Skin Jobs, Sunrizer, and a Suite

In this blog post, we take an iconic movie, an iPad app, and a nineteenth century musical suite to ruminate on podcast sound design.

Last night, I saw Blade Runner 2049 for the second time on the big screen.  I never watch a movie more than once in the theater, but I wanted to see this one again before it finished its original run (as I write this, it only shows once a night at my local theater).  I really loved the visuals and the music in both the original and this sequel, and I figured I should see it in all of it's glory once more while I still can.

Not long ago, I decided to try to learn playing my Sunrizer Synth app.  I've never really tried to play synth other than to mess around with preset voices.  I did, last year, try to learn the theory of synthesis -- oscillators, filters, LFO, envelopes, etc -- but I never went anywhere with it other than feed the Sunrizer preset sounds into Orphion.  But now I've followed along with this video to recreate the brass sound from the Blade Runner Main Theme.  The Sunrizer app is no Yamaha, and the video was hard to translate to it, but I got something remotely similar.  

I first got the idea to use a synth for podcast music production through Jeff Emtman at Here Be Monsters.  I met Jeff at a monthly Maker Mingle over at the PRX Podcast Garage.  Jeff's been messing with synths for years, and his podcast sound design shows it.  So, I'm starting to mess around with synthesis myself, to see what I can add to my own story sound design.  I'm not a big, big fan of continuing to use Creative Commons music if I don't have to.

One problem with using pre-made music is that at a certain level, everyone does it.  Now on one hand, who doesn't want to have the same sound as NPR's Embed or WNYC's On the Media?  But I want to explore my own sound, too!  The second problem with using it is that so many podcasts out there are going for the dark and gritty.  Now yes, tension is required for a good story, but I so far have found no very much happy-go-lucky music out there in Creative Commons Land.  I might want to go for the positive once in a while.  You know, be different.  Explore my own voice.

I'm working on a story now that I will produce when I attend the Transom Traveling Workshop in Nashville next January.  I won't jinx things by discussing the story idea here, but I will say that one of my students suggested that I use Saint-Saëns's The Carnival of the Animals for music.  I suppose so long as the music is in the public domain, I should be alright if I perform myself the movement I want to use (as a solo keyboard piece, if I should be so industrious as to learn it).  But I do want to reimagine one of the movements from one animal to another, smaller type.  Perhaps I can come up with something in time?

Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

In any event, one thing I kept noticing about Blade Runner 2049 was how I stopped listening to the music at certain suspenseful moments, only to have it come full forward right afterwards.  This is how I want my sound design to be.  But how to do that???

Necessity is the mother of invention, amirite?

Class is in Session: Kelly McEvers

I listened to a podcast tonight with a great lesson on storytelling.  I wanted to share.

One of the most recent podcasts that I've subscribed to is Embedded, with NPR's Kelly McEvers as producer.  In each episode, McEvers embeds herself into a news story, going deeper than what a typical NPR news story could do.  It's a great series, and plays to her strength as someone who can go into risky situations and find a story that grabs you.

In the episode "The Arctic," McEvers does something a bit different than in previous episode.  In this episode, the first part is a story by reporter Rebecca Hersher.  In the second part, McEvers interviews Hersher about the rest of the story.  The story, by the way, is about the elevated suicide rate in Greenland.

So, Hersher's initial story is about the suicide on a Greenlander that rocked a small, close-knit community.  It's a serious subject, and should grab the listener's attention.  However, the initial story, or rather, anecdote, was in my opinion poorly done.  While there was some interview tape, most of what you heard was a long narrative by the reporter.  And the narration wasn't expressive.  And the story was written for the page -- that is, in a style that lets everyone listening know clearly that it was written down first (or rather, not good for the radio).  By the end of it, I was thinking, "I'm not good at this yet, but I'm good enough at least to know this isn't great."

Harsh words from a rank amateur.  I know.  But I'm at liberty to be as much of a jerk as I want to when I'm listening alone in my car, amirite? 

But as they say, pride comes before the fall.  My arrogance was completely shattered by what came next.

Now, Kelly McEvers did tell the audience at the beginning of the episode that there first would be Rebecca Hersher's story, followed by Kelly's questions.  It was in that second part -- the Q&A -- where everything changed completely.  All of a sudden, there were stakes.  Lots of stakes.  Hersher uses a character in her story as her translator.  She and the translator go in way over their heads in a charged group discussion about a recent suicide involving the translator's friend.  The translator goes missing the next day, and we're told that suicides go in clusters and the translator's at risk.  Calls and texts to the translators go unanswered all day long.  And then...  the translator is ok.  He needed to get away for a day, so he turned his phone off and went hunting alone.  

An amazing story, amazingly written, amazingly narrated by Hersher and McEvers, with an amazing interview and amazing editing.  It was night and day against the first ten minutes or so.  So, why the duality?

Here, I think something very interesting was done.  So, the whole point of Embedded is to take a typical news story that would get a few minutes of air time and go in real deep.  So, Hersher's original story played out like a typical morning news story.  It was the nut graph.  The Q&A afterwards was the meat.

Now, was this episode purposely edited to have two very different feels to emphasize that the audience was going deeper into the story?  That seems far-fetched to me, but on further reflection, this is a podcast produced by stone-cold professionals.  These folks know what they're doing.  So I wouldn't be surprised if this really was a conscious creative decision on their part.  If it indeed was, then holy crap, that was risky.  I mean, it's like intentionally giving up a few points at the beginning of a game to make the last half so much more exciting when you start dominating.  But what if the fans decide to go home disappointed before the second half?

I suppose we've all seen this before.  Look a Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope during the Rumble in the Jungle.  Look at this SNL performance by Lady Gaga.  

I gotta stop judging things too early.

