Background

Books I’ve read (so far)

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20150401_082455 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)

The Location Sound Bible

“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)

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Case Study: Intensive Care

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“One of the things I really enjoy about field recording, is you can put two actors right next to each other, and they can completely act out the scene. It really incorporates that sense of two actors interacting.” says Matthew Boudreau of Aural Stage Studios in an interview on the Audio Drama Production Podcast.

“While we were recording Intensive Care, we got permission to use the space at Biddeford Mills, and just as we’re recording this major scene that’s taking place in this like, really intense, quiet operating room, people started moving in across the hall from us.

They’re carrying couches, and leather chairs, and it’s like a psychology office that they’re setting up so there’s all kinds of equipment and shelves and books and materials and stuff that they’re lugging through. And I’m just trying to get Nat Angstrom (the lead actor) to give us a really quiet line.

And that’s actually my biggest complaint. There’s no way to isolate the external noise, and if you’re in a quiet place like Fred (Greenhalgh of FinalRune Productions) then that’s okay cos he’s kinda in the woods, and pretty secluded. There’s going to be some background noise, there’s always some background noise, but it’s a little bit easier.

But I went to gather sound effects, I live in down town Buffalo, and The Cleansed takes place in this post-apocalyptic future in which there’s no machinery, there’s no gasoline. And you open up a mic outside my door anywhere and all you’re going to hear is like turbines and motor engines and it’s really hard to capture that post-apocalyptic flavour when you’re surrounded in sounds.

And for me a studio is a great way to isolate that, but… you lose some of the intimacy. So what happens is I get great sound, I get great people with great voices and great characters behind the mic, but I lose a little bit of that interaction that’s going on.

You’ve kinda got two kinds of scenes. You’ve got scenes where dialogue prevails, and you’ve got scenes where action prevails. And in scene’s where dialogue prevails you really want that voice to come through, and you really want those words to be rich.

Maybe you record that in the studio where everyone’s sitting around the mic and you can hear their articulations very clearly and everything’s coming through very cleanly and very importantly.

And then when you’re talking about scenes where there’s action, where they’re more active, and there’s two people fighting and yelling back and forth and maybe you’d do that in a field recorded kind of situation.”

Update on project aims and question

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Had a good conversation with my supervisor today about what direction the project was heading, what the aims were, and what we were trying to show or find out.

I’ve been keen to move away from the “high end equipment v low end equipment” discussion as there isn’t a huge point to it. Instead I’d like to move the focus on to what recording method is a better option for the beginner/aspiring producer.

I mentioned before that, when chatting to Dirk Maggs, he advised that those “with no budget, who want to do audio stuff… create these movies for the mind, using audio. I recommend that they go out on location. Take a portable recorder like an H2 or an H4, or the Edirols, or whatever you can get. Take a portable recorder, and play with it. 

Work out how to get the best result, the best balance of voices with background without it being too cattery, or too distant, or too echoey… because, you immediately remove one problem, which is setting your action somewhere atmospheric. You’ve already found that. So as soon as somebody says to me “oh I’d love to do it, but I can’t afford a studio”, I say you don’t need a studio if you have one of these little recorders, and once you’ve got one you can go anywhere, and do pretty much anything.”

On top of that, Fred Greenhalgh often talks of back in his early years, complaining to Roger Gregg about not being able to afford a studio, with Gregg replying that you don’t need a studio, and to “take your recording outside”.

These pieces of advice come from brilliant audio drama producers, but I’d like to investigate more and find out if they are fully justified.

Some questions I can look further into are…

Is it “easier” to work out in the field?

What are the limitations of field recording, versus the limitations of studio recording?

Likewise, what are the benefits of both?

Satellite or remote recording, where you can have a global cast record their lines independently and email them to you, is now hugely popular in the modern audio drama world. Is this in fact an even better option than field recording for getting started?

A huge downside of satellite/remote recording is of course the fact that actors are not performing with/off/against each other. Perhaps this is enough to remove it from the running of being the “best” option?

What are the thoughts of the actors who have experience of both field and studio recording, and also the thoughts of those who record remotely?

What are the thoughts of the listeners? Does the average listener really care how it was recorded, so long as it sounds good?

How can we really compare and judge two pieces of finished audio drama (one field, one studio) in a fair manner? What are we looking for?

