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Last updated: October 30, 2018

Hands-on information from a professional sound effects artist

Zounds! What Sounds!

Radio Sound Effects "How To" Advice

By Tony "Sparx" Palermo

Here's a collection of my "Zounds! What Sounds" columns on how to make and use sound effects for audio theatre. These columns were written for the National Audio Theatre Festival newsletter.

Articles: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4  - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10

It’s All in the Wrists!

Use Expression When Playing Sound Effects

(August 2000)

While a lot of modern audio dramas use digital samples extensively, manual sound effects are still necessary for some sounds--and not just the ones that are missing from your sample collection.  I use manual effects almost exclusively for everything from soap operas to westerns to detective shows to science fiction, and my shows don’t suffer from the old fashioned approach. How come?

Many manual sounds must be played the right way to provide the desired effect--that is, with expression. That’s why the old time radio SFX guys and gals were called “Sound Effects Artists” (Don’t try calling an old pro a “Foley” Artist. They’ll snap, “Foley’s film work. It ain’t radio!”)

There are only a few special devices necessary for most radio sound effects (Crash box, glass scratch, rope twisters, gravel box, etc.). [See my website below for how to make some of them yourself.] However, I've found it's not the devices you have, but the way they are manipulated that makes the difference. Think of an SFX device as a musical instrument. You have to learn how to play it well to get the most out of it. Here’s a real world example:

For a recent horror radio show I did, there were Crusaders venturing underneath a Turkish volcano. One scene called for them to wade through “an ocean of bones” (Some of the bones not fully human!)  Well, I tried mixing some gravel with a cooking spoon in my gravel box , but it stunk. For help, I called upon my friend, Cliff Thorsness, CBS's ace sound effects man in Los Angeles from the 1930s to the 1960s. Cliff won awards (and on-air credit!) for his team’s work creating millions of rats attacking a lighthouse in the famous 1950 Escape episode, “Three Skeleton Key.” [This show is available on the Radio Spirits collection,  "The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century"]

Cliff came into the studio, surveyed my SFX kit and went to work. First, he grabbed some hi-lighter pens and shuffled them around in his hand, but no soap. “Sounds more like a bag of bones--not an ocean,” he said. Then Cliff went to the gravel box and started manipulating the gravel--specifically, he hung his palms on the edges of the junk-drawer-sized box and grabbed bits of gravel and stone and pulled them up to rub against the wooden sides. With the right sashaying rhythm, he nailed it--wading through an ocean of bones! I had the right gear, but the wrong technique.

So, when you are searching for a sound, try various ways of manipulating your objects. When the script called for footsteps, the old pros had different sounding walks in their repertoire. They could walk scared or angry or just the way Les Tremayne or Agnes Moorehead would walk. Expression is the difference between a sound effects technician and a sound effects artist.  So, be artistic. Express yourself!


Over-Reliance On Sound Effects

(March  2001)

The three elements of radio drama are, of course, dialogue, music, and sound effects. I actually rank them in that order of importance. I find music much more vital than sound effects. Music paints settings and pushes the audience’s emotional buttons. Sound effects are “just” the action and background locations. I didn’t always feel this way. You’d naturally think that your SFX kit is the radio imagination machine, but I found out the hard way that it’s dangerous to rely heavily on sound effects. Radio’s “blindness” tripped me up for a fall as big as Fibber McGee’s notorious closet sound effect. Let me explain...

While experimenting with mic setups in the MT&R's studio, we did a run-through of a script of The Lone Ranger, but the sound effects we had on-hand were left over from a Superman episode we’d just finished. Since this was just a mic test, we ran through part of the Ranger show with the wrong effects--ray guns instead of six shooters, cars instead of horses, etc. It was hilarious! What a great gag!

I thought I'd found a way to do comedy radio workshops for kids--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 this brilliant "wrong sound effects" gag--timing and inflection wouldn't matter.

Thinking, “What kind of radio genre would we NEVER do for children?”, I wrote a 1953-style soap opera along the lines of The Guiding Light and Young Widder Brown, complete with all the typical soap sound effects of the era--baking cookies, pouring lemonade, the phone, the doorbell, etc. Soaps were notorious as a sound effects artist's nightmare--nothing much to do.

As a zany plot device, the main character’s brother is suffering from “Island Fever”--he’s somehow lost his mind. Anyway, the main character is baking cookies and chatting with a friend when she receives a mysterious voodoo doll, pricks her finger and faints. In a dream, she re-lives the previous cookie baking scene line-by-line, but now all the sound effects are wrong! Dropping the cookie tray is now the sound of a bomb dropping (y’know, long descending whistle then, Crash!); the phone ring is now a jackhammer; the yapping poodle is now a roaring lion, etc. She reacts to these wrong sounds. She realizes she’s caught “Island Fever” herself. What a killer gag! What an inside SFX joke! What a gloriously unique radio moment!

