A Primer on Sound Effects in Radio Dramas
Tony at the door--with a gun. The classic SFX artist's pose.
I learned my craft from sound effects artists that worked for Orson Welles,
Jack Benny and other Golden Age (1930s-1960s) radio greats. In my live performances, recordings and workshops, I use a lot of manual sound effects, partly
for the magic of making sounds through trickery and also I prefer the control of
playing sound effects "instruments" over the electronic "sampler"
keyboards that trigger sound effect recordings. (I DO use sophisticated electronic samplers
and other playback devices for live radio-on-stage gigs. I used to host a
website devoted to powerful and versatile Kurzweil samplers, but live SFX are
workshops, I use manual sound effects because they preserve this golden age
artistry. However, even in the old days, manual effects were not the only
ones. Some sounds were cheaper and better produced as records, especially cars,
planes, and weather and nature sounds.
A lot of the sound is
how you manipulate the objects. You'll need to experiment to get just the right
technique to produce the right sound. Also, test to see what your effects
sound like over a microphone, something that sounds fine to your
ears will come off as weak over a mike.
Useful tip: In the studio, I often use an omni-directional
microphone for sound effects--it picks up everything and adds a
nice ambience (room tone) to the sound, making it appear more real than if you held
the sound effect up to a regular uni-directional mike. And omni-directional mics makes life much
simpler when you have a crew of five to seven sound effects artists all vying
for the mic. See my page on engineering radio drama
for more tips on using microphones for sound effects. On stage, I use several
How Necessary are Sound Effects?
Please keep in mind that radio drama is not merely a play with "lots
of sound effects." A good radio play is good drama, full of conflict and
even action, evoked through dialogue, music and sound effects, in that
Sound effects are an important ingredient, but by far, the
least important. In radio, the dialogue and narration contribute roughly
75% to the drama, with music another 15% and sound effects a paltry 10%.
Sound effects merely sketch in the action or punctuate dialogue and don'
generally provide the precise reinforcement of reality in the way sets or locations do in plays and
films. Sound effects suggest action, but they can easily be confusing
or misinterpreted if relied upon too heavily.
Intrusive sound effects
will make the dialogue harder for listeners to follow. Just the same, sound effects can
turn a mere script into a real-time drama as opposed to just a story
Sound effects add realism, but should be used sparingly.
In the production of radio drama, if a sound effect cue is missed, few listeners
will notice. Use that as a guide and employ a minimum of sound effects. Only
significant sounds are necessary. Sketch the scene, don't perfect it.
Is it "Sound Effects" Or "Foley"?
CBS Hollywood 1938, Cliff Thorsness (in front) with Harry Essman at the 'sound
truck' turntables, holding a mallet.
"Don't call it foley! We are sound effects artists!" That's what my mentor,
Cliff Thorsness told me. Cliff was an ace sound effects artist at
CBS's Hollywood radio studios from 1938-1962 and worked with Orson Welles,
Norman Corwin, and on shows like Escape and Fibber McGee & Molly.
Radio sound effects
artists are NOT the
same as foley artists, who do film post-production sound work. Many people mistakenly
use the term "foley" when describing radio sound effects. Whoops! While a
doorknock sound is a doorknock sound, radio SFX artists do everything film foley
artists do and a whole lot more. Radio SFX-perts have a broader skill-set, a
larger sonic range, and a talent for multi-tasking. There's also a difference in union representation.
Radio sound effects artists handle every sound heard in a show--from
footsteps to explosions to weather to exotic stuff like "walking on clouds."
They produce these sounds either manually--handling objects and mechanical
devices--or by playing back pre-recorded sounds--all in real time. They
with the actors delivering their dialogue and any live musicians throughout the
radio play. During the Golden Age, most "sound
men" were men. However, during World War II, women did take up the craft.
Please note that even back in the
Golden Age, SFX artists also employed pre-recorded sounds (on 78RPM records) for car
crashes, weather, ambiences, explosions--even crazy stuff like the famous "5000 drunken chickens." Not
every sound was produced manually, but all were the responsibility of the sound
effects artists--often 2 to 4, working simultaneously.
CBS radio drama with actors and live sound effects artists.
