Radio Play Production - Using Audio Effects to Convey Point of View
A discussion about how to convey point of view in the
radio medium. Also, my views on using the 5.1 surround
mixing approach for radio drama. These are from posts
I made to the (now defunct) RadioDrama e-mail discussion list.
Subject: Using Audio Effects to Convey Point of View
Matt Cowley was looking to use audio "effects" to enhance
the entrances and exits of characters for a drama. Henry
Howard and Bert Coules offered advice on employing stereo
placement and distance.
I wonder if Matt's problem isn't more one of adapting to
the radio medium. I came from a film background and had some
difficulty when writing my first radio script. I was trying
to reproduce the physical logic of character movement--think
of it as an aural tracking shot.
WE ARE EXPERIENCING CONCEPTUAL DIFFICULTIES
I was writing a Lone Ranger episode where bad guys were
"holed up" in a cabin while the Ranger was sneaking
alongside it. He will overhear their conversation, then
break in to foil their plans. Simple enough, it seemed, but
I was trying to render a POV that, while fine for film, was
difficult for radio.
At first, I thought of using narration and the Ranger's
footsteps to show him closing in on the cabin. As he draws
nearer, we can hear the bad guys getting louder until
we--and the Ranger--are just outside the window, listening
in. I could have used a fade up on some bad guy walla walla
and then launched the actual dialogue, but felt it wasn't as
realistic as using distance. Of course, that meant having
the five bad guy actors WALK towards the microphone as they
spoke. In production, this was ludicrous! The subtlety was
lost on the audience. It was "real", but pointless.
What seemed completely natural and logical film-wise, was
a waste of time on radio. All I needed was to have the
narrator bridge the gap for me. Here's what I wrote:
As the Ranger closed in on the bad guys,
Tom Dalton and his gang were busy plotting
their next caper...
Shut up, you polecats! Now, here's the
The lesson I learned was how to do POV in radio. Don't
borrow unnecessarily from other media. Forget converting
"meters to feet" and just jump in to radio. My motto is
"Write between the ears!"
I saw a recent production using Hollywood actors and a
TV-oriented crew trying to do radio and getting entirely
confused about how to handle the POV of somebody behind a
door. It stopped them cold. Where are we? Who will be in
full voice and who will be muffled? I could see right
through it, but they were stumped. It's a subtlety of the
radio medium that you must master--and once you do you'll
never even think about it.
SO HOW DO WE USE AUDIO EFFECTS?
I suggest you put in just a little bit of distance for
placement of actors--who are AT a distance. If a character
is up a tree or across a foggy moor, have the actors step
back a few feet from the mic. In old time radio, actors
would just step back--fading in volume and adding
room-tone to convey distance--And a little distance goes a
Panning-wise, I tend to keep voices close to the center
of the stereo spectrum and skip most translations of film
movement. I will pan sound effects some, and I try to mix my
musical scores to keep the center of the stereo field clear,
but I think you'll only degrade the audio experience by
employing lots of hard left/hard right panning. Humans hear
binaurally. Panning is totally unnatural. I never mix with
headphones in mind.
Similarly, heavy handed exploitation of the 5.1 surround
format will only call attention to itself and divert your
listeners from the story. The next time you're in a fancy
movie theater and hear some sound effect whip around behind
you, just try to keep your attention on the
screen--and that's with all the zap-pow visuals. Pull that
kind of 3-D trick over a 5.1 car radio and you'll cause
accidents--possibly losing your audience in two ways.
Play around with all the "effects" possibilities and see
if you don't end up invoking the one rule of all
storytelling--clarity over everything.
From: Tony "Sparx" Palermo
To: Radio Drama List
Subject: Stereo and 5.1 mixing
Radio Drama list member, Mike Sokol, just posted about
his interests in 5.1 mixing and radio drama. Here's a link
to an article on using mixing music in the 5.1 format that
just appeared in the May 2001 issue of Electronic
Musician--by Mike Sokol, our same member.
Electronic Musician magazine's "Mixing in the Round"
In case that's hard to click on, here's the
Electronic Musician site:
It's an interesting article, centered, of course, on
mixing music in 5.1--and music production is MY orientation
when mixing for audio drama. I think many of the
fundamentals of music mixing apply directly to producing a
clear sounding audio drama.
Our ongoing discussion of stereo field placement may only
be one of degrees, but let me pose the argument as one of
"Narrow" Vs. "Wide" panning of voices. I believe we will
always use whatever works, but here, I wish to suss out some
"rules of thumb" and try to apply them to stereo and 5.1
mixing for audio drama.
In stereo music mixing, you usually keep the snare, bass
drum, bass guitar AND lead vocal dead center in the stereo
field, while everything else is out of the center. The
reason is that the center is the spot where focus is
greatest. I believe this plays into both the non-directional
characteristics of lower frequencies (bass drum and bass
guitar), and to immunize the most important elements (vocal
and snare) from stereo imaging problems resulting from the
listener not always being in the "sweet spot"--that triangle
directly in front and between the stereo speakers. Please
note, this is NOT mixing for the headphone crowd, but
rather, for everybody.
In mixing my audio dramas, I try to stay close to the
center, but I do pan different characters in different
places--around an 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock "stage." This adds
dimension to the recording and helps separate individual
voices, but my intention is not to create a visual
scene--but to merely enhance clarity.
Some producers seek to fully exploit the entire
left-to-right spectrum of the stereo field to impart
movement and further separation. I applaud their intent to
utilize all the audio techniques available. However, I worry
they are mixing for the perfect listening experience and not
the typical ones--especially for listening to audio drama.
So, does it matter?
