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Task Force Alpha-440 (aka "What the hell was that sound?")
I have been working on audio editing and theatre tech in varying capacities for the past twelve years. In that time, I have acquired a fairly extensive working knowledge of what goes into creating audio dramas. This knowledge was gained through university level courses, paid employment, volunteer work, and what could perhaps best be described as the old apprenticeship system. With the hope of stimulating the creation of SCP Foundation audio dramas, I decided it would be helpful to condense and share that knowledge with the community.
This is not an official document, and not intended as a strict guideline for writing SCP Foundation audio dramas. These are instead (hopefully) helpful insights I have gained through years of training and experience working with audio production for music, theatre, SFX, radio, and the like. Additionally, while this guide is intended for those working predominantly on horror fiction and the examples reflect this, much of what is discussed is applicable across genre and format. You are free to follow or ignore any of these tips! - Hornby
Recording Audio Dramas: The Least You Need to Know
There's a lot to know about recording audio dramas. This section is intended to include the basics - hopefully enough to send you on your way without scaring you off.
- Producer Checklist
- Scriptwriter Checklist
- Director Checklist
- Voice Actor Checklist
- Recording Engineer Checklist
- Mixing Engineer Checklist
Introduction to Quick Checklists
These checklists are intended for use by anyone involved in the production process. Though simply general guidelines rather than hard and fast rules, checklists can make life a lot simpler by ensuring that things don't get forgotten. After all, absentmindedness happens to the best of us.
Who are you? Well, statements about personal identification aside, you may have one role or several - we're not Hollywood, so in practice we're unlikely to actually be anywhere near as formal as the below descriptions might suggest. Additionally, while the checklists are intended to be sufficient for their respective users, it never hurts to glance at the other checklists to understand what's going on.
Producer - The person who manages the production. He or she ensures that everything that needs to happen does within whatever time frame is set for the project. Simply put, the producer is "the boss," at least from an administrative standpoint.
Scriptwriter - The person who writes up the script. This individual or group of individuals is responsible for creating the story, writing up the dialogue, "stage directions" (though here, unlike in theatre, it is a sound stage rather than a physical one), ensuring that the formatting is useable by everyone, and the like. This is the role most people on the wiki will be most familiar with, as it is the one closest to simply being a text author.
Director - The person who is in creative control of the production. The director casts and directs the voice talent, decides yes or no on sound effects (SFX) and music, and oversees the project from a creative standpoint. (In "the real world" of production, the producer is usually the director's boss, though the director generally gets significant ability to set the direction of the project from an artistic standpoint. For our purposes, it is entirely conceivable that these may be the same individual, but this is not necessarily the case.)
Voice Actor - Also known as the "talent", voice actors (the term is conventionally gender neutral) are the people being recorded playing the characters.
Recording Engineer - The person who handles recording the audio of the voice actor[s] and/or SFX artists. If you're sitting recording yourself on your laptop's microphone, then you're the recording engineer, in addition to the voice actor.
Mixing Engineer - The person who takes all the raw source audio and mixes it together into the final product. This person is not necessarily the recording engineer, since production and post-production are separate parts of the process. The recording engineer works in production; the mixing engineer works in post. Mixing engineers tend to have to spend many hours putting tracks together - from a technical standpoint, they usually have the most work. Making their lives easier is a good idea.
Audio Dramas: The Genre
““Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind a closed door, [William F. Nolan] said. You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he approaches the door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. “A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,” the audience thinks, “but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.” …What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or staircase itself. And because of this, comes the paradox: artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win scenario. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time, but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your cards up. You have to show the audience what’s behind it…
“There is and always has been a school of horror writers (I am not among them) who believe that the way to beat this rap is to never open the door at all. …The exciting thing about radio at its best was that it bypassed the question of whether to open the door or leave it closed. Radio, by the very nature of the medium, was exempt. For the listeners during the years 1930 to 1950 or so, there were no visual expectations to fulfill in their set of reality.”
- Stephen King, Danse Macabre, emphasis added
Audio, as King expresses, is a well suited medium for the genre of horror. The audience, deprived of the visual, is able to imagine the objects of their terror. Audio is different from video in having different conventions in its mode of storytelling, however, which can be disconcerting to audiences accustomed to the false dichotomy of text-based and visual storytelling.
Science of Audio
Six Properties of Sound
This section is adopted from lecture notes from Music 108: Introduction to Music Technology, taught by John Ellinger, at Carleton College.
Six Basic Properties of Sound
Frequency refers to how high or how low the note sounds (pitch). The term pitch is used to describe frequencies within the range of human hearing.
Amplitude refers to how loud or soft the sound is.
Duration refers to how long a sound lasts.
Timbre (pronounced TAM-burr) refers to the characteristic sound or tone color of an instrument. A violin has a different timbre than a piano.
Envelope refers to the shape or contour of the sound as it evolves over time. A simple envelope consists of three parts: attack, sustain, and decay. An acoustic guitar has a sharp attack, little sustain and a rapid decay. A piano has a sharp attack, medium sustain, and medium decay. Voice, wind, and string instruments can shape the individual attack, sustain, and decay portions of the sound.
Location describes the sound placement relative to our listening position. Sound is perceived in three dimensional space based on the time difference it reaches our left and right eardrums.
These six properties of sound are studied in the fields of music, physics, acoustics, digital signal processing (DSP), computer science, electrical engineering, psychology, and biology.
"Lossy" versus "Lossless"
Lossless data compression is a class of data compression algorithms that allows the exact original data to be reconstructed from the compressed data. The term lossless is in contrast to lossy data compression, which only allows an approximation of the original data to be reconstructed, in exchange for better compression rates.
The short version here is that you want lossless data compression for your raw audio files (the final product to be posted to the main site can be compressed in a lossy format, but ONLY the Mixing Engineer should worry about that, and ONLY for the final product). Lossy runs into the copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy degradation, which is a BIG problem when you're talking about mixing and remixing tracks over and over (which we are talking about).
There are a bunch of different algorithms which work for lossless compression. For most purposes, .wav files are just fine. Be aware that .mp3 is lossy (which is why it is so much smaller than .wav). So, anything you're forwarding to the Mixing Engineer should be in .wav format.
Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.
Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Murphy's Law states that "Anything that can go wrong will." Most people take this as a sign of pessimism. However, from a strict engineering standpoint, it makes sense that when planning something one should acknowledge all possible failure points and conditions which would cause such failures, and assume that at some point or another these conditions will be met and failure will occur. Therefore, the planner ought to determine a method for mitigating all possible failures. As such, Murphy's Law is not pessimism but good planning.
Things will go wrong during an audio drama production. Here are a couple of the more common technical problems, and some associated solutions.
Further Reading / References
- King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.
- Chapter V: Radio and the Set of Reality (pp. 107-128)
- McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
- Rose, Jay. Producing Great Sound for Film & Video. 3rd Edition. New York: Focal Press, 2008.