A = Anthology or Serial?
What kind of series would you like to make? Doing a serial with ongoing story arcs and characters will give your listeners that extra reason to come back for more. But if you’re the type of person who comes up with five different story ideas a day, maybe the anthology is the route for you. For more discussion on this topic check out our episode ‘Should I make a serial or anthology series?’
B = Balancing/Blending in
Your story is going to be told entirely by a collection of different sounds. You might have an actor recording lines her a bedroom in San Diego, whilst another records his in a basement in Madrid. You might have recorded some sound effects in your kitchen, and have others from a professional stock library.
The point is that these must all be balanced and blended together in a way that they become one performance. Take time to make sure nothing jars the listener – if something sounds odd or alien to your mix, you need to sort it or replace it.
C = Characters
Write each character with a lot of thought. Who are they? What do they want? Why do they want it? And what stands in their way?
Make your characters real people, not one-dimensional caricatures who only serve the purpose of furthering a particular plot aim. Explore their lives, their feelings, their interactions. Build relationships and conflicts. And treat ‘minor’ characters with respect – they may work well enough that you want to build future stories around them and their own lives.
D = DAW
A Digital Audio Workstation is the software you’ll use to build your Audio Drama. There are several great options out there when it comes to choosing one. Audacity is free and can get you started, but if you think you’re going to stick at audio production you will eventually find it quite limiting. Reaper and Audition are two popular DAWs in the Audio Drama production space. Our advice is to pick one and stick with it, better to master one than be reasonable with three or four.
E = Editing
Contrary to popular belief, making Audio Drama isn’t all flash cars, champagne, and pool parties. Expect to find yourself hunched over a computer screen for hours on end, carefully crafting the tiniest nuances into your soundscape that literally no one is even going to notice – but at the same time you break out in a cold sweat at the thought of leaving them out.
F = Final Mix
This term is a misnomer in Audio Drama. Nothing is ever really finished. You will always listen back and hear missed opportunities. “Why did I not include the sound of a curtain blowing in the open window across the street?”. Get used to this.
When you think you are finished though, you need to listen to your show in as many different ways as possible. Yes it sounds great through your fancy headphones, but does it still work through the laptop speakers, car speakers, or cheap earbuds? I know it’s sacrilege that people will consume your masterpiece this way but that’s just the harsh reality of the world we live in.
Never do your final listen sitting at the computer staring at the multitrack, if you do this you are ‘listening with your eyes’. Take your show for a walk, literally. Go out with the earbuds in, and if you notice something missing, or a bit too low/loud, or maybe a piece of dialogue just isn’t hitting the right beat, go back home and adjust it.
G = Genre
What kind of world do you want to live in? The beauty of Audio Drama is that it is completely limitless, you can set your show anywhere. Build fantasy kingdoms, sprawling space stations, decaying post-apocalyptic cities, or set a comedy show in the living room of your own house.
We often use this quote from our interview with Dirk Maggs, but it sums up the freedom of this medium wonderfully.
“You can do so much more in audio, you can go anywhere. Use your imagination; go from the top of Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. Travel to new worlds. Go inside someone’s head… go inside and live in their head…you can go microscopic…you can go cosmic.
Good radio drama, good audio drama, is ‘go and make a world’, go and paint a picture in sound, which makes the imagination create huge fascinating pictures… even huge fascinating pictures of tiny things. If it’s a man locked in a cell for twenty years, and you are just with him in that cell, you can still explore everything about the human condition, and you can do it with colour, and texture, and light.
And you’re just working in sound.”
H = Hosting
Unless you’re reading this in 2004 you’re probably going to want to release your Audio Dramas free as a podcast series. Incidentally, if you’re thinking of charging for your shows, have a read of this post.
But back to podcasting; a good podcast series needs a good media host behind it. We recommend hosting your shows on Libsyn (use coupon code ADPP for a months free hosting with them). For more information on this, have a listen to ‘Where to host your show’ with Dave Jackson.
