A wet, watery “Lights out Listening” experience

21 Sep

Last night I had my second encounter with The Lights Out Listening Group – an aural  appreciation night where you sit in total darkness and listen to experimental, playful and interesting soundscapes and pieces.

Last night’s session had something of an aquatic theme, featuring a few submissions (or sub-missions?) from Nowhere Island Radio, a temporary arts radio station that broadcast for for days in four locations in Plymouth. Pieces included Rapture of the Deep by Mark Vernon, which captured/created the experience and sounds of scuba diving. Gordon Kennedy’s piece, “The Captain’s Rest” was based on a traditional English sea-song combined with underwater recordings made by colleague Gerry Kelly just of the English coast. You’ll find more details of their work here.

I’d submitted two pieces to the event, and co-incidentally the second piece, called “A Child’s Nightmare” had included my first ever attempts at underwater recording. I had used a normal microphone covered with a condom so that it could be immersed in water, but last night I picked up some tips from some of the other producers, who used hydrophones – a specially designed underwater microphone – to record their pieces.

These specialised bits of kit can be very expensive, thousands of pounds even, but Mark suggested I check out the website of sound artist Jez Riley French, who makes and sells his own affordable hydrophone and contact microphones. The later can be used to pick up sounds transmitted through solids.

He has certainly captured some strange and wonderful sounds with these simple little microphones. But after listening to these, to Mark Vernon’s piece, and experimenting with underwater recordings myself, what it most interesting is how hard it is to make a genuine under-water recording sound like an under-water recording. Mark, for example, added and synthesised many sounds to create his scuba-diving soundscape, because an underwater recording alone would not have included many of the effects that we would expect to hear.

As I am slowly learning, sound design is often it is not just about recording reality, but about creating it.

You can find out more about Lights Out Listening Group here, and follow them on Twitter here.


BBC radio work-outs – tips for music, texture and discussions

16 Sep

This week I attended three radio training courses with Ian Peacock at the BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. Ian could not have a more appropriate surname – the kind of radio he makes is colourful, creative, and bursts out of nowhere, demanding your attention.

The three sessions focused on different areas; how to create dynamic discussions, how to use music in radio to create mood or emotion, and how to add texture. I can’t share everything we covered in the sessions here, but I thought I should some of the key points from each. Feedback, links and more ideas would be very welcome!


1.Good discussions should have a shape and a plan, but there should be space for synthesis and dynamic exchanges between the participants. All too often discussions end up with the presenter talking to one contributer, then the next, then the next. Only when the different guests start to dialogue and connect with each other can something really exciting and unexpected take place.

2.Guests, and indeed the presenter, should play a role within a drama – goody, baddy, explainer, catalyst, fan, sceptic. Cast your guests as if you are casting a play – to illuminate and entertain.

3.Avoid the usual subjects when selecting guests. Think about gender, age, and ethnicity. Pick them as much for their passion, enthusiasm and clarity as their authority. Avoid guests who sound the same – it can be confusing for everyone.

4.Take some risks. Make sure you ask a killer question.

5.Be well prepared, but not inflexible. Make sure you get the presenter to follow up on new subjects, and not just stick to a list of questions. Often, you can do this with one word prompts on talk-back at the right moment.

6.Talk back – keep it to just a couple of words. Don’t speak over the presenter, and only at the start of a guests reply – if you speak near the end, they may not be able to pick up the thread of the conversation.

7.A good discussion should produce both HEAT and LIGHT. In other words, it should both illuminate a subject, but also (if it is to hold an audience) it should have some passion and human emotion in it.

8.Give your guests permission to interact, to become passionate, to engage with each other. Without explicit permission, without real encouragement, they will defer to the presenter as the ring-master and not interject (unless they are already the kind of person who does that.)

9.Once one-air, listen hard.


1.Choose a sound-world for your program, and let this inform your choice of songs. Don’t mix and match between different genres just because the lyrics are some how relevant to the subject of the program.

2.When listening back to a mix, listen on both large and small speakers to check whether the levels are right for most people listening on a radio (N.B. An old editor of mine always used to recommend listening back to their pieces in a car, or whilst doing the washing up, to give a realistic idea of the clarity.)

3.Voice-overs – try to let the presenter hear the music whilst they are doing a voice over, so that they can try to match the energy and rythmn of the music.

4.Experiment with different fades and beds. Try a sharp sudden fade (an edge.) Try a fade to black with a beat pause! Try keeping a very low bed under speech, almost at the subliminal level. If you have felt a song under though, ask yourself why it is still there – what purpose is it serving?

5.Think dramatically.

6.Say no to knee-jerk music which tries to ellicit a clumsy emotional response from your audience. They won’t thank you for it.

7.Cut the cliches.

8.Be curious about other musical genres.

N.B. Ian seems to have made it a mission to listen to all kinds of obscure musical forms, and played us recordings of Japanese gagahu folk music, German Schlagger music, Boogie-Woogie, over-tone singers, and even a music box cover of George Michael’s Careless Whisper. The point is not necesarily to like them all, but to be interested in the effect and mood that they create – it may well be that you want to make your audience feel tense, uncomfortable, or disorientated!

