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  • Anita Sullivan

Recording Radio on Location

I like the studio. It works. Why make life hard for yourself?

Studio microphone

There's nothing wrong with studio recording. Its a sound-proof, controlled environment. You can set the microphones exactly as you need them. You have an almost infinite library of sound effects and a state-of-art mixing desk. There's physical separation between the director, writer and sound engineer (in the booth) and the actors (in the studio). That means that until the Talkback button is pressed, the actors can't hear you discussing their performance. There's tea and coffee, perhaps biscuits. There will be a loo.

Meanwhile, out on location...

The forecast was wrong. It's windy and cold. You're working with intrusive seagulls, traffic noise, building work, buskers, dogs. It's playtime at the local school. You're under a flight-path. The actors need refreshments and a comfort-break. They can't keep their script-pages quiet in the wind. They're almost at the end of a scene, it's spectacularly good, when a man pushes past by shouting into his mobile. We're about to go for another take and.... it starts to rain.

Why oh why are we doing this?

Location gives you something else. Something you don't expect. You can explore the space with the microphone, track through it and take the listener with you on that journey of discovery.

Location changes performance. If you're talking across a beach, or physically walking through a dark and creaky house, your voice, breathing and rhythm changes. Yes, radio actors with good technique can achieve this effect in the studio, but it's a creative decision not a natural body-response. There is a difference.

From a sound-design point of view, reality doesn't really sound like you imagine. There's an anecdote about Douglas Adams recording 'The Hitchikers Guide'. The script required a blow with a 'sock full of custard'. So they obtained some custard from the BBC canteen, filled a sock, hit someone with it, and recorded it. It did not sound like sock full of custard. The distance between what you expect to hear and what you actually hear can be quite profound.

"Why am I on a bloody horse? This is radio!" *

It's a fair question. And the answer is... I can hear the size of the horse. I can feel how your body moves when the horse does, and how this changes your voice. I can hear its hooves scrape, hear it's breathing. Hear the way your voice bounces off the stable roof, over our heads. I can hear the weather, the hens nearby, someone using a yard-broom. You can't make this shit up, frankly.

'You people are mad!'

Another day, another play. We'd booked a little studio, but weren't restricting ourselves to being inside it. We'd already recorded one scene in the loo (a woman in a pub toilet uses a vet's octoscope to see if there's an alien a stranger's ear). Ten minutes later, we had actor on ladder up the outside of the building pretending to fix an aerial.

It sounded amazing. A three-way echo bounced off surrounding buildings. It was a beautiful audio panorama. Johnny Vegas had been watching us. He was recording 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (properly) elsewhere in the building. He asked what we were up to and I told him. 'You people are mad', he said and mooched back to studio-land, with a wistful backwards glance.

Sheep and Goats

Location recording isn't for every script and it isn't for every actor. You need to be reasonably hardy, able to think on your feet and get physical with an environment. Similarly, not every sound-engineer has the ability to run silently through a bramble-patch or deal with every flavour of unexpected. Yet, some stories demand to be told this way because....


This story is dedicated to David Thomas and Karen Rose, who are part of all these location stories and many more like them.

*To be fair to the actor in question, he was rather too famous to be doing his own stunts and it was quite a big horse.


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