I = Interaction
When you’ve been putting out shows for a while you will start to build a fanbase. In that fanbase will be listeners who will actually take the time to get in touch with you, to say hello, and to thank you for entertaining them.
Make sure you take time to interact with these listeners. Ask them if they make a show themselves, and if you can have a listen to it. Find out more about each listener and become friends with them. You will start small, so take the opportunity to build these relationships while you can. This will create a loyal band of listeners who will share and promote your content for years to come.
J = Jargon
Audio production and writing are the two towers of Audio Drama. Both are absolutely bursting with jargon, terms you’ve probably never heard before, terms that sound extremely complex. You won’t learn everything overnight. In fact, you won’t learn everything in five, or even ten years. Don’t try to master everything at once. Pick and choose your battles, work at them, and absorb information in a slow and patient manner.
The internet is full of great tutorials and resources, and there are many excellent books on writing and audio production. Be wary of information overload. Don’t read three books in a row when you’ve yet to take action on a single thing mentioned in the first one. You’ll just be filling up your short term memory with information that will soon be discarded or forgotten. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Update – Check out our new Audio Production Jargon Explained page.
K = Kbps, Hz, Bits, & File Types
So anyway, here’s some jargon. Whilst you should record as, or request all your audio material in WAV form, you will want to mix down the final version and release it as an Mp3. This makes it a smaller, more practical size to be downloaded by people all over the world.
When you mix down your finished show as an Mp3 you’ll be asked to set the ‘kilobits per second’ (Kbps) of your file. To put this simply, the higher the rate, the higher the sound quality, but also the bigger the size of the file (remember, people need to download these).
128kbps is considered ‘CD quality’ – you can go higher than that if you like, but we’d advise against going any lower. This is a good level to shoot for if you’re releasing content through a podcast feed. You can always sell or give away copies with higher rates (256 or 320kbps) as premium content too.
When you record audio, your samples have a bit depth. Most DAWs will ask you to choose a bit depth of 16, 24, or 32. You can go up to 32 if you like, but only the most trained ear would notice a difference between that and 24. We find 24 to be totally fine, and it keeps the size of the source material (WAVs) down a bit.
On top of that, you’ll also hear sample rates like 44100Hz and 48000Hz being bandied about. Again, higher means better with these numbers, but shoot for 44100Hz in the recording stages, and with your final mix, for the same size/download reasons we’ve already covered.
L = Loudness/Levels
There’s a long running debate in the audio/podcasting community about how loud things should be. The most important thing to keep in mind initially though is how loud your loudest sound is in relation to your quietest. Your levels and loudness should all be in proportion to each other, and work together as a finished piece.
Nobody should ever have to touch the volume button when listening to your show, so if you have a huge explosion, and a scene with two characters whispering, bring them as close together as you can in the mixing stage.
For more information on this, Kbps, and more, check out ‘Loudness, bit rates, and audio production’
M = Music
Alongside dialogue and sound effects, music is an integral part of your soundscape, and a powerful storytelling tool. There are some great Creative Commons licensed resources out there that you can use without permission (always check the terms of each license when selecting a track, and remember to credit the composer) but one disadvantage of this is that you’ll hear the same music tracks again and again in different Audio Dramas.
If you want to add that extra dimension of individuality to your story, try hooking up with or hiring a composer who would have the ability to custom score your production. For more on this, check out ‘Composing music for Audio Drama’ and ‘Working with composers’
N = Narration
Yes you can use a narrator in your show, many great Audio Dramas do. But try to resist relying too heavily on this ‘crutch’ of allowing a disembodied voice to tell the listener things you can create for them using your sound effects, music, and dialogue.
Use the vibrant story world to fill gaps with vital story detail, those snippets of background conversation. The TV or radio playing a news broadcast under the conversation of two characters. The trainee or apprentice being told the ins and outs of the company he or she has just joined. There are infinite possibilities here, you just need to get a little creative.
O = Opening Scene
If someone is listening to your show, there are hundreds of thousands of other shows that they aren’t listening to. If they get bored, you lose them, and they’re not coming back. You need to give them a good reason to stick around, so make those opening minutes count. Check out ‘Drop your listener into the action’ for an in-depth look at opening scene ‘hooks’.