What a dud! The whole thing flopped! The kids performing the live show didn't get it and it didn't work when played back--in fact it was worse! I tinkered with the script, but 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 sound as some type of  noisy telephone.  Talk about “agonizing reappraisal!”

We must always remember the radio audience is blind. Their brains will dutifully conjure up whatever images you suggest via dialogue, music, and sound effects, but their imaginations can perform only so many tricks.  I labored mightily to fix this routine. I made the cookie tray drop gag incredibly explicit--with the longest descending whistle then crash, so the bomb effect would be perfectly clear. But it still didn’t fly. Even using such sure-fire "self-identifying" sounds couldn't carry the gag clearly.  My SFX breakthrough was a bust-out.

On the I Love Lucy TV show, this kind of gag would have you in stitches, but without that visual disparity of image and wrong sound, this gag just didn't work in radio. Of course, it is possible to do variations on this “wrong sound effects” gag. The ridiculously overblown sound effects used to depict Jack Benny’s elaborate bank vault come to mind. But you must be very careful when relying on SFX to carry the show.

Gangbusters was an imaginative series that would often start with a collage of sound effects to convey an action scene. Bold? Yes. Effective? Not really. It was merely a stunt. If the audience can’t see the action and no voice is there to be their seeing-eye dog, they’re going to trip on the curb and get run over by your screeching getaway car SFX.

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. It appears that while you can do anything on radio, you can’t do everything.

The Power of Suggestion

Using Manual Sound Effects Instead of Samples

(May 2001)

Audio drama is a magical collaboration between performer and audience. Voices, music, and sound effects cast a spell, and the listener’s mind conjures up a world before their very ears. Voices convey the story, music reinforces emotion, and sound effects render the reality--but how much reality is enough?

There are two roles for sound effects in audio drama; action and setting. A door opening or a gun shot is action. A howling wind or the hubbub of a crowded bar instantly paints the setting. Which sounds and how many you use will determine the quality of your drama’s reality.

What is reality?
One approach is to simply steal. For a crowded barroom setting, go to a real one and record the chatter and background noises, then layer that “atmosphere” under  dialogue and music. This literalism provides you with total reality--from the clinking of glasses to the overheard arguments about body parts and sports scores. This documentary method assures you that it is 100% totally real.

Another method is to merely simulate real life. For the crowded barroom, you use in-studio walla walla (the indistinct mumbling of several people), and clink some glasses together occasionally. If it suggests “barroom” in the minds of the audience, it sounds real--and that is enough to do the job.

I prefer to manufacture reality for a number of reasons, the foremost being control. Simulation lets you sculpt the sound. You can easily change the mood of the bar as required by the script. Also, walla walla mumbling is unintelligible--so it won’t steal the audio spotlight from the actors’ dialogue. Best of all, you don’t create extraneous sounds. Unidentified sounds are noise--noise that can impair the clarity of your production--even if they are 100% authentic sounds.

In audio drama, sound effects must share the stage with voices and music. If you fill up the sonic spectrum with excess sound effects, your total reality can detract from, rather than add to the story. Try to limit sound effects to those that  “read” easily. Sketch with them instead of perfecting the illusion. Entrance the audience’s imagination with just enough suggestion to conjure up a clear picture of the drama. Good hocus pocus is all about focus.

Trial by Fire Engine

Controlling Sampled Sound Effects

(October 2001)

In old time radio dramas, the sound effects crew used both manual SFX—for doors, footsteps, fights, gunshots, etc.—and SFX records—for cars, storms, planes, etc. Today, many productions rely heavily on digitally sampled SFX. Some use samples for everything, feeling manual effects aren’t authentic. However, manual effects can be “played” expressively and easily timed to coincide with the script. Sampled SFX, while “real,” are often hard to manipulate with precision.

I love manual SFX—even for airplanes, thunder, and wind, but some sounds are difficult to fake manually. Recently I was asked to provide sampled sounds for a live-on-stage radio drama recording. I used a Kurzweil sampler with a Peavey trigger pad and faders for each sound. The experience was educational—in the unfortunate seat-of-the-pants manner.

For sound effects of short duration—gunshots, electric sparks, explosions—the samples were easy to cue to the script. I triggered enough multiple gunshots to convincingly depict the required alligator-stakeout-party-gone-berserk and also a sparking-toaster-blows-up-a-house bit. Short samples work well with live-style production.

For SFX of long duration—fire engines wailing and pulling up, a jet plane passing overhead—the timing was unreliable. In rehearsal, I found exactly where in the script I should trigger the start of the fire engine sample--with sirens wailing. The actor then resumed speaking and ended his speech just as the fire engines pulled up. Perfect! But in front of the live audience, the actor rushed his entrance and his lines. So, the trucks would pull up way too late, creating nearly-dead air. We faded out the trucks before they arrived, to allow the next live music cue to start and get us to the next scene. The director was not pleased.

