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I am in the midst of composing a piece in which I want the sound of artillery. What musical instrument can give this sound? (I am excluding actual artillery pieces and recordings of shots)

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    I composed a piece once that needed machine gun fire, artillery and a helicopter and I was able to do it all on acoustic guitar using harmonics, muting, sliding and other less common effects involving striking muted strings at certain places and sometimes letting the resulting sound resonated by removing the damping finger after striking the string. If you have an interest in hearing the result and learning exactly how I did it , I can post an answer (when I have time) including a sound file so you can hear the result - as well as detailed instructions on how I played each sound. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 25 '15 at 3:56
  • @RockinCowboy I don't play the guitar, so it wouldn't work for me. – SMS von der Tann Dec 25 '15 at 13:29
  • "I am excluding actual artillery pieces and recordings of shots" - alas, I wanted to suggest the Tchaikovsky approach. – 11684 Jan 10 '16 at 10:36
  • @RockinCowboy post it anyway. It sounds interesting to me. – Level River St Feb 28 '16 at 20:43
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    @RockinCowboy BT Reminds me of Hendrix at woodstock youtube.com/watch?v=MKvnQYFhGCc Watching this now he makes some very convincing warplane sounds, but murders the national anthem. Of course in the political climate of the day, that was precisely his intention. – Level River St Feb 28 '16 at 20:50
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Traditionally one uses tympani. Another solution I have seen was to fire a blank round into a tympani with the head removed. I would guess that any large drum would be ok.

I've also heard 105mm howitzers firing blank rounds; that's pretty effective.

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    It's tricky to get the tension right, but a very cool way to get this from timpani is to use a bungee cord attached tightly to both sides of the drum across the head. Lift the bungee up as high as you can and then suddenly let go. – Pat Muchmore Dec 25 '15 at 1:54
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I don't think I'm allowed to do this on this SE. There is a piece by Tchaikovsky which is. Called Overtures 1812. In this incidental piece there is artillery written in the music. In performance there were a few which did use live artillery but most didn't. He ( Tchaikovsky ) himself never conducted the 1812 with live artillery. My advice to you is first look up for this overture in wikipedia I'll bring it down by copy paste "^ In the sections that contain cannon shots, actual cannon are sometimes replaced by recorded cannon or played on a piece of staging, usually with a large wooden mallet or sledgehammer. The bass drum and tam-tam are also regularly used in indoor performances." There is another. Place that discusses ways to duplicate artillery but I don't remember it right now.

  • You can post excerpts of other web pages in here as long as it is just an excerpt, and you give a reference/link back to the original site. You can use the quote tool in the post editor to show it is a quote – Doktor Mayhem Jan 10 '16 at 18:38
  • It was quite along time a go, I remember it was a detailed discussion what instruments to use together to blend. Together it will sound so and so etc. I need to remember it was years ago when actually wrote down the overture so I did some research. – Nachmen Jan 10 '16 at 19:45
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You can use a "stick shot" on a snare drum. Hold one stick on the drum (tip on the drum head, shaft of the stick on the rim), then hit it really hard with the other stick. Or if you want machine gun-like fire, an open snare roll on an appropriate snare has been used historically in classical music for this sound. Or you can experiment with other drums or surfaces using this same technique.

I wouldn't recommend the timpani suggestion. It's unlikely you'll find a timpanist who would be willing to do that to their timpani. The roundness of the shells, quality of the head and shells are important to the intonation. So timpanists are sometimes hesitant to try anything extreme. But you can ask a timpanist what they would be willing to do to get a similar effect. A bass drum would probably be better, they're not fragile and percussionists are less scared to beat the crap out of them.

If you know a percussionist schedule a time to hang out and hit stuff! See what sounds like the kind of artillery you're looking for

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There is a gunshot sound in the General MIDI percussion bank. So any sound bank or tone generator providing GM sounds will have something to offer.

You could notate it with a comment gunshot sfx, perhaps with an X-shaped note-head so you can indicate the rhythm. Or you could use the note which produces that sound in the GM percussion bank and explicitly require that (+ a note explaining that this note in this portion of the piece indicates the gunshot sound-effect). The choice here might depend upon whether you choose to give the responsibility for this sound to the keyboardist or the percussionist.

Or for showmanship, you could take a few paper cap-gun caps and smack 'em with a hammer. Choose carefully the surface upon which you do this. Something like an old metal wash tub might make some evil reverberations.

  • The MIDI suggestion seems to go against the "no pre recorded sounds" requirement. I do like that cap gun caps suggestion, though they may need to be amplified to make it have an artillery feel rather than a distant fireworks feel. – cjm Jan 9 '16 at 21:56
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    That might depend on the specific kind of MIDI sound module. Many use synthesis instead of a bank of recorded sounds. – luser droog Jan 11 '16 at 23:09
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I've performed the 1812 Overture and for the cannon sounds we used open metal dustbins with explosive charges in them. If you go the explosives route, get someone who knows what they're doing...

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For heavy artillery: consider a combined strike of the lowest timpan and the base drum; the attack of the timpan and the sustain of the base drum get close (although such timing is tricky to realize during a performance)

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