On The Air
Radio drama relies heavily on the skills of the sound engineer as you can well imagine. Janet Angus spoke with one of its leading exponents, John Rowland, aboard The Barge Studio to discover what special techniques are involved.
Janet Angus climbs aboard The Barge studio moored in London's Little Venice to discover the intricacies of recording radio drama from one of its chief exponents - John Rowland.
The world of commercials and advertising jingles is a mystery to many, even to some of the more self-esteeming professional engineers. The fact is, it is a completely different ball game. Some of the equipment might be the same, but techniques and tricks of the trade are totally beyond the experience of your average muso engineer. John Rowland not only has a wealth of experience and knowledge of this field, but also works in the imaginative medium of radio drama where he is recognised as a leader - together with Anthony Cornish, he runs a course called Acting For Radio at no lesser place than the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
John's base is the very picturesque Barge Studios which bobs up and down in Little Venice in North London. John's mild Aussi accent betrays his origins which he abandoned for the colder English climate in his mid-twenties having gained experience in radio, television and film: "There was no union restriction out there so you could get involved in everything". Immediately prior to his emigration he was a network radio producer, but the English film industry had more appeal and he set out to seek his fortune. Why?
"There is more quality about the film industry in England. Hollywood is churning out television movies nowadays, whereas in England there is more of a craftsman's approach, to the sound as well."
Of course, in England we do have very strong union influence especially in areas such as film, and John had his fair share of encounters with the 'closed shop'. Commercial radio on the other hand was very easy going by comparison because in this country it was a new idea and the personnel involved were new to the experience and feeling their way. John, however, already had ten years' experience behind him so it seemed logical to get involved.
After a year or so, working at (the now defunct) Studio G in Wardour Street, John managed to get together enough capital with partners to buy The Barge.
"It took off in a big way. At first it was, I suppose, difficult not being in the West End but on the other hand there's a very creative atmosphere on the water - peace and love man." That was a joke - he may be an old hippy but it doesn't really show!
Studios which had set up to produce radio commercials were operating in a very factory-like manner: "The client rushes in, twirls round, and next thing you know you are back in the alley with an armful of tapes". The Barge were a big contrast with their 'laid back' approach and peaceful location; this was their selling point and eventually their greatest strength.
"Apart from anything else, it was much more fun working like that."
When the inevitable bust-up with the partners took place, The Barge had to be sold. Its taker was Virgin boss Richard Branson who at the time was living on another barge in Little Venice and "he just liked the idea of a studio in a silly place!".
Redesigned and refitted "with all the ponsy gear" as John so beautifully puts it, the studio was all set to go with a new image and pitching at even higher things.
The main control room is equipped with 24-track Otari MTR90 and MCI console with Studer A810 quarter-inch machines plus a wealth of effects - as you can see, no ordinary jingle facility.
A secondary voice-over studio enables The Barge to accept projects in musical, advertorial, radio drama and jingle areas, all of which John himself does (though less of the music). This breadth of capability is what sets this studio apart from the other studios producing commercials. "Even now there are only about eight direct competitors. It's more interesting than running a music studio because there are less overheads and more varied work. A lot of engineers look down on people who work in voice-over studios but really it is quite a different skill yet equally interesting; there is a lot to know about making a recording and getting everything right in just one hour."
"Advertising people are a lot less technically minded. Whereas the music client comes in and knows his gear, the advertising people have much more faith in their engineer, I think it is fair to say, which in many ways makes it more rewarding, and a large degree of creativity is required of you because you are left on your own. Producers in this line of work tend to be more concerned with the performance than the technical side."
As competition increased, The Barge's work extended to embrace radio drama more and more as well as projects like talking books.
"Radio drama is a great exercise in lateral thinking. Actors love it because they get chosen for parts they wouldn't normally get: elderly, overweight spinsters can suddenly be princesses... and you can make use of the fact the quality of their performance improves because they are doing something they enjoy. Radio drama is magic - it can be anything you want it to be."
Soon Capital Radio started to put all its drama work John's way.
"Because of my background in film I was able to make drama more visual. No, it is not a contradiction in terms; when you record a voice-over you tend to go for a full, high fidelity sort of sound - with film it is more to do with creating reality. If you watch a film and you hear high frequency sound, it doesn't really sound as if it is coming from the person who is supposed to be talking. I know how to overcome that. With radio, there are additional problems created by the interspersion of loud commercials which make the sound of the play seem not far enough forward - BBC dramas have greater dynamic range because they don't have the problem of adverts."