 

Tim Toady

When I was a young engineer, I read Learning Perl, an introductory book on the Perl programming language.  In it, I learned of the concept of TMTOWTDI -- "There's More Than One Way To Do It," pronounced "Tim Toady."  This is a concept where there is no standard way to write a routine in Perl.  Each programmer can write code that is simple or complex, easy to read or indecipherable.  It's their choice, and the creator of Perl embraced it.

As I'm (albeit slowly) releasing episodes of Random Waves, I'm aware that I'm following a pattern in audio making that's pretty standard -- the Transom / This American Life / The Moth method, if you will.  Interesting characters, stakes, and reflection.  Mind you, this is a home run method of radio making.  There's a reason why it's taught and copied over and over.   It works and it works well.

However, I'm concerned that what I'm making is the same old stuff that some many better producers are putting out there.  And I wonder, how can I compete with the likes of Stephanie Foo or Nick Van Der Kolk or David Weinberg?  Right now, all I am is another wannabe who uses Blue Dot Sessions.

I've been thinking about a successor podcast to Random Waves.  A podcast that will have a much more niche appeal.  I remember hearing about Hillary Frank's The Longest Shortest Time, and how insanely popular it was from pretty much the get-go.  Now, part of that is of course due to Hillary Frank's skill as a producer, and from what I've heard, part of that is due to her great network of friends (she publicized the new podcast only really through a mailing list of about 100 people).  But I'm sure some of here success was due to having such a great niche -- the trails and tribulations of being new parents.

So what will be my niche?

I was reading the following passage from Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run tonight...

Friends, there's a reason they don't call [playing music] "working."  It's called PLAYING!  I've left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas... It's a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night...

When I was really young, I didn't have an imaginary friend.  I had an imaginary TV audience, and I was the presenter.  I remember to this day how my fourth grade teacher laughed when I acted as a judge, complete with an imaginary gable banging on the bench.  By the time I got to middle school, I self-stamped out the desire to perform, but it's been showing its head here and there ever since.

In 2012 I think, I saw This American Life live in a movie theater (it was a live show simulcast across the country).  Ira Glass was doing his show opener thing, where he told a story using tape from an interview.  He cued each bit of tape himself, using some sort of controller.  But what was really interesting is that he added a bit of flourish to his arm and hand movements as he pressed each button.  Going from a purely audio to a combined audio/visual performance, Ira added something visual, in a way that was a nod or wink to the audience -- he's really good at storytelling in that it's an art form, so why not telegraph it using flourishes? (You can see a brief second of this here)

Now, I'm not proposing starting a live show.  But I'm thinking working my podcasts like a live show may not be a bad idea.  Instead of painstakingly editing my narration and tape together, why not perform it "live" and put that to tape?  Take an iPad and maybe something like Abelton Live????   If anything, it will emphasize the non-scripty sound I'm trying to have.

Well, in any event, it's something to think about.  I am thankful that Ira Glass wrote about his live setup on Lifehacker, and another producer more recently wrote about his experiences.

What I Think About When I Think About Soul Brother No.1

This morning, I arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida, for work.  I'll be teaching two jet engine classes down here this week.  And as this is the first night of my stay, I was doing my typical ritual of ironing all my clothes for the week, or at least as much of my clothes as I have patience to iron in one setting.  To make things go easier, I watched Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown as I worked.  I really wished I had the wherewithal to watch Mr. Brown perform live before he passed.  That man's moves were truly amazing.

Also, I'm currently reading Born to Run, the Bruce Springsteen autobiography.  Although I'm not a big fan of his music, I really respect Springsteen as an artist.  I listened to his interview on Fresh Air and was really impressed by how he reflected on his craft.

I'm fascinated by the really successful people.  Those that are skilled enough and practiced enough to make their craft seem effortless.  I'm thinking now of a former lead guitarist of the regional band Spiritual Rez.  This is a Boston-based reggae/rock band that would play over at Sully's Pub in Hartford once every four or six weeks back in the day.  The first time I'd saw them, their lead guitarist was a really, really short guy with long-ass blonde dreadlocks and beard.  He looked straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie.  He sported a golden guitar -- not solid gold, mind you, only gold-colored sparkling finish.  I remember him shredding ferociously during this one song -- absolutely pouring a ton of energy through his instrument.

I wanted to be a guitar player in that moment.  So badly, I wanted it.  Now, I have four, yes, four guitars at home -- a Yahama acoustic, a Fender Squire fat strat, an Epiphone bass, and a warped, unplayable no-name Guitar Center house brand electric.  I also have enough equipment to record my own albums at home: mics, converters, software, and so forth.  But I can't really play anything.  I can noodle OK-ish, but that's about it.

What happened?  The answer, I suppose, was no discipline.

If there's a common thread between The Boss and Soul Brother No.1, it's hard work and discipline.  Both of these artists honed their craft over hours and hours of hard work.  You can talk all you want about talent and natural ability, and I'm sure both men have that in spades, but you can't get around the hours put in.

Years ago, I was at a party thrown by a couple in their house.  I was interested in the girlfriend, though of course I wasn't going to do man up anything about that even if she wasn't living with someone.  But that didn't stop me from going to their party.  The boyfriend played in this jazz/jam trio, and I watched play in the basement that night.  I told the guy afterwards, I want to play music, but I don't have the discipline to practice.  He told me, "Maybe you don't practice because you don't like playing music.  Maybe you just like to listen to music."   That response ticked me off a bit.  I mean, how dare he question what I liked and didn't like, am I right?  

Well, it's been ten years, and I still haven't consistently practiced any instrument.  I do listen to music all the time, however.  I guess that proves who was right after all, eh?

