Tag: sound effects

Cherry Docs

My first official sound effects gig was on a drama called Cherry Docs, written by David Gow, directed by Damir Andrei. Cherry Docs was originally a stage play, and is about a liberal Jewish lawyer defending a neo-nazi skinhead from a murder charge. Or rather, it’s about the journey these two men take together as they confront one another’s prejudices and their own. Or rather, it was about me learning how to make sound effects for a radio play.

David Gow

Playwright David Gow

Because the truth is, I remember virtually nothing about Cherry Docs itself. I had to look up the plot. This has nothing to do with the quality of the play, which is quite well regarded. It has to do with the fact that we recorded it a long time ago, and as we were making it, I wasn’t thinking about the story as much as I was thinking about how sound effects could help tell that story.

I had been schooled in the basics of the craft. I knew to comb the script to figure out what sound effects were required. I knew to divvy them up into three categories: sound effects that I would perform live with the actors, sound effects that I would create and record separately, and sound effects that I would source from CDs.

Damir Andrei

Director Damir Andrei

On the first day of recording with the cast, my very first sound effect was lighting a match for the main character, a foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead played by Randy Hughson. Hughson’s character was supposed to be smoking a cigarette.

Why was I required to light the match? Couldn’t Randy have lit the match himself? For that matter, couldn’t Randy have performed all the sound effects himself? It’s true, Randy could have lit the match. But he probably wouldn’t have known where to light the match in proximity to the microphone. Lighting the match too close or too far away could have ruined a perfectly good take.

Also, lighting a match is simple, but it’s just one example. Sound effects sequences could be a lot more complex. Sometimes several sound effects were required during a single take. We preferred actors to concentrate on their performances rather than having to clink glasses, light matches, pretend to tromp around on snow and so on.

And then there was the business of how to create the sound effect to begin with. It wasn’t always exactly an intuitive process. Lighting a match is pretty straightforward. Lots of other sound effects aren’t. There are tricks, such as waving a thin stick in front of a mic to create the whoosh of an arrow, or touching a rag to a hot surface to create the sound of frying. We had an entire room full of bizarre contraptions and knick-knacks capable of making all sorts of weird sounds. Devices for making wind, doorbells, screen doors, the sound of someone getting hanged, or their head chopped off. It was useful to have someone around who knew where all these contraptions were, and how to make them work.

Actor Randy Hughson

Actor Randy Hughson

Anyway, there I was, the alleged sound effects specialist about to perform my very first professional sound effect. On the first take, at the appropriate point in the script, I dutifully lit the match, and promptly dropped the lit match in Randy’s hair. Fortunately, I was able to blow the match out before any damage could be done, but I was mortified. Thank God Randy wasn’t actually the foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead he so effectively portrayed!

(I actually did see someone’s head burst into flames once. Fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards invited me to a party at his house at which he opted for candles over electric lighting. Joram Kalfa and I were in the kitchen talking to a young woman with long red hair when she stood too close to one of the candles. Her hair caught fire with a great whoosh. Within seconds her head was a great ball of flame. It was something to behold. Rather than admire it, quick-thinking Joram stepped forward, took a deep breath, and blew the woman’s head out as though it were a giant birthday cake candle. Her hair was slightly singed but she was fine.)

I mentioned that the main character of Cherry Docs was an intensely hostile neo-nazi. This set the stage for a slightly surreal moment when Damir, the director, instructed the actors to “just take it down to stupid f***ing paki at the bottom of page twelve.” Everyone laughed at Damir’s apparent obliviousness to the extremely offensive nature of what he’d just said (reflecting sentiments which, I hasten to add, no one present endorsed).

Shortly after my inadvertent attempt to set Randy on fire, the fire alarm in the Broadcast Centre went off. This was a complete coincidence, having nothing to do with my incident with the match. Moments later, standing on John Street alongside the rest of the occupants of the Broadcast Centre waiting to get back inside, Randy turned to me and asked, “So how long have you been doing sound effects?”

