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Drama Drama Drama, Reflections of an Audio Geek

Background.

I've always been interested in audio editing. From the time I was a small child , (and as soon as I could get my hands on a tape recorder), I've edited music and sound together which I thoroughly enjoyed even then. As time went on, I was introduced by Jonathan Mosen to the Sound Forge audio production software, which opened up the world to me in terms of sound editing using a computer. While I've tested many audio production tools since then, Sound forge is always the one I come back to. But I wasn't just interested in the editing, it was all the other post production processes too, such as the ability to reduce the sounds of scratches on vinyl records.

I've worked on a lot of audio projects in the past, including co-running our own 24-hour a day internet radio station, Team-FM, where we used the StationPlaylist Studio and Creator software to its maximum potential. This station developed my knowledge of audio broadcasting tools together with the ability to create websites.

Sadly, Team-FM needed to be close due to my wife's poor health, and while we have The Bell which is on a smaller scale, I've had to find a new audio outlet for me to get my teeth into, and fortunately, (although unknown to me at the time), there was one right in front of me!

Bert, (who is a leprechaun for reasons I won't go into here), started out as a cartoon-like character with whom I did voiceovers and promotional work for upcoming internet radio shows. At the time, I didn't have a partner or anyone close who I could rely upon to produce quality radio work. So, when you want a job doing properly, the best method I've found is to do it yourself, and that is how bert came to be.

Over time, my wife Lulu broadened out Bert's life to the extent that we began to produce first small and then full-length audio dramas about him, the scrapes he gets himself into, his romantic side coming to the fore and his willingness to help others. While the story is set in a magical context, it clearly focuses upon many life issues surrounding human adulthood including love, forming friendships, relationships and all the issues faced when growing up. The latest episode should be available tomorrow.

Typically, each episode of the podcast is now an hour in length. I've done quite a bit of research about podcasts in the arts and drama category, and what is clear is that generally there is a fairly substantial team of people involved, from the acting to the audio production. This isn't the case with Bert's Place, the name of our audio drama. By and large, Lulu and I play the key roles throughout, with invaluable help given by some other very talented voice actors, and we are always grateful for their input. My point is that it does stretch the imagination to ensure the story from an audio perspective is compelling to listen to despite very few people being involved, but judging by the numbers of people listening, we seem to succeed.

Technical Considerations.

Lulu's imagination knows no bounds. She always comes up with a good story, and her use of English language is second-to-none and could potentially keep a reader interested. But how does that translate to audio?

In order to produce the podcast, I use a number of audio production tools, but principally Sound Forge and Sonar, the latter being with the CakeTalking scripts for JAWS. Both of these allow me to create effective stereo imagery, layer sound on sound with manageable levels, change the pitch of music and vocals, stretch items to expand them in time, apply noise reduction, and so much more.

Lulu will often come to me with the most outrageous ideas. For example, when we were first dating and working on the podcast, she let me know that she would like Bert and friends to visit a magical place in the leprechaun world called the Gardens of Everlasting Peace. In the garden, special flowers grow. "OK" I thought, "how do we get flowers in audio?" Lulu had the answer. She said, "They have to sing". "Right, OK, how on earth do we get that?" I nearly dropped and broke my wine glass!

Fortunately, we had just purchased Sonar that very month, and so I was completely thrown in at the deep end. V-Vocal support had just become available within Sonar, so I used that in part in order to create the image of the Singing Flowers. Apart from the tune they created, they had to "Fill the Whole Garden" according to the script I had in front of me, so they needed to be loud too!

While we have done many other podcast episodes of greater complexity from an audio standpoint, when people talk to us about Bert's Place, it is the "Singing Flowers" they often refer to. It was a very memorable episode with lots of effects.

Another illustration of a complex situation occurs in this very episode just completed. In the previous podcast, number 44, we included (believe it or not), a talking golfball. This time, the house of one of the principal characters also talks!

Inside the house is a robot. Two leading characters are having a discussion and are moving about the room while doing so. But as well as the characters moving and talking, a robot has to open the door and walk from one side of the room to the other while carrying a tray of glasses and orange juice. The robot then needs to set down the tray and, upon receiving an order from its master, go back the way he had come. The door needs to open to let him through, then close again when he is on the other side.

So how do I achieve that kind of stereo imagery?

Because Sonar is multi-track software, I do have every person speaking, and every sound effect, on their own separate audio tracks. This allows me to vary the volume of each item as I need to. However, I do find Sonar is not particularly good at panning, (where an item moves from one side of the stereo field to the other), or indeed fading. So generally, I will do all of that preliminary work in Sound Forge, then place those edited files on their own tracks in sonar. I find that Sound Forge not only allows me to be very precise about this kind of thing but it enables me to undertake exceptionally tight editing, very important in this kind of podcast, of which more later.

