The Sonic Society

Showcasing the very best in new Audio Drama

How Do I Create and Audio Drama?

Recently, this question came up in Quora. And since no one provided an answer for a year, we took a crack at it. How’d we do?

Audio Drama (Radio Drama to some) has become a kind of hot topic for those in the know more recently. My weekly podcast/radio show “The Sonic Society” features new audio drama from around the world now for fourteen straight years. Creating audio drama is so much easier than filming movies, and has become a favourite entry-point for many storytellers because you really need to focus only on three key things- telling good stories, utilizing excellent acting, and integrating effective production, sound effects and music.
1. Good stories- Writing audio drama is script writing. Keep in mind the following things:

  • Look for a good scriptwriting programme. Celtx is what I use now, but they no longer offer the desktop version that was free. I’ve used Final Draft and Fade In. There’s a number of ones that are excellent. Make sure you use one that follows a radio drama format of some kind and can number your lines for actors. Some people use a word processor like MS-Word. I recommend against it because the formatting will slow your writing down. Whatever your selection make sure that your actors will be able to read your script without buying into your choice. Make sure that the script itself can export into txt, rtf, doc, or pdf formats.
  • Make sure your story is something worthy of audio drama. In this, I mean that you should make certain your story isn’t just a film that you write as an audio drama- not that I don’t believe that you can’t adapt nearly any work, but especially as a beginner understand the constraints and freedoms of audio drama storytelling. Make your story something that is richly understood in the audio form. For example, the classic Suspense play “Sorry, Wrong Number” takes place entirely in the apartment of a woman confined to a wheelchair. While trying to call her husband, the phone lines get crossed and she overhears two men plotting a murder. The entire play is her desperate to get someone on the line to help her stop it. I’ve written two plays myself that use the phone as a conceit “Right Number, Wrong Party” and “Messages” early to get the beats and the feel of phone dialogue down.
  • Limit your narration. The main difference between audio drama and audio books is that audio books tell you a story, audio drama puts you in the thick of things. Imagine if you watched a movie of Tolkien reading “The Lord of the Rings” and then watched Peter Jackson’s trilogy. You may decide to use a narrator to set the scene or scenes, but the more you tell people your story, the less you immerse them in it.
  • Use sound effects to tell your story. Keep your sound effects as a way to explore and deepen the world you’re designing. Some folks like to use every sound effect in the book in each scene for a rich tapestry of sound. Others keep their sound effects minimalized. The Rule of Thumb here tends to be, to use enough to enhance your play but not so much that it confuses your listeners.
  • Limit the number of characters in your script. Too many characters will confuse and turn off your audience. Consider using just two or three characters for your first script. I try to keep it down to less than six.
  • Make sure your dialogue is not hackneyed. Many people say that you need to keep your dialogue realistic, but the truth is you can be stylized if it sounds realistic. Truthfully, Tarantino’s dialogue isn’t actually an authentic discussion. Most people don’t talk like that. But, it is stylized and interesting enough that we don’t care as an audience. Give your actors something meaty to work with, and your audience something believable to lean forward into. Be clever with your listeners. Don’t talk down to them. Avoid things like, “John! What are you doing with that gun?!” when you could write, “John! What are you doing?!” and the sound effect of a cocking pistol tells the tale.