To match the variable timing of live performances, I had to be more flexible with my samples and Kurzweil sampler. I split my one long sample into three separate samples of 1) distant sirens, 2) fire engines approaching, and 3) fire engines pulling up. I had to trigger each one as needed and fade them in and out to follow the actor’s delivery. In digital post-production, you could just cross fade from sample to sample, but I had to pull that same trick live. Here are some suggestions for triggering samples when producing a drama live-style.

1) Have a separate person trigger sampled SFX.
2) Use a sample playback device that allows for overlapping sounds. Hardware samplers (Akai, Roland, Kurzweil) do this. Other devices (CD players, 360 Systems’ Instant Replay, computers with MP3 or Wave files) often don’t.
3) Rig up separate volume faders for each sound. A mixing board is good.

Don’t expect just because you’ve got samples of real sounds that all you need to do is sit back and push a few buttons. Chances are you’ll have to learn to “play” those samples with the same skill you use to produce credible manual sound effects. If Stan Freberg says, “Cue the 10-ton maraschino cherry bomb,” you’d better be right on time or they’ll drop the bomb on you!

SFX Are For Kits!

A Basic Manual Sound Effects Kit

(December 2001)

I’m often asked what I’d include in a good basic sound effects kit. It all depends on what the radio drama calls for, but here’s my list of standard SFX. You can do a lot with this kit.


CRASH BOX --made from a metal Christmas popcorn container. This is the single most useful device I have. Fill it about a third-full with broken coffee mugs, gravel, crushed cans, screws and some toy wooden blocks. Experiment until you get a good sound, then seal the lid on with duct tape.


OLD DIAL TELEPHONE - and ringer bell box -- the kind companies use for delivery doorbells. You can find old phones at flea markets for about $5. Don't bother trying to make the old phone ring--it'll cost hundreds for a step down transformer to deliver the 84 volts necessary to engage the phone’s ring circuit. Just buy a clapper-bell doorbell kit for $10 at a hardware store. Then ring it 4 seconds on-2 seconds off and repeat. Use the old phone for dialing and handset pickups/hang-ups.


THUNDER SHEET - 2x4 foot 16th inch high-impact polystyrene. Look in your local yellow pages for "Plastics" and call around. It'll cost about $10.


WALKBOARD - 2x3 foot doubled 3/4 inch plywood for footsteps. Put tile on one side to get a different sound.


SMALL DOOR - cut the bottom 3 feet off a regular door, but keep the width--that’s key to getting the real sound. Then build a frame of 2x4s and install a typical lockset. Mount it to a plywood base--and mount that on casters so you can move it easily.


GRAVEL BOX - get or make a shallow wooden drawer-type box and pour in some small gravel--for horses/dirt. Then use coconuts or small plungers for horses and short 2x4s as "boots"--add some small jingle bells to them for spurs!


CAVEMAN CLUBS -- large hollow caveman style toy clubs--great for fights and bodies dropping to the floor. You can find them at Hollywood Toys & Costumes in Los Angeles. Call (800) 554-3444 and they’ll ship them to you. The clubs cost about $10 each. Get two.


STIFF PLASTIC BAGS - for fire, static, even--with the right motion--marching feet


CLIP BOARDS - for gun shots. They never misfire or run out of blanks--but try to snap them on top of a resonator box to sound "bigger." A small metal trash can might be the ticket.


TOY RATCHET - get the large plastic New Year's noisemakers. The typical little metal ones sound too small. Ratchets are good for handcuffs, winches, drawbridges... ratchets.

VIBRO PEN - a "Dizzy Doodler" pen that writes wobbly--for planes/jackhammers. Turn it on and apply the star-shaped top (not the pen point) to a cardboard box for a convincing airplane. Do the same on a stack of small saucers and you'll have a great jack-hammer. The KB Toy liquidator chain sells them for $4.

TOY CELL PHONE - for radars, space beeps, even cell phones! Hollywood Toys & Costumes in Los Angeles sells them for $4. Call (800) 554-3444 and they’ll ship them to you. They also sell decent toy pager/beepers.

SLIDE WHISTLE - Besides eeeeeYOOOP, it can also be quickly slid back and forth for radars and space sounds. They’re available at toy stores and some musical instrument stores.

PLASTIC EGG MARACAS - for jungles, rattlesnakes, weirdness. You could make some with plastic Easter eggs and rice, but many music stores sell them for $2 each and those have a finer gravel that sounds very good.

TEACUP SAUCERS - good "dishes" sound. Apply vibro-pen to two stacked saucers for a great jack-hammer.

METAL SPOONS/SPATULAS -- get a really big pancake flipping spatula and some large metal cooking spoons for great sword fights. Use dinner forks for diner sounds.

