine was in service across three decades so these details would have shifted over time. The service life of the volunteer guides stretched over a similarly long period. So there would be frequent disagreements about, say, the rpm of the propellors (which in turn, affects how they sound). I wanted the veterans to feel our reconstruction was authentic. So this was a knotty problem. Henry made the decision to have time move forward as you progress from for’ard to aft though the boat (as you can see on the video). This really helped to unscramble things. I’d say we’ve ended up with a composite, sonic impression of life across the decades – a compromise that just about works.

I also listened to documentaries for clues and did quite a lot of pitch shifting, time stretching and other processing of existing recordings to create many of the sounds. And did quite a few sound recordings on board. A big challenge was the sound of the diesel engines, used when the submarine was on the surface. The originals are no longer running. We knew this sound had to be right – and I wanted a high fidelity recording to get the full, visceral effect of room-shaking engine noise. Curator Bob Mealings tracked down a working Allan engine in Internal Fire, a museum in Wales, and BBC sound recordist Richard Gott was dispatched to make a recording. I processed this to create the sound that’s now on board.

Physically, the most obvious challenge was the submarine’s location and our never-ending fight against the icy chill. In the depths of winter, a handful of us were working in the empty submarine, a large metal box on a coffer dam in Gosport harbour. I wore double thermals and still the damp, icy cold rose through the floor and up through my legs. I was so chilly, most of the day, I felt downright sleepy and could scarcely hold a pen – not the best condition when you’re trying to program a fiendish MaxMSP patch or make precise sound edits.

I since learned that submariners always had to contend with the temperature of the surrounding waters. On some missions, they spent weeks in unwashed woolies – in others they were all kitted out in nothing more than sarongs. 

In other ways, the submarine was a delight to work in, especially compared to, say, a Tudor house where you need to hide every single wire behind panels and you can’t drill a single hole. The submarine was such a jumble of cables and trunking, from so many different decades that the company who laid down the wiring could simply add ours to the heap. The place had ample, ready-made space for wiring. Our 21st century cables were hidden in plain sight.

What was it like meeting original submarine crews? Did it affect the way you approached the project? 

I loved working with the veterans – not least of all because my own grandfather, Emlyn, was a submariner so I’d always been curious to know more about his life. Every time you meet the veterans, you hear more extraordinary stories, many of which we tried to represent one way or another on board. And these men have remarkably good sonic memories, especially those who worked with sonar. As well as critiquing work in progress, they would sometimes make the sounds of machines for me, on cue, to give me a clue about where I was going astray. If you visit HMS Alliance, you may be able to join a guided tour which is conducted by one of the volunteers.

What did you enjoy most about it? 

Colin, curator Alex Geary and I had the perfect day out at the Submarine Escape Training Tank. It’s a reconstruction of a submarine compartment, under the escape hatch, and there’s a 30 metre-high tank of water above it, so you can simulate an escape at sea. While we were there, trainers flooded the tank (just up to our ankles), as they would have done in an emergency escape scenario. Once the compartment was flooded, the submariners would swim out of the escape hatch, whistling as they surfaced to avoid rupturing their lungs as the pressure decreased. The noise of the flooding was superb. I think some of it might make its way onto my next album.

These days, submariners don’t learn escape routines; they’re taught survival skills instead. They learn to live in a small compartment on minimal rations while they wait for rescue.

As someone who primarily works with sound, I was fascinated by the skills of Henry and the scenic artists – for instance the way they made a perfect replica of a mug of tea and a fry-up, right down to the smears of sauce on the plate.

Most of all though, on this project, I loved the sound bleed – something most museum designers hate. If you watch the YouTube video, you’ll hear I didn’t make any attempt to isolate sounds between compartments. This made sense to me. After all, when HMS Alliance was a working submarine, shouts from the seamen’s mess would reach the forward torpedo compartment; engine noise would rattle the galley and so on. Leaving sound to bleed naturally created a wonderful mush of sounds, especially along connecting corridors. I’ve been so touched by some of the veterans’ comments on the experience. Terry Fearnley, a volunteer guide who served on Alliance from 1968 to 1971 said ‘it really feels like you’re back on board’. 

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AuthorLeila Johnston