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MAKING A DRAMATIC PODCAST DURING QUARANTINE

by Stephen Les 12 months ago in how to

Tips and tricks on safely producing a podcast drama

MAKING A DRAMATIC PODCAST DURING THE QUARANTINE

I make a dramatic podcast during the quarantine. By “dramatic podcast” I mean a drama with a script and actors and characters--what used to be called a radio drama, like “The Shadow”. Mine is called “MoonShot Mission X”. It’s a comic, retro-futuristic, sci-fi, story about a trip to the moon. There are eight characters, and eight actors. Aside from the characters created by the actors, and the host of the show who does an intro and outro, I do everything else. I write, direct, and edit, and compose the music. I manage the releases and the promotion.

I’m not a trained sound engineer or editor. However, I am a trained writer and director, having learned the crafts at New York University, HB Studio in Manhattan, and with Judith Weston in Los Angeles. As for the sound, I do the best that I can, and I feel good about the results. But I don’t want to suggest that my way of doing this podcast is the only way in any respect, or even a correct way. I can only say that it works for me.

RECORDING

After the script for a given episode is complete I send it to the individual actors and they each record their lines alone at their residences on whatever they have to record on. Some use their cell phones and some have somewhat more professional gear. Once they have recorded their takes they email me the audio files.

I keep the direction very simple. I remind them that enunciation is important. I try to express the pace I’m looking for. I remind them about signal-to-noise ratio, the importance of a quiet environment, and not turning pages while they are delivering their lines. All basic stuff, but it doesn’t hurt to mention it, especially to someone who is not necessarily technically-minded. After all, their job is to act.

The more professional equipment sounds slightly better than the lines recorded on cell phones, but with the background sound of the given scene, and within the context of the presentation of the story, the difference is not significant. To my mind the sophistication of smartphones these days is such that it does a very good job of isolating the voice and minimizing background sound. A couple of times I’ve had to ask for re-recording because of distortion of the signal, or because of background sound, but it’s rare that re-recording is necessary. In the four episodes that have been completed I only asked for one re-recording because of performance issues.

DIRECTING

I have a certain creative attitude to “directing” the piece. I’ve always been interested in the aleatory possibilities in the creation of art. Many times I write a line wondering what the performer will make of the line. In this way it’s very important to the final result that the performers don’t hear their scene partner delivering their lines. You might think that the result would feel patchwork, but in fact it’s amazing to me how unified the scenes sound. In fact I believe that there is a fresh feeling to the scene as a whole because of the unexpected interactions of line readings.

PERFORMANCES

Over the course of the four episodes the actors have come to intuitively know and be able to expect how a scene partner will handle a certain line. And similarly each performer has honed their own performance, both it itself and to fit the work of their scene partners, as they have noted from earlier episodes. So the unity has actually improved over the course of the episodes, although not necessarily to a degree that would be appreciated by the average listener.

At the same time I am as often amazed at how well a line is interpreted, and I am surprised by a given interpretation. And this surprise I find is a source of wonder for me, and an inspiration, and a lesson not to be too fixed in terms of how I believe something should go, or how a line should be read. Occasionally there are collisions of ideas between one performer’s interpretation of a situation and another’s, and I always find these to be wondrous and exciting. Sometimes I write lines thinking “I wonder how the performer will ever be able to figure out a way to make this work” and then I’m astonished at the ingenuity demonstrated.

Although it’s true almost anyone can deliver a set of lines, or even interpret a scene, the resources that a professional actor or actress, who has studied and mastered their craft, is a true pleasure with which to work. A professionally trained actor or actress can find such riches in even the most mediocre writing, and mine the riches they find for the good of the production as a whole. Another quality I find with professional actors is the dedication they have to the project. Many seem to be innately aware that the ego is not involved in good work, but a concern for the well-being and quality of the project is.

SOUND EFFECTS

Of course, another important element of the production is the sound effects. I divide the sounds into sound effects and ambience. The sound effects tend to be brief, such as a switch being thrown, or a ray gun blast--although some sound effects can last over several lines, for example an alarm bell. But each location has its own ambience, which also can be called background sound, or room tone.

In some cases a location will have up to five tracks of audio that make up it’s ambience. In some cases it’s just one. I have a sound library that sometimes has the effects I need, such as a squeak, or a spaceship door opening. For others I use a digital sound recorder and record them myself, usually around my apartment. I had a bag of potting soil that I dropped to make the sound of someone falling to the floor. I pounded on the outside of a washing machine to make the sound of someone crawling through a ventilator shaft and hitting the sides of the shaft. I recorded my refrigerator to create the background sound of the kitchen on the space shipt. So both sound effects and ambiences can come from either the sound library or my own recording. Once or twice I needed to purchase a sound effect online.

EDITING

The first thing I do when beginning the editing of a project is record my voice as a scratch track. I read the entire script, saying the character’s name and then the line. I say the sound effects and ambiences too. I try to read a little slowly, because it makes it easier in one of the next steps. I place the scratch track into the editing software, unless I actually recorded it into the software--I’ve done both. I use Ableton Live, even though it is primarily for producing music, because I am familiar with it. I tried editing in DaVinci Resolve, and the editing was a little easier, but when it came to modifying the sounds in the tracks later, I had a hard time with Fairlight, the part of Resolve used for that purpose. Based on my previous use of it, I have the feeling that Adobe Audition would be an ideal tool to use, but I’m not interested in paying Adobe for it on a monthly basis. And now I have a workflow that works for me in Ableton.

