Background

Project Aims Update

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?

Dirk Maggs on field recording

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.”

The Truth About Field Recording

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Mitchell, writer, director, and producer of the cult audio drama The Truth. The full interview can be heard on episode 21 of the Audio Drama Production Podcast, but I wanted to take a closer look at the section where we talked about field recording.

I asked Jonathan if he ever used the studio to record, he replied that he had “but I don’t like to as I don’t think it sounds as good.”

He concedes that “It depends on the story, some stories need that because they are highly stylised. There was a story we did that took place on the moon, we recorded that in a studio because it doesn’t make any sense to do it on location.” and then went on to explain his reasons for opting to field record whenever the story allows for it, saying, “I feel like you get a lot out of doing location recordings, beyond just the sound of the place, in fact, it’s not even the sound of the place that I’m looking for. It’s how that affects the performances, how actors move around in a space, and how they will move in relation to a microphone. Like if an actor turns their head when they are talking, that can communicate something very subtle. If they’re bending down, and have to contort their body for some reason because they are crouching, that gives you aural information that helps you understand better what’s going on. I like these little subtle things that force actors into performances, I think it’s those little details that all add up to this really realistic embodiment of the story.

“I like it for example when we’re recording a car scene, I’ll always record it in a car. I don’t always have the actors drive but when I do, I always like it better. Even though it’s harder to edit because you have all these car and motor sounds that don’t match, so you have to be really careful and get lots of ambience that you can kind of mask these things, but it’s definitely possible to make that work. The thing it gives you is these little sounds like the creaking of the seatbelts, the turn signals… and he’s turning to see if a car is coming because he’s making a turn, and the steering wheel on his hands… all these little details that I wouldn’t think to add, or if I did they wouldn’t have the gritty reality, the sort of visceral impact of realness that I feel I get from a location recording.”

Listening to the sheer immersive and authentic quality of The Truth, it’s hard to find fault with any of Jonathan’s comments. Field recording isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every story, but here we see an example of someone doing it extremely well to great effect, and I have nothing but admiration for them.

Neverwhere, Infidel, studio & field

Two of the finest audio dramas I’ve ever heard (initially both courtesy of Radio Drama Revival last year) were Neverwhere by Dirk Maggs (an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman tale which appeared in both TV and book form) and Infidel by Roger Gregg of Crazy Dog Audio Theatre.

The first, Neverwhere, features a cast that wouldn’t look out of place on a big budget film set (including James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Christopher Lee, and Benedict Cumberbatch) and seems to employ quite a bit of actor improvisation to give a really authentic and genuine feel to the dialogue and interactions between the characters. This was a studio recorded project, and the soundscapes that were built around each scene were beautify cinematic and immersive. It’s a shame that this drama wasn’t allowed to have the impact in mainstream culture that it deserved. The BBC didn’t do a lot to promote it, didn’t give it much time on the air (or iPlayer), and now it has to be purchased through Audible where people are only going to find it if they are actively looking for it.

The second is a very different type of production. Roger Gregg’s Infidel was field recorded in a castle in Ireland back in 2005/06. A historical drama set during the crusades, the soundscapes were atmospheric and authentic sounding, and this shows that – when done well enough – you can still field record a historical (or futuristic) drama with the right location, equipment, and production knowledge.

I’m hopeful of interviewing both Dirk Maggs and Roger Gregg in the future, it would be excellent to find out more about the production and creation of these two fantastic projects.

Casting actors, and looking after them

carried out interviews recently on the Audio Drama Production Podcast with Monique Boudreau of Aural Stage Studios and Betsey Palmer of HartLife NPC. The focus was on “building your talent pool, and taking good care of them”.

Most audio drama producers aren’t working with any sort of budget at all when they start out, and there is little prospect of making much anytime soon, due to the way the medium is set up. Does this mean that you should ask your talent to work for free? Certainly there are other ways to reward actors and musicians that extend beyond financial compensation.

Betsey, Production manager at HartLife NTP, creators of the fantastic Our Fair City audio drama, told me “The thing to remember is that if you’re not going to pay people then there are other concessions you’ve got to be willing to make”. She goes on to say that if someone isn’t getting paid, they might expect to have a little more artistic input and little bit more ownership over their part project. Betsey also says it helps if you are consistent and respectful of their time, and good to work with. She revealed that they make it a big priority to provide a safe recording environment for their talent, and they always put on food for everyone when they get together to do the show.

