HowSound’s “Kohn”

The HowSound 11/2/11 podcast “Kohn” is a story within a story. At its core is Andy Mills’ original radio story about his friend Kohn, who as a boy severed his spinal column after being struck by a car. After waking from 5 months in a coma, Kohn’s speech was damaged. He vocalizes everything very, very slowly – but oddly, he hears his own voice at the same rate of speech as everyone else. Andy Mills tells Kohn’s story, using music and the making of music to reveal Kohn’s strength of character.

Rob Rosenthal tells Andy Mills’ story — how Andy migrated from recording music and adding stories into those musical pieces to creating audio stories and adding music. Rosenthal, interviewing Andy Mills, discusses Mill’s evolving style. Rosenthal also asks Mills about the techniques he used when he hired musicians to score the story of Kohn. The musicians had to work around Kohn’s very slow, drawn-out speech pattern which isn’t inherently musical or even pleasant to listen to.

I loved Andy Mills’ underlying story of Kohn. It is honest, inspiring and heartwarming. I like the characters – and how the characters evolve and learn about each other through recorded audio interactions. The pace is perfect.

I also love Rob Rosenthal’s efforts to dive into the production process and understand the techniques and tools used in good storytelling.

Sure-handedness

How Sound’s 10/19/11 podcast covers the concept of “sure-handedness” to enhance the quality of an audio story. The term refers to one of 3 key points that John Biewen (Audio Program Director at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies) gives to students of his audio storytelling clinics. Basically, the idea is to follow a clear, logical progression of ideas that move your listener through the story line. Biewen says his advice is not designed as a formula, but rather it should serve as a gut-level guideline that keeps stories interesting and moving but still allows for surprises and and twists along the way.

The strongest point in this Podcast was How Sound’s dissection of an audio story to demonstrate the points discussed. In addition, How Sound’s Rob Rosenthal describes his own organizational techniques in producing his audio stories.

This is good stuff – applicable to many forms of storytelling.

Tony Schwartz – Audio Artist

In 1999, Kitchen Sisters produced an amazing radio story for NPR called Tony Schwartz – 30,000 Recordings Later. A replay of this radio story is re-presented in Saltcast’s 7/14/08 Podcast entitled “Knocking the Rust Out” (available on iTunes – I can’t link to the Podcast here).

Tony Schwartz was an agoraphobiac (one who has an abnormal fear of being in open spaces) who lived his life in a very small section of New York City: basically a few blocks neart his mid-town apartment. Schwartz recorded sounds all around him, chronicling such things as taxi drivers, children playing games, salesmen, city sounds — whatever interested him (and it seemed most things did interest him). Some of the sound pieces Schwartz recorded, rebroadcast in this 1999 essay, are absolutely amazing. For example, Schwartz recorded a two-minute “time series” of his niece from birth to age 14 when she died, and this two minute portrait takes the listener from sounds of the girl crying as a baby thorough learning the alphabet to growing into young adulthood. I was captivated with these sounds: I felt I was reliving the everyday experiences that Schwartz captured so simply. I really felt I was listening to someone from the grave. I listened to this recording twice, back-to-back. You may too.

Schwartz developed a global network of people also interested in sound recordings, and he exchanged audio recordings with his friends around the world. Schwartz’s audio collection came to hold 15,000 recordings collected from around the world. He said, “Voices and music of the world came into my apartment in New York City, and I travelled no further than my mailbox.”

This is an astounding audio portrait. I would highly recommend the 24 minutes to listen to it completely. You will be struck by the humanity and curiosity of a man who, despite his personal limitations, built a world out of his intense passion.

“Splash” by Rich Halten

I really enjoyed Rich Halten’s audio story “Splash” – the story of a suicide bridge jumper who survived his ordeal. It’s well worth your time to listen to this recording, originally produced for Public Radio.

Rich was kind enough to answer some questions I posed about his work.

Q1. On your website I see 2 pieces on Vietnam and 2 pieces on Latin/Spanish themes, plus some other stuff. How do you come up with ideas for your stories and is there any underlying connection between them all?

