As this project draws to a close I’ll seek to summarise the entire process in full with this post. I will provide links to the appropriate sections of the blog where progress has been documented, from the concept development and planning stage, through script writing, auditions, and casting, to recording, post-production, and testing. I will not repeat links in this post, so each one is unique. If I refer to the same area again I’ll make that clear that it is linked above.
The year began with a wider analysis of my main passion, Modern Audio Drama, which is dramatised fiction created in the radio drama format, but with a more modern and cinematic feel, and released online in podcast form. In my storyboard I put together a wide selection of popular audio dramas. I also carried out an initial ‘provisional’ survey to gather some data and look for specific patterns in the audio drama listener world. The full results can be found here.
In the early stages of the concept development, background and planning section I began to lay down potential ideas that sought to both identify and offer a solution to an existing problem in audio drama. I speculated on potential ideas and formats that my project might take, including an eBook ‘training manual’, video tutorials, or a series of podcasts. These were all aimed at beginners and aspiring producers.
I went on to write and release the eBook training guide, titled How to Create Audio Drama, and since July have recorded and released a weekly show called the Audio Drama Production Podcast which aims to help and inspire people to create great audio drama. The show features interviews with writers, producers, and voice actors, as well as discussion, clips, and production tips and techniques.
I still sought to narrow the project down to something more focused than a general ‘how to’ approach. Through the podcast, through listening to some of my favourite shows, and through reading discussions and articles online I became interested in two schools of thought in the audio drama recording world. The question of doing everything in the studio, and micro-managing the soundscape around the actors voices in post-production, or taking the cast out on location and capturing the audio ‘in the field’. In the concept development, background, and planning section, linked above, I began to dive deeper into this topic as the weeks passed, analysing interviews, and drawing up some case studies.
I bought and read a selection of published books on the topic (or as close to the topic as I could find). There is some great content here focusing on recording on location for film or TV, recording dialogue for games or animations, and performing and recording radio drama. However, there was not a huge amount of material discussing the question of whether to record audio or radio drama in the studio or on location. The findings from these books offered lots of excellent “how to” approaches, but not so much “why to”.
The next stage was to write some short scripts to carry out auditions and eventually record my test dramas. Though my project was not aimed at investigating fiction writing I based most of my work on the results of the provisional survey where science fiction was the most popular genre. I also decided to avoid using narration in any of the shows. I decided to use the script and story to demonstrate a change of recording technique in my time travel story showcase piece where I would transport the protagonist from the future (studio) to present day (location).
I approached Fife College with my project proposal and they were happy to both circulate my casting call to the Acting & Performance Department, where I received a great response of nearly 20 people, and grant me use of the radio and sound studios. I carried out auditions in December and I was very happy with the standard and results.
Over the New Year I had been busy working on my previous audio drama series ‘Aftermath’, here I was able to demonstrate some of the processes and techniques used. As soon as this was completed I cast the five scripts I had created for this project and began the recording process. After some mixing in post-production I released my test recordings and main piece as surveys were drawn up to move into the testing phase.
Finally, I was able to present my findings in full after all test listening was complete, polls and surveys collected and compiled, and results presented as easy to access data in the form of tables and short articles based on the comments and feedback.
A scenario was put to 32 audio drama listeners, and a question posed. “Supposing you have read and enjoyed a script that will now be recorded and produced into a fully completed audio drama, what would be more important to you in the finished piece? Actor/cast performance, or overall production sound quality?”
Field recorded sound test dramas have ranked higher in the performance sections of every listener test so far, does this confirm that going on location is definitely the best route to take? That would probably be a claim too far, and would ignore other factors that we’ve identified during this process (appropriateness for story, for example). However, we can certainly conclude that recording audio drama on location is now every bit as relevant, and as equal to its studio counterpart.
From the five voice actors who participated in this project, one answered the question “what method do you feel brought out your best performance” with ‘studio’ whilst the other four answered ‘location’.
