Re-Creating The Sounds Of Combat

NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Steven Grant, the Roy A. Wilkens Missouri Telecommunications Professor at Missouri Science and Technology, about his system for creating a simulated version of the sounds of a battlefield by using a huge array of speakers playing real battlefield sounds. Warriors would train in full gear in the environment to get used to how war sounds.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said: War is hell. And we're going to focus now on one aspect of that hell, the sound of it. In a moment, the story of young men and women coming home from war with their hearing impaired.

CORNISH: But first, before troops ever set foot on a battlefield, the U.S. military tries to prepare them for the intensity of the fight. In a lab at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Dr. Steven Grant is trying to take that training to a new level by creating the true sound of war.

With funding from the Army's Leonard Wood Institute, Grant has created a kind of war room in his laboratory.

Dr. STEVEN GRANT (Professor, Missouri University of Science and Technology): One of the things that you can do if you're in a situation that you don't like, you can always close your eyes. But you can't close your ears very well. I guess you can stick your fingers in them and hum a little bit, but when shells are going off around you, that's not easy to do.

CORNISH: So help us understand how this would work. If a soldier is there doing a training exercise and they're in this room full of speakers, what do they hear, and what order; sort of how does the system run?

Dr. GRANT: They would start to do their task, and then we would start up the battle scenario.

(Soundbite of gunfire and explosion)

AUDIE CORNISH: Dr. Grant, that's really jarring, actually, and scary.

(Soundbite of gunfire and explosion)

Dr. GRANT: Yes, it is. And the other thing that you don't get, like by listening over the radio, especially if you're listening with a stereo system, is the fact that these sounds are happening all around you. The jet is actually going over your head and it's pretty close. These other sounds are - one sound is off to the right, one sound is off to the left. The tank is in back of you.

And because we have binaural hearing, you can hear each of these sounds very distinctly, and you know exactly where they're at.

CORNISH: Give us a sense - are these sort of like, room-high speakers, or what do you use to make the sounds, because I don't think I have a sense of how loud is loud.

Dr. GRANT: It can get very loud. Each one of our loud speakers can put out a hundred decibels. And if there are 64 of them, so that means that if everything is going off as loud as possible all at once, it's 130 dB, which is much louder than a rock concert. It's about the sound of standing next to a jet while it's running.

CORNISH: Have you spoken to any soldiers about this, or in the process of research for it?

Dr. GRANT: We have a little bit. We're in a - we just actually built the thing. It's about three months since we've gotten it operational, and we're still tuning it and testing it.

CORNISH: In the end, what are you hoping to accomplish with this kind of system?

Dr. GRANT: What we hope to do is to put one more point on that continuum of training so the Army has good training for the war fighter. But what we want to do is to help them help the Army make training more efficient so that the war fighter has, when they finally get to that battle, they have, at least part of them, has that experience of already having been there.

CORNISH: Well, Dr. Grant, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. GRANT: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Steven Grant is a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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