PLASTIC TUMBLER - for pouring water. Drop AA batteries in empty tumblers for ice cubes. They also can be used to fake a telephone voice filter if you hold them to the side of your mouth while you talk.

CIRCUIT BREAKER - At hardware stores you can find the large black home circuit breakers. They produce that old-fashioned, LOUD light switch click.

CREAKER BOX - cotton clothesline wrapped around a dowel rubbed with violin rosin--sounds like a creaking door or thumbscrews. It's rigged in a wooden shoe-box sized thing.

CREAKER DOWEL -- a 1/2 inch dowel rubbed with violin rosin and wrapped by a rubber hose with a standard car hose clamp. It's a different kind of creak.

My Radio Drama Resources website has much more SFX info including details on building the SFX listed above  as well as wind machines, wave drums, and more. Of course, it’s not the devices you have, but how you play them.


SFX? Phone It In!

Creating Authentic Telephone Sound Effects

(April 2002)

Sooner or later, radio drama characters are going to use a telephone and you'll need to produce a variety of phone sound effects. There are outgoing and incoming calls, one and two-sided conversations, and two flavors of sounds for calls--external and through-the-wire. While you can write around your SFX phone's limitations, it doesn't take too much to create useful sounds. Here's how.

The easiest phone calls are outgoing, one-sided phone calls, where the actor on mic. will appear to dial a number, wait for an answer, and then talk, pausing for responses from the unheard other party. This requires very little equipment—an unplugged old, rotary dial telephone or a battery-powered toy push-button phone.

An incoming phone call requires a ring and the actor on mic. to answer and carry on a one-sided conversation or, if you wish to have the calling party speak, run their microphone through a filter or EQ with a setting that cuts out frequencies under 300 Hz and over 4000 Hz. I make and sell a special phone filter microphone that recreates the tinny sound and slight distortion of a phone. See my page on the Go-Filter mics.

Ringing the phone can be a bit of a problem. The same modern toy push-button phone that you use for dialing sounds will also have ringing sounds. However, old bell ringer phones are tougher to fake. You'd need a special "key system" power source of about 84 volts to induce a real telephone ringer (voices travel over the same wire, but at a lower voltage.) Instead, I recommend building an inexpensive delivery bell—from the kits sold in door bell departments at hardware stores. Just ring the bell FOUR seconds and then wait TWO seconds before ringing again. To answer, just stop ringing and jiggle the handset of the phone so you make enough noise that the audience can perceive it as "Oh, she's answering the phone."

You can get by very nicely with these simple sounds. For years, I wrote scripts working with just these two types of incoming and outgoing phone calls. Then I was asked to perform sound effects for Lucille Fletcher's famous Sorry, Wrong Number and I realized I needed a new sound effects phone—one that also produced the sounds heard in your EAR when you dial and call somebody, the "through-the-wire" sounds.

First I needed the sound of the dial clicking off the numbers dialed, then the ringing on the other end of the wire—called the "ring-back",  then also a busy signal, and the clicking of the "hook-switch"—the buttons that disconnect the call. Optionally, there's the dial tone sound. A sampler keyboard or pre-recorded sound effects CD is one way to produce these sounds, but I found an OTR sound effects phone box they used to have at the  Radio Recorders studio that does the job ingeniously and cheaply. It allows you to better "play" the sounds expressively and at any tempo. After much research and flea market shopping, I've created a newer, fancier version of this electro-mechanical marvel.

Briefly, my deluxe SFX phone is an old Western Electric #500 model rotary dial phone that sits on top of a wooden box that has pushbuttons to control several small delivery buzzer mechanisms that are hung from shock mounts inside the box. Everything is run from an external 6-volt lantern battery. The buzzer/bell mechanisms have wires running off of them that are connected to the handset speaker. I've weighed down the buzzer clapper arms by soldering bolts to them—so they produce lower, less buzzy sounds. I also wired the dial to the battery and a second speaker to produce a very clicky through-the-wire dial counting sound. The hook-switch cuts all these through-the-wire sounds and kills the external ring produced by a delivery bell rigged to two old phone "gong" bells.

I used an electronic mini-sampler for the dial tone. For $10, I bought a Radio Shack 20-second "Recording Module" and sampled a dial tone into it. I then rigged it up to pushbuttons and created a "kill" circuit relay triggered by the hook-switch. Now I have every sound needed for any type of telephone call—incoming, outgoing, external and through-the-wire. I've even included a second mini-sampler to store other sounds—like the "all lines are busy" messages or the old, really annoying siren sound when you left the phone off the hook too long. It was a lot of work, but worth it. Now, I can truly "phone it in."

NOTE: At this time, I do NOT offer "killer telephones" for sale. I've described the mechanism above. If you feel "handy," give it a try.

