image of slave running away
Listen to “Runaway”

Runaway is a fictionalized recreation of a slave narrative. It’s meant to stand in place for those who fled and were unable to write or tell their stories. In some ways, it’s also my attempt to give voice to those who were unable to flee themselves, but made it possible for others to do so. I knew that I wanted my piece to sound like a movie — which meant I was going to have to heavily sound design certain parts of the story. It’s tricky to do that without it sounding cheesy or like you’re using obviously canned sounds.

To try to get around this, I actually captured some of the sound used in the piece on my own. The piece opens up with the protagonist running through the woods, but in order to create that scene realistically, I knew it would need to be a combination of sounds. The protagonist brushing against leaves, bushes, tree trunks, et cetera. So, I went outside and recorded myself running my hands over a bush from multiple sides and angles. I captured the sound of my feet moving through the grass. I recorded the sound of walking, running quickly, running slowly, and coming to a stop — so I could mix in the sound of hesitancy as he struggled to stay on path and know where to go. I also made sure to capture ambient sound of nature when I didn’t move. I would need this to really set the scene’s location.

During this scene he is also being chased by bloodhounds. I didn’t exactly have any bloodhounds on hand, so I stripped sound of a single bloodhound barking and then another bloodhound howling. I listened to lots of different dogs before I found the one I wanted. It wasn’t recorded terribly well, but it was recorded in a room that allowed the dog bark to echo. I wanted that reverberation, because it’s easier to make something sound natural after it’s been manipulated if it already has the quality of sound you’re looking for. Once I added reverb to their barks and howls, and stacked them on their own tracks to create the sound of multiple dogs, it sounded real and not like dog barks captured in a soundproof studio.

When beginning to layer this scene, I thought a lot about music and how it works. Especially jazz, marching band and concert bands. I’m a former band geek, but giant musical pieces are really just individual instruments coming together to separately create something larger than themselves. I guess I look at sound design the same way.

The first track I laid in this scene was the ambient track. I didn’t make any adjustments to how loud it sounded. I just needed it there as a guide. Then, on another track, I laid in breath sounds that I also stripped from the internet. Followed by the audio I created of running. After that, I placed the sound of the bush that I had captured on three different tracks. One track panned slightly left, the other slightly right, and one was in the center. This helped create the mental image of him running through dense southern brush.

To create a sense of movement, I used audio from an internet video of a gently flowing river. This slowly fades in from the right as the story progresses. There’s a point where he must cross a raging river, and I stripped audio from an internet video of a river swollen after a storm. As he moved closer towards the moment of crossing, the sound of the gently flowing river began to slowly fade down, as the sound of the raging river faded up. Both water sounds had their own tracks. The flowing river was panned slightly right and the raging river was left in the center.

I didn’t add reverb or adjust any sound levels until I had the sound placed correctly. It doesn’t matter how well it’s adjusted if the placement doesn’t allow the audio to sing. The bulk of my time on the piece was spent on the placement of the right sounds. Then I began level adjusting — which I closed my eyes to do. I’d adjust, back up thirty seconds from the place I’d changed the levels, and then listen through with my eyes closed until ten seconds or so after I made the adjustment before deciding if more needed to be made.

One of the most important things I think I learned was that it’s important to capture my own sound for the most realistic audio possible. It brings people into the created world, instead of leaving them listening on the outside of the created world. If that makes sense?

I didn’t reverb the water in the piece, but cool and random thing I learned: if you put reverb on audio of water moving, it will sound like natural wind. Like the breezes we hear on windy days, without it sounding like audio stripped from a windy mic.

Morgan’s Sonic ID

Listen to “Runaway”

I interviewed Lee Blake, who is the current president of the New Bedford Historical Society, while working on my final piece for Transom. I wasn’t able to use her interview in the way I’d initially hoped, but she was just so good, and had some many amazing things to say, that I couldn’t let the tape go to waste. I plan on using the tape in a project that I’m currently working on.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

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