When it comes to this podcasting and radio story making, I wonder if I've set myself up in the same situation.  I'm not consistently putting out stories.  I do, however, listen to podcasts all the time.  I've begun to worry if audio making is just not what I want to do, like really deep down.  Is all this a waste of effort?  I mean, if this is what I love to do, then I should be doing it every single day, like Bruce or Brown, right?

But, then again, I'm not exactly disciplined in any part of my life.  So maybe I'm not "practicing" as much at audio making simply because I've never consistently practiced at ANYTHING, EVER.  So maybe it's just a matter of learning to develop this discipline that comes in really handy at becoming great at something.  I don't know.

In any event, that's the kind of stuff I think about when I'm ironing clothes for the week in a strange hotel room.

(As a side note, not being disciplined at all is a theory that would explain a TON of stuff in my life over the years.)

They're EVERYWHERE!

Listeners to episode 6, “A Different Medium,” will know that I originally intended to make that story for the 24 Hour Radio Race put on by KCRW’s Independent Producers Project.  I was supposed to create a four-minute story over the course of 24 hours.  Instead, I created a ten-minute story over the course of two weeks.

Despite the fail, I was very happy to put a new episode out.  This was the first real episode of Random Waves since last November.  I’m talking NINE MONTHS!  That’s an incredible hiatus.  And hopefully it will unleash the floodgates on several new episodes that I have in the hopper.  I do think it will.  One thing that this experience taught me is that I can avoid one of the most grueling tasks in creating audio stories – tape transcription.  I absolutely hate transcribing tape, and it takes me sooooo long to do it.  But for “A Different Medium,” I skipped all that and just picked out bits in my tape based on listen-throughs.  Much more efficient.

That was a lesson learned from this experience.  But there is something else that will stick with me from the day of the race.  In the week before, I had already figured out that I would be using the roast battle for my story (at least, it was in the top three story ideas – but it was the most promising lead going in).  In the first two hours of the Radio Race, as I was grabbing lunch and getting my first interview lined up, I skipped over two other great story leads that came out of nowhere.

The first was an older couple who were laying what I believe was irrigation pipe for the very large company I work for.  There they were, two folks from a literal Mom & Pop outfit, laying irrigation pipe on a Saturday in a deserted parking field for a large corporation.  It may not sound like much on paper, but the scene looked like there would be some good tape from these two.

The second was a guy I’ve known about for years, and just happened to drive past that afternoon as well.  There is this old truck driver who lives near where I work who is one of those continual yard sale types – always having stuff for sale at the curb, always sitting out in front of his house.  This is a guy that is waiting for someone to listen to what he has to say.  Again, maybe not so great on paper, but I could have sat with him all day, collecting tape and helping him try to sell his stuff.  Trust me, I could have made that work.

Going into the Radio Race, I was so worried about not figuring out story that I pre-planned a few leads the week before the race.  However, within the first two hours of competition, I stumbled across two great leads just by driving around thinking about stories.

It just goes to show you – story leads are EVERYWHERE.  You just need to be open to them.

HowSound, Digested

When I started Random Waves, I new very little about audio storytelling.  Nowadays, I know slightly little more than that, but I was certainly helped by the HowSound podcast from transom.org.  Promoting itself as "the backstory to great radio storytelling," each bi-monthly episode examines a radio story or producer to figure out what makes a great radio piece.

I started binge-listening to HowSounds a while back, and I discovered some great producers and shows through them -- Between the EarsDeath, Sex & Money, and Love + Radio, for example.

As I'm gearing up to create new episodes of Random Waves, I wanted to make sure I was crafting better stories than before.  So I began to REALLY listen to HowSound, as in study each episode and take notes.  Lots of notes.  Over 40 pages of notes covering HowSound episodes ranging from July 2011 to October 2013.  It was a lot of listening, and a lot of good listening at that.

Now, as useful as 40 ages of notes of good audio storytelling might be, it's not exactly easy to swallow in one go.  So I'm digesting all those notes to a few more-or-less universal rules that Rob Rosenthal seems to hammer down again and again through various means in his show.  Here they are, in no particular order...

  1. Go for the weird.  In all things, don't go for the conventional.  Find interesting characters.  Find places that are unique.  Explore narratives that are different.  Don't sound like every other show out there.
  2. Connect to the universal.  Produce a story that will be relevant to everyone -- not just today, but also 100 years from today.  I think it was Robert Krulwich that said that radio is a powerful medium because the listener helps produce the story.  To achieve that, the listener must have stakes in the game.
  3. An audio piece is a new piece of music.  A lot of producers create a story and then tag music onto it for extra effect.  The better producers think of the narration, quotes, and sounds as a part of the music.  Edit them together as one.
  4. Be confident.  Own your story.  Be in control of your interviews.  Be confident on tape and in narration.  Geek out on tape for the subjects you geek out on.  Show your emotion.
  5. Show.  Don't tell.  Interesting stories take place in the active moments.  Don't rely solely on narration and quotes.  Get out in the field.  Collect sounds.  Collect active tape.  Do stand-ups.  Paint a picture with sound.

So, now, all I have to do is go and produce.  I'm currently up in Maine for a week for work, which means I have a few nights alone in my hotel room ahead of me.  No better time to paint with sound, I should think.   Wish me luck!

I Learned Something New Tonight!

I'm currently doing something that I don't normally do -- take two weeks off straight for vacation.  For me, I tend to take one week off, go somewhere, and then it's back to work.  This time, I padded on an extra week following my treasure-hunting trip out to Montana.  (No, I didn't find the treasure).

So, I have a whole week to do whatever, which means it's work on Random Waves time!  I've got three interviews this week to cover three upcoming episodes.  Two will be in-person (thank you, Connecticut libraries!), while one is going to be over Whatsapp.

