Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

26 May 2011

What do tornadoes sound like?

230 PEOPLE ARE still missing after a tornado smashed through the town of Joplin in Missouri earlier this week. Many of those who survived by hiding in cellars and under tables may not have seen it, but they will have heard it.

Tornado reports often begin with a delicate turn of phrase. They are said to touch down, like cautious explorers of a new planet. They move seemingly under their own power and they are processes as well as objects, growing stronger before fading. Yet tornadoes are never thought of as like living things in the way people sometimes treat fire as alive. Popular stories recognise them as random and unfathomable. A tornado tears away the roof and walls of a house to leave a vase standing on a table.


Tornadoes don’t invite what the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls the intentional stance, the way we try to predict the behaviour of objects by ascribing to them psychological states such as goals, desires and emotions. We adopt the intentional stance quite liberally too. In 2010 the Daily Mirror newspaper carried a story about the closure of the last blast furnace in Teesside and quoted David Cox, who had worked there as a furnaceman for 31 years:

All furnace operators have a strong affection with the blast furnace itself. It’s very much like a living organism in many, many ways. For 31 years I’ve nurtured and cared for this blast furnace and it feels as if there’s been a death in the family.

Suppose you wanted to make an enjoyable popcorn film about tornadoes and the scientists who study them. The scientists will be the usual bomber crew of leader, love interest and assorted eccentrics. The tornadoes must have their own personalities too. The makers of the 1996 film Twister set about achieving the last goal by making their CGI tornadoes snarl and growl like enraged monsters. The film was nominated for a ‘Best Sound’ Oscar.

A public relations-style interview with the director Jan de Bont and the supervising sound editor Stephen Hunter Flick shows them express conflicting ambitions in saying how they wanted to depict the tornadoes realistically and how they gave them mind-like properties. As de Bont explains:

. . . we needed to create ‘voices’ for each of the different types of tornadoes featured in the film. Yet a tornado which, if you will, is our ‘star’, has no voice; I turned to [supervising sound editor] Stephen Flick to create those impressionistic voices, and make them attention-grabbing for the audience. At the same time, I wanted [the audience] to be very aware that these high-speed tornadoes have a ‘soul,’ rather than being inanimate objects.

Research for getting the sound right began with interviewing people with first-hand experience of tornadoes. Stephen Hunter Flick then describes his understanding of the basic constituents of their sound:

I worked out that the sound of a tornado is made up of several elements. First, we have the natural, low-frequency rumble. Just like a pulsing freight train, we experience a lot of LF information, followed by high-end steam pulses, followed by a fast passby and then silence after the thing moves off. One of our editors had actually been in a tornado, which he describes as being first quiet and then incredibly loud.

Modern-day eyewitness (or earwitness) accounts typically reach for machine metaphors in likening the noise to passing trains or jet airliners taking off. A contemporary description from 1761 of a tornado in Great Malvern, Worcestershire refers to the prototypical industrial processes of the day:

At a quarter past four in the afternoon, a most astonishing phenomen was seen at Great Malvern, in Worchestershire, and parts adjacent. It had the appearance of a volcano, and was attended with a noise as if 100 forges had been at work at once; it filled the air with a nauseous sulpherous smell; it rose from the mountains in the form of a prodigious thick smoak, and proceeded to the valleys, where it rose and fell several times; and at length it subsided in a turnep-field, where the leaves of the turneps, leaves of the trees, dirt, sticks, &c. filled the air and flew higher than the highest hills.

After describing his empirical approach at the beginning, Twister‘s head sound engineer then jumps across the chasm of disbelief:

I kept returning to the question: ‘What does a tornado really sound like?’ Or, more to then point, how should I make it sound to convince the audience that this is major threat; to provide a sense of power within the movie theater. I concluded that the sound of a tornado is made up of three primary elements. We combined the sound of wind moving very fast, with objects being moved rapidly, and a voice panning across the surface of the wind. The combination is almost human in its characterization.

A few sequences from Twister can still be found on YouTube, and the film’s penultimate and biggest tornado hunts the two main protagonists across a corn field in this sequence beginning around 4:20. It growls as it goes like the angry God of the Old Testament and, fittingly, the scientists’ perseverance is eventually rewarded with the sight of the tornado’s interior. This resembles the tunnel often recalled in memories of near-death experiences and it comes complete with a patch of heavenly blue sky at the top.

Good sound recordings of real tornadoes are hard to come across for obvious reasons. One remarkable example survives of a tornado in 1974 which hit the town of Xenia, Ohio. It was made by a Mr Brokeshoulder, a dauntless sound-hunter who stayed in his apartment as long as was prudent before setting the mic and recorder down and hurrying to the basement. You then hear what is probably the roof being torn off about three-quarters of the way through.

This webpage gives the background story. The tornado has no voice in that or any other recording. It is a vortex, a phenomenon of physics, and belongs as much in a lifeless world as in our own.

England attracts a surprisingly large number of tornadoes. But, with a few exceptions, including one which may have wrecked London Bridge in 1091, they are usually diffident efforts which peter out unnoticed. In 1954, a more vigorous whirlwind inflicted serious damage on Gunnersbury station in west London, as described in this Pathe newsreel:

In 2006 another destructive tornado stripped roofs and felled trees and chimney pots in Crouch End, a prosperous part of north London. Many tornado eyewitness accounts express humility and a retreat of the self. Not so with Caroline Phillip’s Evening Standard article, in which the damage inflicted by the Crouch End twister on her house only released another unstoppable force: the self-absorption and instinctive social bragging of a north London media luvvie. There’s so much choice that’s it hard to pick a single best example, although this does pretty well:

A black roof tile speared the American walnut floating shelf, scattering our younger daughter Ella’s birthday cards. “Congratulations! Nine years old today!” The words have been lacerated by shards of glass. Three bricks. Rainwater. Broken glass. A wooden bowl of Christmas clementines. These are vomited across our limestone floor.

Fortunately someone has decided to preserve the article for long-term amusement, and you can read it all on My Tornado Hell.