Monique, production manager, writer, and graphic designer at Aural Stage Studios holds similar views. Having recently cast, recorded, and produced their latest drama A Prophet’s Guide locally in Buffalo, NY, Aural Stage have embraced their local arts community, and believe in giving something back, as well as benefiting from it. Monique says that she believes in treating talent as professionals, “to us that means offering monetary compensation, having a flexible schedule to avoid time and commitment conflicts, being prepared with scripts, contracts and equipment, and having food and refreshments available.”

UK-based production house The Wireless Theatre Company are another group with an extremely professional setup and positive attitude towards the talent they work with. Following an interview we carried out with Mariele and David during their live shows at the Edinburgh Festival, I asked if there was a particularly good place to cast productions and find good actors in your local area. Mariele told me they use a website called CastingCallPro and it seems to generate a great response. These are all points to take on board and good advice to work with going forward to create the test recording sessions early next year.

Audio Interview Summary – Jack Kincaid & Kc Wayland

 

edictzerowerealive

In the 2013 documentary All Ears – Celebrating the Medium of Modern Audio Drama, two of my interviewees were almost completely responsible for my love of audio fiction. Kincaid’s show Edict Zero FIS is a cinematic Sci-fi story which runs as deep as any novel I’ve ever read (without one single bit of narration I should add) and on top of this, the soundscapes that shape the story world in your head are without a doubt the most immersive I’ve ever encountered. An interesting point about the recording on Edict Zero is that, as far as I know, no voice actors appearing in the same scene have ever recorded it ‘as read’ in a studio together. All recording takes place individually, with each actor, in their own facilities. The lines are sent to Kincaid who mixes them together in post-production, this is known as ‘satellite’ or ‘remote’ recording.

Kc Wayland’s We’re Alive is another triumph, though different in many ways. Kc’s long-term vision to bring together a pool of trained actors in a studio environment, combined with what has surely been a gruelling writing, recording, and production schedule for the past five years, has led to four full seasons of consistent and regular shows and over thirty million downloads . This has opened up avenues to create a business model from the show, and it will be interesting to see how that develops over the next few years.

Both shows have certainly reached a cult-status in the world of online modern audio drama, and in the All Ears documentary I was keen to find out more about their respective approaches.

Speaking of the early days, Kc said “Mainly we’ve done pretty well to bring attention to this audio format. It has been a lot of development along the way… we started out pretty small, our numbers were very very small… I mean, if I look at the first couple of months, if not, three quarters of a year in 2009, we were barely scraping by 50-60 downloads a day.”

“It has been a learning curve the entire time. My background for writing and doing all this stuff was all film-based. Most of my techniques were visual based, so I had to… re-learn how to write for strictly audio format.” He goes on to ask “How can you tell something rather than show something?” which is possible in film, but not in audio drama. He also goes on to say that he has borrowed a lot from film, from writing style to formats of the scripts. “It has done nothing but contribute to the overall simplification of what we do.”

Regarding Edict Zero, Jack explained “I take influence from movies and TV shows a bit more now, for this… structurally, than I do from books. And that’s been a transitional process. If you want the listener to imagine something specific, you have to communicate it another way… such as with sound effects, or through dialogue. Characters have to verbalise more… as there’s no internal dialogue.” Jack thought about using monologues but decided against it.

“So maybe a real person wouldn’t say this or that in real life, or declare what they’re doing. But like any other entertainment form… you adapt to what the form offers. You play on its strengths; you circumvent the weaknesses… if we want to call them weaknesses. You do it in a way that people will barely notice.”

Audio Interview Summary – Rich Matheson

Keeg’s Quest creator Rich Matheson was one of the writers/producers/voice actors I interviewed in the 2013 documentary All Ears – Celebrating the Medium of Modern Audio Drama

During his segment, Rich spoke passionately about the uniqueness of audio drama, and the art of using fine details to help build a three dimensional, living, breathing world in the head of the listener.