Now, I barely know how to use Whatsapp, and I certainly don't know how to record a phone interview.  Transom.org, usually a helpful site for audio making, was a bit short on the grittiest of details with their article on recording equipment for phone interviews.  So, I was left to figure things out on my own.

The good news is that I'm now able to record a phone conversation directly into Logic.  The even better news is that I had all the equipment needed on hand already!

Just in case you're curious, in the photo above you can see my setup.  I record to two tracks -- one for me and one for the phone.  For me, the signal flow goes: Microphone => XLR cable => Presonus Firestudio Mobile 1st combined input.   For the phone, the signal flow goes: Whatsapp => iPhone 7 => Lightning to Headphone dongle => 1/8 inch TRS to 1/4 inch Guitar cable => Presonus Firestudio Moble 2nd combined input.  From the Presonus, a firewire cable goes to a firewire/thunderbolt dongle and into my MacBook running Logic Pro X.  Each signal goes to a separate track, and the are recorded simultaneously in mono.  I can adjust the levels of each track on the Presonus, and I need to make sure I am loud-enough on the cell phone at the other end -- I have no audio feedback of my voice from the iPhone speakers, so I don't know how loud I come through to the other person.  You don't think you get that feedback when you make a typical cell phone call, but I certainly noticed it when it was absent!

So this is one of the cool things that happens when you start making audio pieces.  You get forced to learn new equipment or techniques to produce a story in a new way.  I wouldn't have bothered with this technology otherwise!

Cool beans.  Indeed.

No Other Way Around It

There was a nationwide screening this evening of the film 1984, and I watched it on the big screen for the first time ever.  Beforehand, there was a preview for Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film about a legend in American culinary history.  Both movies affected me.

When I first watched 1984 as a much younger Chris Hall, I became depressed about how Smith's spirit was broken.  This time around, I wondered if I should be doing something.  Not the "resist" something that's en vogue right now in wake of the election.  I mean like for things that are not first world problems.  I once asked a coworker if he felt his activism was all for nothing, if the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth.  He replied that the pendulum starts to turn the other way due to activism like his.

There was two or three seconds of the preview for Jeremiah Tower that affected me just as much.  Tower said that if he's got his mind onto something, no one better stand in his way.  I've been fascinated for a while now about successful people.  By that, I mean people that are so good at what they do that other people take notice.  I believe you get there through persistent, hard labor.  I've never had the discipline to do that.  How long has it been taking to get the next episode of Random Waves out?

If I want to create something beautiful, if I want to create something with impact, if I want to be taken notice of, I've got to work.  

I Wanna Be Nate DeMeo

Tonight marked the return of Syllable: A Reading Series, where local authors read a sampling of their work.  The crowd there numbered about twenty-five, some of which I know are writers, and the rest I suspect are.

I do not consider myself a writer like these folks.  True, Elysha Dicks described me as "and now he's becoming a writer" one night at a Speak Up show.  But the writing I do is only for this blog an my podcast.  And it's beginner's writing at best.  Suffice it to say, I'm not in their league.

But as I was listening to -- or, rather, trying to listen over the din of the restaurant behind us -- Ciaran Berry recite some of his poetry, I recalled some of my favorite parts of Nate DeMeo's The Memory Palace.  I know precious little about Nate DeMeo, mostly because I'm too lazy to Google him, but I imagine that he's a poet when he's not producing podcasts.  Or at least he reads poetry a lot, and attends reading like tonight's.  The Memory Palace is full of imagery that is evocative.  It's beautiful.

It does fly into the face of some of Rob Rosenthal's advice on writing for the radio -- in particular, you're not supposed to describe too many things.  The audience can only hold so many descriptions of things in their heads at one time.  And The Memory Palace is chock full of things, and glorious things at that.  In a podcast where rich, beautiful audio clips are impossible to get (it's a podcast about moments in history), Nate DeMeo's rich language paints the audio clip for us.  

So where does that leave Random Waves?  Well, recently, I scrapped my latest draft for the upcoming episode "Snickers and Sprite" for being nothing like I would want.  Nothing like the great podcasts I listen to.  I'm currently reworking the structure to incorporate some interesting sounds I want to put together to let the listener sense what waking up with multiple sclerosis would be like.  That would be a move to make this podcast more European in flavor, I think.  The language... well, we'll see what I can do.  I think in the meantime, I'll start listening again to my favorite episodes of The Memory Palace, just to see what I can pick up in terms of style.

I also want to eventually submit my podcast writing to Syllable.  I'd like to get to a point where I'm podcasting little, beautiful essays supported by rich, beautiful audio.  This would get me excited.

Angry (at) Birds

When I got home from work tonight, I was greeted by two squirrels arguing with each other.  They were both young and, I suppose, new to the neighborhood.  And as young, tough squirrels are apt to do, they were going about claiming their respective trees as their territories.  All well and good, except that apparently the two trees were too close to each other.  A back-and-forth of angry squirrel calls ensued.

I stood their in my driveway a few moments to listen, when all of a sudden it hit me -- I have a field recorder.  I run inside, search high and low for my field kit, and scramble to get the furry exchange on tape.

It was too late, sort of.  Only one squirrel remained when I came back outside, but he was proclaiming his victory with several calls.  So I recorded the little dude in the tree across the street.

To my surprise, the tape was rather worthless when I listened back to it.  You see, there was a songbird nearby, calling on top of the squirrel.  It turns out that the recording is dominated by the bird, so as a squirrel recording, it was a mistake.

But mistakes are opportunities too, right?

I set about trying to mix the songbird out from the squirrel recording.  Now, I'm no expert at mixing, and it shows.  I wasn't able to take out the birdsong... But I was able to take out everything else!  Without realizing it, I recorded a songbird instead of a squirrel.  Here is a bit of the recording -- first comes the raw tape, followed by the isolated songbird.

