With lots of actors, playwrights, TV, and moviemakers unable to work in their traditional physical spaces due to the pandemic at the moment, now is a great time to think about creating audio drama. Here at Alternative Stories and Fake Realities, we’ve been putting out a series of special podcasts aimed at helping newcomers to audio drama to find their voice. We’ve talked about writing for audio, casting and directing actors, the various arts and techniques of voice acting, and next up we have a show about sound design and music for podcast drama. This short blog can’t hope to give you an all-around handbook for creating an audio drama but, alongside our podcast, it can offer some pointers to get you started and allow you to find your own unique recipe for the show you want to create.
Let’s start by thinking about whether you’re going to make a serial or a series of one-off stories. Just like in TV, a series is going to allow you to tell your story over a longer period, develop your characters and hopefully, attract a loyal following of listeners. It’s going to need a really strong storyline though if you’re to retain those listeners. For one-off stories (a format like TV shows Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone) you can potentially use multiple writers and move on from stories that didn’t go down so well with your audience and there’s always something new around the corner. On the other hand, the chances of your audience liking everything you do and every new story you write are slim. You may lose listeners who loved one or two of your podcasts but hated the rest. You’ll need to make this decision based on your preferences and the stories you wish to tell.
Like all forms of creativity, you need to be checking out what other creators are doing if you’re to create compelling content. Find out what you like, what you think works, and what doesn’t. Note these down as you start to sketch out your own ideas. If you work in a vacuum and don’t take in other influences, this will show up in your writing.
Podchaser is great for the sort of show-hopping you’ll find helpful in this context. You can find out what people who liked the show you’re listening to also liked and often, you can see which actors and creatives were involved in both. Use Podchaser also to make lists of the shows you’re using as your references so you can easily come back to them and even share them with your own crew so they all get to hear what you loved about the other shows.
And on the subject of writing you’re going to need to think about the specific writing skills you’ll need for audio drama. It’s a little like screen or stage writing but there are many differences. In podcasts, we can’t show the audience what we mean. We have to tell them all they need to know through effects or the words of the characters but even that can’t be too obvious. “I’m walking down the street now and looking to my left” doesn’t sound like natural dialogue for any character to utter so you need to find other ways of saying these things. Maybe have another character ask “Where are you going Jack?” and have Jack’s reply move the action on.
Your characters need to be engaging and tell the audience something about themselves through their words. Your listeners can’t see that Bill is tall or Mary is beautiful or that Fred only has one leg so if these things are important to the plot, we need to find ways of telling them to our audience through the words the characters speak. This can also reveal traits of other characters so, for example when Hannah says that Nick is looking handsome we learn two things: Nick is good-looking and Hannah may have a thing for him.
Just like all other forms of writing you’ll need to plan your plot before you start scribbling. Have an ending in mind but allow for character development too. Don’t’ make your plot so rigid that the characters can’t shift it slightly through the foibles you invent for them and the weird things they do as a result. Let the characters tell your story for you as you flesh them out.
So, let’s assume you have a script, you’ve written your characters and you’ve got all the ideas in your head about how the drama will sound. What do you need to do next? Well, you’re going to need to recruit some actors. The way you do this is going to depend on your budget. It could range from bribing a few friends with great voices to take part vs. casting Hollywood stars to boost the profile of your podcast. A few rules apply though.
First – make sure the voices of your main characters aren’t too similar. Bill and Jim may look completely different as actors but if their voices are similar and they’re going to be in a few scenes together your listeners won’t be able to tell them apart easily.
Second, as you cast, think about the extremes of your character’s lines in the drama and get your prospective actors to audition against those lines. Choose the quietest and most poignant lines as well as the loudest and most angry with a couple of middling lines for good measure. You want to make sure the actor you choose possesses the full range required for the role.
Once again, when it comes to casting, Podchaser can really help. Uniquely amongst podcast apps, it lists actors and other creatives alongside the shows they’ve appeared in. You can track and even contact actors, writers, composers, and directors you love and snatch them up for your own production!
Recording your audio drama can take one of two main forms. Fundamentally you can either gather your cast in a purpose-built studio and record the whole thing “live” as though your actors were performing in a stage play. Or alternatively, you can record asynchronously i.e with actors recording their lines individually and in isolation and then sending them into the audio tech to stitch together.