P = Perspective
From who’s perspective are you telling your story? You will need to think carefully about this in the writing stage. Will you follow one character, or will you jump from one to the other? Will your story be linear or will you jump back in time to experience the same event with two or more characters? For more on this, check out ‘Using perspective to tell your story’
Q = Quality & Quantity
This is a tough one to master – you want to release good material, and you want to release regular material. You can choose one or the other, but you might find that this limits your growth. Some people simply won’t put up with poor audio quality even though you are hitting a monthly release schedule. On the other hand, you might release a masterpiece every 9 months, but your listeners may get bored waiting on the next episode, and by the time it finally arrives they will have forgotten what happened in the last one.
One solution here is to take as long as you need to have 8-12 episodes in the can to give you a decent enough buffer to be hitting that regular release schedule. This might take a year or two and will require a lot of patience and discipline. Good luck.
R = Recording Location – Studio or Field?
Well isn’t this just the million pound question? If you record in a studio (or similar recording environment) – and this applies to working with a remote cast too – you will have the freedom to completely construct and micro-manage your soundscape from scratch. This is especially useful if you need to design the sound of a medieval walled city, or a futuristic space station, and you actually live in a busy urban area with cars driving past and planes flying overhead.
However, if you can find a location that sounds like (not looks like, but sounds like) your story world, and you can get your cast there for a day or two of recording, then this can bring out superb performances in your cast that are hard to replicate in a sterile studio environment. You also have the bonus of that ready-made soundscape underneath your dialogue as actors interact with each other and the world around them.
Be warned though – field recording is not for the faint hearted. Seemingly inconceivable disturbances and interruptions can turn even the most mild-mannered director into the character played by Michael Douglas in the film Falling Down.
For a more in-depth comparison between these two options, check out ‘Recording and equipment’ , ‘Field recording and dialogue improvisation’ , ‘Creating fight scenes’ , ‘Should I record on location?’ , and ‘Do I need expensive equipment?’
Oh, and you can also create a hybrid between the two, like we experimented with in the story Time is Money
S = SFX
Sound effects will help paint the picture of your world, whether it’s a simple door creaking, or the sound of Great Cthulhu bursting out of the ocean to bring death to all mankind, you’re going to demonstrate this through sound effects.
Your ‘everyday’ effects – footsteps, door creaks, cups being placed on tables etc – should actually only be noticeable in the listener’s subconscious. If someone suddenly stops halfway through a scene in your drama to think “those footstep sound effects don’t fit right at all” then you have failed in your job.
Where the sound effect was originally recorded comes in to play here too. If you have a gunshot sound effect recorded in an indoor shooting range, it will probably carry quite a distinctive echo sound. Would it be appropriate to use this effect in an outdoor gunfight scene? Probably not. So make sure each effect is completely appropriate for the picture you are trying to paint.
As always with audio, listen to the sound, rather than judge it on it’s title. If Space_Station_Door.wav sounds like a microwave door opening, then it’s a microwave door sound effect. Disregard the written title.
Things don’t always sound like they look either, and in many cases you can make a better sound effect using something other than the real thing. Think of how little sound you get from a real life punch to the face, whereas if you were to hit a leather jacket with a baseball bat that might yield far better results.
For an in-depth look at this subject check out ‘Creating sound effects’
T = Time
Time is a finite resource, and it’s one of the few things you can never get back when you’ve used it. Use your time wisely. Don’t think because you’ve spent twelve hours today on your drama that you’ve been productive. Try to work smarter, not harder.
Ask yourself some questions, focusing around the fact that just because you can do certain things, does this mean that you should do them?
We’ll look at this a bit more under Your Role, but let’s use recording sound effects as an example. You’ve spent five hours recording some great effects for your story, but could you have paid for some high quality stock effects that were as good as, if not better, than your own material? Five hours not recording sound effects is five hours doing other things. You can get the money you paid back, but you can never get the time back. Work smarter, not harder.
