Can I tell you how much of a pain in the tuckus it was to record a simple sound — the sound of me walking up a gangplank? What I thought was a ten-minute job took about forty minutes instead. Ridiculous.
Let me paint the scene: It’s Sunday afternoon around 2 pm. I’m at a small harbor here in Woods Hole. There’s a wooden walkway — a gangplank — down to a boat dock. My plan is to walk up the gangplank a few times recording my footsteps. Easy.
I need the recording for a fictional radio story set in the 1800s. There’s a moment where the main character runs up a gangplank and onto a ship.
Here’s why it took so long:
First, the airplanes. Several flew overhead. There were no planes in the 1800s. I couldn’t have the sound of a plane engine in the recording so I hit the pause button several times.
Second, motor boats. There were no motorboats in the 1800s. Paused again.
Third, the wind picked up. It blew the halyards (ropes) on the metal mast of a sailboat. You guessed it. There were no metal masts on ships in the 1800s.
Then there was the guy who showed up to pump water out of his motor boat so he could go for a ride. Took him fifteen minutes.
When all was quiet and no one was around, I could finally record myself walking up the plank. But, then, I was confronted with a slew of questions.
Should the mic face my feet? Should it face forward? Should I record in mono? Stereo? How fast should I walk? Did I wear the right kind of shoes (fortunately, I wore hiking boots with hard soles; people didn’t wear hiking boots in the 1800s).
All this for a piece of tape just a few seconds long. I had a radio headache when I was done.
Why put myself through this torture? Well, last spring, Morgan Givens was a student at the Transom Story Workshop on Cape Cod. While he was here, Morgan produced Runaway, a piece of historical fiction about the underground railroad in New Bedford.
I have to say, it was an unusual story for a Transom student. Typically, students at the Workshop produce true stories because we teach documentary journalism. In fact, I felt out of my element having never taught this type of storytelling before.
As Morgan recounts in this episode of HowSound, he conducted a good deal of research about the subject to inform his storytelling. He told the story in the first person — a character named William, an escaped slave, that Morgan created from a composite of slave narratives. He also voiced other characters in the story, used sound effects from the web, and recorded his own sound effects. It was quite an undertaking.
There was one sound effect, though, that still bedevils him because he doesn’t think he got it right. It’s the sound of William, the ex-slave, running up a gangplank. He used an audio clip from the internet but despises it. So, as a gift to Morgan (and for HowSound listeners to hear the difference between what Morgan used and what I recorded) I mic’ed myself walking up the gangplank several times and then sent the file to Morgan. If he wants to, he can substitute the recording he doesn’t like with mine.
I discovered a lot in those forty minutes about all the variables that are involved in trying to capture such a particular sound. Indeed, I learned a lot from working with Morgan as he produced the piece. In the event another student wishes to produce historical fiction, here, in no particular order, are some questions I think the they’ll need to consider:
How real do the sound effects need to be?
For footsteps on a wooden floor, can you record on any wooden floor? As Morgan explains on HowSound, he was concerned with how sharp or muffled walking sounds were. In fact, Morgan went so far as to notice the sound of the wooden floor in an underground railroad safe house he toured and made sure to use a recording of footsteps that matched the sound of that floor. Should Morgan have recorded footsteps at that house to be even more accurate?? Or was what Morgan recorded good enough?
For scenes when William was walking in the woods, Morgan recorded himself walking on grass and leaves in the yard of the house where he was living. In hindsight, since the character was fleeing in the woods, is recording footsteps on a lawn accurate enough? Or, should Morgan have gone to the woods away from other houses and the lawn? The forest sounds very different than a suburban lawn.
How much acting is involved when recording sound effects? How can a producer get into the character’s mind so that the effects underscore the emotion of the moment in the story?
While Morgan, to some extent, eschews the idea, he was acting while he recorded the sounds of William walking and running. He paid attention to pacing; for instance. Morgan even considered how William might be feeling as he approached a river that might save his life and tried to express that feeling in his footsteps.
How much acting is involved when voicing?
Pulling off the voice of one character is challenging enough. What can be done to assure differentiation of voices for other characters? How much does the writing help with that? What about panning or EQ as a way to distinguish a voice? Or, should other people play additional characters? If so, how do you select them? How do they practice? Who will voice coach them?
Research? When is a producer fully informed enough to write a story? Does it need to be fact-checked? How can you fact-check something that’s invented?
Frankly, given all the considerations (and this is hardly a complete list), I wonder if producing a documentary using recordings of real people and real sounds is actually easier than producing historical fiction like Runaway!