The Roar of the Crowd
and how to fake it

Using Walla Walla in Radio Drama

(September 2002)

Walla walla is the sound of a crowd mumbling in the background. Walla is incredibly evocative in conjuring up barrooms, quilting bees, legislatures, pirate ships, etc. What's more, it's cheap--just mass vocalisms by your cast or sound effects crew--and helps to add depth and realism to what can often be a sterile background that principal characters speak over.

You can create convincing nightclubs with a few clinking glasses and plenty of cocktail crowd walla and have more control than if you went to a nightclub and recorded the crowd. Homemade walla can be conducted to rise and fall as the action demands. In your radio-scripted nightclub, if a fight breaks out, custom walla can erupt right along with it. If you are using pre-recorded, real crowd sounds, such transitions can be difficult.

Some producers break walla voices into two groups. One may repeatedly say, "peas and carrots" while the second group says, "ugamumble". When the ear hears these simultaneous sounds, the result is an unintelligible murmur. Other strategies include reciting the alphabet, saying "rhubarb", etc., but I suggest walla actors just grumble and mumble with little peaks and pauses to simulate speech. They may also laugh or cough occasionally, if the scene calls for it.

Film-style Walla Vs. Radio Walla
Film and television sound design approaches walla differently. They use real words and sentences and avoid mumbling. Films use professional "walla groups" to create little conversations based on research about locale, time period, etc. However, in film, the screen is showing the principal actors as they speak, thereby focusing the audience's attention on what is being said. Filmmakers can also easily mix down the separately recorded walla tracks so the main dialogue is easy to hear. Radio walla doesn't work that way.

In radio drama there are no visual close-ups to focus the listener's attention, so real phrases in the walla can easily steal the focus from the scripted dialogue. That's why radio walla uses indistinct mumbling. You don't want a walla quip or phrase to break above the murmur or into a pause by the foreground characters. That could divert the listener's attention and even step on an important line of dialogue. Let radio be radio and get ready to mumble.

Directing Walla
At rehearsal, I'll go over the list of walla cues with cast and SFX crew to demonstrate the kind of walla required. I have everyone mark their scripts as to whether they're doing walla at particular cues.

Most importantly, I always explain, "A little walla goes a long way-- so keep it low and watch for my cues to bring it up, down, or cut it out." If walla voices are too loud, they overwhelm scripted dialogue and make it hard for the sound effects crew to hear that dialogue--causing them to flub important SFX cues. Too loud walla also leads the foreground actors to speak louder--just to be heard over the din--which can ruin the desired effect of one character speaking to another--in a crowd. Keep the background in the background.

Big crowds are more people talking, not people talking louder. It isn't the volume, but the multiple mumbling that is essential. However, once you have 5 or 10 walla voices going, the audience will only think: "crowd." You don't need 40 walla voices to evoke a crowd of 40. Let your ear tell you how many voices are necessary.

I direct just a few feet in front of my cast, and so I can lead the walla myself, mumbling along and using hand gestures to indicate volume and intensity. I find this conducting approach very effective, as I can totally shape the nature of the walla and sustain it though long scenes. If you direct from a glass control booth or from a chair far from the cast, you may have some difficulty in getting your hand signals for walla cues noticed. Many actors tend to start off a scene with good walla and then let it fade down or even die. Be careful to keep it going. When explaining the walla, go over the hand cues to raise or lower volume, vary the intensity, or cut it out completely.

Walla can be employed to expand your listener's theater of the imagination to fill an entire world. So, to the cheering of thousands, unleash the Mongol hordes!

A longer version of this article can be found at Walla Walla.

An Awful Eyeful of an Earful

The Visual Side of Sound Effects

(May 2003)

Of course radio drama is all about sound, but it's not ONLY about sound. Even our sound effects have a visual aspect and it's something you can exploit.

I've seen many collections of old time radio sound effects and have a number of OTR SFX devices myself. I'm often struck (pun intended) by how well-made and serious looking these devices are. All the OTR squeakers and creakers, bell boxes, windlasses, boing sticks, doors, and shakers might have been built from scraps of wood and leather and tin, but they looked very professionally made.

Nearly everything was painted. NBC's devices were glossy or flat black and CBS's were battleship gray. They would often sport their network letters, along with abbreviated names and numbers like, "GL SQ - #9" for  "Glass Scratch - device #9" or "Nail Pl" for a nail puller. The labeling was necessary because multiple devices filled the shelves in the SFX storerooms at the studios and a particular device would be requested by a show or director. The sound artists needed to locate a specific device quickly--especially considering that in the golden era of OTR, they would produce two dozen or more shows every day.

Since these SFX devices were heard, but never SEEN by audiences (except for live audience comedy/variety shows) you may wonder why the sound effects artists bothered to doll up their homemade creations?