So, back to our speaking parts, robot and tray.

Lulu and I go through the script of the podcast thoroughly, and I make very careful notes about who is meant to be where in the room and at which parts of it they should say specific lines. I can then ensure those parts are edited and panned if necessary using Sound Forge. If we want a person always to speak from the same part of the room, that can easily be achieved in Sonar alone as you can set the item to appear at a static point in the stereo field. But movement takes much more work.

As to the robot, I had the sound we had manufactured for its movement. But there were four things to consider. First, the sound needed to be a specific length to fit the dialogue. Second, the sound of the carrying tray needed to be the same length as the robot. Third, they needed to both pan from right to left at precisely the same speed. I had a situation where the tray was slightly behind the robot's time, and that just wouldn't do. Fourth, place them together and hope they fit. I got there!

Working With Other People.

As I said earlier, we do have a small team of very talented actors who work with us regularly. The way in which they obtain their voice parts varies considerably. Some people will send them in. Very occasionally, they need no audio adjustment, perhaps just the occasional "pop" sound removing or some noise reduction applied.

But sometimes, people record their lines over Skype. Some of our best voice talent has come to us this way. We will "feed" a few lines at a time to the actor, and he or she will repeat them, of course adopting the character's persona while doing so. My role then comes into play. I often need to pitch up the voice (since the podcast focuses to some extent on elves and leprechauns), but just as importantly, I have to reconstruct the lines so they make sense. If during the delivery an actor has spoken only a few words at a time, I have the task of ensuring the delivery is of a good standard and that complete sentences are heard. There must be no gaps in that context.

At other times, I will introduce significant pauses rather than edited out unwanted silence. For example, Bilby, (who is well-loved and is one of the main characters), often delivers narrative passages. I think they sound better if they are delivered at a very leisurely measured pace, so as he moves from one subject to another, I'll introduce a significant pause so as to indicate this. Of course, I have to ensure the background noise, (and there will be some), remains constant during the pause, rather than the listener hearing nothing at all. So it's a challenge.

Each episode of the Bert's Place podcast usually takes a week to prepare. This is usually a week of 12 hour days, but it's a great deal of fun and technical challenge, and I thrive on that. I think also my acting has improved over time, (I hope it has), but it's the technicalities of producing the podcast I thoroughly enjoy. I always need something to stretch my brain.

Getting the Word Out.

We are very lucky. Most months, we get people telling us how much they're enjoying listening to the podcast, and also new listeners discovering us too.

We always make the podcast available for direct download from the Bert's Place website atwww.bertsplace.co.uk.
This website in itself took some constructing. I can develop websites, but I needed to learn how to produce a photo gallery which I had not done before, since the site contains pictures of Bert. The website next year will have a new visual theme and a makeover to ensure it is more professional.

We send out via Twitter a direct audio link to the podcast so people can hear it from a Twitter client supporting audio playback. We have in the past posted the podcast episodes to AudioBoo, but I really do not like doing that. This is about high quality audio drama and it goes rather against the grain to have it downgraded to a quality AudioBoo considers acceptable.

Until recently, a podcast feed was available, even in iTunes, so people could subscribe to it if they wished to do so. I say "until recently" because, partly due to relocation to a new web hosting provider, the podcast feed has been removed for the time being. However, it will be restored at the end of the year.

Removing the podcast feed temporarily has allowed us to do a number of things. First, we can introduce more features while people are visiting the podcast feed on a website, such as social media links for promotion, a player so people can hear each episode rather than subscribing, and so on.

However, one of the things people want to hear is the beginning of the story, how Bert came to meet us and what happened before the full-length dramas came into being. So, there is a whole new story which has been constructed and recorded, embracing all the very early episodes. The older podcasts have been cleaned up so as to provide the best possible audio quality, removing the radio promotional material which was part of them. So we're in the process of renumbering and reconstructing the episodes so people get a complete picture.

The mechanics of the new podcast system are all ready to go, so it's just a matter of getting the audio content ready and uploaded. If you have subscribed to the podcast feed in the past, we would suggest you unsubscribe from it for the time being and wait for news of an update towards the end of the year. Thank you.

Summary.

To say again, Bert's Place is a tremendous amount of fun to be involved in. Yes, I love my radio work. I love getting a radio station to air, the planning, the technicalities behind it, putting documentaries together, and so on. But apart from that, Bert's Place gives me an enormous amount of pleasure to co-produce.

Oh, just a minute, I can hear Lulu's keyboard tap tapping away. Is that another podcast script about to emerge for Christmas? What challenges am I going to be put to with that? Soon, I'll find out, and so will you if you care to listen!

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