Mix for The Audience's Listening POV
I mix voices toward the center because I don't wish to
put my production at the mercy of the "sweet spot." I doubt
many people inhabit it when listening to audio drama. This
"where are they listening" issue is of major importance to
our medium, regarding both content and form.
On mono kitchen radios or boom boxes, stereo panning
tricks are lost. In cars, *nobody* sits in the sweet spot,
so that leave us with those dedicated listeners who hear
audio drama on home stereos--or computer speaker systems.
How big a percentage of the audio drama audience are these
sweet spotters? Should we mix for them? Should we follow the
example of wide-screen cinematographers and shoot
Let's say we do a deluxe mix, going "whole-hog" with lots
of panning and wide placements. In order to reap the full
benefit of this approach, your listeners must be sitting in
the sweet spot. If instead, they are driving a car while
listening, or cleaning the living room while the home stereo
is playing, the stereo sound field will be altered and any
fancy panning and placements are compromised.
In conventional stereo, this may not be too much of a
compromise. You could say that with a cleverly panned mix,
the headphone experience is "richer" than the typical
speaker experience. As long as the audience can hear each
element clearly, they'll still know what's going on. I won't
split hairs. Stereo placement is a matter of degrees, not
life or death. It may be that mixing "Wide" is a luxury
effect--for the sweet spot crowd, but what about mixing for
Surround Sound Mixing
The 5.1 format gives you right/left, center, front/back
and a non-directional sub-woofer that's useful for...
earthquakes. You can create a 3-dimensional environment for
your drama. Its intent is to mimic real life listening
experiences, but I wonder if this super-realism will enhance
the drama or distract the audience from the story? The
"invisible world" nature of audio drama is already working
against realism, so what's 3-D going to add? I'll leave the
discussion of the aesthetic impact of this technology alone
and focus, again, upon the important "where are they
In 5.1 format, you can essentially re-produce the
headphone experience with speakers--adding the 3rd dimension
of front/back placement. Efforts to create a 3-D aural
environment will be entirely dependent upon the listener
being in the center of the 5.1 speaker setup and new
sweeter, sweet spot.
I think most people listen to radio drama in cars,
offices, kitchens and on portable radios all around the
house. Many, myself included, tend to be doing something
else while listening (cooking, cleaning, gardening, browsing
the web, etc.). Exploiting the 5.1 format would require the
audience to sit in the room, actively experiencing the audio
drama--much the same as movie and home theater viewing. I
don't think that's possible due to a genetic trait in audio
We've all seen those photos of 1940s drama fans sitting
in the living room STARING at the radio. I used to think
that was funny. "Hey! It's radio! There's nothing to look
at!" What they were doing was *focusing* on the drama--the
staring was them merely arresting their eyes. Radio drama is
an intimate medium. It has difficulty working in large rooms
or with crowds and today, it is also an informal listening
experience. Focus is more difficult to maintain.
I'm sure many of us have tried to play a radio show to a
group of friends and seen their eyes--and then
minds--wander. When I play back workshop productions to a
cast and crew, I wish I had a big Atwater Kent cathedral
radio to give them a place to focus. In a big room, with a
bunch of people, it's hard to keep the audience's attention,
but put a smaller group in a car or at a kitchen table--with
their eyes occupied--and the necessary intimacy returns.
Because people have eyes and tend to use them, they
probably won't devote all their attention to the drama, but
hopefully enough to make the drama work and still allow them
to peel potatoes or cruise the freeway. Today, radio drama
listening seems to be a part-time experience. Will audiences
devote the time and trouble to take the 5.1 audio theater
I think the 5.1 audio drama format and the requirements
to produce it (room, speakers, listener location, attention
required) will be difficult to pull off. So, since I doubt
this will be the future listening experience, I fear 5.1
mixing may be a waste of time--and money--despite it's
As a scrambling "content provider" trying to get another
radio gig, I see low cost of production as essential to the
survival and commercial viability of audio drama, so the
expense, time, trouble and listening potential for audio
drama in a 5.1 format may render it a "pipe dream."
Twenty five years ago, Quadraphonic mixing was going to
take over the music business. It never happened and 5.1 may
not fly except in the video home theater arena.
We must remember that audio drama is it's own medium.
Borrowing surround sound from the movies may be technically
possible, but may not be a good "fit" for our art form.
Don't call me Elmer "Ludd," but progress ain't always
what it's cracked up to be.
5.1 MIXING POSTSCRIPT: November 2001
I still feel 5.1 mixing isn't suited to listening to
recorded or broadcast radio dramas. But feel there is
much to be said for exploiting the technology with staged
productions of radio dramas. I saw a music-based
demonstration of the
Kurzweil KSP8 multi-effects device. It has a marvelous
set of features for 5.1 mixing and I saw how useful they
could be for a stage presentation of a radio dramas, so I
put together a short radio drama demo to help Kurzweil
demonstrate their device.
I cooked up a 3 minute sketch called "Jungle Adventure"
starting with music and narration, then there's dialogue and
sound effects, then the two characters split up and are
"chased" around the sound field by lions, tigers, and bears;
then there's an elephant stampede. The 5.1 format can
actually place these characters and sound effects in the
room and with the KSP8 device, they can be made to run
around the room. I admit this scenario is sort of
gimmicky--like the old stereo test records and such--but it
does show one application of this technology.
Here were my suggested 5.1 routings: Put the music in
stereo, the center channel for the narrator and actors
together, then branch off for the separated actors and
Lions, Tigers, and Bears SFX--the ones you'll want to have
chase each other with LFOs. The jungle ambiance BG track can
go wherever it fits--surrounding the listener and placing
them right into the jungle scene.