Edit: Send It to the Basement

So here you are with a jumble of sound you’ve recorded, or that somebody has. Now what? How are you going to turn this mess into a story, into an “audio piece?”

If a solution jumps out at you the minute you hear the tape, you’re lucky. More likely you’re trying to work by formula. Rules, templates, and recipes save time. They can save having to think at all. For example, here is a template common on shows like All Things Considered:

Narrator: Flibermigibbits are controversial.

Expert A: Flibermigibbits are bad. I’m against them etc. etc.

Expert B: Flibermigibbits are good. I’m for them etc. etc.

Narrator: The controversy rages on.

See how the template takes precedence over the tape? If Expert A had said “Flibermigibbits? Who cares?” you’d have to toss the interview and find another expert to say what the template wants. Of course not all formulas are this crude. And it’s true you can’t play tennis without a net, baseball without a bat. The trouble is that if you stick to the rules of the game you’ll never stumble on a new game. Your story can’t go anyplace unexpected. Your tape doesn’t get the opportunity to speak for itself. You’re done before you start, really. How much fun is that?

In the Dark

Okay, let’s say you’re willing to take a chance on surprising yourself. You’ll be working in the dark for a while. Is there a formula for this?

4D chess over basement, by Scott Edmonds
“Pretty soon you’re trying to solve problems in four-dimensional chess. You can’t do it. Your brain doesn’t work that way. So what do you do? Thank goodness, you can… Send It to the Basement”

Well… yes, sort of. Start by listening to your tape. More than once. This is a pain, especially when you have a lot of tape, but there appears to be no way around it. In the first Matrix movie Keanu Reeves found a way to inject facts directly into his brain lickety-split; but that was in the future. For now, do whatever you need to do to get familiar with your audio.

Some people, at this stage, like to log everything. I find it’s hard enough just listening to tape without writing it down too. Maybe an occasional note will be enough? Suit yourself. Only remember that your notes aren’t capturing tone of voice, pacing, ambience — all the things that make audio different from print. You’re going to edit with your ears, not your eyes.

While you’re listening, throw out your bad tape. No use getting familiar with that. Is a voice hard to hear because it’s way off-mic, or distorted because it’s too close, or blotted out by a passing truck? Chuck it. If you’re in doubt (what Jane says is neat, but that little dog keeps yipping) maybe hang on to it for the moment. You don’t want bad lighting and a shaky camera if you’re making Citizen Kane; on the other hand, if you end up shooting The Blair Witch Project, that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

Be sure to toss the boring bits, though. Never mind if they’re on point and technically perfect and you went to a lot of trouble to record them. If they sound boring, they are.

In the Back of Your Mind

Naturally you’re not listening to your tape for no reason at all. You intend to make a story out it. So while you’re listening you’ll likely have a bunch of questions running around the back of your mind. There’s no official list. Here’s what I find myself wondering:

Is there an opening? My preference is to lead with the best cut of tape I’ve got. Something packed with suspense, at any rate. Why on earth would listeners stick with you if you don’t grab them at the beginning? It’s easy to quit listening or turn the dial. Here are two examples:

Listen to “Edit: Send It to the Basement”

How could you ignore this weird blend of eroticism and religiosity? You don’t know who it is or what’s going on, and above all you don’t know how to take it. The narrator jumps in to set the attitude, also to let you know you’re about to hear a first-person story. If you listen to the whole piece you’ll realize the Archangel isn’t really the beginning of the story, chronologically. You don’t have to start at the beginning…

Listen to “Edit: Send It to the Basement”

Surely Scott Carrier has better tape on hand than a panting dog? He does. So why start with the dog? Is this going to be an animal story? Is the producer just plain incompetent? This is plenty suspenseful. The narration that follows doesn’t tell you why the dog comes first, but it does tell you the piece is going to be a “scrapbook.” Scrapbooks aren’t stories in the usual sense. They don’t necessarily have a plot. You don’t have to have a plot…

Is there an ending? A big help to an editor. If you know where you’re starting and where you’re ending, it makes the route easier. Plus, without some sense of conclusion, or at least the illusion of one, audiences might find the whole journey pointless.

A clock can substitute for a plot. If your story is “A Day in the Life of a Boll Weevil” then you start at dawn — or whatever time weevils get up — and then it’s noon, and then it’s bedtime; and you feel like you’re moving in an orderly progression even if nothing tremendous happens along the way. A task (like fixing a car) or a journey (like driving from Maine to Chicago) or even the weather (a hurricane is coming) can be a clock. There are endless ways to invent clocks.

