Radio Drama Revival Interview

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World famous radio drama podcast Radio Drama Revival have rebroadcast part of our series ‘The Wall in the Mind‘. Wall in the Mind was a location recorded drama series broadcast on Newstalk earlier this year. The series is moves back in time between contemporary Germany and fall of the Berlin Wall, and follows one woman’s search to resolve a mystery that’s lasted a quarter of a century. The first episode of the show is out now over at Radio Drama Revival, accompanied by an in depth interview with yours truly.

The series starred James O’Connor,Jasmin Gleeson, Dominik Domresonski, Dagmar Baar, Helena Clarke, Janine Dürkop, Sven Moritz, Andrew Harvey Robert Deering and Seb Connellan. Written, directed and edited by Gareth Stack. Sound engineering by Colm Coyne.

Building a studio for podcasts & radio drama

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I’ve been very gradually building up a home studio setup over the past four years, as Dead Medium Productions came together. Although my setup is very modest and modular, it’s capable of recording ‘broadcast quality’ radio either indoors out out, capturing four performers simultaneously, and editing the whole shebang in multichannel stereo.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the tech I use, as a guide for radio producers starting out. There’s lot of great advice out there about mics and speakers and so on, but it tends to focus on equipment which is way out of the price range of folks working on podcasts or public radio productions. For example This American Life have some great mic recommendations, but these tend to be very expensive, or not generally available in Europe.

To my mind, if you’re buying a 600 euro / 800 dollar microphone, you probably already work for This American Life. Mere mortals are more likely to be looking for better bargains. You really don’t have to spend crazy money to get good equipment. To start with, all you need to record audio is a WAV recorder. If you need to get a bit more professional, you can add in a computer, microphone, and an audio interface (to get the microphone to talk to the computer).

WAV RECORDER

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This is the most basic item of kit anyone capturing sound needs to have. Wav recorders cost anything from less than 100 euro, to thousands, and come in a bewildering variety of sizes and capacities. I use the Zoom H4N, a mid range device which is capable of great results, both with its two onboard condenser mics and external mics plugged directly into the bottom of the device.

The preamps on the zoom are weak, and button placement is pretty awful for run and gun recording. So the next step up if you can afford it, is the H4N’s big brother, the Zoom H6. The H6 boots up much quicker (which can be important say in an interview situation), and allows up to four external mics to be plugged in. It also supports a variety of different mic attachments. This is a huge advantage, as not only can you use different mics for different situations, but if the mic breaks you haven’t lost your whole investment. I’ve always been nervous about the exposed mics at the top of the H4N; and I’d definitely consider upgrading in future. The H6 is also built more sturdily, and has more intuitive controls. Preamps still suck though. In the same sort of price range Marantz offer larger, bulkier, sturdier devices, at a slightly higher price.

For interviews, I’ve often used the H4N handheld (with the included handle). It’s not ideal – the sensitive mics cause a lot of ‘handling noise’, it’ll pick up background sounds (say in a coffee shop) much too well too – but it’s extremely light and portable, and has been my workhorse for most of the current documentary series.

I’ve left the best part till last. You can use the Zoom H4N (or H6) as an audio interface for multi-track recording, with or without a PC. This means you can run two mics into the device (and even record a third person, using the two small condenser mics attached), and capture multitrack audio right onto the Zoom. So you can have your H4N set up on a table, without the need for a (potentially noisy) computer, and get amazing sound from two people from external mics, or great sound for one person from the internal mics.

CONDENSER MIC

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For voiceover, radio drama, podcasting and so on, a condenser mic is highly recommended. More sensitive to sound than a dynamic mic, they tend to require a quieter room, and tend to cost more too. However, a single good condenser can last you years, and serve multiple functions (from recording a singers vocals, to narration, to presenting).

Many folks starting out (especially podcasters) are tempted by USB microphones, since they’re cheap, sound fine and don’t require an audio interface to connect to your computer. Don’t do it. USB mics are a dead end. You’re unlikely to be able to get more than one to work with your computer at a time, which means you’ll have to spend twice as much if you want to add a mic to your setup in the future. Start right, with a nice low end XLR condenser mic, a cheap 2 or 4 port USB interface (or mixing desk if you can’t afford the interface yet – they’re often available dirt cheap second hand), and some free recording software. You can build up from there – adding mics, WAV recorders, etc as needed.

I’ve had my Rode NT1-A since 2008, and I’ve recorded some part of every scripted radio series I’ve made on it. It’s a beautiful, particularly sensitive piece of kit, and available with a ‘shock mount’ and ‘pop shield’ (to prevent plosive ‘puh’ sounds from ‘popping’ during recording) for around 150 euro / 200 dollars.