Halten: While I always have my antenna up for stories, there aren’t that many that stick — that make my socks roll up and down. But when a story does, it usually doesn’t let go — even if it takes months or even years to complete. Usually an obsession with a story comes from a personal connection. For example, the two pieces about Viet Nam are probably due to the fact that I was in the service during the war there — though not in Nam itself (I was lucky enough to be stationed at American Forces Radio in Germany). As for the Latin/Spanish flavored pieces, that’s simply because my wife is a college prof of Spanish and I usually tag along when she travels to Spain or Latin America, using the opportunity to produce some kind of audio

Q2. It looks like it takes 6-8 months to put together an audio story. How does that break down between dreaming up a story, planning, recording and editing?

Halten: Well, all I can say is it takes as long as it takes. For example, the piece called “Splash” that was featured on the Transom site. The inspiration came in 2007 when a chum from college told me about a mutual friend who was murdered by his ex-wife. She then drove to The Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, jumped and survived. I’d seen plenty of coverage of people who died jumping from that bridge, but little about those who leaped and lived to tell about it. That got me started trying to track down a small group of survivors. Zero results. I finally found one guy who would tell his story. Fortunately he told it brilliantly and with nothing held back. Then it was contacting and recording counterpoints to his story in the form of people who deal with Skyway Bridge jumpers — fire/rescue EMT’s, suicide hotline counselors and a guy who publishes a web site chronicling jumps from the bridge. Working off and on — including editing and mixing — it took three years from the initial idea to finished product.

Other stories take far less time, so there’s no real time frame to produce one.

Q3. Can you describe your production process?

Halten: I don’t start the textbook way. That is, after recording all my interviews and location ambiences, I don’t make a detailed transcript, like radio courses teach. I have pretty good memory of the interviews I’ve recorded, including the best comments and what would make a good opening or closing statement. So I just jump in, doing what I imagine a sculptor does: chipping away at the material until a shape begins to emerge. As it does, two important parts of the post production process come into play.

First, I prefer a piece to be self-narrated — meaning the characters I’ve interviewed tell the story instead of the traditional voice of a narrator. That format takes longer because you’ve got to assemble all the pieces so that it makes sense without using a narrator for transitions and to move the story along. Second, because strong sound design usually plays a big part, I spend lots of time searching for music, sound effects and archival audio that will enhance a piece.

Q4. You’ve produced work for AARP, public radio and other venues. Do you line up a place to air your work prior to beginning? Or do you produce the piece and then contact various places to see if they’re interested? (Sorry – I know nothing about radio production and how that all happens.)

Halten: Here again, I’m kind of a renegade. The traditional route for independent public radio producers is to pitch an idea to a program. If the program gives a green light to start, the producer works closely with a show’s editor right up until completion.

I’ve tried that and didn’t have much success. Which is why I just decided to produce pieces my way and then try to find an audience. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant. It’s because I’m older and don’t have the time, or patience, to take baby steps up the ladder like somebody in their 20’s.

Of course, this pretty much excludes me from mainstream NPR shows. But I’d rather produce the stories I like the way I want, even if means they’re exposed to fewer ears.

Okay, in the name of full disclosure, I confess I’m able to work like this only because I’m semi-retired. And while I do make some money from work that airs, I don’t rely on it to make a living. For me, first and foremost, it’s a labor of love.

Q5. What type of gear do you use for your audio stories?

Halten: Various digital recorders with flash memory, such as the Sony PCM-10, which isn’t much bigger than a deck of cards. I put everything together using Pro Tools software on a Mac.

The affordability of equipment is one of the reasons I love working in radio. I always had a fantasy of directing and editing a film. With radio I don’t need a truck full of expensive equipment, a crew and deep pockets. I can fund it and do it all myself.

Besides, I started in radio at age 16, working after school and weekends as a DJ at my hometown station. Now, after a long career in advertising, I see what I’m doing as coming full circle. A return to my radio roots.

Q6. Plans for future audio stories?

Halten: I’ve got some germs of ideas, but nothing that’s going anywhere at the moment. However, if anybody you know has had a bad experience with the prescription sleep med Ambien, please email me at ambiendreams11@gmail.com

SAME Cafe – Project Notes

I’m starting a project to profile two owners of SAME Cafe in Denver, Colorado. SAME Cafe stands for “So All May Eat”, and offers high-quality, nutritious food on a “pay what you can” basis. Brad and Libby started SAME Cafe 5 years ago and are passionate about their restaurant and the community that they’ve built around that restaurant.