A Capital Radio soap opera entitled 'Nicola Johnson' went to The Barge and a lot of it was under John's direction. It was a story of a young girl who came to London to become a journalist and ended up working in Fleet Street, and it ran for nearly two years!
"A lot of that was done on location to try and give a film-like sound. Often when you record a radio play, people get very involved in the performance and tend to overlook their surroundings which, in the real world, would be there. Things like getting the effect of a bus going by... rather than just putting the effect on behind the voice, if there really is a bus going by then the actors will shout to get over the noise until it has passed."
"Actors tend to respond better in situ I've found. We actually recorded car chases inside the car, dashing round Covent Garden, and we did things like mike up the actors with radio mikes so that they could get out of the car, give chase and actually be out of breath from running instead of trying to simulate it.
By recording on location you also capture the way sounds change like when the characters get out of the car on to the street. Obviously, it's a lot less controlled and you get continuity problems which you don't incur in the studio but it is a much more filmic approach. It is also hard work dragging all that equipment from place to place!"
John feels there is even more demand in the modern world for a certain type of realistic sound which in a society dominated by television and film is now being taken for granted.
"We have even done costume dramas here on The Barge with crinolines and everything, the whole bit. We have done things using classical actors wearing armour because the clink of the chain mail and the clank of a sword are sounds which you can only get with the real thing. That way, when you hear it on the radio you don't think 'God, what's that awful noise?', you think 'Oh, that's the suit of armour'. You know what it is and then your mind starts filling in the gaps, putting in all the surroundings until you have a complete picture in your mind."
"Having sung the praises of recording on location mind you, it is also great doing things in the studio. Location work is a luxury which you often can't afford. On location, you really need to know how it is going to end up sounding before you start - it's unlike music in that respect, especially when you get beyond 24-track where your options are so much greater. You still have to know how it is going to sound when you are working in the studio because once it is on tape you can't do anything with it - you can't push the volume up to make it a bigger performance."
At a recent broadcasting conference John, one of the speakers, took part in a discussion about dynamic range. "I was the only one opposing it; all the IBS members shouted me down. I'm not saying that they are wrong, but restricting dynamics is right for the sort of work that I do. You see, what you have to bear in mind is the end result, which is what comes out of the speaker in your television or radio. It is important for the listener not to have to keep getting up to turn it down for the loud scenes. The Americans do it very well in things like 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty' - if you have a couple screaming at each other or playing a love scene or having a fight, if you keep your eye on the VU meter it will all peak at the same level."
"Having made the recording on location, we bring the tapes back to the studio for compression, EQ and editing. By compressing the tracks separately you can have the sound effects louder than the voice track and you can get more impact by pushing it further. You would think it wouldn't work, that the opposite would be the case, but it does."
"I think it is a bit precious to think that people take the sound that seriously anyway - probably the best compliment an engineer can have is when their work goes unnoticed."
So much for the technical intricacies, what about effects? How do you set about creating a realistic environment for your drama?
"It depends on the application: if you are trying to create a live room, stick the voice in the bathroom or garage rather than through an electronic box, which I do as a last resort, because you get a better performance from the actor."
"Whatever you do, you must start with the performance. If the actors hate sitting in the shower recess because it's wet and it keeps dripping on them, well then don't do it! If it works well, do it, if not, employ a different method."
There are other ways of getting the right performance out of your actors. A friend of John's in the film business was shooting a drama which was supposed to be taking place in a plane. He finally got the right quality of voice production by feeding the sound of an aircraft engine into headphones which the cast wore under their hats and scarves. It had the desired effect - it made them shout.
For those of you inexperienced in recording drama, John's advice is to record everything as clean as possible.
"I will very often have the microphone at eye level pointing down to the mouth so that you can get closer without popping." Effects are then added later. Recording on location can be a lot of fun but it does bring its problems. Instead, you could play things off a cartridge.
"In my case, I would do this purely for speed and expediency. A nice way to do it would be to lay it up on a multitrack and then mix down using pre-recorded effects off disc or cassette. Whether recording in the studio or on location, you always try to match the distance of the voice to microphone with the distance of the effect to the microphone. If you are recording a man in a factory, say, you don't want a tight, dry sound, you want a little space to let in the environment he is in."