Also, block out time to work on your story. Whether that’s one hour a week or three hours a day, block out that time and say no to everything in that period (emergencies excluding, obviously). Don’t approach a production with the idea that you’ll “just chip away at it” in your spare time – that won’t work, and will just lead you on the path to perennial procrastination.
And never say “I don’t have time”, everyone has exactly the same amount of time. If that TV show you watch every night and don’t even like has to go, then bin it. If you need to get up half an hour early in the morning, or stay up half an hour later at night, then do it. If you want to make Audio Drama then you’ll always find the time.
U = Untreated files
If you’re working with a remote cast, they might be some of the most talented and knowledgeable audio folks out there, but avoid letting everyone apply noise-reduction, normalisation, and compression to their lines in advance of you getting your hands on them. It’s your job to make everything consistent, so make doing this yourself a priority. Feel free to use our ‘Audio Drama Satellite Voice Acting Guide’ to make sure your cast are clear on what you’re looking for on this front.
V = Voice Actors
You won’t get very far without a cast of voice actors who will become the heroes and villains (and everything inbetween) of your story world. Going down the satellite/remote recording route where actors record and send their lines to you gives you access to a wealth of global talent – but you surrender a lot of the control over audio quality and recording environments. You lose a little of the ‘magic’ of actors performing together too.
Creating a local Audio Drama group removes all of these problems, but if you live in a rural area or can’t find a suitable number of actors then this might not be possible. The beauty of this though is you don’t really have to choose one or the other, you can mix local and remote actors in one story to great effect. Whatever way you choose to find your talent though – be sure to look after them.
W = Writing
You can have the best cast, equipment, sound library, composer, and production values in the world, but if you can’t write a good story (or find a good writer) then all of this means absolutely nothing.
On top of writing your story arcs, you need to learn to write dialogue that serves the medium, without being wooden or over expositional. Have a think about how people talk to each other in real life. Record a conversation between two people and transcribe it. How does it look in written form?
Writing for audio is a huge subject in it’s own right, and is impossible to summarise here, but we recommend checking out ‘Telling your story, and making it stand out’ , ‘How to structure your story’ , and ‘Writing dialogue’ for a more detailed look on the many aspects of this subject.
X = XLR Cable
Try to avoid direct-to-computer USB microphones. If you’re doing a lot of vocal recording, get yourself a preamp and microphone, which will connect using an XLR cable. But don’t just buy any old XLR cable – like any other piece of equipment, you get what you pay for. Check out this article ‘An XLR Cable is Just a Cable, Right?’ for an in-depth look on this subject.
Also, have a look at our Recommended Home Recording Setup for Voice Actors
Y = Your role
This comes back to time – your time, and your use of it.
Remember, just because you can do everything, doesn’t mean you should.
Many people want to write their show, act in their show, and produce their show. That’s three big jobs right there, so be aware of the sheer workload you are taking on, and set your expectations accordingly.
If you feel intimidated by the amount of work needed to make an Audio Drama from scratch, hook up with some other like-minded people, or ask to get involved with an established production house.
If you want to focus on producing, then you should find a writer to work with no problem. That isn’t so easy the other way round though, as there aren’t many producers who are not already knee deep in a number of existing projects.
Whatever route you choose, find a small group of good people to work with. Concentrating on one particular area can really allow you to flourish, trying to take on everything yourself can lead to overload and eventually burnout. Remember, this should be fun, and not something that fills you with dread when you open the laptop.
Check out ‘Are you focused’ for more on this subject.
Z = Zoom
Okay, so we’re not sponsored by Zoom (though we do have affiliate links) but we’ve used portable Zoom recorders from day one, and they are pretty much an essential part of the Audio Dramatists kit bag. Whether you are recording dialogue, ambience, or sound effects, they give you a superb studio quality sound, along with being extremely handy and affordable. Aside from that, what else would you have put under Z?
Hope that was useful!
Any questions, comments, or feedback? We’d love to hear from you… hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org