Jennifer at my day job lead me to the SAME Cafe when I enquired about interesting people working in the non-profit sector who might be interested in posing for a photographic portrait. Jennfier told me a little about SAME Cafe and suggested that I contact the owners. Brad and Libby were very accessible and willing to pose for a portrait; we had a great time one afternoon punching out a couple of versions where I could test some strobe lights.

I was intrigued enough with Brad and Libby’s restaurant to contact them again to see if they’d be up for a “video portrait”. I want to try out some editing techniques that Ed McNichol outlined in CreativeLIVE’s online workshop “Vincent Laforet: Introduction to HDDLSR Video.” Doing a quick profile of the SAME Cafe sounded like a good subject for that test. McNichol has developed a methodology to efficiently edit an interview video. I’ll describe the process in more detail in a later post, but basically it involves first building a “radio cut” of video sequences, focusing exclusively on the audio storyline, flow and pace, and then overlaying visuals on top of that audio foundation to build up the visual quality of the final production.

Step one was to record some interview segments. I scheduled an appointment with Brad and Libby to record audio and video interviews about the origins and motive behind setting up SAME Cafe. I used my Canon T2i to capture video (I was really only looking for an introductory head shot to introduce both Brad and Libby as narrators), and my Marantz PD661 with a lav mic to record separate audio. In this first session I recorded about 35 minutes total audio recording.

I’ve just submitted the transcription job out for bid on Elance. Although transcribing 30 minutes of recorded audio wouldn’t take too long, it would be just another thing to do. I also want to line up a transcriber who can help with future jobs and take that element off my plate.

Next up: Ed McNichol’s approach to building a “radio cut” as an audio foundation.

SoundWorks

Okay, granted this SoundWorks website is over-the-top for my purposes, but I just stumbled into a VERY cool website on Foley sound used in movies. Take a few minutes to browse through behind-the-scenes “film sound profiles” of various films. The profiles illustrate how sound is created for Hollywood films.

September 11th in Multimedia

In remembrance of the 9/11/01 tragedy, here are a few resources reflecting that experience in imagery and sound.

Sonic Memorial Project

The Sonic Memorial Project is an online archive of audio recordings commemorating the World Trade Center, organized by NPR’s Lost and Found Sound. More than 50 independent radio and new media producers have contributed more than 1,000 audio pieces to this ongoing project. You can hear some sample story recordings at http://www.sonicmemorial.org/sonic/public/stories.html

The September 11 Digital Archive

The September 11 Digital Archive preserves the history of 9/11 digitally, with email, stories, digital images and audio recordings.

The New York Historical Society: Remembering 9/11

NYHS’s Remembering 9/11 exhibit offers some online videos of people recalling this event. Additional video remembrances are located at Voices of 9.11 Here Is New York.

How Important Is Good Sound?

Here’s an example of an interesting story brought down by poor audio. Ben Watson’s “Plastic Fantastic” Soundslides project is decent, the images are solid, but the narrator’s voice is poorly recorded. The listener strains to follow along. This is particularly true because the narrator speaks English with a strong accent. The audio is further undermined by background music that sometimes overshelms the narrator’s voice.

Plastic Bag Recycling in Cambodia

Contrast the first Soundslides project above with Kelly Creedon’s “We Shall Not Be Moved” project created using the same Soundslides software. Creedon profiles Ken Tilton’s struggle to maintain his home in light of massive medical bills encurred by his partner. The audio is crystal clear. The audio clarity allows the listener to pick up emotional nuance in Ken’s voice that, along with the images, supports the storyline.

Audio Critique

New Blogsite Feature: Audio Recording Gear Reviews

I’m starting an area on this website (click the “Multimedia Storytelling Resources” button above) that will house various lists and resources. I’m starting off with a list of sites that review audio recording equipment (microphones, digital recorders, etc). I’ve found this information particularly difficult to locate on the web. Recording equipment can be complicated and expensive. It’s not easy to locate information on gear particularly suited to recording for multimedia projects (most sites covering audio recording are geared toward musicians).