Image: Alexkerhead, CC 2.0 Generic, ' My Favorites!'.
This is Part 1 of Writers Bloc's podcast collaboration, with assistance from FBi's All the Best.
Words by Emma Koehn
Sometimes when I’m running, my phone skips from music to a file of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.
He speaks with gravitas (pretty quiet gravitas) so I can suddenly hear my own insane breathing, but I still appreciate it more than any other recording I have. There’s something soothing about listening to stories instead of reading them. It’s not a lazy person’s game – you have to pay attention in a different way, and often you can’t believe you actually sat still that many hours when you read the book in hard copy.
If you’ve ever sat alone at your desk, reading the words you’ve just penned as a one man or woman show, you know how rare it is to actually hear what you’ve written said out loud. It’s awkward because your voice is guaranteed to sound zero percent like your actual voice – yet when you listen back to your words, you’re going to find out something new about them.
Recording your work for radio or performance can help you look at it in a new way, and nail down what needs emphasis and what should be cut. It also provides you with another forum in which to share your words.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be making like Ira Glass at WB and talking about transforming your on-the-page caterpillar words into a beautiful audio butterfly. We’re wanting to hear examples of your work, some of which may be featured in an upcoming episode of FBi’s All The Best.
We’ve been talking to radio makers and podcast fiends over the last month to get a sense the does and definite don’ts of pressing record and make good-sounding-things.
Here’s the deal: we’re going to walk you through a month long program to inspire the podcast genius within you. Think of it like a pilates regime, only at the end you will probably have the abs you did at the start, and instead you’ll be have made a beautiful piece of radio ready to be released into the world. We’ll then let FBi’s All the Best have a look-see at those entries, with the best being put up for broadcast through their shiny radio show.
Let’s jump in then, shall we? These vocal warm up exercises are totally amazing/optional.
Setting a target
First we’re going to need to set some parameters. I mean, Fry recorded 100s of hours of HP, but no doubt he had someone to make him lemon tea, as well as JK Rowling’s overlords doing the sound mixing – so let’s start out with baby steps.
We want to set you homework of trying to make a short, pre recorded piece of audio using the following constraints:
- Pick a piece of fiction, or short non-fiction, of 350-400 words.
- If you don’t have a piece – write a piece!
- Read it out loud a couple of times, trying to work out which parts you need to speed up/slow down/put on an hilarious voice in order to make better.
- Start recording a little bundle of joy, with our tips, and send it across to us so that our ears can be entertained and we will have an all round fun time.
Got that piece? We want snappy little things because they are adorable, can be more effective than long, solemn pieces, and above all make your life easier as you start to record.
Recording things on the cheap
There’s a few options for recording at home. If you don’t want to invest in anything else, you can make use of your phone, tablet or computer. There’s also a whole range of not too expensive microphones out there that can record clearer audio if you’re in the market. I use a Zoom H1 for recording radio interviews outside, for instance. If you’re going to be doing a lot of work, investing in something like this could work for you.
Apps & Your phone
There are lotsa options, but we recommend you give TEAC PCM Recorder II a shot for the start of this project.
Download the app to your iPad or phone and record yourself saying something fancy, like ‘Testing, 1, 2’. It’s also a good idea to pop in some headphones and record about a minute of silence, so you can listen back and see if you need to move somewhere much quieter to avoid random truck or bird noises getting into your story.
Quiet, all of the quiet
There’s a few ways to ensure you get a crisper sound when you’re working with a phone or computer. The first is to never record outside if you can help it, especially if it is windy. Wind is the enemy. If you’ve tested the recording and there is too much fuzzy background noise, you can do one of these things:
The Doona Trick
Basically you want to shield your phone by putting something in front of it that blocks sound waves. Crawl under your doona, trying not to rustle it around the mic input too much. Make sure your voice isn’t muffled by bedclothes, and record your story!
Make a soundproof booth!
I have never done this, but everyone I know who has tried it think it’s the ultimate craft project/technological genius move. There are lots of tutorials online, but really it’s just a matter of:
- Find a really thick cardboard box
- Glue a thick, textured substance (like egg cartons or textured foam) to all the inside walls of the box.
- Stand the box on its side so the opening is facing you, put the mic inside and off you go recording.
- Once you’re familiar with the app record your story 3 times.
- You can see the sounds you’re making in the app as little bouncing red bars. You want to make sure the red bar doesn’t hit over -6db, or it will sound really gross. As long as you keep it under that level, you’re a-ok!
- Listen back to the files using headphones in your phone or tablet.
- Use iTunes to get the files from the app to your computer.
Hooray! You made the start of a mini fiction podcast. Now we need to make it sound good.
Recording on your computer
You can record straight on to your Mac or PC, but you’ll probably notice if you’ve tried this before that the sound quality isn’t amazing. If you want to go ahead with this just to get a draft, record about 30 seconds of silence and play it back to see exactly what the microphone picks up before you start.
Editing it together
There’s free audio editing software out there, and the one you’ll come across most if you’re googling is Audacity. This is a good option to play around with. If you’ve recorded on your phone or another mic, though, you can totally just use Garageband on your computer.
To make things sound nice:
- Get your audio file from the TEAC app, or anywhere else you recorded it, and put it in a new file in Garageband, or any other software you like.
- Listen through to your lovely voice! There might be weird pauses or noises, which you can cut out.
- Where you have cuts in the audio, use a tiny bit of silence to bridge the two sections, so it sounds natural when you are done.
- Add music.
- Listen through and make any adjustments you like.
- Save as a .wav file and voila, you’re an original Orson Welles!
Creative Commons music...
If you want to add music to your piece, you’ll have to find stuff that is licensed for non commercial use in podcasts – any music with a general copyright can’t be included. Luckily there are some really good instrumental composers that don’t make you feel like you’re stuck in a never-ending elevator ride. Free Music Archive is useful. You want music that has a Creative Commons Licence for non commercial use with attribution or without attribution.
I’m going to be making a short piece along with you for the next few weeks. I’ve already selected my text, which you'll be able to see as a full radio script in part 2 of this series, next Friday.
When you’re finished your piece, make sure it’s saved as a .wav file. Then, send it to us!
firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be super keen to listen in on what you’ve made. If you have any issues with file size or queries about anything at all, just get in touch (about the radio. Otherwise we can also offer not-at-all-accurate horoscopes).
Emma Koehn is The Writers Bloc’s Reviews editor. She’s made radio for All The Best and SYN in Melbourne. Once she presented a live breakfast show dressed as a panda, but that’s not really relevant to this series. Tweets @MsEmmaK.
We are indebted to the advice, patience and general awesomness of All The Best - Features EPs Jess O'Callaghan and Heidi Pett, and fiction producer Zacha Rosen. Go check 'em out.
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