If you’re looking for something cheaper – say you need two or three mics to record a podcast. I’d recommend the Audio Technica AT2020. These mics don’t have the amazing sound response of the Rode. They also don’t pic up an ants sneeze like the Rode will, and are much better if you need to simultaneously mic several folks.

MIC STANDS

To keep it simple, I’d recommend a couple of desk tripod stands for recording spoken podcasts etc. Or a full sized ‘boom stands‘ for recording radio drama.

AUDIO INTERFACE

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Lets say you want to record two or four people chatting. Ideally you’ll want to record each voice separately, in case you need to adjust levels later. You can run all those tracks into a mixer (like a DJ might use for a live gig) but they come out mixed, feeding only one track into the computer. Instead you need an audio interface. I recently picked up the ‘AKAI EIE PRO‘. It’s a cheap, light four port device which outputs through USB. The AKAI is pretty much hassle free to set up and has a very clean sound – no detectable noise whatsoever. You can carry it in a backpack, for a good portable setup. It is a little quiet though, so you might want to pre-amp the microphones you’re feeding into it. In retrospect, I could have picked up a Zoom H6 for only 100 more, which would have served many more functions. Doh.

RECORDING / EDITING SOFTWARE

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If you have a Mac, Garage Band is free, reliable and easy to use for multitrack recording and editing alike. Just because I’m used to it, and because it’s so quick and flexible for ‘cutting’ audio, I prefer Adobe Audition. Like Garageband, audition supports multitrack recording. Audition’s great advantage is that it’s insanely fast. You can open a dozen audio tracks, each an hour long in audition in a couple of seconds, and play and edit them without lag – something other program struggle with. With a little practice, you can zoom in and out of the recording and cut it extremely quickly. Audition does take time to master however, I’ve been using it for three years and I would say I’m intermediate with the program.

Many editors / producers prefer AVID’s Protools, which is a nice program and certainly fully featured, but has one massive disadvantage. Protools not only requires you to plug a dongle in (using up a precious USB slot) when in use, but also requires your computer to be plugged into an audio interface (containing a DSP, or digital signal processer), usually the one the software came with. You can forget recording or editing your audio in a library or coffee shop, with pro-tools you’re chained to your studio. To me this seems ludicrous, but if it doesn’t hamper you too much protools is definitely an industry standard, and worth learning. It’s cheaper little brother Pro Tools LE, comes bundled with many audio interfaces (including the AKAI EIE).

COMPUTER

I record and edit radio drama on a 2013 Macbook Air i7, with 8 gigs RAM. This is probably overkill, but the speed definitely lets me work faster. Really any computer with a usb slot or even a line in will let you record audio. Any modern laptop or desktop (although probably not a netbook), whether Windows or OSX, should be fast enough to record and edit audio. I certainly do recommend the air for it’s speed, although the battery life is much better on the i5 models.

OUTDOORS MIC

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There are as many mic recommendations as there are situations in which to use them. For indoor recording, condensers like the ones recommended above are great. For a noisy environment, you might want to use a more traditional dynamic stage microphone like the Sure SM58. If you’re going to be wandering around outside however, or capturing sound in a variety of locations, some noisy, some quiet, you’re best off with a shotgun mic. I’ve just picked up a very low end model, the Rode NTG1.

Already I can tell it’s loud, muted and ideal for a outdoor recording. While the sound is very ‘flat’ compared to a condenser mic, it’s much easier to control the volume and direction. This will be my go to mic for interviews. You will need some sort of additional grip to use this thing off a stand (as it only comes with a mic stand adaptor).

For recording on location drama in stereo, I’d recommend Rode’s stereo condenser, the Rode NT4. Rode sell a kit that goes with this mic (or with the NTG1), which includes a ‘pistol grip’ and ‘blimp’. With this setup you can record outside, even in windy conditions and get better sound than you’ll hear on almost all radio program (and even movies). We used the NT4 and blimp to record all of ‘Any Other Dublin‘.

HEADPHONES

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Any cheap pair of headphones are fine for monitoring a live recording, or basic mixing. If you’re starting to produce for radio, a decent mid range pair of Sony or Seinheiser headphones will do fine. Unless you’re producing music, missing some high and low range sound will in practice not interfere with editing. If you do want to spend the money, I’d recommend Beyerdynamic’s D150’s. These headphones are balanced which means they support proper balanced audio for mixing. They have a very flat accurate response, so they’re not ideal for bass heavy music. For cutting voice though, they’re a great pair of light, comfortable, hardy headphones.

