Recording Your Show | How to Make a Fiction Podcast #5
So you've come up with a story idea, turned it into a script, and found some actors to bring your characters to life. Great work so far, but some new challenges await us now.
There are many pitfalls in the recording phase of creating a fiction podcast, but fear not - we've made all these mistakes before, so you won't have to.
In our last chapter I mentioned you might opt for a 'remote' cast of actors who record their lines independently and send them to you. This chapter is primarily advice for producers with a local or on-location cast.
Nevertheless, it's all-important knowledge to have if you're going to be a creator of sound stories, so read on...
Where Can I Record?
Environment over equipment is why I'm not opening with "what kind of mics should I use?" This is also an important question, but it isn't the most important. The area you record in will literally become part of your production, whether it's background ambience or vocal reverb.
Know your budget, know your requirements, and choose wisely.
This is the high cost, but maximum control option. On average, professional studio hire can cost around £30 ($50) an hour. Immediately this rules the studio out for many amateur or low budget productions, but if you can afford it then it can be well worth your while.
Recording in a 'dead' environment with no background noise gives you the cleanest vocal recordings possible. This enables you to place your characters in any scenarios the story requires once you hit the post-production phase.
With a professional studio you may also have access to their recording engineer, as well as their mics and equipment.
On top of that, it's amazing how much you can get done when you're paying by the hour!
For an in-depth guide on this, check our our article 8 things I learned recording in a pro studio.
The medium cost, moderate control option. If you Google 'home studio' you'll see examples of some set-ups that would put professional studios to shame, but typically cost just as much to set up.
For the average person, a home studio set-up will be a balancing act. You need to do your best with the small budget you have, combined with the fact that your home might have limited space.
Not forgetting, of course, that other people (like your family) have to actually live there too.
At the most basic level, you can find a room in your house with the least hard surfaces to record it. A room that's carpeted with a lot of soft fabrics will help minimise the reverb in your recordings - avoid the bathroom and the kitchen at all costs!
If you're fortunate enough to have full use of a spare room or walk-in cupboard you can put up sound dampening tiles or other acoustic treatments. Just be wary of potential external noise that you have no control over. Does the room have an external wall or window where you can hear noise from your neighbour's dog or the busy road outside?
On Location and/or in the Field
This is the free, but minimal control option. Recording 'in the field' doesn't literally mean a field, it could be anywhere from an abandoned warehouse to an office car park.
The important thing is that the background fits your story, because your recordings are going to be pre-layered with the ambience of your environments.
On the one hand, that rules out recording your space battle sci-fi thriller down at your local playpark. On the other hand, if you have a horror story about a group of friends camping in the woods, and you record it in the woods, then chances are it's going to sound great.
On top of that, it'll save you loads of time layering in sound effects in post-production.
Planning, site visits, and test recordings are key here. A location may look like the perfect setting, but we're working purely in audio. When you're deciding if a location is going to be suitable to record in, close your eyes. If you hear a construction site or busy road in the distance, then it's going to be unsuitable for your medieval fantasy epic.
Don't get too hung up on gear at the start, especially if you're a beginner.
It's much better to learn how to use equipment properly and get the best results from what you have than splashing out on top-of-the-range kit before you've even produced a single short story.
If you're on a tight budget, record in the field with a digital recorder and some lav mics like the ATR 3350.
If you're working in a home studio, a couple of Shure SM58s and a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB preamp is a great little set-up. Or if you want to record more than two actors at one time, have a look at the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8.
If you've got a bit of money to spend on studio hire, and they have microphones available for use, then you might as well take advantage of that. Any studio condenser mic they have will be worth using, but popular choices with drama producers include the Neumann U87, the AKG C414, or the Audio Technica BP4073.
If you want more information on the options available here, check out our Audio Drama Equipment Guide.
You want to record quality source material, so be aware of your file format settings before you get started. Make sure your sample rate settings are at 44100Hz, and your bit depth settings are set to at least 24. Record your audio in WAV form.
Other Tips Before You Hit Record
- Scripts - printing out a pile of fat scripts isn't just expensive and bad for the environment. You don't want to pick up the shifting and rustling of papers in your recordings, so consider using Kindles or Tablets to read from instead. If you absolutely must use paper scripts, try mounting them on music stands, and coach your actors so they all turn their pages simultaneously.
- Actors' Clothing - if you're recording purely to capture the vocals - i.e. in the studio - ask your actors to wear soft clothing that won't make any noises when they move. Alternatively, if you're doing a field recording then noisy clothing can add depth to your soundscape. If you're doing the latter, remember to pack the shellsuits and raincoats.
- Slate The Take - There's nothing worse than pouring through hours and hours of raw audio, trying to figure out what's what. Each time you hit record, state clearly exactly what it is you're about to record. The show title, along with the scene or page number is adequate. This will save you a lot of time when it comes to mixing your episode.
- Session Planning - don't turn up to your recording session and think "okay, what will we record first?" Think of the logistics, the actors you have available, the locations you're visiting, and for how long. If one actor only has a few lines, record them first so they can go home instead of hanging around for five hours. Keeping everyone happy by being organised will go a long way towards your cast sticking around for an entire season, or longer.
- Sound Levels - a subject worthy of its own article, but set your recording levels so you're getting a healthy signal without the audio being too loud and clipping. If you've got a scene that involves characters switching between whispering and shouting, try to set a secondary recorder up at a very low gain, rather than messing with your settings mid-scene.
- Is this thing on? Check, check, and check again that you've actually hit 'Record'. Inevitably you'll have that dread moment where your actors have just given you the performance of their lives only to notice your recorder's 'monitor' light flashing. Become a paranoid obsessive about this, it's worth it.
Go Make Some Noise
You're now ready to head out and record your actors, and one big step closer to creating your first episode. Like anything, you'll learn through experience and gradually hone your craft through trying experimenting and making some mistakes.
In the next chapter we're going to look at how we go about producing all this audio we've recorded. In the meantime though, why not take a look at my top 5 books for producing audio drama and fiction podcasts?