Making Story-Driven Podcasts on a Budget

With increasing numbers of companies interested in the medium, and dedicated drama studios expensive, we asked our producer and director Andy Goddard for his process. He writes how to achieve the same or better quality you would expect from a BBC radio drama or American style old-time radio in modern podcasting.

This article was originally published on the Wooden Overcoats blog.

The Question of Cost

If you want to make anything ambitious in terms of audio drama and/or comedy, you need either a massive travel budget to flit between aeroplane-free locations, or you need a recording studio.

This was take one hundred and sixty seven of Radioman (a location recording attempt). We discovered when we got there that we had found a canal smack bang in the middle of the flight path to London Heathrow.

If you’re a student, you can probably borrow one for free. The likelihood is though, that it’ll be terrible for radio drama. Student radio stations invariably have hilarious flaws in their soundproofing.

Can you see that vent there. Just next to the top of the boom. Mocking me.

When I was studying in Sheffield, we had a giant metal pipe which carried the sound from the nightclub downstairs directly into the studio. Later, as Masters student at Goldsmiths, our choice was either a completely unsound-proofed room, or one where we had to gaffer-tape cushions over the air conditioning vents which you couldn’t switch off.

So, What to Do?

On the one hand, you could go for a professional radio recording studio with a dedicated engineer who has thirty years experience recording The Archers, personally high-fived Spike Milligan and has scars on his hands from when he would cut two hour long Orson Wells plays on tape.

That would be a great idea. If you’ve got a grand a day to play with and are happy with that day being half nine until four. And you don’t want to do anything fancy with the studios because, if you need to use another one, that’ll be another grand.

The Soundhouse in North Acton, London. You can’t afford this yet.

These places are absolutely perfect if you’re someone like Big Finish who have an established market and know they can make all that back. All power to them.

If you’re starting from scratch, you need to look at other options.

The Magic of Music Studios

If you’re a techy, you’ve probably been in one. You know what they look like.

Usually, loads of rooms of different sizes. Nearly always full of equipment that only Level Six Mages know how to use. They are inadvertently being BBC’s drama studios already. Sitting around. Charging a quarter or less of the price of a purpose built studio.

Scruffy. The Radio Producer’s home.

It’s basic economics. The market is saturated with music studios. Every boy, his dog, his sister, and her awesome friend who’s going to grow up cooler than her, is in a band. They all want demos and so loads of people step up to not charge them that much as the market gently saturates.

What little boy (other than local genius John Wakefield), genuinely wanted to make a studio produced radio drama as a kid?

Exactly.

Very few step up to be the supply for those unwitting rookies. We still need radio: the demand is there. Therefore they charge whatever they want.

Tom Gillerion: Level Six Mage.

But there is good news!

Music studios are perfectly serviceable for radio drama with some minor adjustments. They will have some peculiarities and you’ll have to do retakes for weird reasons but this is the digital age. You aren’t paying for tape. If you’re time rich and cash poor, this is the way to go.

Music studios tend to ask less than the radio studios’ grand-a-day.

Considerably.

The Art of Turning a Music Studio into a Radio Studio

Once you’re there. In your studio. How do you make super pretty radio that sounds like, oh I don’t know… an island for instance. Or a funeral home.

Well step one is assess your recording engineer. Are they a wizard?

Ask them some questions like:

  • Do you know how to do an XY setup?
  • How many channels does your desk have?
  • Can we record in all these studios at once?

If they answer with enthusiasm and start legging it around setting stuff up for you straight off the bat, relax. You’re golden. You’re in the hands of a warlock and all the noise is going to be magic.

This is the experience we had with Tom (above) and it was fantastic.

If they don’t know, Don’t Panic. You’re a radio producer. You can do this.

The first thing you need is a workable stereo set-up.

Microphones, and How to Place Them

Mics… and Lamps. Lamps are important too.

The standard in most radio dramas in an X-Y setup.

Those white boxes are the mics. The lines aren’t real, don’t worry about them.

This is achieved by putting two mics next to each other at opposing 30 degree angles as above. Make sure they’re the same make and type of mic or it’s going to sound weird. You then ask the engineer to pan one mic to the extreme left and the other to the extreme right. This will give you a sense of space as the sounds hit your ears at fractionally different times and in different volumes in both ears. This is how you make the space feel real. Like you’re actually in the room.