SPEAKERS

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I’m no expert on speakers, so I’ll just go ahead and recommend the kit I picked up on Chipzel’s recommendation. A pair of KRK Rokit 6’s. You’ll want surge protected power for these guys to protect them from power spikes, and ideally a DI box to, to protect them from damaging signals (especially if you’re going to play a guitar right into them).

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Some Thoughts on Recording Radio On Location

Leah Egan, Andy McGarry
Fresh faced young actors Leah Egan, Andy McGarry, trapped in an improvised sound booth

Over the past few months I’ve been working on my latest radio project. This show has been a very different challenge from previous series, since we made the (slightly mad) decision to record on location. With the able help of sound engineer and independent producer Colm Coyne I recorded all six episodes outside the studio (with the exception of voice over / ADR), using locations like the Phoenix Park and autonomous social centre Seomra Spraoi. This gave the show a really fresh and varied sound, and despite the enormously increased challenges of production, was in the end completely worth the extra effort.

Recording radio on location is much more similar to recording a low budget movie than making a traditional radio show. To understand why, you have to know a little about how radio is made. Broadly speaking there are four ways to do radio drama – live in studio, live on location, pre-recorded in studio and pre-recorded on location. The first two kinds of of programmes, requiring enormous skill and expertise in sound effects and production, not to mention outside broadcast units, a tightly rehearsed cast and so on, essentially don’t exist any more. With some noble exceptions from the likes of Roger Gregg’s Crazy Dog Audio Theatre Company, live radio theatre is dead.  Mostly, radio productions created for regional and national radio today are pre-recorded in studio. What this means is that they’re created ‘dry’, in as quiet a room as possible, with all sound effects, music and post processing (think echos, robot voices etc) done later. This has gotten a lot easier in recent years, with the development of creative commons licences, and wonderful free sound libraries like FreeSound.org. With cheap microphones readily available from folks like Germany based Thomann, and even the cheapest home laptops now powerful enough to edit sound; it’s possible to make this kind of radio drama on an extremely low budget. Even with a large budget, if you’re recording in the studio, where time is money; pre-recording like this lets you schedule exactly when you’ll need which actors, so you can trolley them in and out of the studio as needed, like trays of biscuits.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDi-FlCizkQ]

Recording on location is a whole other kettle of tea. Amongst its advantages: Each space you use sounds different, and the acoustics of a real room, field or bus station sound much ‘fresher’ than you’re likely to get tinkering in Adobe Audition with an FFT filter. This is real live stereo sound with people located physically in space, moving in relation to the microphone. It really isn’t something you can capture any other way. The disadvantages are however numerous. It takes much much longer for a start. Scenes need to be blocked out, like you would a movie – with character movements, interactions, and where necessary sound effects, arranged in advance. Unintended background noise, from a truck pulling up in the street outside, to a creaky water pipe, to the microphone cable jangling against the boom, can be an enormous problem. Given your limited time on set, and the beg / steal / borrow nature of low budget recording locations, you’re always moments away from an angry neighbour or unexpected visitor scuppering things. On one of our most difficult days on set we struggled not only with some excitable young folks in another room playing gabber from the youtubes, but also my severe allergy to cat hair in a room unexpectedly full of it! Directing through two swollen eyes and a nose like a tub of treacle mounted to your moustache is no mean feat.

The Cast
The cast recording a scene set in a therapy group, in Seomra Spraoi

On the plus side, despite the many agitations, location recording a lot more fun. I was working with professional actors for the first time on this show, and that, combined with the espirit de corps of recording for six days, over three weeks across a variety of locations, made it genuinely enjoyable. Sometimes the actors even had too much fun, and I had to develop a cruel lion tamer like whistle to lure them away from their frolicking to perform. Previous recording experiences have been absolutely horrific, speed of light attempts to get take after take, episode after episode in the can, before studio time runs out or an amateur actor has to leave to get their hair done. It made a huge difference to the actors performances too – having the time to do a read through at the beginning of every day (imagine that, a rehearsal!). The actors were able to get to know their characters, and develop them across the space of the six episode series. It was less like making a soap opera, and more like theatre, darling.