2. Excellent Acting

  • Discover actors who know how to act and not “read”. There are fantastic actors who are used to using their voice but may not be effective at audio acting. A lot of voice work people are used to voice-overs or audio books. You can tell the difference as they sound like DJ’s and not characters in a movie.
  • If you don’t have money (and you’d be silly to go into audio drama production thinking you’re going to make it rich. NO ONE has. Even the best in the business can eke out a life for one or two people in their company group. The closest would be the Doctor Who Radio Drama folks, and I have no idea how small that organization is.), then go looking on university campuses. Go seeking out Little Theatres. Put up posters in libraries, at community centres, and send out ads through Kijiji or Craig ’s list or what have you. Make it clear that you’re looking for people who want to come together and have fun acting in audio dramas.
  • Follow through with auditions. Make sure there’s at least two or three of you. (I did this once by myself because my partners ducked out and it was one of the most stressful nights of my life). If you can partner with a community radio station (see Production below) then you can have a neutral place to meet, a waiting room often, and the facilities to record people professionally to listen to their voices. Have several pieces for various characters- men, women. About a page and a half of dialogue is usually enough. Pick pieces that are either monologues or two characters where you can help prompt them for their parts. Make sure you have posted the audition pieces electronically on a webpage or distributed through email, and printed out some copies in the waiting room for people to peruse and practice while they wait.
  • Make sure you pick actors with differing voices for each performance. I’ve found to my chagrin that many women actors I’ve selected in the past can sound the same to the audience. THE LAST THING YOU WANT TO DO EVER IS CONFUSE THE LISTENER AND LOSE THEM. So, make sure if you have multiple men together in a scene or multiple women that you contrast their parts with pitch, cadence, style, accents, or what have you.
  • Provide snacks and transportation to and from the recording sessions. Give specific details about start and end times and stick to them as tightly as possible. Three-hour sessions are standard. Any longer and you won’t have the actors at their best. Any shorter and you won’t get enough takes or preparation for the best product.
  • Have actors sign agreements. THIS IS KEY. Take it from me as I learned it the hard way. One of my ex-actors demanded I take everything down she was in. This was petty and ugly, and you could most likely win in a court case as you could prove malice on their part when they agreed originally, but as much as verbal consent is recognized by the law, written consent is much more binding.
  • Don’t be afraid to direct. This hurt me a lot in the beginning. I kept thinking, “Who am I to tell these actors how to do their parts?” You’re the director (and most likely the writer). The last thing you want to do is have your project recorded and discover that an actor or more didn’t give you what you need. A bad performance hurts the actor as much as you, and if they’re serious about their profession they will want to do great work. Be kind and patient and be prepared to describe what kind of voice, what kind of emphasis, what kind of emotion, what the scene and the setting is. Whatever it takes to place the actor into the experience at the time. Most serious actors really appreciate the direction. Always praise their efforts.
  • Provide snacks and transportation. This bears saying twice. You’re not likely going to have the money to pay them scale or anything. So, the least you can do is offer rides, nominal gas money, and baked goods and drinks. I provide water as well for the pipes, fresh bread I bake myself, cookies. I’ve even made pizza. Sometimes, I’ll go out and get doughnuts but I want to provide the most personal touch I can. Fresh fruit is another great option.
  • Be interested and promote and support your actors’ pursuits. If you want someone to be a part of your art, support other artists. Most of my actors also write/produce/act in many other plays. I try to go at least once a month to actors’ works or meetups. Fringe Festival is now on here in Halifax, and I regularly see 4–6 plays and praise my actors specifically on Facebook and encourage others to see them. I rarely get this kind of attention back in return. But, you’re wanting to make audio drama. We’re respected somewhere above mimes. Hold your head high and realize your brilliance may be appreciated long after you die.
  • Get experienced with microphones and direct your actors to record their lines in the mikes as best as you can. There’s an old adage, that the better you record voices, the less work you have in post-production. This was a very hard lesson for me to learn. I’m still learning it. But, MAN it makes all the difference in the world.
  • What if you can’t get actors locally? Or don’t have a studio? Well, you have a world full of satellite actors ready to jump into your production. If you go to my Facebook group “Audio Drama/Radio Drama Lovers” you can post requests for actors there. There are also other places like Voice Alliances and other Facebook groups like “Audio Production”. Be clear as to what the name of your project is. What the expectations of the actors’ involvement (is this a series or a single feature?). What they need to send you in the form of an mp3. What their contact information is. Your email and website for further questions. Deadline for auditions and the like. Be sure that your satellite actors have a great recording studio of their own to work from, and that their voices are perfect for your project. While you can’t provide transportation and food, praise and support will be hugely appreciated. The audio drama community, by and large, is a great big family and we all love each other’s work. That’s starting to change now as the community has taken on various characters and types. But, for the most part, we’re still really supportive.
  • Use headphones when you record. Studio expensive headphones if possible for you and regular headphones for your actors. You need to hear EVERYTHING they record, and they should get used to listening to themselves in their ears to modify their performance.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the actors to redo scenes where they don’t work. If you need to have them come back for second recording sessions to fix lines that don’t work in post-production. Once again. The more you get it right in recording, the less pain you’ll have in post.
  • Listen for the hard consonant popping. In the business, these are called “plosions” and they occur often with p’s, d’s, b’s and the like are too close to the microphone. Use pop-shields to provide as much cursory protection as possible.

