Tuesday, October 4, 2011

5 Tips for Creating Immersion in Audio Drama/Podcasting

In audio drama, story may be the king, and acting may be the queen, but immersion is the wild card. The listener needs to love the story, but they also need to be pulled in to the story in a way that holds them, and doesn’t break their focus or break their suspension of disbelief. It can improve a piece greatly, and destroy one that's already perfect. A well put together soundscape will transport a listener into your world in a way that words just can't on their own.

It's not easy. When someone listens to your work, you’ve made an agreement with them; they will let you
con them into believing what they hear is real, and you will provide them with a product that pulls that off. They have fulfilled their end of the bargain by pressing play; from that point on, they're yours to lose.

Creating a good soundscape takes time, and it can’t be rushed. I'm going to repeat that; it cannot be rushed. The listener (assuming the “king” and “queen” are solid) will be pulled into the story you weave, and it’s your job to both drag them deeper into the experience while avoiding things that will make them access the active part of their brains.

When done right, you’re firing the story right into their brains. But if you rush, slip up, or break the spell, your listener will be pulled back into reality. The soundscape needs to be as perfect as your abilities can make it. Slapdash work on a soundscape can actually make a piece worse than if you hadn't added anything to the vocals at all.

With that in mind, here are five tips that will help you keep your listener firmly trapped in your world.

1) Use Music to Force Emotions

Ambient or background music loops are often used to cover up so-so microphones and eliminate dead air, but that’s not why I use them. I use music because it’s a way to hack a listener’s brain and force a mood on them. The right music doesn't just suggest an emotion; it kicks down the door and takes it by force.

Good writing and good acting can take you 90% of the way, but a thrilling background loop for action, a melancholy loop for the somber, or a dark and ominous loop for horror will give you that last 10% and make it very difficult to keep a listener from feeling what you want them to feel. Soundsnap is a great place to buy royalty free loops, and I recommend picking a few up in various "moods" (they can be reused.)

2) Mind Your Levels

Think of an immersed listener as someone who’s in a mild trance. You want to do everything you can to keep that hypnotic state going, and the easiest way to break it is to not have the correct levels. This goes beyond just using Levelator to get your actor’s voices evened out. The whole soundscape has to work together to both drag listeners in, and keep them there.

That means lots of minor adjustments to the volume of music, sound effects, and voices. Is a character further away than another? You’ll want to drop the sound a bit to compensate. Was there a tremendous crash? If so, it shouldn't be 9 db. Music will need to be adjusted so it adds to the experience without distracting or drowning out the story. Every component needs to be volume adjusted. When you listen to your finished product, you should never have to adjust the volume, and you should never wince or struggle to listen.

3) Noise Removal is Not Optional

When you’re doing audio drama at the amateur or pro-am levels, it’s unlikely that all your actors will be recorded with the same mic, or even in the same room. Most of my voice actors are in different states, recording on their own equipment, and that means I’ll usually have some noise. Noise will be covered up (slightly) if you’re following tip 1, but it’s still best to run a noise filter on each and every file before you start to cut things together.

In the past, noise removal often created a lot of digital artifacts and the like, but I’ve found that the newer versions of Audacity now perform nearly artifact free if you use the correct levels (I pull the slider down to the lowest setting on the left, then move it forward one click.)

4) Selecting Sound Effects Shouldn't be Easy

You need to develop a good ear for what sounds “real” if you want to produce quality, immersive audio drama. Many sound effects (especially free or public ones) are in low quality .wav formats, and can be more like “representations” of a sound than what the thing would realistically sound like if you were in the room with it (think grape flavored drinks vs. actual grape juice.) Take your time finding the correct sound at the correct level of quality or the addition of sound effects will hurt your product more than help.

Think of it like telling a lie; it only takes one slip up to make someone disbelieve the entire tale, so listen to lots of sound effects instead of just grabbing the first one you find and slapping it in there. I really recommend learning foley, and purchasing royalty free sound effects (again, Soundsnap is great for this,) since a good sound effect can serve you well for years and years. Build up a library of sound effects, keep it organized, and for God's sake back it up SOMEWHERE. You don’t want to lose a library of 500 sound effects to a computer fail.

5) Work With Your Talent and Don’t Fear Retakes or Critiques

When starting out in audio drama, we often tap our friends and peers to do our voice acting. If someone is doing you a favor like that for free, there's a tendancy to want to make it completely painless for them. Because of this, many people will take the first take even if it’s not “just right,” in order to keep from putting someone out who's already donated their time.

Avoid this temptation. You are not doing your voice actor a favor by letting them suck. You need to work with them, show them how they sound cut in to the piece, and ask them to do additional takes if the acting isn’t just right. Again, this isn’t just for you, it’s for them. Nobody wants to listen to something they were in and find out they were the worst part of it.

An immersive soundscape can mean the difference between a good product and a great product, and though it can be tedious, it’s nothing to be afraid of. The more you practice, and the more experience you gain, the better your end product will be and the faster your work will go. 

Just remember to get your levels right, make sure they “buy the lie,” and keep your actors and sound effects appropriate and high quality. Do that, and your listener will follow you wherever you care to take them.

So suck the bastards in and don’t let them go until you hit the credits.


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