I guess there's a few field recording lessons here.  First, listen to the environment before pressing record.  Second, it's easier to isolate a strong sound than a weak sound in the mix.  Third, stay open to possibilities.

Well, there you go.

Steps

WNPR's Chion Wolf once had a feature article written about her in the Hartford Courant.  I'm not sure why -- as far as I could tell, there was no show, book, or other product necessarily being promoted -- but I do remember line from the story.  She worked hard on her voice skills.

With the first episodes of Random Waves, I see all the bad things.  All the things I need to work on.  So many things, it seems, that I never begin (see yesterday's blog post).

So with the spirit of a twelve step program, let's list and acknowledge the faults that I should work hard on.  Each of these I can certainly work on like my almost-nightly crane folding sessions (again, see yesterday's blog post).

  1. Speaking well during narration.  I have lots of reference material to learn from -- all the podcasts I listen to now!
  2. Creating my own incidental music.  Freesounds.org only goes so far, and I happen to have a ton of musical instruments within six feet of where I'm sitting as I type this, so...
  3. Finding the stories.  I thought I was supposed to get all Stephanie Foo on this already!
  4. Asking interview questions with the story in mind.  This goes back to episode 5 of the Out on the Wire podcast, where Robert Smith and Zoe Chase discuss how being on-point with prepping to do a story, and always moving with the story in mind, gets you the tape you need.  This is about me prepping more.
  5. Mixing the episodes better.  I know some concepts of mixing, but there's so much I don't know.  You could combine this with #2 above.
  6. ACTUALLY GETTING DOWN TO EDITING WORK!  Chris, stop blogging and finish the next episode already!!!!!

Cheers.

Paper Cranes

I've been procrastinating.

This shouldn't be a surprise for the long-time reader and follower of Random Waves.  My last episode was, like, around Thanksgiving, and that was a "thank you" mini-message at that!  It's not like I don't have a story, either -- I've got a partially-completed episode about my friend Loki on my laptop.  All it needs is to be narrated, edited and released!!!

I honestly can't say why I haven't finished the episode these past few months.  I'm holding back for some reason, but what that is, I'm not sure.  I feel that stress is the root of all procrastination, so I suppose that's it.  Stress from my teaching schedule, maybe.  Stress from my Toastmasters schedule, maybe.  Stress from trying to start storytelling on stage again, maybe.

...

This month, I started again to attempt to fold 1,000 origami cranes over the course of one year.  I started on March 5th, and I've got 73 folded cranes so far.  The first few dozen cranes were wacky -- mis-folded and misshapen.  But I kept at it, figuring that I'd eventually get better.  At around the 50th crane, I watched a new how-to video and learned a slightly different way of folding them, and that got me better results.  I'm sure by the 500th crane, I'll figure out a slightly better technique of folding, and so on.

My first episodes of Random Waves are my first cranes.  I need to get to my 50th episode to fold a better podcast.  Or something.

I started working on the latest episode again, albeit a little bit here and there.  More to come.

This European Life

Remember when I accused This American Life of being formulaic?  We can put that behind us now.

I was listening to the TAL podcast of episode #611 (Vague and Confused) and during the 28th/29th minute, something unusual happened, at least for this show.  They all of a sudden became a European radio show for a few precious seconds.

In the scene, producer Sean Cole is introducing to the audience that he's on the island of Ni'ihau, which up to that point the audience is told is private property and isolated without modern conveniences.  He does this by first playing a recording from Ira Glass' voicemail.  Sean is on the voicemail explaining that he's on the beach at Ni'ihau, and in the middle of the message, the sound of the waves comes up and Sean's audio morphs from the voicemail to the in-person recording he made of himself making the phone call.

My explanation may not do this scene justice, but how it sounded was like the listener was transported from Ira's office (the modern world) to the preserved historical world of Ni'ihau, in a sort of time traveler/science fiction sort of way.  As part of the illusion, Sean's voicemail voice was distorted and bit-crushed as it transformed to his clear recording.

I've been listening to This American Life since 1999 or so, and this is the first time I've ever heard anything like that on this program.  It was somewhat Radiolab-like, though not quite as heavy-handed.

I've been also listening to HowSound, Rob Rosenthal's podcast on making great radio.  It's introduced me to a handful of radio pieces coming out of Europe, which are different than the American podcasts from this current Golden Age of Radio.  European podcasts tend to refrain from explaining things too much, and they also rely on interesting sounds to make a statement.  In my ears, Sean Cole's time traveling moment was a bit European.

A number of TAL staffers make appearances on HowSound and transom.org, so I wonder if they're listening to the same stuff that Rob Rosenthal is introducing me to, and I wonder if, like me, they're interested in doing something other than the straight-up present-a-scenario/surprise-the-audience/reflect-on-the-outcome formula that, while it works so damn well, has been what's for dinner for a while now.

It's interesting to speculate about.

The Fallacy of Sound

Last weekend, I decided to wander around BlueBack Square and West Hartford Center with my recording field kit.  This was a followup on my thoughts from my last blog post, and an earlier post on the art of being a flaneur.  I wandered around, looking for interesting sounds to record.

The hunt wasn't fruitful.  BlueBack Square, being essentially an outdoor shopping mall, pipes in (errr... pipes out??) pop music from little speakers in the street.  Outside BlueBack, the soundscape is dominated by traffic -- which is to say it's dominated by the sound of rubber tires rolling across asphalt.  And even if I did find something interesting, my shotgun mic would not be up to the task of isolating it from the background.

But all was not lost.  I ran into J Holt while walking back to my car in defeat.  J produces the occasional radio piece for WNPR, and I invariably turn all of our conversations to either storytelling or radio (honestly, how can this guy stand me sometimes, am I right?).  We got to talking about recording sound on the street and that turned to the ethics surrounding background sound.  J related to me this story from Transom's Rob Rosenthal, via the SALT Institute...

