Research

Charles Parker Day, Glasgow

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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.

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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)

Case Study: Hungry Hollow

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“To me the most interesting thing about field recording is not capturing the ambient sound along with the actors voices, in fact more often than not it’s a nuisance, but capturing how voices sound and bounce around within a specific space when recorded in stereo. There is a “live” sound to it that’s difficult to replicate.”

In a recent interview on the Audio Drama Production Podcast, John Ballentine of Campfire Radio Theater revealed that he originally wanted to field record every single show he did, but felt that he wasn’t capable of doing it, as, at the time, he didn’t have a field recording rig, or enough local acting talent to pull it off. Instead, John worked in the home studio environment, using remote actors as backup.

“When it came time to do Hungry Hollow, I thought well ‘this is absolutely the best way to do this show, let’s do it as a field recording, let’s go out on location and do this because most of it takes place outdoors and I thought it was just an ideal story for that approach.

We used a Zoom recorder, it’s a Zoom H2N, and we actually used the built in microphones, we didn’t use an external microphone to record with. The Zoom is a handy little recorder; it does a lot of things really well, it fits in the palm of your hand, you can take it anywhere.

One of the things I thought my main use for it would be was recording sound effects and ambient environments for use in the show. The more I played with it I thought “well this thing sounds pretty good”, I think it sounds more or less as good as my studio mic setup.

So I felt pretty confident about taking it in the field, taking it on location, and trying to record a show with it. We put it on a tripod, took it out in the woods, and that’s how we recorded Hungry Hollow.

We sort of blocked some movement around the Zoom, and sat it on a tripod. We didn’t actually do any movement with the recorder itself, we just kind of kept it stationary and have actors move around it. And we didn’t do a lot of movement, not nearly as much as I really probably would’ve liked to.

We did some very basic blocking, and had an actor positioned off to one side, or another actor positioned more centrally, and then we might have somebody that enters the scene, and they might enter from the far left or far right, then somebody exits the scene and you have that movement.

There are all kinds of problems doing something on location. Whether it’s a film shoot or you’re recording audio drama, there’s always complications, there’s things that arise that sometimes you expect, and then there’s things that you don’t expect.

We recorded the main body of the stuff that we did in September, in the South Eastern United States, here in South Carolina, which is where I live. And it’s still very hot here, sometimes in September. I think it was about 90 degrees, and we were pretty deep in the woods, down a long dirt road, and we were dealing with stuff like mosquitoes and insects and stuff like that… and when it got dark you could start to hear the coyotes howling in the background. And so there was a lot of different things that we had to deal with in trying to get it recorded.

So there’s constantly things happening in the real world, even if you go out deep in the woods like we did. We still had things like aeroplanes flying overhead, and suddenly it sounded like we were near an airport or something, because every time we would turn around we would have to stop. So just be prepared to take a little bit longer than you normally would.

Ideally, when everything comes together and you sit down to mix, that process usually isn’t as long, unless you’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to take out some of the sounds in the recording that weren’t supposed to be in there. But the mix portion of it is more straightforward I think, when you do a field recorded show, and it’s easier and less time consuming.

Find out what works the best for you. Find out what works the best for the show you’re trying to produce. There is no one way to do things. You do what works best for you, whatever capabilities and resources that you have available to you, that’s what’ll dictate what you can do, and what you can’t do. Field recording is a great approach, if you’ve got the resources and people locally to pull it off, and I highly recommend it… at least try it!”

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.”

Writing narration into audio drama

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Use of narration divides opinion in the audio drama world. Three of my favourite shows deal with it in very different ways, but all manage to make their stories flow seamlessly. The Leviathan Chronicles is heavily narrated by a ‘disembodied voice’. Before listening to the show, many would frown upon this technique, but I think it they execute it brilliantly, and it complements the acting and the action very well.

Why does Leviathan work so well? Good reading, good writing, and good production. On top of that, the narrator herself is excellent. Leviathan shows that this is certainly not a “wrong” way to create audio drama (and I’d argue that there is no right or wrong way anyway) but like everything else, it must be done to a good standard to work.

The second show, We’re Alive, makes use of ‘in story’ narration through the use of characters keeping journals. This enables a character to jump in and help describe a complicated fight or action scene to the listener (as it’s being dramatised) as well as add description to things that would be difficult to convey without very unrealistic dialogue (We’re Alive has very realistic, cinematic dialogue that bears no resemblance to conversations heard in Old Time Radio shows).

The interspersing of narration during a scene is done so liberally that the listener will never think “now they are telling me what’s going on, not showing me”. We’re Alive demonstrates that you can add narration to audio drama via your characters, and give reason for it. Like Leviathan, they pull it off because of great writing, great production, and great acting.

The third show, Edict Zero FIS, uses no narration whatsoever. The interesting thing here is that the story world is extremely deep and complex, yet at no point are you ‘told’ what is going on. Leviathan and We’re Alive, through their narration techniques, have the capacity to inform you the private thoughts of a character, so how does Edict Zero work around this?

The shows are very long (on average around an hour) and in each episode you’ll spend a lot of time with the central characters. Over time you get to know them so well, through their traits, actions, and conversations, that it isn’t necessary to be directly informed of their thoughts. This is an example of a colossal amount of character development, which has been integrated so well into an engaging story that the two are inseparable.

Details of Edict Zero’s complicated story world are subtly fed to you not only through conversation, but also by catching snippets of radio and television shows running under the action and dialogue. The show plays ‘the long game’ in painting a picture for you, and once that picture begins to emerge it leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

In summary, those are three examples of very different techniques, all done very well, in three brilliant audio dramas. I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all rule”. Ultimately, it has a lot to do with your story, what kind of story is it that you want to tell?

If was looking to create a story that made use of narration (narration that wasn’t a disembodied voice and would allow me to convey character thought), how would I go about it? Here are three ideas…

  1. My protagonist is a washed up rock star, actor, or some type of celebrity. Each episode involves he/she being in therapy, where they’ll recall the events of that week, or even events from their past.
  1. My protagonist is an ex footballer/athlete, a failed writer, or small time crook. Each episode involves them being in the pub, talking to a friend who never replies (basically, the listener). Again, they recount tales from the week past, or from their life in general, their youth, etc.
  1. My protagonist is a heroic barbarian in a fantasy realm, who has given up the life of adventure to settle down in a small hamlet where they are now married with a young child. Each episode is a bedtime story to their son or daughter, where tales are told of the world itself, the many quests, adventures, and great wars they’ve gone on or fought in.

So this is all retrospective action, allowing the main character to be the narrator but purposefully. They’ll introduce a story by telling, but then we’d fade in to the fully dramatised story itself. We can pop in and out of that, back to the character’s narration if we need to (for example, to convey thought) – “when I was offered that million dollar record contract the first thought in my mind was to go out and buy a car” etc.

Big disadvantages of this, your protagonist is now invincible as long as the story continues, so in the case of the questing barbarian, will it be exciting to follow these adventures if you know they can’t die?

Using other methods, maybe a group of teenagers get together on a weekly basis and contact the spirit world through a Ouija board, each spirit then tells them their life story and how they ended up dead. Maybe a psychic detective is haunted by the spirit of the victim who’s case he’s trying to solve. Maybe your protagonist is literally a mind reader.

Ultimately… be creative; tailor to your story and characters. If you really want to pull something off, you can. That’s the real beauty of audio drama.

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.”