I looked at my watch. “About fifteen minutes,” I said, much to the amusement of recording engineer Greg DeClute.

Back in the studio, I recorded as many sound effects as I could with Randy and the rest of the cast. Recording sound effects with the actors is usually a good idea. Not only does it ensure that the sound effects are recorded in the right ambient space, it enhances performances as actors respond to the sound effects in the moment. It also makes for less work in post.

Still, it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I always felt slightly embarrassed doing sound effects with actors. Sometimes the sound effects felt silly, such as using a knife and fork to eat an invisible breakfast on an empty plate. Or I’d make a stupid mistake, such as almost setting Randy Hughson’s hair on fire. We had two dedicated sound effects specialists on staff, Matt Willcott and Anton Szabo, guys who actually knew what they were doing. Me, I was just a dilettante. I never forgot that. Still, whenever called upon to perform live sound effects, I always did the best that I could.

SFX in Studio 212

SFX in Studio 212

Once I was finished with the cast, I turned my attention to recording wild sound effects, a process called “foley” after Jack Donovan Foley, a pioneer in the field of film sound effects. Foley is the process of recording sound effects in isolation. They’re mixed into sound tracks afterwards. I was a lot more comfortable doing foley than performing sound effects with actors.

Foley can be recorded anywhere. I recorded most of the sound effects I needed for Cherry Docs on the floor of Studio 212. Over the years my colleagues and I recorded car doors, squeaky doors, jail cells, elevators, breaking plates, baths, showers, decapitations, hangings, sword fights, fist fights, even gunshots in various parts of 212. For Cherry Docs, some of the action took place in a car, so I spent one afternoon recording myself driving my Pontiac Sunbird, speeding up, slowing down, turning, using the windshield wipers, buckling the seatbelt, and so on. We often talked about preserving and cataloguing the sound effects we created ourselves, to save time on future productions, but nobody ever got around to it.

Any sound effects that I didn’t record with the cast or as foley I sourced from CD. We had quite an elaborate sound effects collection. Thousands if not tens of thousands of sound effects, collections from Canada, Britain, the US, with names like Sounds of a Different Realm, Evil FX, Hollywood Edge, Top Secret, Wacky World of Robots, Widgets and Gizmos, Star Trek, Sound Ideas, and so on. Despite the breadth of our collection, it didn’t have everything, which is why we often had to create our own sound effects.

While I was busy recording and gathering sound effects, recording engineer Greg DeClute created the dialogue edit, choosing all the best performances from the actors and making a single continuous dialogue track. When he finished this to the director’s satisfaction, he handed it over to me to do the sound effects assembly.

When it came time to do the sound effects assembly, I was always grateful that I’d already recorded as many sound effects as possible with the actors. Anything that I hadn’t recorded (the foley sound effects and anything sourced from CD) needed to be loaded into my workstation (in those days a Mac G4) and then placed on separate tracks using our digital audio editing software, Sonic Solutions (we would move to Pro Tools a few years later). The sound effects usually took up a lot of tracks, layered on top of one another. A scene with characters arguing in a car might include a track of them arguing, another track with the sound of their car, yet another of passing traffic, several spot tracks of blinkers, wipers, seatbelts and so on, and maybe a music track as well.

Once I finished the sound effects assembly it was time to mix the show. In those days we almost always mixed big shows in Studio 212 with the cast long gone and the studio floor mostly empty. Cherry Docs was no exception. Greg sat on the left and I sat on the right before the Neve Capricorn console in the control room. Damir, the director, sat behind us.

Mixes were usually a collaborative process, although that depended on the director. For Cherry Docs, we followed Damir’s direction, but everybody provided input into what sounded best. As the mix progressed, we moved dialogue, sound effects and music around that weren’t quite in the right places. We added electronic processing where required (e.g., if a little reverb was required here and there). Greg equalized the dialogue track of a character who was supposed to sound like he was on a telephone. The Capricorn console remembered every move we made on the various faders and dials, and played it all back afterward just the way we mixed it.

