Notes on Radio/Audio Drama: Picking a Studio

Discussion in 'Radio' started by MikeKardec, Jul 18, 2021.

  1. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,130
    Location:
    Los Angeles
    I started creating these Notes/Lessons/Experiences on an Audio Production forum. I'm not sure how they'll go over or how long I'll continue but I figured I'd place them here too because, who knows, someone might be interested. They are a bit technical but it does give you a sense of how you execute an modern "Radio" Drama.

    Intro:

    From 1985 through 2015 I produced, directed and wrote a series of about sixty Audio Dramas for Random House Audio Publishing. These productions had run times stretching from one to three hours, casts of four or five up to over twenty actors, and sound effects created both live in studio and, later, in the field and on realistic locations.

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    Locating a Studio and setting up a Session

    We liked to record in a space big enough to allow some of the reflections to drop off, big enough and well treated enough to pass for the outside (you can always add reverb to simulate the indoors) but one that still didn’t sound “dead.” “Dead” sucks up volume, “dead” is usually uneven in its frequency absorption and, oddly, “dead” doesn’t sound like the outdoors which is actually full of subtle and complex reverberation. So the challenge was to find a studio that was big, reasonably inexpensive, and a nice balance between too live and too dead.

    To audition studios, we would take two mics, set up back to back, and a portable recorder. We would find a good sounding spot in the studio, often asking the studio engineers about what they thought the “sweet spot” was, and then Paul, our producer/editor and I would read parts of the script in everything from a whisper to a shout.

    We would then listen to the various studios we had visited through head phones (to minimize any additional room acoustics) paying particular attention to the sound of the mic that was NOT being spoken into at any particular moment. If the sound of our reading through the “off” mic sounded “smooth” and natural then we had discovered a studio that was a contender. It is hard to explain exactly what this sound is, but when we listened to several studios back to back it was always obvious.

    In this picture our Producer and Engineer set up mics to test the space ...

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    When we record a show in a studio, we would set up our mics in an X pattern about 5 feet from each other facing out. There would be no baffling or isolation between them and as little as possible that would keep the actors from making eye contact or seeing one another’s movements. We never used headphones. I dislike it when actors start playing to the sound of their own voice.

    Although we would often mute the mics not being used as we cut the dialog sometimes that is impossible, like when two actors speak over each other. When we had to have more than one mic open at once we needed the “smoothest” presentation possible from mic to mic. Often if we needed an actor to sound like they were far away we would use the recording from someone else’s mic to give it that “off mic” distant feeling.

    The bottom line is to be aware of the studios that sound the best and the spots in a studio that sound the best and use them to your advantage. Testing with exactly the same equipment in each space is required to minimize error.

    Here's the X pattern of mics. We use double wide music stands that have been coated with Line-X to minimize any resonance. The "cans have been taken off the track lights and the piano was stuffed with moving blankets for the same reason.

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    LizzieMaine likes this.
  2. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Neat setup. I especially like that you're making every effort to keep the actors in eye contact. When we do our live shows here, we use a single 44-BX with most of the performers grouped on the opposite sides, and instructed to act to each other, not the mic and not the theatre audience, a single 77B1 for scenes requiring "close mic" effects, and a 50A feeding a filter box for special effects. Nothing kills the realism of a scene more thoroughly to my ears than the "line of mics" routine so commonly seen in live presentations of "new time radio," and anything that eliminates that is to be commended.

    Aside from its audio quality, the biggest advantage in using the 44-BX is its directional properties -- fades and directional shifts can be achieved by the actor, on the spot, merely by turning the head or taking a step back, instead of depending on the engineer to hit the cues and do electronic fades. I tape lines on the floor showing the exact marks to hit to achieve a specific effect, and train the kids to hit those marks at the appropriate spot in the script. I find that it's one less layer between the performers and the listener.
     
  3. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,130
    Location:
    Los Angeles
    Those are some classic microphones! I love the 44, and I've had friends who have used the AEA clones quite a bit including a music video I helped them with just a couple of months ago.

    I'd have everyone closer if I could, but we get a certain useful amount of isolation with just this distance. As mentioned in the other entry we do a lot of editing so the separation helps. Sometimes the content of a scene requires an increased sense of intimacy. In those cases we just put two actors on the same mic, not a bidirectional or figure 8 like the old ribbon units but they are right on top of one another. All our recent shows have been stereo and I like to make the most of the stereo space but I don't record my studio voices that way. I just concentrate on capturing the performances and save the complicated stuff for post.

    I did one very chaotic but also very fun recording with a Blumlein Pair (2 figure 8 mics in a X pattern). It created two 90 degree mirror image stereo prosceniums where the actors could adjust their positions in the left to right space and two 90 degree "null" zones where we could place an actor who needed to sound "distant." The blocking was a nightmare and I swore I'd never do it again!

    In my early days I did a lot of shows in NYC with David Rapkin (who I still work with on conventional audio books) and Charles Potter. We worked more as you describe. We even had an in studio sound effects man, amusingly named Arthur Miller. He came equipped with all sorts of vintage SFX gear, including coconuts that he used (quite convincingly) for horse hooves. Those early shows were recorded to 1/4" 2 track tape with the SFX on one track and all the voices on the other. We did some editing but not much!
     
    LizzieMaine likes this.
  4. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,130
    Location:
    Los Angeles
    The best mic set-up for our method of production, the one that I've been most happy with and would preferably use in the future is Sennheiser MKH 40 Cardioids. For the non audio geeks here this is a mic most often used in the film and classical music business. It is very efficient (loud), quiet (adds almost no noise), and has a very flat frequency response. It has a lot of reach. It works perfectly as a voice mic but it shines as a sound effects mic and for hard, out in the elements field use. There are advantages in recording your voices and effects with the same mic or the same family of mics. You want everything to sound like it was recorded the same way and at the same time, even though it won't be. The more consistency the better.

    The mics in the picture are hand built, Royer designed, tube mics. They sound a LOT like a vintage Telefunken but with less inherent noise ... that means they sound great. But I don't know that they are any more "accurate" than the Sennheisers. And the Sennheisers are a LOT quieter and they, and other mics in their MKH design family, are the mics we use for effects work, so they would be my choice if there was a next time.
     

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