Above, you can see a two-man SFX crew. The front guy is shooting two blank guns while also
manning a multi-turntable 'sound truck', used for playing pre-recorded SFX. Sound
truck turntables would often have 2 tone-arms, to allow recorded tracks to
effectively be "looped"--by cross-fading between two tone-arms
tracking on the same record. They could also vary the speed--which could turn
the recording of a waterfall into a nuclear bomb explosion. These were the
"sample players" of the era.
Professional sound effects artists are members of the SAG/AFTRA
union. They joined back in the 1940s when the union was still called AFRA (American Federation of Radio
Artists--before television got unionized). I am a professional sound effects artist and veteran SAG/AFTRA member.
The term "foley" was coined in the 1980s for the
film industry's post-production re-recording of a small subset of sounds.
Foley usually deals
with human-generated sounds (footsteps, keys jangling, fist-fights, guns being cocked,
pouring water, etc.) These sounds are not done live by the foley artists while
the film actors do their dialogue and move about.
The reason for foley is that when a film is shot, only the dialogue is well-recorded (if that--due to
noisy locations). Mics on long booms are used to
pick up dialogue--mostly. During filming, when the actors take steps, slam doors, cock guns,
rustle papers, or jangle keys, those sounds aren't
well-mic'd because the sound sources are often further away from the boom mic
than are the actors' mouths. Film crews don't want mics
showing up in the
On a film set,
the boom mic stays out of the shot, but distance limits the fidelity of the
recorded sounds of footsteps, dropping things, etc.
Later--after the film has been edited--the on-set sounds that were poorly
recorded; the ones generated by human actions--are re-recorded, in sync with the edited visuals. In a recording studio, foley artists
watch the edited movie on a screen and re-record the footsteps, keys,
cocked guns (but not gunshots), pouring water, etc.--in sync
with the actors' motions.
This kind of in-sync re-recording of sounds
for film was pioneered by Jack Foley (1891-1967), a motion picture sound editor.
In the 1980s, the M.P.S.E. (Motion Picture Sound Editors) union created a new job
classification--"foley artist"--for tasks that had always been done by assistant film sound editors.
These foley artists never did old time radio dramas and the foley sounds
only a small subset of the total "soundscape" of a show--no horses, no cars, no
wind, no thunder, no ticking clocks, no magical transformations. Foley is
This foley re-recording of sounds is done to reinforce a film's
visual reality--what the audience sees on screen. If we see an actor
dropping her car keys on the kitchen table, the re-recorded, foleyed
sound of those keys makes that visual of the action seem believable. Without that
keys-dropping sound--or if
it was distant or too quiet--the audience would feel the scene was fake, even if
we could hear the actor speaking her well-recorded lines.
Re-recording these few
human-generated sounds is what foley artists do. It is pain-staking work. Foleying a filmed 40-second fight scene requires multiple passes of recordings
and take 4 hours. Note that nowadays, many foley artists are women. It's easier for
women to fake male footsteps than for guys to fit into high-heels and produce
convincing female footsteps. If anything, women have an advantage in the
foley business--and that goes for modern radio sound effects artistry too.
A foley artist pours water in sync with a visual on the screen
If you are interested in more
information about foley, Philip Rodrigues Singer M.P.S.E., hosts a wonderful
Art of Foley website devoted to
this cousin of radio sound effects.
In film, beyond the foleyed sounds, all the other sounds--car
crashes, gunshots, robot-tanks, stampedes, explosions, horses, even the
destruction of planets--are handled by sound designers or sound editors, who
employ recordings ("sampled sounds") or manipulate recorded sounds digitally.
This kind of sound work is mostly done with computers. Professional
foley artists, sound designers, and sound editors are members of M.P.S.E. They
generally do not do radio plays, in-studio or recorded on-stage--which are under
the jurisdiction of
In radio, the SFX effects artists do both the human-generated sounds that foley artists specialize in as
well as as film sound designers' car crashes, gun shots, space ships, etc.--and
we do it either by handling objects or mechanical devices (telephone ringers, wind
machines, glass scratchers, creaker boxes, thunder drums, etc.)--or triggering pre-recorded sounds.
So, "foley" is just a subset what a radio sound effects artist does.
A CBS-style 'Creaker box' SFX-device, which can do creaking doors, 'the
rack', creaking sailing ships, even sadistic chiropractors!