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Gordon Rochford gets into character as ‘Brony Guy’

This was also an excellent opportunity for me to start to learn how to direct. I’ve ‘directed’ several shows in the past, but my methodology has always been a panicked mix of begging and threats, like octomom in Toys R Us after all her sex tape money has run out. This time I made sure to prep like a mofo. I bought bikkies, chips and tea before every recording session, planned adequate breaks, and even had a modest budget for actor lunches. Never underestimate the effectiveness of feeding people. Little things, like making certain to have plenty of copies of the script, all crocodile clipped and labelled with the actors names, makes a huge difference to inviting people into the world of the production. Talking to the cast as people, introducing everyone to each other, and explaining what we had planned for the day at the kick off, were all really important. I had a small part in a low budget film late last year, and the tensions I observed on that set could have greatly lessened if the director had taken thirty minutes to pull everyone in for a team huddle every morning. Of course there’s another side to it too. Inevitably, when you’re producing anything, people will flake. It doesn’t matter if they’re being paid, or working as a favour. It doesn’t matter if it’s a highly visible project for national television, or a two man play for local community theatre, people will sometimes screw you. When they do, and this is something I’m still learning – drumming into my head over and over again, you need to stay calm, cajole them if necessary [immediately replace them if possible] and move on. It’s awkward, awful even if they’re folks you know well. But if it’s a time limited production, and other people are relying on them – you’re letting every else down if you don’t deal with it immediately, fairly and firmly. The other side of the production social contract is that you owe it to everyone to be clear from the start. Its your job as director / producer to know (and not change) where and when you’ll be recording as far in advance as possible, to handle emergencies without letting them become everyone else’s problem, and to let people know when and how much they’ll be paid.

Arty people, arty photoDylan McDonough, Leah Egan, Gordon Rochford, and Aimee MacLeod bond in black and white

Returning to sound; it’s worth noting that location recording isn’t a magic bullet for sound effects. Lots of post production was still needed to fix noises, add in lots of effects we couldn’t get on the day etc etc. But it did create the environment, the bed we needed to build everything else from. Having an extra pair of hands on set, in the form of a sound engineer (who in practice doubled as a producer / co-director) was invaluable. Having someone to hold the boom, and listen to everything as its recorded, and figure out where to put the microphone sounds simple, but its a luxury I haven’t always had in the past. It frees up the director to pay attention to the minutia of the performances – like an actors specific phrasing of a line, missed words, screwed up accents – all the stuff you can’t fix later. That’s the other thing about recording on location – if you don’t get it on the day, you can’t readily re-do it, so it best be right first time.

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Laura McGuire, actress, Colm Coyne, sound engineer, mickey, microphone

The approach I took to directing the specifics of performances was very hands on. If the ratio of rehearsal to performance time were different, like say for theatre, or even a movie, it would be preferable to let the actors breathe more. Hire the best people and stand back, as Woody Allen advices. However, with a small cast on a tight schedule, doing multiple voices each – quickly communicating ‘that’s not working, can you try this’ is a necessity. That said, the cast were brilliant at coming up with fantastical accents and hilarious improvisations – especially the two comedians on board, Gordon Rochford, and Andy McGarry. Special mention has to go to Angel Hannigan too, who despite her young age ably portrayed a withered crone of forty six!

Dylan McDonough sharing his choice of body

In terms of capturing sound, I did my best to comb through the scripts and note down every sound effect cue and background noise, with the hope of recording them all in situ. In practise this quickly went out the window, as work expanded to fill the time allowed – with each episode taking roughly an eight hour day to produce (compared to a couple of hours in studio).  This show was also more complex in another way too. I’d written it in an effort at vérité, not really considering the practical problems of the amount of characters in each episode. When you record something comedically broad, like my last show Been There; Seen There, silly voices cover a multitude of sins – from underwritten bit parts to a shortage of actors. With a tone even vaguely realistic, especially something recorded on location, you’re really limited as to how many parts you can have each actor do. Since the scenes need to be recorded essentially in real time, very few actors can talk to themselves (Gordon Rochford excepted, see clip above) convincingly in multiple accents.  The plus side was that we were forced to cast a lot of one day bit part actors (although in practice many ended up with quite substantial parts, including Andy McGarry, who replaced me as one of the main characters!). This gave me a great opportunity to work with (and test the capacities of) lots of really talented young Irish actors. Many of which I hope to work with again in the future. Should we all survive the invasion of the Troglodons, the meteorite tumbling through space on an impact trajectory with earth, and our own deep unshakable sense of futility. More anon.

Any Other Dublin is broadcasting at 10:15 AM on Weds 21st Aug, Thurs 22nd Aug, Fri 23rd Aug, Mon26th Aug, Tues 27th Aug, Weds 28th on 103.2 Dublin City FM. All episodes will be available in enhanced super delux versions online, right after they broadcast.

Clips

Episode 1 – clip – Bernie, a former property developer whose fallen on hard times, struggles to deal with the realities of an open relationship

Episode 2 – clip 1 – Oisin, a financial services analyst and pick up artist provides some advice to a young friend about the game

Episode 3 – clip 2 – Oisin visits his solicitor to discuss some allegations