Once we were happy with the mix, it was time to print it. We turned down the lights, launched the CD burner and DAT backups, pressed play on the console, sat back in our chairs and listened, hoping to God that we hadn’t made any mistakes. If we did, we stopped, fixed them, and started the print over again with a fresh CD.

I loved the Neve Capricorn, but it wasn’t perfect. Every now and then one of us would notice that it had fallen out of automation. When it did, we leapt out of our chairs cussing and swearing, trying to re-engage the automation before it missed any of our carefully programmed moves. If we caught it in time, we were fine. Usually, though, it was too late, and we were forced to start the print all over again.

Once the show was successfully printed, we turned up the lights and handed the finished CD and backup DATS to Damir, who (hopefully) checked it one more time before presenting the finished product for broadcast.

And Greg and I moved on to our next projects.

The Pitch

(A short, light-hearted fictional homage to Radio Drama and Studio 212)

Sam Kelly found a seat on the GO Train, opened his laptop, and sighed. He needed to finish a spreadsheet detailing all the latest DaletPlus netXchange issues before a conference call on the matter at nine am. There was a crazy amount of work left to do. Unfortunately, before he could isolate himself from the rest of the passengers with an insulating layer of headphones and iTunes and get to work, damned if Reginald Runciman didn’t plunk himself down in the seat opposite him.

“Kelly!” Runciman said. “Long time no see.”

This did not bode well. It wasn’t that Runciman was a bad guy. It was just that he’d been dead for five years and was known to be a talker. Sam would get little work done this morning.

He forced a smiled. “Hey Runciman, good to see you. Coulda sworn you were dead.”

Runciman, a former radio drama producer, had indeed been found dead late one night in an editing suite still clutching a script in his cold, dead hands. The cause of death had never been conclusively determined, but it was commonly believed that his recording engineer had strangled him to death in frustration for demanding one too many edits. Runciman had been a notoriously demanding producer.

“Dead as the proverbial doornail,” Runciman confirmed.

“And you’ve come back to haunt me now because…?”

“I have returned to atone for my many sins.”

“What sins?”

“Sitting on development committees rejecting perfectly good ideas, mostly. It is my intention to atone for these sins by helping you with your radio show pitch.”

“What radio show pitch?”

“The one you’re going to write to help you get back to your true love, radio production.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I like management.”

“Because you make so much more money?”

“Uh –”

“Cause your benefits plan is so superior? ”

“Um –”

“Cause you like ordering people around?”

“I do like that part,” Sam admitted. “For instance, I order you to leave me alone.”

The ghost of Runciman ignored Sam. “I have arranged for you to be visited by three spirits. The Ghost of Radio Archives, the Ghost of Radio Ideas, and the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come.”

“Three spirits? That’ll make this story way too long!”

“They’re all experienced radio folk, perfectly capable of talking to time.” The train pulled into Ajax station. “Speaking of which, my time’s up.” Runciman stood to get off. “Don’t mess this up, Kelly!”

Resolving to seek therapy at the earliest opportunity, Sam shook Runciman’s hand and watched as he got off the train.

A small, elderly gentleman wearing a bowler cap got on and took Runciman’s place. Sam recognized him right away. “Hey, you’re Allan McPhee, former host of the CBC Radio show Eclectic Circus.”

“I was that man once,” McPhee intoned in his best announcer’s voice, still smooth and honeyed despite his death over a decade earlier. “Now I am the Ghost of Radio Archives.”

Sam was impressed despite himself. “It’s a great honour to meet you, Mr. McPhee. You were a great wit in your time.”

“Whereas you are a great nit wit in yours.”

Sam was slightly offended. “Why do you say that?”

Allan McPhee

Allan McPhee

“Because you gave up your dream of creating your own radio show to join the dark side,” McPhee explained. “I despised managers when I was alive.”

“I enjoy being a manager,” Sam said. “But I regret not creating my own radio show.”