Actor 4, who favoured the studio recording method, commented that, “recording on location can pave the way for some great interactive performances, but it can also cause distractions and unwanted interruptions. I prefer working in a studio environment because it gives me the ability to focus 100% on the script and delivery, without worrying about the scene being cut midway due to wind noise, a car horn, or an ice cream van driving past.”
But Actor 1 did not share this view, with the opinion that, “being on location allows you to breathe in the atmosphere, the surroundings, and the environment.” And that, “Whether you’re talking loudly to compete with the outdoor ambience, or you’re getting up off a chair to shake someone’s hand and lead them off down a corridor, you aren’t pretending anymore, you’re actually doing it. That’s why location recording sounds so real. It is real.”
Actor 3 shared this preference for the location method, referring to the studio as a “sterile environment” and claiming,“there’s no need to visualise a particular scene or location in your head when there’s actually a real one around you. Okay so it might not always be identical to the one you’re portraying in the story, but regardless, it’s a real life environment, and that makes for a more real life, honest, and genuine performance between the characters.”
Five audio dramas were created.
The first was just under fifteen minutes long with the first half being recorded in the studio, and the second half being recorded on location. The drama was titled ‘Time is Money’.
The second and third were two performances of the same story, with ‘Version A’ recorded in the studio, and ‘Version B’ recorded on location. Both ran between four and five minutes long. This story was titled ‘Captive Minds’.
The four and fifth were different short stories or one and two minute lengths, the former being recorded in the studio, and the latter on location. The studio drama was titled ‘The Discovery’, whilst the location drama was titled ‘The Accident’.
19 test listeners were gathered on the Audio Drama Production Podcast Facebook group. They were made up of audio drama producers and enthusiasts.
On the test sheet they were asked to “listen whilst sitting down with over-ear headphones and no other distractions (phone, TV, laptop, book, etc)”
The test listeners were asked to rate the dramas on ‘sound quality’ and ‘performance’ on a head to head basis, choosing the area they felt each excelled on.
Time is Money – Part One (studio) versus Part Two (location)
Captive Minds – Version A (studio) versus Version B (location)
The Discovery (studio) versus The Accident (location)
The five voice actors who participated in these dramas were then asked which method they felt led to their best performance.
I’ve ended up with a substantial amount of quotes after a few months of reading. I had been collecting these on a word document as I went along, but they weren’t organised in any way. I was finding it impossible to do that in word, so opted for the old fashioned way of printing them out, cutting them up, and arranging them.
I had some help too.
I categorised everything and then numbered them in the order I felt told the story in a logical manner. Now it shouldn’t be too hard to fill in the gaps with my own writing.
Attended Charles Parker Day in Glasgow on Friday 26th March. I particularly enjoyed the opening session by Sean Street about his book ‘The Memory of Sound’, and the ideas and theories behind it. Though this was nothing to do with radio drama, there was quite a bit of focus on location recording in terms of documentary making, and the way an interviewee will respond when taken to a specific place to talk about events that happened there. A good example used was a man who lived in a village that eventually ended up on a reservoir floor. Though he had been interviewed about what it was like to live there both in the studio and on the banks of the water, a particularly dry summer allowed the crew to take him down and walk amongst the old houses whilst he pointed things out and talked about life in the village. As Street commented, “he was no longer talking to me, but himself” and summed up by saying “try recording that in the studio”.
I was keen to get my hands on a copy of the book after listening to this session, but disappointingly it costs over £70, even for a Kindle edition. It’s a pity as I’m sure this would have helped me immensely when it comes to my write-up.