Pretty soon you’re trying to solve problems in four-dimensional chess. You can’t do it. Your brain doesn’t work that way. So what do you do?

Is there a clock? Will there be music or sound effects? If you’re making a radio vérité documentary, the style is to use only the sounds you recorded in the field. I think if you do ANY editing at ALL you’re messing with the “truth,” so why not go whole hog? But what music, what effects? When? Why?

Will there be narration? It doesn’t happen often that your tape is totally self-explanatory. Normally you’ll want narration to set up scenes, turn corners, skip through time, and so on. But if you suspect you’ll need huge chunks of narration for little bits of tape, maybe something’s wrong with the tape. Or with the whole project.

Is something missing? Oh right, you forgot to record the part when the women mill around gossiping and cooking and cleaning while the men are out fighting boll weevils, and this is a big part of daily life. Too big a gap to cover with narration. Can you go back and get more tape? Or can you live with the fact that what you have is only a partial reality? Is that okay?

There are many more questions you could ask. I imagine different people ask different ones.

The thing is, they’re complicated and they interact with each other, and pretty soon you’re trying to solve problems in four-dimensional chess. You can’t do it. Your brain doesn’t work that way. So what do you do? Thank goodness, you can…

Send It to the Basement

Which is, of course, your unconscious. Lord knows if this is the Freudian id or not. It doesn’t matter. Take your sounds and your questions and your intention to make a piece, and dump everything in the basement. Let the guys down there work on it. All you have to do is stroll around picking daisies. Indeed, this is all you can do. It looks a lot like procrastination.

After a while — a couple of days, for me, sometimes longer — a message will come back. It may not be a perfect solution. But it will offer decent suggestions, along the lines of “Why not do this? Or try that?” Usually the message comes as a surprise: a gift, a freebie. You didn’t do any work at all. All you had to do was wait.

I’m not being romantic, I think. This really is the way your mind solves problems. The neuroscientist Robert Burton puts it this way in his book A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind:

“If you are stumped by a particular problem, such as recalling a forgotten name or figuring out the solution to a novel or a troubled relationship, you will often find yourself coming up with the answer ‘out of the blue.’ Though this seems unintentional, like a gift from your muse or a spontaneous intuition, it isn’t. Sometime earlier you had the conscious intention to resolve a problem but were unable to do so immediately. Your conscious intention was transported out of awareness and into your hidden layer [the basement] where it could work at its own pace, gathering together old and new inputs until it reached a possible solution. Only then did the answer appear in consciousness.”

What if the basement has nothing to say? It could be there is no solution. This happens. It might also be that your brain is starved for information — not about your tape, but other people’s. If you don’t listen to audio pieces you can’t have much notion of the possibilities. So listen. A lot. Feed your basement.

Down stairwell, photo by drosso23 - flickr

Artwork by Scott Bartolomei Edmonds (Smatter Inc). Stairwell photo by Damon Grosso. Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund for supporting this Transom Online Workshop resource.

Larry Massett

Larry Massett

Larry Massett is co-founder of the documentary series SoundPrint. He produced the Armstrong award-winning series The Challenge of China and Japan for the Annenberg/CPB Global Understanding Project. He has won an American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Award. He was previously an editor at Science News Magazine and The Washingtonian, and authored the Whitney Museum’s Centennial Exhibit audio tour.

More by Larry Massett


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  • zak rosen



    I love this, Larry. Just what I needed. Thanks for reminding me that radio thrives when it’s full of darkness and surprise.

    • yepi



      This is the meaning of the words, such as strength

  • Stephanie



    Thanks Larry – I agree – as I look up from the basement of the piece I’m currently in the thick of.

  • Johnboy Dublin



    This made complete sense to me on so many levels. What a great reassuring feeling for a student as I try carve out my career, thank you.

  • David



    Don’t forget that a non-trivial portion of the audience consists of people who find the “Mt Shasta” opening, or whatever it is, to be just noise. They will give it perhaps ten or fifteen seconds, realize that their intelligence is being insulted, and leave. Even if you think that it’s totally unfair of them to do so…

  • diane bock



    Thanks for this gem. I’m headed down the stairs right now…

  • Hotty Hotr



    Some excellent advice here. Don’t automatically think there are rules to radio. Maybe there are, and maybe you should follow them, but -possibilities- is what radio is all about more than anything. Rules? Maybe, sometimes. Possibilities? Always.

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