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Last updated: October 30, 2018

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.

From: Tony "Sparx" Palermo
To: Radio Drama 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.


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:

NARRATOR:       As the Ranger closed in on the bad guys,

                Tom Dalton
and his gang were busy plotting

                their next caper...


DALTON:         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.


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 long way.

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" article:

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 "TV-Safe"--mix narrower?

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?

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 listening" question.

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 drama listening--focus.

Focus Pocus

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 ride?

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 artistic potential.

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.

TONY PALERMO is a radio playwright, professional sound effects artist, radio director, composer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California.

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