The Radio Drama Handbook is a comprehensive guide which gives a well rounded overview of audio drama. I really like the fact that there is a large focus on the online world of modern audio drama, many radio drama texts are seemingly unable to look at life outside of the BBC. This book gives a great introduction into the history of radio drama, before dealing with the fundamentals of writing, recording, and production in an easy and accessible manner, with loads of quotes and examples. In terms of my project, the chapter on performance was the most helpful and relevant to me. There were some excellent pieces of input and examples from the likes of Shane Salk and Elisa Elliot of We’re Alive. Dealing with studio and field recording, the question of actors performance is raised a lot. We’re Alive is firmly in the studio camp, yet they get the very best from their actors, this shows you certainly don’t need to be out in the field to get a maximum acting performance.
“The culture of downloads, file sharing and podcasts has created a wealth of access to audio art, whether collections of historical material or all-new works for listeners. The internet has created a forum for the creation and consumption of audio drama. There are countless small-scale groups and companies that are producing a new generation of radio drama, many of which can be listened to as live streams via their own websites or as freely downloadable podcasts.” (page 74)
The Foley Grail is without a doubt aimed at those creating sound effects for visual mediums such as film, animation and game. However, the creation of good sound effects is a skill that goes a long way in audio drama. The book isn’t just limited to creating them either, but using sound in an effective manner, preaching that often the most effective sound effects are the ones you don’t even notice. Definitely an essential book for the Foley artist, but most of it was pretty irrelevant to this project, unfortunately.
Listen, Don’t Look! “At one time or another, every Foley artist has had to deal with a figure of authority being on the stage and having an opinion about how to do a prop. One solution that many artists have used is to do the props behind a baffle on the stage so the person cannot see what is being used. The reason for this is simple. Typically, the person thinks that the appearance of the prop has a relationship to the sound. The Foley artist has thought carefully about how to create the sound, and has a plan. So, by occluding the vision of the onlooker, the artist can proceed to perform the prop and ask how it sounded. The problem can then become the onlooker asking, “What did you use?” as though it really matters. Some artists will use the exact same thing that was objected to earlier by pretending to try another idea, but just hiding the prop.” (page 117)
Radio Drama: Theory & Practice is a heavily academic book. A comprehensive text with substantial detail on the history of radio, storytelling and structures, and how people interpret audio fiction (or even just radio broadcasting). Certainly not an easy read as such, and starting to show its age with the speed online modern audio drama is now growing, but nevertheless, an essential work in this medium. Only owning this book in Kindle form was a bit of a nightmare, as the table of contents were listed as “Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 etc, and gave no hint as to what was contained in that section. (Update, managed to get a physical copy from the library. Made life much easier. I must say though, very little in this book that relates to my own project, that’s not a criticism of the book, just an observation on how it relates to my work at the moment)
Structuring a radio play “Radio play structuring requires a fine understanding of the principle of building and developing scenes. Every scene has to have an introduction whether by word, sound effect, atmosphere, or music. It sound be underpinned by the conflict of two character forces each with an aim and objective. The aim represents the first character’s aspiration for himself or herself. It may not be fully resolved in the individual scene if it has an arc of progress that reaches the play’s climax. The objective represents the outcome for the other character intended by the first character. The other character also has an aim and objective which may be diametrically opposed to those of the first character. But the key to maintaining a momentum of story drive in play construction is to ensure that at least one of the character forces achieves an aim or objective. Every scene has a specific purpose to serve the overall direction of the plot. Well-constructed scenes are tagged so that the end or even sometimes during its time span there is a pointer to the next scene or the presence of one of the characters in the next scene. I use the term ‘character force’ because the force of character may not be a human being. Character can be a metaphysical presence, an anthropomorphic dimension or stream of sound symbolism. Every scene leaves the listener with tantalising and resonating questions that future scenes are expected to answer.” (page 173)
The Art of Voice Acting is a thorough ‘Bible’ for voice actors. Though obviously much of the book wasn’t relevant to this particular project there were still some useful areas dealing with character believability and conversations, as well as body movements when voice acting. This was all helpful content as I’ve been directing actors both in the studio and on location.