What about the blood and gore sound effects - chopping off heads and the crunch of fist on flesh? You can't do that on location.
"Oh, you mean the cheating methods? Fruit and vegetables? No disaster is complete without a good bunch of celery to slowly twist. You actually believe you are down a mine that's about to cave in using a handful of stones and gravel falling on to a board and a twist of the celery to make the beams creak before they give way. Punches are very good with a baseball bat and cabbage."
"White noise from a synthesizer is a good base for anything: surf, rain, the interior of a plane, an avalanche - as long as you add foreground sounds."
"If you are trying to do anything with size relationship, varispeeding taped sounds can make them appear bigger. For example, if you are in a raging fire inside a house which is caving in, by using a white noise rumble and slowing it down really deep and then putting things on top, you give it much more size and life. A body falling off a bridge into a river you can do with a hand in a bucket of water which, slowed down, becomes the size of a man."
"It is always nice to create as many effects as you can and put them on your recording. Very often real sounds aren't very convincing on the radio, like the smash on the chin. It has to be larger than life, then mixed in with real atmosphere."
John's penchant for location or cheating effects means that studio gadgetry does not always get a look-in.
"On voice, very often I use echo depending on what it is supposed to be - not so much for bedroom scenes I find. We have an EMT Gold Foil plate reverb and an MXR 01 digital reverb. We need more than one echo source because they do different things. The MXR gives much smaller reverb times. If you need to recreate being down in the London sewer for some reason, then the EMT would be no good because it sounds more like St.Paul's Cathedral; you need more hardness. When you are talking radio, you are talking perspective. That's the secret. And different echoes can help with that."
"I use sampling on a Bel delay for spacey stuff - good old Harmonizer or the Eventide Effects Processor. We just ring up Audio FX, or whoever, and say we want a robot that's ten feet tall and they suggest things. All the equipment hire companies are incredibly helpful; if you ring up and tell them what you want they get great fun out of bringing you things to try and then you just pay for the one you use."
Location equipment usually comprises a stereo Nagra portable recorder, an AKG 451 condenser microphone or 224 dynamic. "There are certain applications for which dynamic or condenser microphones are the best thing to use. A condenser is much more sensitive to sound pick-up and tighter - good for vocal miking, bringing the voice much further forward, and you can even move backwards and still be on mic. With a dynamic mic you won't be because it is inherently less sensitive."
"In traffic, you would use a dynamic to make the traffic noise drop off and sound a lot softer. A condenser will give you a good roomy sound, for example in a dungeon in the Tower of London, with all the reflections off those lovely stone walls; or in a train where the background noise is not very intense. You could record the voice in the train when it wasn't moving and then get a separate background track of the wheels to be put on afterwards."
Although there are Auratone speakers in The Barge control room, John prefers to work on the big Tannoy Lockwoods, in spite of the fact that most of the radio drama will only be heard on small radio speakers.
"We used to have radio speakers in here to assess recordings but they all sound different and have their own colouration anyhow, so what's the point? I also find that on the Auratones there are things that don't show up and I don't think that switching between monitors ever gives a sensible mix because they are all different in texture. So I just give the sound a quick check on the Auratones, that's all."
"With our production company, Creative Radio, we aim to make everything sound different to everyone else's. When you hear Kenny Everett doing a commercial, the first thing you think is 'that's Kenny Everett doing a commercial', not what the product is.
At The Barge, we have a duty to the client to make the sound as individual as we can within the budget restrictions. To that end, we use a collection of freelance writers of both music and words so that we don't get stale in our styles."
In spite of the fun and joy he obviously gets out of his work, John Rowland is still hankering after the world of film. "I would really love to get to do something visual. If you are doing a bedroom scene for radio, the actors generally actually get down on the floor with the duvet to get the sound of it rustling, and when they have to kiss, they actually kiss to get the right pacing... but it would be lovely to capture the way she touches him and looks at him. On radio, I think things get too stereotyped; vicars always sound the same and bank managers too. It would be fun to do something visual."
In summing up, John reiterated his advice about recording radio drama:
"Just know what you want to end up with before you begin. It doesn't mean that you can't change your mind but it is much harder to do it at the end. If in doubt, record clean and add effects later. And never be afraid to record two takes of two different levels if you are worried about matching. Content always comes first - the performance is there to help that content. Finally, if a scene works on the page, then look at it further because the best sound drama is more than simply words. You may have missed some tricks."
Feature by Janet Angus
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