Both approaches can work well. Studio time can be expensive and you’ll need to pay for your actors to travel to the location if you record together but you will get a really dynamic performance with actors “playing off” each other. If the cost of doing this is prohibitive you can still get great results recording individually. Take advantage of video conferencing tools to get your cast together to run through lines as preparation for recording and to build the chemistry that actors thrive on. The lag involved in these tools means you probably won’t be able to record the actual lines this way but a ten-minute session like this will pay dividends in bonding your cast and giving them insight into the ways they each work. Get all the actors to record multiple versions of each line so that you have options when you come to mix the dialogue.
As the director, you’ll be responsible for piecing together the final drama. This is like putting together a jigsaw with multiple versions of each piece. It’s also the area where art and science meet. You’ll be playing with complex software and cutting and splicing audio files on the one hand but also thinking about pauses for dramatic effect and when a character cuts across another to make the dialogue sound natural. It can be both incredibly time-consuming and hugely rewarding, but you’ll be glad you chose the most engaging actors with great voices as you spend hours listening to them in your headphones during the mix down!
In terms of the software you choose for recording and mixing your drama you don’t need to spend too much money if you’re a newcomer. If you use a Mac, then GarageBand offers a fantastic platform for both recording audio and multi-channel mixing. I’ve yet to find the limit on the number of live channels GarageBand can support but I’m sure there is one. Another great piece of free software (with payment options) is Audacity. Check out a few digital audio workstation platforms to see which one you like best. You need to get this right as you’ll be “driving” this software for many hours if your podcast takes off.
One of the most fun bits of the whole process of creating audio drama is adding sound effects and music to your finished voice track. I liken this to coloring in a pencil sketch. You’ll be bringing those performances to life and actually making your listener believe that your characters are on a beach, in a church, or in a cold, damp tunnel. You can find effects for free from sites like Freesound.org (Podchaser show notes for dramas you love should tell you where the effects were obtained) or, if you’re feeling brave you can start to create your own. Freelance sites like Fiverr.com offer sound-effect specialists who can create any sound you specify (at a price) or you can use Podchaser to contact other creators to ask how they made a particular sound you loved on their show.
For music, you can use tools like GarageBand to create your own minimal atmospheric sounds using the range of synthesizer pads and soundscape effects that come with it. Play these through the “musical typing” window and you won’t even need a musical keyboard to do so. Remember also that “minimal” can often work best when it comes to soundtrack music. You don’t want to be distracting from dialogue and action with a piece that has a hundred chord changes and a complex time signature. Keep it simple and quiet enough that the dialogue shines through.
When you’ve mastered all of these skills, or at least got to the point at which the stuff you create doesn’t sound terrible, it’s time to make a pilot episode. When this is ready, share it with your friends and get them to comment honestly (hopefully not too brutally!) on what they heard and make notes. Could they hear the dialogue? Were the plot and characters engaging? Did they want to hear more? Did the music compliment or trip up the action? What amendments or tweaks would they suggest?
Finally, once you’ve made the changes and learned the lessons from your pilot it’s time to launch your podcast and promote it. Find a podcast host that will distribute your podcast to the widest range of platforms. Most of them will do this as standard for you and as a minimum you want to make sure you’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Podcast Addict, Google Podcasts, and of course Podchaser. Make sure to claim your podcast on Podchaser and use it to make all the connections to listeners, fans, and creatives of podcasts you think are similar to yours. If you’ve noted that similarity, then hopefully fans of those shows will latch onto yours too.
Audio drama can be an amazingly creative medium and during the current crisis, it can be one of the only ways to legitimately make stories involving multiple actors. It can be a springboard to screenwriting or becoming a playwright, but it is an amazingly satisfying and fulfilling art form on its own. Podchaser offers a wonderful platform to share our work and discover other shows we love. It also allows us to become part of a creative and supportive community of fellow podcasters: fantastic people and great friends without exception.
Thanks to Chris Gregory of Alternative Stories and Fake Realities for this insightful article. Go check out his podcast and check out this awesome list Chris made to help listeners understand the art and science behind audio fiction!