Sounds Good to Me
How students can create
radio sound effects.
If you are fascinated
by listening, maybe you would like to make it a career.
That is what Jeff Whitehead did. The sound engineer
for the Scribbling
Women Radio Play series and a former engineer for
Monitor Radio, he is highly sought after for music and
radio recording projects.
Jeff got his start as an intern in a sound studio
while studying for a degree in music composition. The
part time job became a full time profession when the
regular engineer missed a recording session. Jeff filled
in at the mixing board - and the rest is history. As
engineer for Scribbling Women, he creates the
final audio product you hear on National Public Radio
and on Windows Media on the Scribbling Women web
"Sound engineering is
a highly computerized activity today," Jeff says, "but
it all stems from the old days when we literally cut
tape and spliced it. That's something any student can
do, even without expensive equipment."
Splicing tape means cutting strips of cassette or
reel-to-reel tape and connecting them to bring sounds
from many sources into a single sequence. For instance,
you could record a door opening and footsteps walking
down a corridor at two different times, then splice
together tape containing these sounds to bridge two
scenes in your radio production.
(Regular transparent tape can be used to join the sections
of tape. Be sure to tape the backing, not the side that
carries the sound. Usually the backing is darker. On
a cassette, it will be the side
facing inward; don't tape over the oxide that carries
the sound, which will be facing you.)
Several sources for
sound are used in the production of radio drama. Some
are stock on CD or audio tape. Other sounds are recorded
"live" prior to production. For the Scribbling Women
play, "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell, the sound
effects producer took his tape recorder to an old farmhouse
in Vermont and captured the sounds of feet ascending
wooden stairs, the closing of old doors, and creaking
floorboards. Music recordings are always a major part
of any radio drama, but students should seek advice
from teachers before using music or other copyrighted
Jeff will sometimes "create" a sound effect, a process
called Foley work. "I once had to help my audience imagine
a dragon coming to life out of a book, its wings unfolding
and all the scales crackling and bristling," Jeff recalls.
"We did it by tearing and wadding and bunching and ripping
duct tape. To the imagination, it was an erupting dragon."
Still another type of
sound effect can be made by the actors as they record
their dialogue. "The most natural sounds are those recorded
as the actors read their lines" Jeff says. "A good example
is a kitchen scene. The best way to get the sounds of
pouring coffee and drinking is to have the actors handle
cups, saucers, and a coffee pot. Then, you get the sounds
just when they normally would. You don't have to work
on mixing and sequencing sounds."
Jeff uses a professional software called ProTools,
together with a special sound mixing board that controls
the software. All the sounds are entered into the computer
as digital tracks. Then, by dragging individual tracks
to a specific position on a timeline, Jeff can change
when they begin or end in relation to other sounds that
are running at the same time. He can also raise or lower
each sound's volume against the timeline - thus fading
sounds in and out or emphasizing one more than another.
Since his equipment handles as many as 132 tracks simultaneously,
Jeff can have one sound fading down while another gets
louder - all against the ongoing background of two or
three or even more sounds happening together!
While Jeff's software
is top of the line, similar programs are available for
amateur use, beginning at around $25. Whether you cut
and splice tape or do it on a computer screen, mixing
sound can make all the difference in how your audience
hears radio drama.
Gordon Talley is a Cambridge, Massachusetts, based
communications consultant for non-profit organizations
and an Advisor to the Scribbling Women Project.