Ray Erlenborn, Jack Benny's SFX ace, says that the craftsmanship and painting was "protective coloration." It was intended to make the devices more intimidating to directors, producers and kibitzing advertising clients.

The fancy-looking SFX devices were a matter of creative survival. If a script called for a creaking door and the SFX man brought out a small, plain, plywood box with dowels and rope, the director might scoff--and demand a more "realistic" solution (usually a real door, which wouldn't produce as expressive or reliable a creak.)  However, if that same plywood creaker box was nicely painted and labeled, the director could be convinced that this "official-looking" device WAS a perfect creaking door--which, of course, is exactly what it sounded like. Yes, they used illusion to preserve the illusion of creating illusions!

Bob Mott (Gangbusters, Bob & Ray, etc.) told me of a similar ploy, using doctored labels on SFX records to overcome directorial skepticism regarding the sound of 5000 drunken chickens. Since the SFX record label said "5000 drunken chickens" who would know that it was really some sound men clucking drunkenly and then re-dubbed to add up to an inebriated hen-housing project? There, the "protective coloration" was invisibility--the pre-recorded SFX disk hid the sound's true origins.

In radio--as in life--reality is not what it's cracked up to be!

In today's era of massive sample libraries, I've found that directors and producers are even more doubtful that my mechanical devices can create convincing and expressive thunder, handcuffs, creaking ship timbers, train brakes, etc. so, I have painted my home-built SFX too. At first, my devices were done up in NBC glossy black and CBS battleship gray. However, modern radio drama is often performed in front of live audiences and live audiences want to see SFX devices in action! Authentic black and gray SFX couldn't be seen well from the back of a theater, so I switched to brighter colors.

I've seen photos of many modern troupes' SFX kits and doors and, while I don't know how realistic they sound, they all look terrible. Perhaps they like to contrast the sonic illusion with a homely source, but that approach doesn't make economic sense to me. I've found that a professional-looking SFX kit commands a higher rental fee. I supplement my AFTRA wages with SFX kit rentals and so, looks matter--even in radio!

But beware that your colorful SFX thunder isn't stealing the drama's thunder!

When I'm doing SFX, I play to the audience; to let them in on the trick. SFX artists are both the magicians and the clowns of the medium. We spin magic--on-the-air--and dispel it--in the theater. We can support the script or wreak havoc with it.

If the SFX aren't entertaining--if they are all "canned" samples, live audiences feel cheated. The novelty is diminished, and the audience's imaginative collaboration with us can be stifled.  If the physical production of SFX is too engrossing, the audience can be distracted from the drama. Radio-on-Stage shows are a big part of where the medium thrives today. It subsidizes production costs, even for shows intended for network broadcast. In Los Angeles, we also have several radio troupes that NEVER broadcast their works, but perform all the time. There are two audiences to serve here--on-air and live.

There are a number of ways to balance the two sides; When doing SFX before a live audience, I pull out a device ahead of time and poise myself to play it. That way it's not a sudden disruption. I also perform the SFX clearly--with a deliberate motion--to show what I'm doing and distract as little as possible. However, for dramatic shows, I often hide my work beneath the SFX table, or behind another device, so it won't ruin the dramatic moment I'm trying to serve. For example: A tragic suicide can be ruined if the audience sees you stabbing a watermelon in conjunction with the actor's passionate farewell. If you can't hide the physical motion, you may wish play a pre-recorded watermelon stabbing.  You must always serve the drama.

A useful strategy is to have a SFX demo before the program begins. It can either be a formal "show and tell" presentation, or--less obtrusively--the SFX artist can pretend to ignore the audience and merely "test" the devices and effects while the audience is being seated or awaiting curtain. I find these SFX demos quell the audience's curiosity without impinging on the drama.

However, sometimes it's impossible to prevent dramatic focus from being stolen.

Once, I was doing both SFX and playing a live Theremin along with my pre-recorded music score--for Ray Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven." I knew that as soon as I started playing the Theremin, the audience would forget what the narrator was saying and the show would suffer. So, I did a quickie demonstration of the Theremin before we began the program. The demo helped, but in the performance, the Theremin STILL stole focus. Some trickery is impossible to ignore. However, I realized that this distraction would occur and my score mostly limited the Theremin to bridge cues--where there was no narration underneath.  I could have just pre-recorded all the Theremin parts, but that wouldn't be as entertaining to the audience. Again, our task is to serve the audience as best we can.

SFX kits are the radio magician's bag of tricks and a big part of any magic show has to do with how nice--and mysterious--the devices look. So touch up your kit and see how it affects the show. It certainly makes my dealings with directors, producers and audiences easier.

Pretty devices may not actually SOUND any better, but you can hear how much a coat of paint is appreciated. You also can hear the amount of applause the SFX artist gets during the end credits. Audiences LOVE being fooled and I do my best to fool them well. I enjoy the large applause I get. Live applause may be my favorite sound effect of all.