A producer recorded an interview on a street corner one summer day.  That winter, he realized he forgot to record background audio from that corner.  So he went back and recorded his background audio on a winter day.  Same street corner, same equipment, same time of day.  No problem, right?  Well an astute listener heard it on the radio and cried foul.  He recognized a winter bird chirping in the background of an interview taking place in the summer.  Talk about "fake news," am I right?

So here's a story touching on the ethics of producing radio stories.  Don't go grab canned sounds from some website to sweeten your story.  Don't use sounds from one recording session with an interview with another recording session.  Don't create a fake soundscape.  Don't lie to your audience.  Simple enough, right?

But is it really that simple?  I mean, do radio producers really follow the equivalent of Dogme 95 with their stories?  The answer is of course not.  Producers routinely take a recorded interview, edit their questions out of the conversation, and then record narration at a later time to edit into it.  Back-and-forth interviews are routinely held over the phone, but you'll never know it because a second producer is recording the conversation at the interviewee's end.  Room tone is used all the time to link narration and source tape.  These are all lying to the listener, in their own ways.  Heck, pre-recorded music is used all over the place to sweeten source tape for emotional effect.

On the more extreme end, did you know that most, if not all, of the sounds of big sporting events like the Olympic Games are mixed together from actual sounds from the event and pre-recorded sounds?  You can listen all about it at the BBC, rebroadcast on 99 Percent Invisible here.  (As stated previously, this particular documentary is one of the audio pieces that truly moves me whenever I hear it.)

So the listener is being lied to all the fricken time in this golden age of radio.  Not to deceive, mind you, but rather to enhance the experience.  One of the goals of a radio producer is to produce a piece that's magic to listen to.  To transport the listener to the world of the story.  An interesting soundscape can do just that.   Done correctly, and the listener doesn't notice what is being used to transport him or her.  Done incorrectly, and you get a nasty call from an irate ornithologist.  

So where are the ethical lines, actually, when producing soundscapes?  Let's say there's a story on the U.S. president.  If canned audio is used int he piece, but it doesn't affect the story's conclusion such that the listener is not changing his or her mind about the president as a result of the inclusion of the canned audio, is that OK?  If you're watching a gymnastics competition on TV, and the audio producer mixes in sound from contact mics on the balance beam, sounds that are really there but you normally wouldn't hear, is that OK? (That last example actually happens, by the way).  

These are questions I'm now considering as I'm producing Random Waves episodes.  I think this might push me to make more artistic pieces in the end, rather than straight-up reporting.  

Reconnecting with What Moves Me

There have been two moments when listening to podcasts where I had to stop for a moment and marvel at what I was listening to.  The first was This American Life's "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," which actually got me wanting to tell stories on stage in the first place.  Mike Daisey is a masterful writer and storyteller.  The second was "The Sound of Sports," brought to me via 99 Percent Invisible.  This BBC production uses amazing, AMAZING bits of sound taken from various sports -- mics taped to a gymnastics balance beam, or placed on the ground of an archery range, or with to coxswain on a skull.  Both of these pieces are, to use Daisey's words, "a kind of magic."

Now, at 2AM on a Friday night/Saturday morning, I can add "Jump Blue," produced by BBC 3's Between the Ears, to that list.  It approaches the sport of free diving by having an actress narrate for Natalia Molchanova, a record-breaking Russian free diver who was lost during a dive in Spain.  For a long stretch, the narrator describes the sensations during a 101 meter dive, followed by a narration of her final, lost dive.  The performance and the accompanying musicscape made for a meditative experience.  I literally was there with her during that dive.

Incidentally, I'm not the only person affected by this.  I learned of it via Rob Rosenthal's amazing HowSound podcast.  His episode on "Jump Blue" can be found here

I've been struggling getting the latest two episodes of Random Waves out of the hopper, and I was hoping that a sleepless night would at least get one closer to being done.  But then I heard "Jump Blue."

With these first episodes of my podcast, I've gravitated away from something akin to Everything is Stories (non-narrated immersion into a story) towards something akin to NPR's Morning Edition (straight-up reporting of events).  It is certainly easier to do straight-up reporting.  No music to create or find.  No creation of complex soundscape.  In and out in five minutes flat (or so).

But it's not art.  There's no immersive experience.  There's no meditative moment, or as Rob Rosenthal calls it, transportative moment (where you're transported to the scene, as with me and the free dive).  And, as I've stated in a previous blog post, I want art, not money.

I'll finish up these next two episodes as per my original idea.  But the following episodes... I'll have to figure out how to make a more immersive, meditative soundscapes for them.  I think I'll need to experiment much, much more.  

There's a podcast that HowSound tuned me into a while back -- I forget the name of it.  It was another European producer ("Jump Blue" is by Spaniard Nicolas Jackson), and it was all about sound.  It featured in one episode the producer sitting in a snowbank on a cold night and simply listening.  I unwittingly tried something similar during a long trip to Columbus, Georgia last summer, when I recorded some cicadas in the trees at my hotel's parking lot.  The audio was a bit crap, but maybe I should continue doing stuff like that -- keeping my field recorder with me and simply recording what moves me.  Learn how to record more amazing sound.

Perhaps this is a change for Random Waves.  

My Podcast Makes Me Think

Thanks to fellow podcaster Emily Prokop from The Story Behind, I started organizing myself with a bullet journal -- basically a flexible system using a hand-written planner.  In my journal, I've started a list of ideas for future episodes of Random Waves.  At the top of my list is an idea that's been fascinating me for a while now.