Rich’s main example was the use of a simple chair creak in The Leviathan Chronicles, recalling that in this particular scene a submarine officer leans back in his chair, which was heard to squeak. Matheson argues that it was “a sound that did not need to be there” and that it “was not required to tell the story” continuing that “just this simple act of hearing this guy leaning back in his chair trying to formulate the words that he’s going to tell his captain –that put me there”.

“When you become a mixer, or at least in my case… when I started mixing I started listening. I listened to a lot of audio, and audio drama, trying to pick up tips and tricks, and learn what I was doing wrong… you have these lines coming in with a fan in the background, or a dog barking. This echoey stuff that no amount of digital mixing or tweaking can fix. The source of the audio has to be as clean as possible. I didn’t realise that. And little things, I would be in a gas station, I would close my eyes and just listen… you can hear the pump clanking in the background, or you can hear this or that. If you’re creating an environment for audio you have to incorporate all these things. You have to create this picture in your mind and say “okay, there’s going to be birds there, we’re near the water so you might want to hear a motorboat, and little tiny things, like that chair squeak. Little things that people necessarily wouldn’t expect to find there, but they can see how they’d be there. And those little surprises every now and then really drive home that you’re in this environment and doing these things.”

Explosion of downloads for top audio drama shows

Two of the leading internet audio dramas, We’re Alive – A Story of Survival, and Welcome to Night Vale have watched their downloads go through the roof in the last couple of years. Both have produced quality content on a consistent and regular release schedule, and this has helped their numbers to snowball as fans tell friends, friends become fans, and these new fans tell more friends. The shows have attracted a degree of publicity in the mainstream media too, last year BuzzFeed ran an article titled Unlikely Birth of a Once-Dead Art Form, focusing heavily on the success of We’re Alive and Night Vale.

Article author Jordan Zakarin wrote that “We’re Alive, which releases three episodes per month, averages 100,000 streams per show and is tipping toward 20 million total downloads.” Less than a year later, I asked creator/director Kc Wayland how these numbers were looking now that they’d reached the end of the last season of main story content, and were moving on to producing a Tales from We’re Alive follow up series. He told me that they had now broken the 30 million mark across all download platforms and directories.

The huge swell in Night Vale’s downloads looks to have been a bit more instant. According to The Making of a Podcast Phenomenon – Welcome to Night Vale by the Numbers the show was sitting at 150,000 total downloads in June 2013, they hit  2,500,000 in July alone, and in August alone they more than doubled that figure with 5,800,000!

The article also claims it took only 20 seconds to sell out a 450 capacity live event in Brooklyn. We’re Alive has also enjoyed sellout success with its live events.

These huge numbers have naturally sent many fans of either show on the lookout for similar internet audio dramas, giving a boost to the medium, and many smaller shows out there. Many of these fans however, are looking for at least a couple of new releases per month, and produced to the premium quality standard that they are used to. At this stage, few, if any, can match that. One thing’s for sure though, producers and aspiring producers will be looking to these examples and seeing the massive potential that this medium has to offer – if you are willing to make the sacrifices to attempt something on the scale of either We’re Alive or Night Vale.

Methods of Delivery

If I want to provide a training course to help people to write, record and produce audio drama, I will have to consider the methods of delivery available to me. What formats can be used to lay down advice and guidance that will be most effective for the client? The internet offers us the freedom to create and distribute information that can help others.

The main categories I’d like to consider as options are;

1. Audio (Podcasts or audiobooks)

2. Written (Blogs, ebooks, or email courses)

3. Visual (Video)

Audio

As the ultimate aim of my work is to help people to produce audio content, doing so through the medium of audio seems like a legitimate and relevant option. I found a great guide on ‘Using audio in teaching & learning‘ on the Jisc Digital Media website.

“Audio…demonstrated a capacity to facilitate authentic engagement, allowing students to connect in various ways to the outside world, both as listeners and publishers. The ease and speed with which digital audio can be deployed was used to support timely interventions and in some cases promoted information currency and responsiveness.”