Years ago, I gave one of my radio-style creaker boxes (seen above) to the
brilliant film sound designer, Ben Burtt
(Star Wars, Indiana Jones, WALL-E).
Ben flipped! He had never seen a device like this. In radio and film, little
artistry or technology has been shared between the two mediums. My SFX mentors
didn't go into film, despite the movie studios being just up the street. The radio
networks frowned on letting movie studios ("the competition") gain any
edge, so sharing technology or technique was forbidden. Of course, Golden Age network radio sound effects artists
were so highly paid--with bigger salaries than radio actors--that working for
the movies would have meant a pay cut!
Then there's the reality problem. Foley artists mostly work with the actual things
that make the sounds they are emulating: shoes for shoes, chains for chains,
guns for guns, plates, forks, leather jackets, etc. Foley artists don't
"cheat" much--substituting one sound for another--with the notable exception of using
carrots and celery for bones cracking. That's not the case with radio sound
effects artists, we "cheat" all the time. My "gun cock" sound--an ice cream
scoop--is more sonically convincing than the real thing. My radio SFX mentor, Cliff Thorsness, used
wet wine corks rubbed on glass to fake the squeaking rats in the famous 1950
Skeleton Key". Real rat squeaks weren't as nasty as what Cliff
produced. In the world of radio sound effects, our motto is "Reality
ain't what it's cracked up to be!" We pursue an expressive use of
sound--by way of acoustic physics and "good ears."
On a philosophical level, radio SFX artists don't so much reinforce reality as evoke a reality--an
imaginative world before your very ears! Unlike foley artists, we don't have to
replicate everything seen by the audience. I suppose that cuts down on tedium, but also on
billable hours--ulp! Radio SFX artists have to provide just enough sonic magic to conjure a setting or
in the minds of our listeners. In effect, the radio SFX artist does
film sound jobs--foley, sound design, and sound editing--and we do it all live, in real time.
However, we don't get three times the pay.
Now don't that sound just awful?
So, if you are doing a radio play--especially if there's a 1930s-to-1950s
radio drama "vibe" to your production--use
the correct terms: "Sound Effects" and "Sound Effects Artists." Cliff
Thorsness will smile upon you from up there in SFX Heaven, where everything
sounds so nice.
SFXin' to die!
So how far can you go with the illusion presented by sound effects in a radio
drama? To illustrate the danger in relying too heavily on sound effects,
I'll explain a failed comedy radio show I produced.
with mic setups in the Museum of Television & Radio's production studio, we did a run-through
of a script of The Lone Ranger, but the sound effects we had on-hand
were from another show, Superman. Because this was just a mic test, we did part
of the Lone Ranger with the wrong effects--ray guns instead of six shooters, cars
instead of horses, etc.
It was hilarious! I thought I'd found a way to
do comedy radio workshops for students--something notoriously hard to pull
off because comedy requires timing and vocal inflection--which is difficult
for amateurs, especially students. So, I decided to write a special script
that used the "wrong sound effects" gag. Now, timing and inflection wouldn't
matter--and it didn't.
I wrote a 1953-style soap opera, complete with all the typical
soap sound effects of the era--baking cookies, pouring lemonade, the phone,
the doorbell, etc. (Soaps were a dull gig for a sound effects artist--nothing
much to do.)
As a plot device, the star of the show receives a mysterious
voodoo doll, pricks her finger and faints. In a dream, she re-lives the
previous scene, but now all the sound effects are wrong: dropping the cookie
tray is the sound of a bomb dropping; the phone ring is a jackhammer;
she answers the door and it's a train wreck, etc. What a brilliant,
Except the whole thing flopped!
The kids doing the show didn't get it and the concept didn't work when we listened to it
I found that even setting up the scene with dialogue like "I'm expecting
Sam's phone call..." SFX: jackhammer, "Oh, That's him now..." didn't "read"
right. The audience merely accepted the jackhammer as some type of noisy
On the "I Love Lucy" TV show, this kind of gag would have you in stitches,
but without the visual disparity of image and wrong sound, this gag just didn't
work in radio.
So, as much fun as sound effects are, don't over-rely on them. At some point
they just get in the way and become noise. While the lack of visuals allows
radio to do many things (plane crashes, medieval wars, prison breaks), it does
impose some limitations too.