The Sound Of A Sow's Ear

Working With Difficult Directors

(June 2004)

A sound effects artist can work magic with bits of wood and glass and metal, turning them into giant rat squeaks, shattered aliens, and clanging dungeon doors, but the real magic is in producing the sound of a director smiling. And that’s as much a skill as performing two sets of footsteps with one set of feet.

Your job is not making sounds but, rather, making directors look good—helping them realize their radio dreams. Often you will find yourself working for directors inexperienced in radio drama. They may come from film or stage or… Planet X! Many times they won’t believe your SFX device or pre-recorded sample sounds like the real thing. “Visual” directors don’t see your clever glass scratch box (nails on a crank scratching against glass) as a train brake.

SFX artists tell of oddball sound cues they’ve run into: “A match being struck on soap.” “Stirring coffee in a Styrofoam cup.” “A firm handshake.”  I'm always asked to do horse hoofs sporting the musical motif of triplets—a THREE-legged horse! Clip-clip-CLOP. Clip-clip-CLOP. This stuff is crazy and my highly attuned ear knows that. But it's not about being right.

As in life, your circumstances are handed to you. What matters is how you deal with them.

Many directors don’t understand sound effects at all. But you… do. What irony! You’re called upon to mis-use your talents. Life’s unfair! If you are the all-knowing SFX expert and the director is a dunce or dictator, you'll make the sound of pearls cast before swine. A sound that can cost you jobs, ulcers, and… artistic satisfaction. What you need is to turn that sow's ear into a silk purse.

If you argue with directors about a cue, you risk angering them and being typed as “difficult.” If you are a know-it-all and point out ridiculous cues, you could embarrass them—especially if cast and crew are present. If you go along with them—you just KNOW the show will suffer. It seems that no matter what you do, you lose; All because the director is the boss and you… ARE NOT!

Often, directors—especially newcomers—are insecure in our medium. They understand actors and drama, but feel threatened by audio drama's demands. Many times the most miserable person on a show is the director. They’re frustrated—unable to get precisely what they want—from actors, composers, engineers, producers, writers, and now you, the sound effects artist. They have issues.

And you can have issues too. If you view your fate as woeful—“Poor talented me! Being forced to perform such junk for an infidel!”—you’ll be unhappy. And it'll show. You might grumble or  drag your feet. You might fail on purpose—exaggerating the failure. You might play endless ego games here, and many people do—in SFX and in life.

But don’t! Resistance brings no rewards.

Being right in your own mind is a waste of time. You just clog up your creative flow with logjams of negativity, burdening yourself—and the production. Instead, learn how to let go. Give yourself and your talent freely—and wisely. Doing so, you’ll cross the threshold of collaboration in an entirely different way. Imagine the sound of dancing daisies. Now do it.

I direct radio drama and I also serve directors as engineer, composer, and sound effects artist. I used to loathe working with difficult people. I didn’t want the hassle, the hoops, the obstacles. Now, I seek out these folks—because they are the ones who make me grow—as an SFX artist and creator. They bring me challenges and inspire me to come up with new solutions. I learn a great deal from them. They force me to be flexible—an invaluable skill for any artist.

Also, these tough cases can be powerful allies, career-wise. If nobody else can work with them, but you can, you’ll work when they work. And that could be a lot.

Here are some real world suggestions for working with difficult directors:

Let directors know right away that you are there to serve them; that you know your place and will do your best. Show them your willingness. They’re often surprised to be greeted in such a way by a “technician.” Directors love to be tended to. Toss your ego and tend to them. They’ll make life easier for you if you are willing to surrender to them.

In pre-production, do a “spotting session” of the sound cues—both the scripted and tacked on ones. If you find way-wrong cues, don’t be negative. Don’t object. Instead of being the expert, ask directors what they have in mind. Then, offer suggestions. Give them options—as many as you can. They like to be in charge. Play to that. Empower them. Let them choose wisely—and if they choose wrongly, go for that with gusto. Can you make that awful cue work—anyway?

Try your sounds out on them ahead of time. Don’t surprise them in rehearsal, recording or (yikes!) live broadcast. Always serve them, gladly.

Be discreet with suggestions or comments. Notate your script and go over it together—in private. Don’t ever show them up in public. They have ego. Leave yours in your SFX kit.

Try to see difficult directors as laying wonderful artistic challenges in your lap. View yourself as such an SFX wizard that you can do anything! Make that “firm handshake” cue work. But before you start slapping your palms together in a dozen different ways, approach these difficult tasks with the right attitude.

Be willing and positive. That way, you’ll be a sound effects artist who always makes a joyful noise.

Canned Do!

