Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sound Effects Skill: Wolf Howls

In "Leila," Deborah Hyatt's chilling contribution to Chatterbox's 2011 Halloween Show, a man fights to save his marriage to the werewolf he loves. Ultimately, our hero finds himself in the woods, amid the most unfortunate of family reunions -- surrounded by a pack of angry wolves. The script, as you can imagine, called for lots of howling.

Though we mixed in some recordings of real wolf howls, I wanted to supplement them with howls from the cast. In general, recorded (or "canned") sound effects tend to be more realistic, and are the only way to go with very large or very specific sounds. But live (or "spot") effects often fit into a scene more naturally, sounding both more immediate and more coherent. For sounds that require both realism and immediacy, we've found that a blending of recorded and spot effects works best.

So, how to howl? We wanted to stay as accurate as possible, which meant moving past the oversimplified arooo sound you'll hear on cheesy Halloween records. Here are some links Deborah and I sent to the cast during rehearsal.

Recordings of actual wolves:

How to mimic a wolf howl:

(Obviously some folks get really into this.)

There's an arc to the pitch that is crucial to a realistic howl. Up quickly, then down more slowly -- almost like a siren warming up and winding down -- with a kind of vocal break near the end. I also love the shorter "yipping" sounds, which Megan incorporated into the wife character's final strangled howl, described in the script as "a terrible mix of human and animal, pleasure and grief."

So how did we do? Judge for yourself, but I was certainly happy with the end result. Any effect that doesn't draw attention to itself, that the listener accepts as part of the story, is successful. Meanwhile, explore the above links to perfect your own howl, for use in your own spooky performance or just a wild night on the town.

Friday, July 20, 2012

This Week in Listening: The Cleansed

Original artwork by Simon Adams.

I've been following Fred Greenhalgh's work since way back in 2007, when he created Day of the Dead for his senior thesis. It was one of the first shows I stumbled upon while planning Chatterbox and searching the web for contemporary audio dramas.

Since then, Fred has continued producing in a big way, launching both FinalRune Productions and the weekly podcast Radio Drama Revival. His tireless work has been recognized by several Ogle Awards and an extensive profile in the Wall Street Journal, among other honors. Meanwhile, he's also working on a Spotify-style app for contemporary audio theater.

And just when you think that no one person could possibly sustain this kind of output, FinalRune releases The Cleansed, an epic audio series that ups the ante considerably. With an hour-long pilot and five half-hour episodes released as of this writing, the serialized show is more than halfway through its eight-episode first season.

FinalRune has always done solid work, but The Cleansed is a quantum leap for them as far as scale and complexity. It follows a band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic, post-oil America, as they fight to survive and to resist the sinister forces threatening to overtake them. Yes, post-apocalyptic audio serials are nothing new, but The Cleansed avoids most of the trappings of the genre and spins a tale that feels fresh and original.

The hour-long pilot kicks things off with a bang, as a mysterious global catastrophe reaches its tipping point. Through the eyes of a variety of regular folks—a burnout radio DJ, several nervous U.S. soldiers, a delicate child abducted by his father—we see society lose its grip in the face of ecological and psychological disaster. The pilot episode is a bewildering barrage of people and events, with a lot of groundwork being laid very quickly. I expect it will be interesting to revisit it after the series wraps up, now that I know which of its many characters have emerged as focal points. Still, the slam-bang introduction skillfully whets your appetite for what's to come.

After all that action, we keyed-up listeners suffered for nearly a year and a half before the series' first episode debuted. Appropriately, it begins on a calmer note, 15 years after the events of the pilot. Some of the survivors have since banded together to form a village called The Refuge, and have set about rebuilding as best they can. There's even been time for a new generation to come along, with characters like the 14-year-old Maria reminding us that all catastrophes are eventually reduced to imagination rather than memory. But the arrival of the mysterious John Prophet—and the news he brings—threaten the safety of The Refuge, and hint at some very dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

To say much more would be to take away some of the pleasure of listening to The Cleansed, and listen you should. The series has woven a dense, fully imagined world, with a sprawling cast of characters who are each distinctive and interesting. Fred's crisp, charged writing falls far to the "show" side of the show / tell spectrum, so be warned: This is a production you really have to listen to. Remember, you're diving headfirst into more than 15 years of global history and events. If you try to play it in the background while you're busy doing something else, I expect you'll get lost very quickly.

And truthfully, that's about the highest compliment I can give. Readers of this blog know that my favorite audio theater is the kind that stretches the medium far beyond Golden-Age-style cliches, aspiring for something moving and artistic. The Cleansed is just such a production. It's a complex, exciting tale for adults that is immaculately produced, richly imagined, and more than a little frightening. Fred lives off the grid on a self-powered farm in Maine. The Cleansed will make you wish you did, too.

You can keep up with The Cleansed through the FinalRune website, either in free weekly chunks or higher-quality 30-minute episodes, which are $3 each. This is a show to savor, so I recommend investing the few bucks if you can.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Recommended Reading: The Radio Drama Handbook

One thing aspiring audio theater producers will discover very quickly is how few instructional resources are available to them. Visit any library or bookstore and you'll find dozens of books on filmmaking, music production, painting, and other methods of creating art. But the withering of audio as a storytelling medium (in the U.S., at least) also resulted in a withering of writing about audio.

Which is not to say there's absolutely nothing out there, of course. Back when Chatterbox was in its planning stages I got an immense amount of help from several online resources, as well as a couple of excellent books. (I'm planning to collect a list of these resources for a future blog entry.) But if you're as hungry for information and ideas as I was, your reading list can look depressingly small.