I make a track for every take. So if an actor gave me one take, that actor has one track. But if an actor gave me three takes, then that actor has three tracks, one for each take. At first I specified at least two takes and no more than four. But each actor found a method that works best for them, and I found that I can work with whatever I’m sent. In fact, the easiest for me seems to be when the actor sends me one take, i.e. one file, and if they want to do another reading of a line, or there was a background sound, or if they stumbled, they just redo the line without stopping the recording. I find it easier to move through the material that way, compared to if they did, e.g. three separate takes.

But if in fact they did three separate takes, I don’t listen to the entirety of each take. I start with the last take and listen to hear what the quality of the performance is. If I like it, then I simply use that take unless there is a problem. If there is a problem I’ll go to the second-to-the-last take for a given line, then to the take before if necessary. Usually, there is not a lot of variance in performance from take-to-take, especially since the actors have all had a chance to settle into their characters.

But this does bring up an issue that I haven’t addressed yet. It’s a certain perspective I have on the project as a whole. I have spent a lot of time on a lot of projects making a tremendous effort to get them into just the right shape. I can spend two years working on six songs, for example. In this project I purposely let issues go that in other projects, and at other times, I would not have. I want to move through this project at a quicker pace, and also have more fun with it, than with previous work I’ve done. So I don’t take the work too seriously, and to let certain flaws go, for the greater good of moving through the material at a quicker pace, and having more fun. The way this often shows up is “That take is good enough. It’s fine.” Instead of “Let me listen to and compare every single take of that line, repeatedly, to get the absolute best take possible.”

I take the same view with the writing. I’m not trying to write a masterpiece. I’m having fun and moving through the material, and trusting my gut. Some say that the first draft of anything is sh*t. I don’t agree. I think that the first draft is gold, and that it’s easier to drain the first version of life by additional drafts, than to add anything of value to it. Of course there is a middle road, and I usually do about three drafts of a script, but I don’t second guess my first instincts. The second and third drafts are usually clean-up, and a little organization. Going with my first instincts is one of the things that makes this project so much fun.

Now it’s a question of, in the editing software, lining up the actors’ lines with the scratch track. I’ve read the scratch track a little slowly, so there should be room between each line. It’s easier to delete time than to add it. Once I’ve done this I add the sound effects in the proper places according to the scratch track.

At this point I can delete the scratch track and start the process of tightening all of the action by removing time between lines, tightening up the individual lines by taking out unnecessary pauses, and even in some cases digitally speeding up the delivery of a line. This is the work of forming the final product, with all the precision of timing that I desire.

Once everything is in place, and the pace is correct, I add the ambience, or background sound, for each location, the transitional music between scenes, the narrator’s lines, and the intro and outro music. Now all the pieces are present and in their proper place.

SOUND TREATMENT

It’s now time to add the treatment of each track. Each actor has his or her own equalization and compression, which has been fine-tuned in previous episodes and saved as a preset. I apply these presets to the appropriate tracks.

Next is to address the reverb which is particular to each location. I’ve set up one sub-master for each location, and when the actor is in a given location I send the signal from that actor’s track to the appropriate sub-master. I also do this with the sound effects and the ambience of each scene. I do this to unify the feeling of each location.

Next I pan the actors’ lines and the sound effects to the appropriate place in the stereo field. For example one actor is panned towards the right side and the other actor is panned to the left side, depending on where they are standing in the scene. And the last step is to adjust all the levels, track by track, according to a chart I’ve created of the preferred level of each element. Then I listen to the entire piece and make panning or level adjustments as needed. This completes the editing phase.

MASTERING

To master I use an online service called Landr. I use the settings that indicate a minimal amount of compression and other treatment in the mastering process. I do this simply because I don’t have the expertise to do it myself.

UPLOADING

I upload to Anchor.fm, and they distribute it to other platforms such as Spotify, Overcast, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Radio Public, and Pocket Casts. They do require artwork for the podcast as a whole, and some platforms require artwork related to each episode. A short summary of the episode is also required.

CONCLUSION

I’ve found a wonderful outlet for my dramatic interests and writing. The cost is very low. I have a profit-sharing arrangement with the performers, and I own the computer and software necessary to do the editing. I pay a small monthly fee to Landr to use their mastering service, and I spend whatever I want on promotion. But mainly I do a small amount of promotion on my own and leave it at that. I find this entire process exciting and fascinating. Currently I’m editing the fifth of nine episodes total for this particular podcast / story. Next I will be embarking on a serious one-act podcast, which I can’t wait to start writing.

MOONSHOT MISSION X (Nine 10-minute episodes)

A comic, retro-futuristic, sci-fi podcast drama presented in the brilliant technovision colors of your mind--relating the story of eight intrepid travelers to the moon, navigating interstellar and interpersonal obstacles to fulfill their mission at any cost.

Created, written, and directed by Stephen Les

Hosted by Marcia Stoeckel

Starring June Pieske as Agent Genevieve Smith, Summera Howell as Sheila Champagne, Ulka Simone Mohanty as Claudette Floris, Guy Picot as Professor Claude Floris, Steve Callahan as Timmy Weatherby, Ricky Wood as Captain Harold Stance, and Richard Clarke Larsen as Commander Larry Harding.

Appearing on your favorite podcast platform:

Spotify

Anchor.fm

Overcast

Breaker

Pocket Cast

Radio Public

Google Podcasts

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Stephen Les

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