Pre-Recorded Sound Effectricity  
(May  2005)

Sound effects can be produced manually with doors, wind machines,  coconuts and such, or by playing pre-recorded (“canned”) sounds. Some SFX, such as traffic, rain, glass breaking, 5000 drunken chickens, etc., can be hard to produce manually, or are difficult to mic live. But these can be recorded (“sampled”) on-location, or created by layering real and faked sounds with a recorder or computer.

Pre-recorded sounds, whether from commercial collections or homemade, have been integral to radio dramas since the 1930s. In the golden age they were played on records using multi-tonearm turntables. Today, we have many playback options. However, it still takes a bit of skill to make “real” sound “natural.”

Sound can evoke a specific action, such as a face slap or guillotine beheading, or convey the ambience of a place, like a jungle, factory or the interior of a moving car. Canned sounds work well for ambiences, which generally run throughout a scene.

For example, if you are creating Noah’s Ark at sea, the SFX artists could be busy cranking a wind machine, tilting a wave drum, and using a creaker to shiver a ship’s timbers. But this could keep them so busy, they’d run out of hands for manual effects tied to dialogue, such as door knocks or a gargling rabbit. So here, a canned shipboard ambience track could just play in the background, leaving the artists free for the manual effects.

Radio drama is all about timing and inflection, whether it’s dialogue, music, or sound effects. Manual sounds easily allow for precise timing and the adjusting of expression. Canned sounds require care in selection (“Is that rain BIG enough?”) and triggering (“Not now... NOW!”). Will that perfectly real canned gust of wind whoosh at the very moment the actress playing Joan (of Ark) remarks about a change in the weather? With canned SFX, you also want the control you have with manual sounds, especially regarding timing. There are a variety of playback technologies available, and each has its proper application.

Long ambience tracks that play under dialogue scenes (crickets, storms, spaceship interiors) work best with linear playback devices such as audio CDs, cassettes, MiniDisks, iPods or other MP3 players. Prepare ambience tracks that run 1-1/2 times the length of the actual scene because actors’ tempos can vary greatly from rehearsal to performance. You don’t want to run out of rain before the 40 days and 40 nights are up.

Ready, Fire, Aim!
An inexpensive way to trigger canned sounds from a computer is to use a simple HTML webpage with links to MP3 files of your canned SFX. You just click on “shipboard.mp3” or “gunshot.mp3” and let it play. However, a problem with MP3 players or any linear playback device is that they can only play one track at a time. That’s fine for ambiences, but what if you need spot effects like a shattering window, that sudden gust of wind, or a shootout? (“This Ark ain’t big enough for the 2000 of us, Bub! Shoot!”)

With linear devices, if you played one gunshot which echoed in the distance, but immediately wanted another gunshot, the second one would suddenly cut off the reverberating “tail” of the first. This sounds very unnatural. The problem is that some playback methods limit the number of “voices” that can sound simultaneously.

You could try to find a series of  pre-recorded gunshots and hope they fit the actors’ timing. “Take that!” BANG! “And that!” BANG-BANG! “So... you thought you...” BANG! “...could cheat at shuffleboard? Well, take that!” (NO MORE BANGS LEFT). It’s better to match the SFX to the actors dialogue than to expect actors to sync themselves to a track of spot effects.

More technology to the rescue!
“Samplers” are hardware or software devices which play back pre-recorded notes of say, a piano, drum kit, or other instrument. Nearly all electronic keyboards are sample players today, but some allow you to load your own sounds into them, making them perfect for SFX. Samplers are well-suited to trigger short sounds like gunshots, church bells, explosions, and the like.

For live shows, I prefer dependable hardware samplers, such as those made by Kurzweil, Yamaha, Roland and E-mu. There are also “soft-sampler” programs that run on computers; professional products like GigaSampler, VSampler, Kontakt, etc., and free, downloadable ones such as DeeSampler for PCs or VSamp for Macs.

With these samplers, you load your canned SFX files into their memory and assign the sounds to certain keyboard keys or selections on a menu. Then you trigger the sounds as needed. Unlike linear playback devices, samplers are polyphonic--they can play many sounds at the same time without each new sound cutting off the previously triggered ones. This is especially useful for gun battles or other soundscapes that require many elements to play on top of each other, all cued at specific times.

However, many samplers have limits on how long a sample can run--depending upon the RAM memory available. You might not be able to have a sampler play lapping ocean waves under a 10 minute Noah’s Ark scene. But you could let an MP3 device play those waves and then have a sampler trigger the sound of a stampede of shuffleboard playing animals and then the sinking of the Ark.

But  to these canned sounds, I would also add some fresh ones: a hand-cranked wind machine... AND a flying unicorn, (by rapidly opening and closing an umbrella.) When you layer manual and pre-recorded sounds together, you get the best of both worlds. Reality blurs with artifice and you can fool most of the people, most of the time--which is the sonic rainbow most SFX artists seek; Full of sound and fury, signifying... well, everything!

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

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