Happily, up-and-coming audio dramatists now have another essential resource in Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor's The Radio Drama Handbook. Released in 2011, this up-to-date, eminently readable how-to book is a perfect jumping-off point for anyone interested in creating their own work of audio theater. It's also packed with enough theory, recommendations, and practical considerations to interest more serious listeners and fans.

The Radio Drama Handbook opens with a concise but fascinating history of radio itself, as well as the storytelling form that evolved to take advantage of the new medium. From there, the authors move through radio drama theory (including considerations of how people listen, the tools available to radio dramatists, and more) and contemporary production companies (including Chatterbox) before taking a nuts-and-bolts look at how to create radio drama, from writing all the way through recording.

I've been actively creating radio drama since 2007, so a good portion of the material here was familiar to me. Another good portion was not, of course, and I came away from the book feeling like I'd learned a great deal. But even the familiar stuff was a pleasure to read. As someone who learned largely by jumping in and figuring things out as I went, I particularly appreciated the structure of the material. Not only did it confirm for me that Chatterbox's methods and philosophies are generally solid (whew), the book helped me to experience some of the information I've picked up randomly, over a five-year span, in an organized, contextualized manner. Plus it's just fun to read about stuff you enjoy.

By far, one of my favorite things about the book was the way it filled out my listening list. Like Leonard Maltin's The Great American Broadcast, The Radio Drama Handbook leaves you eager to dig into all the great shows you've just read about. Authors Hand and Traynor are extremely well-versed in contemporary audio productions, and the list of shows they consider spans the BBC and other professional companies as well as a wide range of independent producers. More in-depth considerations are presented as chapter-long "case studies" (such as a thoughtful look at We're Alive, a show whose praises I've sung in this very space). But throughout, the book is packed with intriguing descriptons of pieces that are now at the top of my listening list. What audio producer or fan wouldn't be interested to hear A Pot Calling the Kettle Black, a dialogue-free production in which "the listener is transported away from the humdrum kitchen to a spectacular parallel universe, one which is created in the imagination, a universe unique to each listener"?

As I mentioned, the authors were kind enough to include Chatterbox in their look at contemporary audio theater production companies. Professor Hand interviewed Kyle, Marques, and me about our process, our methods, and our philosophies. So am I recommending this book a simply because we're in it? Not in the least. While I admit that it's fun to be reading along and suddenly encounter your own name, the book stands on its merits as an excellent overview—and celebration—of audio storytelling.

You can order The Radio Drama Handbook directly from the publisher or from Amazon, among other retailers. It's worth the relatively high price tag. If you're serious about radio drama / audio theater -- whether as a producer, performer, or listener -- this one should absolutely be on your shelf.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Give Camp Memphis


As promised, I've spent the weekend with the good folks of Give Camp Memphis. We've been holed up in the Emerge Memphis building downtown since 5:00 on Friday. The bravest among us (not me) are even sleeping here -- hence the "camp" in Give Camp.

Give Camp is a national initiative that has been popping up in an increasing number of cities. This weekend marks Memphis's second event. The group's slogan is "Coding for Charity," and that pretty much sums it up. Give Camp recruits volunteer tech professionals ("from designers, developers and database administrators to marketers and web strategists") as well as nonprofits in need of technical help, then puts them all in the same place, divides them into project teams, and gives them one solid weekend to complete a tech project.

Most of the projects at this year's Memphis event involve constructing websites, and Chatterbox's is no exception. As I wrote last week, we requested help building an online home for our ongoing Spoon River Anthology project. As of this writing, we're three hours away from the end of the event. The prototype site is shaping up, and though it won't be ready to share for a while (I still have lots of work to do on the content), it will be fully functional and will serve as a fantastic interface for the fantastic poems we're recording.

We pulled an incredible team in Sarah, Matt, George, Jeff, and Jason. Frankly, I'm amazed at all the professionals who turned out to volunteer their time and talent in exchange for nothing more than a thank-you and some (admittedly excellent) food. For my part, all I've really had to do is be around, answering the occasional question, tossing out the occasional idea, and providing the occasional file. Not a bad trade-off at all.

If you're a small nonprofit in a city where Give Camp has a presence, I highly recommend submitting an application. And if you're a technology professional with a penchant for charitable work, I'm sure they'd be thrilled to hear from you.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chatterbox Travels to Spoon River

A while back, without any real plan in place, I started asking our performers to record short poems from Edgar Lee Masters's classic Spoon River Anthology. Upon hearing the results, I decided that we should tackle the entire collection -- all 220+ poems -- making it a long-term project for the Chatterbox studio. In other words, by the time we make our way through the entirety of Masters's work, more than 220 individuals will have passed through our studio and contributed their time and their talent.

We've got a long way to go with the recordings (we've only completed 50 or so), but I'm happy to say that the technical end of the project has gotten a couple of big boosts lately. GiveCamp Memphis has offered to help us build an interactive website that will lead listeners through a virtual cemetery. (All the poems in Spoon River Anthology are written as epitaphs.) Memphis's famed Elmwood Cemetery will stand in for the Spoon River cemetery. And the very talented John Childress of J&B Childress Photography will capture the images that will make up the website.

With such a great team in place, I'm hopeful that the project will launch soon! Chatterbox's Spoon River site will be a work in progress as we continue to record and post poems. It may take us years to complete. In the meantime, though, we're planning to go ahead and share what we've recorded so far.

To whet your appetite, here are two preview poems: 

Amanda Barker, read by Jennifer Henry

Hare Drummer, read by Bennett Wood

Finally, Karen and I visited Elmwood this afternoon to look around and to take a few preliminary photos. It's an amazing place. Here's a bit of what we saw.