Note: Multitude is a podcast collective and production studio. This piece is part of a ten part series by them to help you create a fiction (or any) podcast. Did you see Part five? Make sure you check that out and come back next Tuesday for Part Seven.
Props & Practical Effects
Props are a great way to give your fiction podcast a more authentic feel. Since you’re using them to record in the actual space of the scene, sound effects produced by props and actors will often feel more natural to the listener than something created digitally in post.
Also, using a prop for a sound effect can save you time and money. For example, it would take an incredible amount of time — and an incredibly skilled sound designer — to make it sound like your actor is ringing a gong. When you consider how much that process would cost, spending 25 dollars on a real, albeit mini, gong is extremely worth it. Plus, recording with real props is fun, and allows your production crew to get creative, which is good for morale and the performances of your voice actors.
Then there are practical effects, which we’re big fans of as well.
In the fiction podcast world, a practical effect is when you mic your actor acting out a movement, or an action, that their character is doing in the script. Like props, practical effects are cheap to produce and can help pull realistic performances out of your actors. For example, if the characters in your script are side-by-side at a bar talking glumly into their drinks, have your actors replicate that in the studio! Using a practical effect can be as easy as having an actor lie down if their character is prone on a bed.
Let actors eat while talking if the script calls for it. Have them mime texting on their phone if their character is verbalizing a text. And if they storm out of a room or yell through a door, use your studio door to achieve that effect.
Each of these requires a different mic configuration and blocking, so be sure to take note of mic setup and mic choices as part of your shot list and production calendar.
Speaking of which: what mics should you use to record your podcast? If you’re renting a professional studio, you likely have access to a wide range of equipment. You can choose condenser mics to capture dialogue, an ambisonic mic in the middle of your recording booth to capture total room sound and actor movement, and maybe even a binaural mic to capture the way we hear sound in the real world. This is what we used when recording Next Stop:
- Warm Audio WA-87 condenser mics for capturing the dialogue
- Warm Audio WA-84 stereo mics for stereo field coverage of the entire room
- Zoom H3 360-VR ambisonic mic for recording binaural (3-D) audio for the whole room. We ended up using a mix of this mic and the WA-84 for effects like crowds cheering, group booing, and excited mayhem after a proposal.
We spent about $2,000 on these mics. Since we own a studio that we also rent to other podcasters, buying these mics was an investment that made sense for our business. If we didn’t intend ever to use these mics again, we would have rented gear or gone with what we already had instead.
When it came to the recording software we used to record Next Stop, we went with Pro Tools. We started a new session in Pro Tools for each episode, and then used markers and a lot of precise labels within each session to keep our scenes and takes organized. To ensure nothing was lost from production, we saved between scenes, and backed up everything again after each four-hour session. We backed up our files both on the cloud and on two different hard drives. This might sound excessive, but you may only have one shot to have this combination of actors, production staff, and equipment. It is much less expensive to budget a few minutes for saving and back up during lunch than to re-record later.
Rather than give each of our actors a paper script to read from, we had them use tablets instead. Teaching actors to turn pages silently takes a lot of time, so in place of the old fashioned way, we sourced some old iPads from friends, family, and Craigslist. Each morning, we loaded the day’s script onto the devices, and attached them to mic stands, so actors didn’t have to hold the tablets while performing.
With all of our logistics in place, we had one last thing to do before production began: we had to make sure that everyone on the team was clear on their role. Clarifying tasks and job descriptions for each role is essential for making sure everything needs to get done, and that no one is left feeling like their toes are being stepped on. Here’s how our roles broke down when we recorded Next Stop:
- Engineer: Make sure equipment is functioning, switch mics between scenes if needed, run and monitor recording session
- Director: Set up actors before scenes, give notes after takes, decide when to do more takes and when to move on
- Script Supervisor: Make sure every word gets recorded as written and keep track of changes to the script if they happen. Also, keep the production on track time-wise and communicate with the director if there is not enough time to do another take.
- Writer: Listen to the actors’ performances and advise director if something sounds off-story or mistaken
- Executive Producer: Keep an ear out for how the recording as a whole adheres to the feel and mission of the show
- Line Producer: Keep track of schedule and adherence to union rules
- Studio Manager: Maintain cleanliness and comfort of studio and waiting area
- Production Assistant: Set up meals, restock snack and drink area, clean up after mealtime
As we had hoped, our production week went very smoothly! The actors finished on time, no one waited around between scenes for more than an hour, and — most important of all — the cast and crew had plenty to eat and drink. For each of our five days of production, we provided breakfast, lunch, snacks, and coffee/tea for 6-12 actors and five crew members. We had to do this because we were a SAG production, but also it’s a nice thing to do. Trader Joe’s was the most economical place to source our food, which ended up costing about $800 total, plus $200 for snacks and drinks at our wrap party. Buying in bulk from a high-quality but inexpensive store helped us keep our total spend well below what we initially budgeted. And everyone got addicted to Topo Chico.
Since we did not have the budget for a Studio Manager or Production Assistant, our Executive Producer took over tasks like setting up meals, emptying trash, directing people to the bathroom, greeting actors as they arrived, keeping the coffee/tea bar stocked, and managing the temperature of the room. In general, the hardest part of our week was keeping the recording booth cool enough. Our DIY studio does not have its own HVAC system, so to keep the office cool, we used a fan to circulate air into the studio between takes. If we had double the budget, this would have been a worthwhile addition, but instead we used a $25 fan and a regular window AC unit to keep the temperature manageable.
If the worst thing you can say about your production week is that the booth got warm, you’ve done well. Budget for some sparkling wine, toast with your actors after the final take, and then rest up for the next phase of making your podcast: post-production. More on that next Tuesday, but until then, be sure to catch up on part five for some tips on working with actors.
Note: Our production process began in January 2020 and this guide is written from our in-person perspectives. Many parts of this process can be done virtually for social distancing; although we emphasize the importance of having everyone together in the same room. Do what is right for your production and the health and safety of your team.