Saturday, November 08, 2008

Guest Column: Anatomy of a Radio Drama

by Snowdog

The recording of a written work into an audio production can be a great deal of fun and need not be too expensive. The production itself can range from a simple one-man-one-voice show to an all-out extravaganza with multiple players, sound effects and music. For the purposes of this post, I'll limit it to the former.

I. Equipment
In the interest of full disclosure, I must 'fess up to the fact that, as an amateur musician, I've collected some decent (not great) equipment over the years, including a good microphone, mixer and some effects processors. Much of this is unnecessary, strictly speaking, with one exception: You need a good microphone. If you use the one in your official World of Warcraft headset, it's going to sound like crap. Expect to spend at least $100 for a good studio mic, or perhaps less on eBay.

II. Software
The recording industry has been revolutionized over the last fifteen years. Where you might have spent $50/hour for professional studio time and $150 for a reel of two-inch tape, you can now get close to the same quality of sound at home using any of a number of software packages. Back around 1997 or so, I bought a program called Cool Edit Pro. It was an amazing, lean and powerful piece of multitracking recording software. And then, it was acquired by Adobe. I sent them an email pleading that they not turn it into useless bloatware. No answer. To be fair, though, Adobe Audition mostly still functions the way it should, but it now eats massive amounts of hard drive space and CPU cycles. There is a free open source multitrack recorder called Audacity, but I don't have any experience with it.

III. Prep Work
Read the story, in this case Rigel Kent's Bane tribute, Blaze of Glory.

The story has three speaking characters. I take a little time to get to know them, particularly Big Man, the protagonist. Then I imagine their background, the events that led up to where they are now, and what they think might lie ahead.

Big Man is a survivor, perhaps a former soldier, probably thought of as a reclusive gun nut. We don't learn much about Mom other than she is strong-willed and tough. Jamie is a good kid. I'm guessing around fifteen or sixteen, if he's getting big enough to push Mom around.

Since it's a short work, I read the story again, this time aloud.

IV. Set-Up
Time to pull out and fire up the gear. Turn on the mixer. Flip on the phantom power to the microphone. Boot up Adobe Audition on the desktop system and open a new 44.1 KHz mono wav file. Pull up Rigel's blog on the laptop. He uses a large, high-contrast font, so I don't have to paste the story into Open Office and tweak it. (Thanks, Rigel!) Now I’ll grab a beer. (You know, to help get in character.)

Bruce noted the subtle reverb in the Night of the Obamanation recording. The truth is, the effect was switched on throughout the entire reading, but I kept the "send" on the mixer turned down low, so that only the loudest sounds reverberate. (VOTE BARRACK!) I'm doing the same for Blaze.

V. Recording
I suspect everyone approaches the recording process differently. Despite how it sounds, what you're hearing in my work is not me standing in front of a mic reading an entire story in one pass. Rather, I attack the piece one paragraph at a time, first rehearsing it until I work out the correct inflection and voice characterizations, then attempting to record. Sometimes this requires creating multiple takes until I quit stumbling over my own tongue and find one that I like.

After doing two or three paragraphs this way, I like to go back and listen to the overall rhythm of the narrative to check for consistency. This may sound crazy, but the pitch and timing of sentences as they flow past work a little like music. In the first few paragraphs, I try to establish a baseline rhythm, so I can pick up the tempo later for action sequences, and then drop it again for sudden silences. (There's a good example of this in Blaze of Glory when Big Man runs out of ammo.)

After I record the final section, it's time to go back and compile all the best takes into a hopefully coherent whole. Again, it's important to have a feel for the rhythm so as to help decide how long to pause between paragraphs. Often, at this point, I realize that I haven't saved the file down in a long time. I hold my breath and click the little diskette icon.

The last step in the recording process is to apply any post-production effects. This is where you would add any music, sound effects or tweak the ambiance of the recording. I had decided before I started recording to use Audition's built-in effects rack to alter the voices of Wife and Jamie so that they sound as if they are coming over a telephone. This would serve to highlight Big Man's isolation from his family and help distinguish the voices from one another. It was a nice idea in theory, but in execution, the constant shifts in sound become too distracting. It would probably have worked if I had created an entire sound bed (background noises, ominous music) first, and then altered just the two voices. So I click “Undo”.

Finally, I apply some light hiss reduction to counteract noise picked up from one of the other three computers in the room.

VI. Compressing
Last of all, I take the rather large wav file and cringe as I crunch it down to a low-quality 56Kbs MP3 file. Fortunately, unlike music, human speech survives this process pretty well. So we upload the file to my domain host and stick a link to it in this article.

Voila and Viola! Audio drama of Shatnerian proportions: blazeofglory.mp3

Any questions?