A potential dissertation question might then be

What recording method is the most practical and accessible for the aspiring audio drama producer?

Time is Money – audio drama final piece

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This audio drama will actually combine studio and field recording techniques to create a hybrid piece. The story begins 500 years from now, on board a dank, sprawling space station where petty thief and protagonist Rose is caught up in the web of dodgy antique dealer Mr Jennings, who sends her back in time to present day Edinburgh. Her mission, once back on ‘Old Earth’ (now uninhabitable after the great nuclear war of 2166) will be to retrieve a painting and bring it back to the future, where Jennings has already agreed its sale with a dangerous and powerful mafia boss. The first half of the story, recorded in the studio, will be designed to sound dark, eerie, sterile, and synthetic. Water will drip from old rusty pipes, rats will scuttle in dark corners of rooms, and along deserted corridors. When Rose is then transported to ‘the past’ (the present day) the story will suddenly become a field recorded piece. The aim here is to ‘jolt’ the listener, to make them feel a bit like she probably would. With the first scene of her arrival in present day Scotland being outdoors, the sheer openness of the recording should sound huge and overwhelming compared to the dark, claustrophobic, metallic chambers of the space station that she’s lived her entire life on. A (possibly dated and tenuous) visual example of this technique might be The Wizard Of Oz, when Dorothy arrives in Munchkin Land and it switches from black and white to colour footage. The effect in Time is Money is meant to be a bit more ‘raw’ however, but both are using two different techniques to demonstrate something and create an impact.

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Concept art so far, thanks to Kessi

Technique v Technology. Do you need expensive field equipment?

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When I interviewed Dirk Maggs on the Audio Drama Production Podcast the subject of field and studio recording was raised. I asked if he preferred to work in the studio. Dirk responded  “I don’t mind where we work as long as I can get the dialogue clean. But I used to think recording on location was pretty pointless because the microphones, the technology, really made everyone sound like they were in the studio anyway. That was the joke. But, as the equipment has gotten better, and certainly as digital technology has turned things around, I think it’s different now.

I think actually, you can do a lot with location recording. I did a play with Johnny Vegas called ‘Interiors’, which we actually recorded in Johnny’s house with a cast of about 9 – and we did that entirely on portable recorders, walking around with this group of people as Johnny, playing this character, was showing them round his house, and all sorts of dramas we’re being played out. 

I have to say, that was really enjoyable, and, having done that with Johnny, kind of confirmed for me that location recording is a different deal now. And with the microphones and digital technology you have, if you do it well, it sounds amazing. Very immersive, very good. 

That said – I still took it away and added layers of Foley, and backgrounds, and so on. Because, the way I work, the voices I’m recording are just the front layer, in a very layered world I’m creating. I believe you should have something that’s really immersive, and that beyond your foreground actors are your background actors, then you’ve got the immediate sort of street scene, then you’ve got the sky beyond, and the world beyond that… you know, you work back in layers, and as long as the dialogue is clear, and the backgrounds are sympathetic to the dialogue, you have created a world.”

Dirk said that when he is talking to people in our position as aspiring producers or students, “with no budget, who want to do audio stuff… create these movies for the mind, using audio. I recommend that they go out on location. Take a portable recorder like an H2 or an H4, or the Edirols, or whatever you can get. Take a portable recorder, and play with it.

Work out how to get the best result, the best balance of voices with background without it being too cattery, or too distant, or too echoey… because, you immediately remove one problem, which is setting your action somewhere atmospheric. You’ve already found that. So as soon as somebody says to me “oh I’d love to do it, but I can’t afford a studio”, I say you don’t need a studio if you have one of these little recorders, and once you’ve got one you can go anywhere, and do pretty much anything.”

 

Introduction

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Welcome to this new blog. My name is Matthew and I’ll be using this site over the next 9 or so months to discuss, research and develop my Fourth Year Honours Project. Having missed the first lecture as I was abroad, I’m still not entirely clear about the set-up of the year, though I have downloaded and read both the Honours Handbook, and the week one lecture slides. Over the summer I’ve been looking at developing the idea of creating one or more ebooks focusing on helping people at a beginner level to write, produce and create audio dramas. I will need to discuss these ideas with my programme tutor and hopefully I can persuade him that it would be a worthy and rewarding project before starting work on my written proposal.