“It’s my job to help you get that dream back, son,” McPhee said. “Grab on tight to my hat.”

Sam did as McPhee instructed and off they flew, miraculously squeezing through the closed Go Train doors into the archives of radio past. Sam found himself in the Toronto Broadcasting Centre in Radio Drama Studio 212, where he had spent nine fruitful years making radio plays. A large cast was assembled on the floor with Ann Jansen directing. A younger version of Sam himself sat in the control room operating the Neve Capricorn console.

“I remember this,” Sam told McPhee. “We were adapting Canadian author Jane Urquhart’s novel Away for radio. It aired on Sunday Showcase and Monday Night Playhouse.”

“Since The Rosary first aired out of Moncton’s CNRA in 1925, radio plays of all shapes and sizes have aired regularly in this country,” McPhee said, “on CBC Radio series such as Sunday Showcase, Monday Night Playhouse, Vanishing Point, The Mystery Project, Monday Playbill, Nightfall, CBC Wednesday Night and more.”

“Thanks for that almost completely indigestible bit of exposition,” Sam said. “It is true that radio drama once thrived in this great country of ours.”

McPhee touched his hat and whisked them elsewhere. Three gentlemen stood on a stage before three Neumann U-47 microphones. Other gentlemen leaned over various sound effects apparatus, awaiting their cues, the whole lot of them flanked by an orchestra. An audience was present to witness the shenanigans.

One of the men announced into his microphone: “The first important method of communication over long distances was the Runner.”

The second said, “The most famous of these messengers was the Greek Goonican, who ran 300 miles to Athens, bringing news of a great victory.”

The third, puffing, said, “My lords, greetings. I come from the great warlord, Arnold Princiopolies. 300 leagues have I run! Over the Ionicous, down the plains of Olympus, through the snowy wastes of Sabrina, across the arid deserts of Xerxes and I did swim the boiling waters of the Hellispont and over…”

“Yes, yes, yes, but the message?” the first man interrupted.

“Ooh,” the third man said. “Ooh, then I’ll nip back and get it.”

The audience erupted with laughter. Sam was ecstatic. He whispered to the ghost of McPhee, “It’s Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe back in their Goon Show days — these guys influenced everybody from Monty Python to the Beatles.”

“And now they shall influence you. Note their absurdist, rapid fire dialogue, their groundbreaking sound effects and the resulting realism. Observe how the three actors play almost all the parts themselves.”

“Yes, if I were to make a radio show this is exactly what I’d make,” Sam said.

“Not exactly,” McPhee said. “Although you would incorporate elements of it, you were more ambitious than that in the past.”

McPhee touched his bowler hat yet again and transported them to a studio where a younger version of Sam was arguing amicably with a friend. He’d once made a radio show pilot with the fellow, a talented writer. Although one of the pilots had aired to a fair bit of acclaim, the show had not been picked up by the network.

Sam’s friend was saying, “Maybe the network’s not going for it because we made it both light and dark. Maybe it should be one or the other. Can you name one other show in the history of entertainment that’s both funny and serious at the same time?”

“La Vie est Belle,” Sam said, naming one of his favourite movies. “M.A.S.H. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rome.”

Sam’s friend did not appear convinced, but the conversation reminded Sam of his earlier ambitions and he felt a pang of regret at not having pursued them more aggressively.

Man was made for joy and woe,” the spirit of McPhee quoted. “And when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go. Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.”

“That’s it exactly,” Sam said. “That’s what I was trying to tell him. Sting, right?”

“William Blake. Shortly after this conversation you gave up your dream of making your own radio show and fled into management’s squalid embrace.”

“Somebody’s gotta run the place,” Sam said.

“I’m dead,” McPhee said. “I can have no more dreams. You’re still alive. You have no excuse.” McPhee touched the tip of his bowler hat yet again.

Sam jerked awake on board the GO Train. Just a dream, he thought with mixed emotions, a little disappointed to discover that he was not actually supernaturally obligated to propose another radio show, but at the same time relieved that he would not have to risk failing at it a second time.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun to find a snowy haired gentleman with large glasses smiling at him from the adjacent seat. “A is for Aardvark,” the gentleman said with enviable enunciation.