3. Production- Post producing your audio drama

  • Good DAW (digital audio workstation) is key. Look around and see what might be in your price range. Lots of folks begin with Audacity or Garage Band but move into things like Adobe Audition or Protools as their skills become more advanced. I’m currently using Reaper which has an incredible price point. You can actually use it perpetually for nothing, but I recommend purchasing it at about fifty bucks. Really powerful and fast editing capabilities.
  • You’ll need to understand how to break down your actors’ recordings separately and isolate them into separate tracks.
  • You’ll need to work to get rid of any extraneous noises in the actors’ recordings as well as normalize their voices to sound like they are all in the same environment (room or outdoors)
  • You’ll need to cut and edit their separate tracks so that their dialogue mixes naturally and well together adding pauses and beats for reactions to the conversation as well as having each work tightly off each other in other situations. Natural dialogue is often the best sounding. Your job here is to make sure the actors don’t sound like they are acting their lines but engaged in a moment.
  • You’ll need to consider which sound effects are needed in this scene to tell the story. Are they on a porch in the countryside in the evening? You’ll need crickets, a light wind, and the creak of your porch swing. You might also need a screen door opening and closing and the creak of floorboards as they walk up and down steps. Is someone lighting their pipe? Is someone else pouring a cool glass of lemonade? What of these sound effects clarifies, and what might confuse the audience?
  • You’ll need to consider whether you need music or not. Look on the Internet for free to use music. Ask the musician/composer if they will lend you the rights for your performance, or pay if you can the fees (musicians need remuneration too). Or have a friend or yourself compose music. You’re going to want to consider several TYPES of music: themes, stings, and mood. A. Theme music is what you’ll want to start and end your show or series with. Theme music can also be reflected in your other types of music to have a coherency to your story. If you listen to the Star Wars suite from John Williams you can pick out the most famous Star Wars theme in many of the pieces. B. Stings are used often for transitions between scenes. You don’t NEED stings to transition, but they often provide a strong notice to your audience that one scene has ended and a new one- perhaps in a different time and place- has begun. And remember, one of the most important goals is to never confuse your audience. C. Mood music is an often overlooked important piece of music. It is often designed to be low key and not draw attention to itself. Slow and/or few notes can provide a mood that the audience feels more than hears and that can really provide good suspense or pathos to a scene. I’ve reused excellent mood music that my chief musician Sharon Bee (www.sharonbee.com) has provided for me through the years again and again. Oh yes, make sure you promote your musicians as much as possible. They provide so much emotion to your shows. I love Sharon to death. I really enjoy collaborating with her and she’s been with me from the very beginning.
  • You’ll need to consider how to blend your voices into this new audioscape you’ve created. If someone is outdoors, they sound different than they would in a closet. Make sure your audience doesn’t think your actors recorded in a sterile environment. Isolation was excellent to get you to a place where you can immerse your action in a scene and a setting.
  • You’ll need to modify the loudness and pan your characters and sound effects. If someone is coming in from outside, they are usually entering from either left or right. Don’t make the mistake of panning too far all the time because if you’re successful a lot of people listen to their audio dramas on commutes in cars and car speakers may not capture the full range of your panning.
  • Consider the use of VST plugins and other plugins that are available. I’m really only learning about how great these tools can be now as I delve more into the production side myself. So many really powerful plugins will save you time. They could EQ a voice to give someone with a higher register more depth. They could help remove sound artifacts which take away from the sound. They could help remove the popping “plosions” we’re so afraid of as producers. Some plugins are free and are a good start. Some of the very best (iZotope for example) are really expensive but get on their mailing list and look for deals. I found one suite normally for 500 dollars for twenty-six bucks. Thank heavens a fellow audio drama produce emailed me right away and I snagged them when I could. They are magic!
  • Edit on your speakers. While you record with headphones, it’s important to use speakers to edit. Some folks like to create fully immersible 3-D sound and all power to them. My job is to try to make an audio drama that everyone can hear everywhere. Whether someone is listening in their car, on their radio, in their earbuds, or through crappy speakers, I want them to hear my stories. Why limit your already limited audience?
  • Mixdown to the best sound quality you can. My minimum is 44100 Hz, 192 kbps, joint stereo mp3 for podcast/radio broadcast. I keep a wav file for a higher bit rate in my files. You can go 256 kbps but that’s usually overkill for mostly vocal tracks.
  • Decide how you want to distribute your project. Set up your own podcast (there’s a number of providers and even archive.org for free), place for direct download as a link on your website, partner with a radio station for release (you’ll need a whole lot of shows if you want regular release or find a show that will play your feature occasionally), create as a CD or (gasp) cassette tape for your grandparents, or render into a youtube or other such stream. Even get your feature played on The Sonic Society (www.sonicsociety.org)
  • Market, market, market. Share with others. Talk about your show. Go out in social media and provide links and excitement.
  • Wait for that one email you get from a fan who in breathless text tells you how brilliant you are.
  • Organize all your files, especially your sound effect files and actor auditions and contact information.
  • Identify what went wrong, and what you can improve for next time. Challenge yourself to do better and stick to it.
  • Start your next project!

And that’s all you need to know. Easy right? So, get out there and produce the next great Audio Drama. Then contact us at the Sonic Society and let us showcase it for you!


About The Author

Born to Teachers and Amateur Audio Enthusiasts in the small rural community of Belwood, Jack's first love was stories- writing, reading, telling, and singing. He developed his acting skills through High School, University, and through film and community theatre. Jack writes the lion's share of Electric Vicuna's Audio Drama scripts and has his own writing site at www.jackjward.com He's thrilled to co-host the Sonic Society with his wonderful, talented, friend David Ault!

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