A friend of mine who is jobless and homeless is currently traveling around the country on a quest to start legislation to help young adult cancer patients.  I'm fascinated with his story because people who know him and follow him are strongly divided in their opinion of what he's doing.  Some people support him.  Some tell him to stop asking for donations and get a job.  And throughout all of this, this guy keeps going and going, and is slowly making progress.  I myself would have quit long ago, and I think most of the people I know would have to.  So, this guy fascinates me.

But when I bounced this podcast idea off another friend of mine last night, his reaction was unfavorable.  While there were other parts of his argument, he also noted that this guy should not rely on donations and pick himself up by the bootstraps, so to speak.  I agreed with him on this point, noting that if I ever found myself out on the streets, I'd immediately work to get myself back off said streets.

But then, on a long drive earlier tonight, I listened to Radiolab's podcast episode covering On the Media's series on media myths surrounding poverty.  These five episodes, of which I've only heard a sample of so far, examines various assumptions we have about the poor.  There were two points that hit me with regards to the "get a job" / "bootstraps" argument.

The first is that poverty is extremely difficult to move out of, at least in our country, because it is expensive to be poor in the first place.  As James Baldwin noted, "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor."  Finding examples of this should be easy to do with some simple Google search, so I'll let you do that as a homework assignment.

The second point is that pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps is only valid if someone actually has the proverbial pair of boots to begin with.  Using myself as an example, if I were to somehow end up on the streets, I've got a slew of family and friends to help me out.  I've got a full wardrobe and a car to find a new job with.  I have a masters degree to fall back on.  I have the color of my skin and a lifetime watching PBS to help me get in doors.  Don't buy it?  Go ask the Reverend Dr. Martin Jr. King, Jr about it.

I'm not sure at this point what the above info means towards this particular episode idea, or how I'd approach this friend of mine.  But I do appreciate how working on Random Waves has got me thinking about issues like this.  We are nothing if we stop learning and growing.

P.S.  Yes, I find it ironic considering my last blog entry that I appreciated a listening recommendation from Radiolab about a sister podcast at WNYC... I've got nothing more to offer on that, LOL  

Another Brick in the Wall?

When I produce a story, the first thing I do after collecting interviews is to transcibe them.  I'll listen to the tapes, little by little, and type out the interview into a Word document.  From there, I'll plan out the story structure and cut the raw audio into clips which I'll rearrange Frankenstein-style into my final piece.

Transcription, the process of writing out the interviews, is a long and slow process.  Painfully so.  An 60-minute interview can take me weeks to finish transcribing.  It's absolutely horrible.

So when Transom.org, the go-to site for NPR-type audio production, published an article on tape logging and transciption, I was all ears.  Or eyes.  Whatever.

It's an awesome article, featuring ideas developed at Radiolab, Snap Judgement, and other great shows.  But I noticed something down the article a bit.  The Radiolab method was spreading out to other shows, like Reply All and Invisibilia, because former Radiolab interns who did the transciption work branched out to do their own shows.  It made me think about the connections between various shows...

  • ... I discovered Radiolab, The Moth, The Truth, 99 Percent Invisible, and Planet Money through This American Life
  • ... Planet Money is a co-production of TAL and NPR News
  • ... Moth veteran Elna Baker now scouts stories for TAL
  • ... Invisibilia and More Perfect branched off of Radiolab
  • ... Snap Judgement and 99 Percent Invisible have producers in common
  • ... It appears that ex-Planet Money's Chana Joffee-Walt might end up replacing Ira Glass should he ever retire
  • ... Many of the above shows appear to all come out from either NYC or Oakland
  • ... Jessica Abel did the rounds with most of these shows for Out on the Wire
  • ... Transom has interviews with staffs from most of these shows

That above list may appear to be the beginnings of a conspiracy theorist's manifesto, but it points to a bit of groupthink I may have trapped myself into.  About seventeen years ago or so, I started listening to This American Life.  Over the years, TAL introduced me to several different shows.  I started listening to them, and then started listening to other shows those new shows presented.  Over time, it appears that there's this group of maybe 50 producers and other production staff that I listen to through their podcasts, and they all know and work with each other from time to time.  Maybe 50 is too small an estimate, but holy crap, my listening experience is apparently a bit insular!

(Keep in mind that all these podcasts are top notch.  And all have their individualities.  Jad Abrumand's use of sound differs from Leon Morimoto, but to me, the basic ideas of what makes quality audio seems to pervade all of these shows).

Now, I do pepper my listening on occasion with some other work, like Random Tape and Everything Is Stories.  And HowSound does feature up-and-coming producers outside the NYC-Oakland vortex, though these folks come out of the Transom Story Workshop, which teaches elements of this style of storytelling.

But I wonder if I need to take a break from the NYC-Oakland vortex and start listening to other folks outside of it.  And start looking for writings of producers who aren't part of what might be some sort of assembly line.

Everything is Stories is the podcast that captured my imagination enough to take this plunge with Random Waves.  Well, this episode and this story from the BBC.  I first heard about EIS from an OKCupid date.  The date wasn't great, but the podcast was.

Maybe I should go on more OKCupid dates.

Y'all Can Keep Your Tote Bags

I've started transcribing the interviews I recorded of last weekend's protests.  I figure I can make this the next episode of Random Waves fairly quickly (sorry, Loki, I'll get to you, I promise!!!).  And because I hate typing out interviews, I bought a copy of ExpressScribe Pro to make it a bit easier.

The purchase made me think about money with this podcast.  As you may know, I don't advertise on my episodes.  Nor do I have a Kickstarter page or anything of that sort for this.  I started Random Waves because I wanted to express myself through storytelling, and I love listening to the type of podcasts that I'm trying to emulate here.  It's not about money.