Our stereo setup, displayed elegantly in front of Felix Trench’s smiling face.

If you’re feeling really fancy, you can find a way to stack the mics so that they’re directly on top of each other. This gives you the crispest distinction between your two channels.

We didn’t bother for Wooden Overcoats, because finding the right stand was difficult. It still sounds great.

One thing you can also consider doing is emphasising your room sound by putting a mono mic directly above your stereo set up. This serves to pick up all the lovely reverberations your actors voices will make. Not mandatory, but occasionally useful.

Demonstrated here by that silver beauty. That’s a Neumann U87, the legendary vocal microphone that Robert Plant recorded all his vocals on. I’m telling you, mate. Wizards.

Building your Audio Scenery

That might sound really pretentious but… shut up it’s important. If you leave the room how it is when you find it, it’s going to sound like your whole drama is set in a cave. Unless you’re making Descent ii, the radio drama, you don’t want that.

As far as I’m concerned you need four different spaces to really get distinction between scenes. So, get in yer drum room and start putting up some baffles.

See them orange things? They’re baffles. They’re basically just cushions. So if you can’t find any, bring cushions.

Those four spaces. What are they?

  • You want a Big Space that feels naturally like a big room. You can simulate this is post if you need to. But I can always tell a synthetic reverb when I hear one. It’s so much nicer having an acoustic that starts out sounding fairly big. Hence that big open space on the left.
  • A Dynamic Space that you can easily adjust. Ideally set this up with reflective surfaces (wood, glass etc.) and then dampen down from there. (With baffles. We love baffles.) As you can see that’s what we did for the above on the right. We used that in the Wooden Overcoats for the Funn Funerals scenes, to sound like they’re in a rickety old building.
  • You want a Warm Space that sounds cosy. This is for people’s living rooms or a nice office or just generally any normal indoor space that you don’t want to sound woody or hard or have reflective surfaces. Build this out of almost entirely dampening surfaces. We used standard audio screens. This will do the trick.
This warm space was so cosy it had a sofa in it. Steve Hodgson’s tweed helped too.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you want a Dead Room. This is a room that is baffled up to its eyeballs so that there is almost no reverb in there at all. This serves a number of purposes. There’s no reverb outside so for outdoor scenes you can’t use any of first three. You can also use it to drop someone into a scene as when there’s no reverb on it to begin with - you can add almost anything you like and it’ll sound at least believable.
Everyone is more charming in the Dead Room.

NOTE: IF YOU ONLY HAVE ONE ROOM ON YOUR BUDGET, JUST GET A DEAD ROOM, IT WILL DO THE TRICK JUST ABOUT.

If you get all of those, that should be a catch all for any scene you have in your script. Use your judgement as to what’s going to sound good for what. And experiment. Moving a baffle just a little bit can do a lot of good.

Your Final Stages

Quality

If you don’t understand this bit, read it to an engineer, they should know what I mean.

The higher the better? Nah. Once you’re dealing with super high quality files, you’re going to have to start thinking about what you’re editing on. If you’re using Reaper on an Acer netbook, bless you, 98k files are going to kill it dead in a week and you’re going to have to wait an hour every time you move a file.

Have a play, work out what kinds of quality your editing computer can handle, reach a compromise.

I get a relatively glitch free editing experience on my iMac at 48k. I can do 98k if I’m doing something like a song, but for a half hour radio play, I’m working at 48 and it’s fine thank you very much.

As long as you don’t go below 44.1k, you’re broadcast quality.

Green Room

Always remember to have somewhere to put your actors. Actors who aren’t doing anything can still make a load of noise. Don’t put them in the studio where the others are acting.

A comfy actor is a happy actor. Find somewhere with a sofa ideally. And biscuits.

Runners

These are super important in a music studio recording. It’s not likely to be as straightforwardly laid out as a radio dedicated one. You’ll need someone to pass messages and bring tea.

Find your unemployed flatmate, hose them down and bring them.

Dogs

Optional but also exciting.

Booze

Always bring gifts for your engineer. They tend to love booze.

Thanks for reading. I am happy to respond to any and all questions.

Follow Andy Goddard at @radiogoddard