Beyond podcasting: creative approaches to designing educational audio ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, Andrew Middleton p153″

The benefits of learning through audio can be paralleled with the benefits of producing your fiction in an audio format. The flexibility and access to the student is vastly increased once you remove the need for visual engagement (you can’t drive a car whilst reading a book or watching a video, for example). The student can continue to learn whilst doing other tasks (driving, walking, working in the garden, the gym, etc) and the subconscious can be a very powerful thing when it comes to taking in and processing information (we’ll deal with this in more detail in another entry).

Of course, audio also has its limitations. Often the most simple way to demonstrate something is visually, especially when tackling some of the more technical areas of a training course. It can also be tricky to ‘bookmark’ or revisit an interesting chapter without the visual aspect, and considering the fact that the student might also be ‘on the move’ at the time.

Written

Announcing that you are “writing a book” probably doesn’t carry the same shock value than it would have twenty years ago. Nowadays, the need for a publishing deal, along with the printing, distribution, etc, have since been downgraded to a luxuries rather than necessities. This should be looked upon as a positive, as just because a particular subject maybe doesn’t have the mass appeal or potential audience that it will sell millions of copies (and make lots of profit for a publisher) it may still be extremely appealing, useful, and relevant to small niche audiences of under five hundred people.

I found this blog post on ‘tips for writing instructional and training material’ very helpful. What is interesting about most of the points made here is that they are not limited to the written form, and would still apply to both audio and video training.

Written training does offer some fantastic and unique benefits. It allows the student to progress at his or her own pace, reading and re-reading anything they feel it necessary to revisit. When you are reading something, it has far more chance of having your undivided attention than listening to an audio course whilst also carrying out other unrelated tasks at the same time. A book is also not limited to writing, but offers a platform to provide diagrams, screenshots, examples, graphs etc. Though not as free flowing as a video walkthrough, this is still an area where written training can trump audio training.

Video

Video training has exploded in recent years. If there’s something you really need to learn to do, and quickly (anything from change a tyre to unblocking a drain) you will find countless tutorials on video hosting platforms like Youtube. There’s a really informative ‘Five steps to creating video tutorials’ guide on idratherbewriting.com, and as we’ve touched on in the sections above, video tutorials are probably the simplest and most direct way of demonstrating how to do something on a practical level.

I’d say that video falls down a bit when it comes to the more in-depth, theoretical aspects of training. In many cases, the video format becomes unnecessary and even distracting once you reach the stage where practical demonstrations are no longer required. Video training has enormous benefits, but these are better harnessed to compliment other forms of learning, rather than replace them entirely.

My current goals

What do I want to achieve? 

I want to provide accessible beginner and intermediate training for people who are interested in producing audio drama.

Why?

Because I believe the medium has enormous potential, and offers a fantastic platform for those who want to create fiction. Very few people have the resources to create a TV series or film, and as for the difficulty of competing in the book market, this was summed up by Nick Morgan (Forbes) when he said “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.”

But we shouldn’t simply concentrate on the negatives of other mediums, what are the positives of producing audio drama? 

One of my favourite audio dramas We’re Alive – A Story of Survival, which has been around since 2009 and recently finished its fourth and final series of the main storyline. The show possessed the perfect recipe for success with cinematic studio quality sound, a great storyline which was superbly acted, and a consistent and regular release schedule. With over thirty million total downloads, this is an extreme example of a successful show. Nevertheless it has pulled thousands of new (and young) people in to this medium of storytelling – and they want more. I recently interviewed the guys from the We’re Alive Fancast on my podcast about this scenario. Fancaster Mick agreed, telling me “All I see on every We’re Alive Facebook post is people constantly asking ‘what else is out there that’s like this?'” What other storytelling medium is there such a huge potential audience out there, waiting for good content?

But the potential audience isn’t the only attraction. Audio drama is a wonderfully intimate form of fiction, and because the story takes place in your head. To paraphrase Audio Epics producer Domien De Groot in his interview with the Sonic Society, you can’t watch TV or read a book with your eyes closed, but you can listen to audio drama. The medium also offers the potential for a storyteller to create scenes and events that would cost unthinkable amounts of money to bring to life on film through CGI. It is also popular amongst people with visual impairments, and many actors with disabilities find it gives them much more freedom than things like stage acting and theatre.

What are the next steps? 

To research teaching and learning theories, as well as delivery methods. To organise and plan the manner in which I can help people to begin creating their own audio drama shows.

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