Sam gaped at Lister Sinclair, former host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. “Let me guess. The Ghost of Radio Ideas?”

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” Sinclair said.

“Are you suggesting that if we only broadcast facts we’re not conveying the whole truth to the Canadian public?” Sam asked, gamely trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

Ein blindes Huhn findet auch mal ein korn,” Sinclair observed.

Sam gave up trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

“I wrote a great deal of radio fiction in my time,” Sinclair said. “I must say I find its current absence from our airwaves unfortunate.”

Lister Sinclair

Lister Sinclair

“It’s not all gone,” Sam said. “There’s a bit of satire. Some sketch based comedy. That’s about it, though.”

“What do you propose to do about it?” Sinclair asked.

“Me? What can I do about it? I don’t do production anymore. I manage a maintenance department, for crying out loud. Even if I were still in production nobody would listen to me. They probably get dozens of proposals every day. Radio drama costs too much anyway.”

The train pulled up at Pickering. Lister Sinclair stood. “I tried management once. Didn’t quite work out. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach for it than I did.”

He got off, his manner leaving Sam with the distinct impression that he was disappointed by Sam’s outburst but not particularly surprised. Sam shrugged the Spirit’s reaction off. He was under no obligation to propose any radio shows just because a couple of ghosts said he ought to.

The lights switched off abruptly. When they came back on Sam found himself standing outside drama studio 212. Someone concealed within a black cowl stood alongside him, his or her face completely obscured by the garment. Sam tried unsuccessfully to peer into the hood but it was impossible to tell who or what dwelled within.

The black-cowled figure that Sam presumed to be the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come raised a skeletal finger toward studio 212. Or at least, at what had once been drama studio 212, for both control room and studio lay torn asunder. An older version of Sam clad in an ill-fitting suit stood in the ravaged control room instructing members of his staff which equipment to keep and which to throw out.

Sam regarded this future version of himself with horror. Never in a million years would he decide to destroy his beloved drama studio. But he knew that if his boss ordered his future self to shut down the studio he would have no choice but to carry out the order lest he lose his job.

“Answer me one question, Spirit,” Sam said. “Is this the shadow of the thing that will be, or is it the shadow of something that may be, only? Make that two questions. Why am I suddenly talking like a character in a Dicken’s novel?”

Still the Ghost pointed his bony finger toward the studio.

“Let me get this straight,” Sam said. “If someone doesn’t start making more shows with dramatic elements real soon we will have to shut down studio 212 because future utilization reports will show that it’s under utilized. So I have no choice but to pitch a radio show that will use the studio and maybe they won’t shut it down. Right?”

The Spirit remained infuriatingly mute.

“I’m not the manager I was,” Sam said. “And I will not be the manager I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! … I will honour radio drama in my heart, and pitch another project as soon as possible. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the destruction of radio drama within the CBC!”

Sam awoke writhing uncomfortably in his seat on the Go Train, disturbed not only by the vision of seeing himself preside over the destruction of drama studio 212, but also by the obvious plagiarism of Dickens in the previous paragraph. To his enormous relief no spirits sat next to him on the train.

Inspired, Sam abandoned the spreadsheet he’d been working on, completed his radio show pitch, and submitted it to the Program Development Department that very day.

Unfortunately, the Program Development Department rejected Sam’s pitch. Not only that, they shut down the entire radio drama department for good, calling upon Sam’s own maintenance department to dismantle Radio Drama Studio 212. Sam himself turned off the studio lights for the very last time, though it pained him grievously to do so.

Which just goes to show that you can’t reliably glean the future from a mute spirit in a cowl. And even the most well-intentioned of ghosts cannot always successfully influence the affairs of men — they are ghosts, after all. Their time is past.

Saddest of all, not all endings are happy.

And when this we rightly know,

Thro’ the world we safely go.

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

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