But every once in a blue moon, I wonder about it.  Could I turn this into a side business?  Make up for all that I've spent on this hobby.  Buying a field recorder, a shotgun mic, cables, software, etc.  Paying for a website domain.  Paying for parking at the airport.  Maybe even turn a profit?

When I do a Google search about podcasting, I seem to find two very different groups in this field.  There's the transom.org/Third Coast/public radio set, where it seems money comes from a combination of advertisements for Audible and outright begging for donations in the guise of getting support from "listeners like you."  These are the people for whom audio pieces are an art form and salaries are scanty (unless your podcast is called Serial, I suspect).  Then there's the podcasting-for-business types, for whom audio pieces are a tool to market their products.  I suspect their salaries are equally scanty, though they all tend to fake it until they make it.

I'm coming to this from the angle of audio as art form.  I would be awesome to produce pieces at a public radio station for a living, if only they would pay me as much as my day job does now.  I don't believe that's the case, sadly.

And so, I'll continue doing this as my unpaid hobby, which will benefit you all, as I've no plans to add advertising to Random Waves anytime soon.  It does also mean you'll get no sweet, sweet tote bags either.  But hopefully, eventually, you'll get some sweet, sweet audio art.

Always Have an Escape Plan

This blog is all about my trials, tribulations, and triumphs with creating the Random Waves podcast.  This is my first attempt at producing audio pieces, so of course I'm going to make mistakes along the way.  I'm not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them (unless, of course, I would look like a fool for doing so).  Today was one of those "learning experience" times.  Well, rather, it was a reinforcement of something I should have remembered...

Last Saturday night, I recorded interviews at the travel ban protest at Bradley Airport.  It was only after I had gotten home that I realized I had made a rookie mistake.  I forgot to record ambient sound.  Ambient sound is important for interview pieces, because it allows you to edit in narration without it being too jarring.  You can layer the ambient sound under all the other clips to make them appear to have been recorded together in one spot.  It's part of the magic of audio production -- tricking the listener into thinking that everything is happening right there in front of them, just as they hear.

Now, I can always find some copyright-free ambient airport sound clip to use for my piece.  That's actually easy to do.  I did it with street noise for my Primal Scream episode.  What was more egregious was that I realized I also never recorded the protest itself.  Now, it was a silent protest, in that there was no chanting.  But there were some interaction between the protesters and arriving passengers, which would have been great to capture.  Now, I could try to recreate that, but that would be pushing things a bit.

Thinking about this problem, I came up with a nifty solution.  It just so happens that a larger, more organized protest was happening at the airport on Sunday afternoon (a few hours ago).  What I could do is go back, record the ambient I missed last time, and then record the chanting of the new protest.  No, I wouldn't use the chanting to characterize Saturday's protest.  But I can use that audio to introduce the contrast as to how quiet Saturday's protest was.

Brilliant!

I stayed at the Sunday protest until it died down and people started going home.  I packed up, went back to my car in the parking garage, and promptly waited in a line of cars that was not moving at all.  Having dozens of protesters all leave a five-story parking garage at the same time is NOT a quick process.  In desperation, I parked again, went inside the terminal, and sat with a coffee and doughnut for a half-hour while the traffic dissipated.

As a podcaster, I'm interested in big events to cover (sometimes).  I know I should never park where everyone else is parking.  Of course that leads to sitting in non-moving traffic.  Better to have a long walk than a long standing in line.

Rookie mistake.

Ethics and Podcasting

There's an episode of Rob Rosenthal's amazing HowSound podcast that discusses the ethics of getting too close to your subject for a particular story.  In Rosenthal's example, a story producer stays in the same motel room as her subjects.  While this allows her to get an amazing bit of audio at a critical moment, it certainly blurs the lines for someone who is supposed to remain objective for the story.

I was thinking of that episode earlier tonight outside of Terminal A of Bradley International Airport.  I was thinking of the blurred line when I turned off my field recorder and picked up a protest sign.

It all started with a few posts that came across my Facebook feed.  Two Iraqis are being detained at JFK due to Trump's executive order.  There are calls for protests at all the nation's airports.  There's a protest going on a Bradly RIGHT NOW.

If you remember my previous blog post where I almost interviewed a member of the Ukrainian parliament, then it won't surprise you that I saw the opportunity for an interesting, topical podcast episode.  I threw on a scarf and coat and rushed out the door.  Fortunately, a few weeks ago, I packed my "field kit" (field recorder, headphones, and mic) in the back of my car for just such an emergency.

It started great.  I got a few good interviews from the crowd of protesters.  But there was only about fifteen protesters in all.  I knew other people were on their way, maybe coming in fifteen or twenty minutes.  So I decided to hang out in the background and wait for more potential interviewees.

And there I was, standing ten feet behind the protest line, recorder and microphone limp in my hands.  The only person not holding a sign.  I felt like an outsider, or worse, like a vulture as I had felt when I covered the primal scream in Hartford

And so I rationalized.  I've got a lot of issues with Trump's policies.  I feel that barring all citizens of certain countries is un-American.  All I'm doing at this moment is standing here doing nothing.  Look, there's a ready-made sign on the ground right there.

Did I do anything ethically wrong?  When I produce this episode tomorrow, will I be writing it differently from what I would write if I never joined the protest?  Would the interviews I took after I put down the sign have been any different?  (Yes, I returned to being a podcaster later on.  Hello, blurred lines!)

Right now, at 1:30AM on a Sunday morning, a few hours after the protest, I think I did do wrong by joining in.  You either report, or you don't.

I'm still going to produce the episode, simply because I like the idea of recording for posterity events that may otherwise fade from the public's memory.  The whole reason for starting my podcast was to document the Colt Park Shrine, after all.  But I'm going into this knowing that my reporting is probably going to be a bit un-objective.

Well.... I am doing all this to learn.  So there's that.