“A ‘voice acting’ performance has all of the following characteristics: The performer creates a believable and real character in conversation with the listener. The message is primarily emotional, with a clearly defined focus. The goal of the message is to “tell a story” that the listener can relate to on an emotional level – often coming from a place of helping the listener in some way, rather than “selling.” The overall effect of the message is one of keeping the listener’s attention and creating a memorable moment.” (page 6)
The Audio Theater Guide was comprehensive in terms of acting, writing, and directing audio drama, though I was hopeful to find some material on field/location recording. This guide is more focused on live theatre and studio performance however, but I still took a lot from sections on acting with scripts, directing for audio (and using hand signals), and sound effects/music (which the author stresses must be used to convey something).
“Although acting with a script has many advantages over memorising your words, a script must be handled carefully for the best results. Remember, your audience is dependent upon hearing your voice clearly and distinctly; whatever character you may be playing. In addition to keeping the pages away from your face, hold your script up to eye level so that your face is always pointed directly at the mike. When you have to turn the pages of your script, be careful to do it quietly.” (page 24)
The Sound Effects Bible This is my favourite audio production book. I first read it in 2013 and it taught me more than anything else I’ve read. I knew very little when I first picked it up and it filled in loads of blanks in a very accessible, easy to read manner. Returning to the book now, with my project in mind, I still find it extremely helpful. Through the book is about recording sound effects, we can apply these principles to recording audio drama on location. Many of the sound effects Viers talks about recording were not, and could not be recorded in studio environments (from cars to fireworks) so he was always going out in the field with a view to recording as clean audio as possible.
“Without question, location recording is the most difficult part of the process of making sound effects. Selecting the right location is just as important as what you are going to record there. Environments shape your sound. Be sure to select a location with your ears and not with your eyes. A great looking location may not be a great sounding location. Each time of day has its perks and downfalls. Night recordings are usually optimal, but locations that might be willing to let you record may not be willing to join you for all the fun at two in the morning – and they probably won’t give you permission to roam free on their property without supervision. Morning recordings in urban settings are subject to traffic noise; in rural settings, there are insects and birds to worry about. It is best to scout a location during the time of day that you plan to record. This will give you a sense of what you may have to deal with, so you can play accordingly.” (page 106)
“Regardless of what type of production you are shooting… your goal as the sound mixer will remain the same. Capture clean, consistent, and intelligible audio.”
A close second to the Sound Effects Bible, Viers’ second book is ultimately about recording dialogue for film, but again the basic principles are the same. If anything, our job in the audio drama world is easier in a sense because we don’t have to hide the microphones from a camera. I learned quite a bit of sound theory and science in this book, whilst expanding my knowledge of microphone types and audio equipment in general. It also got me thinking of microphone placement in scenes, and even treating a field recorded audio drama set a bit like a film set. I like the fact that Viers advocates ‘technique over technology’ – learn to use equipment and maximise its potential, rather than buying better, more expensive gear.
“Gear doesn’t make great sound; the sound mixer makes great sound. Gear can help, but the quality of the sound rests in the hands of the sound mixer. Mediocre gear can be made to sound fantastic and fantastic gear can be made to sound mediocre. To believe otherwise would be to fall into the trap of clever marketing ads.” (page 237)
Location Audio Simplified An excellent and thorough “how to” guide, though I’ve been desperate to find a book that deals more with “why” than “how”. Like the other books this is obviously aimed towards television and film sound recorders. Nevertheless, the book did contain plenty helpful tips and advice, with the principles of recording clean dialogue being completely relevant to audio drama production.
“Ambience is not necessarily a bad thing. It adds energy and life to a location. But knowing whether it’s going to ruin or enhance your recording takes time to learn. Dialogue should always sit on top or be forward of the background sounds. There should be no competition from the ambience for the viewer’s attention. The saving grace with ambience is it will often take care of itself. In loud locations, people talk louder.” (page 19)