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 -
9 - 10
It’s All in the Wrists!
Use Expression When Playing Sound Effects
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
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!
HICKS NIX SFX TRICKS!
Over-Reliance On Sound Effects
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
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
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
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
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
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.
STIFF PLASTIC BAGS - for fire, static, even--with the right
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
CIRCUIT BREAKER - At hardware stores you can find the large
black home circuit breakers. They produce that old-fashioned, LOUD light switch
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A longer version of this article can be found at
An Awful Eyeful of an Earful
The Visual Side of Sound Effects
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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…
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
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
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
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
Be willing and positive. That way, you’ll be a sound effects artist who
always makes a joyful noise.
Pre-Recorded Sound Effectricity
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
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
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!