Useful Links:

Project Moonbase
Late Junction, Radio 3
Sound and Music.)
Radio Lab


1.Ian got us closing our eyes and playing with different objects in the class – playdo, bubble wrap, feathers, and even a moist slice of tomatoe! He says that you can make a program with these textures – wet, slimy, gloopy, sticky, poppy, scratchy… don’t be afraid to use adjectives to describe you you want your show to sound.

2.Think visually – this will give you a clue as to what sounds you might use. He often thinks of films with a certain look and feel, and that then leads on to a sound treatment.

3.Try multi-miccing a single recording to get sounds from different persectives simultaneously.

4.Never record less than 3 mins of ambient – you don’t want to have to loop it.

5.Experiment with bin-aural sound. Check out omni-sound.

6.Silence is very powerful – the radio equivalent of darkness.

7.Try experimenting with lo-fi sounds and technology – recording onto tape or through a phone to create texture or an effect.

8.Try a live fade, where you/and or guests move away from the microphone or sound source.

9.Don’t go for an experimental sound for it’s own sake – there must be an authentic reason for it.

“The sound must seem an echo to the senses” Alexander Pope

Sound design – a child’s nightmare & underwater recordings

10 Sep

I’m reading Sound Design by David Sonnenschein, a book which explores more creative, esoteric and philosophical approaches to gathering and manipulating sound. One of the many exercises in the book suggests that you gather five familiar, everyday sounds, each one with a different emotional significance or meaning, and then combine them into pairs, to create a new sound and a new meaning.

So, last week I gathered sounds from in and around my flat in Harrison Park – my three year old daughter sleeping (PEACE, VULNERABLITY, INNOCENCE), a train going past (TRANSITION, THREAT), and the wind in the trees in Harrison Park (PEACE). Some of these sounds I thought about gathering and went looking for, others I happened upon – the wind whistling through a steel bridge, for example, made such an eerie noise that it caught my attention (TENSION.)


I also did my first ever under-water recordings, using an excellent trick. You take an old/cheap microphone (you don’t want to risk a new one) and put a condom on it. Now you have a cheap way of doing an underwater recording. I dipped my new rig into the Union Canal, and picked up some unusual muffled effects, such as Steve cleaning out Zazou Canal boat, and the muffled hammering of nails as someone repaired their boat. But the most distinctive effects were to be be swirling the mic about in the water, or in the transitional moment when the mic moved between mediums – from air to water, or from water to air.

Back home, I further played around with the effects by dipping the microphone into a basin of water, and then playing old radio pieces out of the iphone into the water (yes, I put a condom on my iphone too. No, I didn’t break it.) That effects wasn’t particularly impressive, but the more pronounced effect of the tap dripping onto the water near the mic felt very much like a human heartbeat.

Now, the idea behind the exercise was to combine the sounds one by one, but like a crazed chef, I immediately started layer three, four, five of the sounds together, and quickly came out with something which had a powerful quality that spoke of childhood nightmares, or parental anxiety should ones child suddenly stop breathing in the night. The aquatic noises added a further layer of possible meaning – perhaps this was an unborn child? In which case the train could mean an arrival, or a sudden departure.

Since then, I’ve also tried some other combination of the sounds, though none have formed such a powerful synthesis. Either the sounds lent themselves to this arrangement, or recent events and parental anxieties emerged in the pattern I found in the sounds – like a kind of auditory vision quest.

Either way, the purpose of the exercise is to start to free yourself from clichéd approaches to your sound gathering and construction which you may have picked up in working life, and also to equip yourself with skills to create abstract moods and feelings, and  not just representations of reality as you find it. It’s an approach that I hope to explore more.

Do let me know what impression the piece makes on you, and perhaps share your own audio with me here.


The Third Coast Short Docs Challenge – Neighbours, bees and me.

12 Apr

UPDATE – I’m very pleased to announce that my submission to this year’s Short Docs Challenge was selected as being one of the top 28 submissions (and there were 180 sumbmissions from some of the best and most creative radio makers on the planet!)

The Third Coast International Audio Festival is an annual celebration of creative radio making that takes place in Chicago. Radio makers come from all over the world to take part, and this year I am hoping to be there myself. And every year, they issue a challenge – or an invitation – for radio makers to create short documentaries, on a specific theme, with certain conditions and caveats.

This year, for example, it’s all about neighbours. You need to make a feature that includes at least two of your neighbours, inlcude a photo, and the title has to include a colour. You have just three minutes to play with.

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Inspiring environmental radio from San Francisco – RISE

12 Apr

Claire Schoen from San Francisco is a radio maker whose work I’ve been aware of for some time. Claire is not only an amazing radio producer and storyteller, but also an educator who teaches long-form radio production in her regular “Soup-to-Nuts” and “Make  Scene” radio making courses, and who in the past has taught at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

I’ve been meaning to make it over to San Francisco for years to do one of her courses, but so far I’ve had to make do with listening to some of her great advice on audio verité on the Third Coast International Audio Festival website, and listening to the archive of her inspiring programs.

Earlier this year Claire published a series called RISE, about how sea level rise caused by climate change might affect communities around the San Francisco Bay Area. What I love about these program is the richness of the style. They manage to marry a focus on an important scientific subject with an interest in community and grassroots voices. They blend specially composed music with rich ambient sounds that transport you to a particular place.

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Joining the Radio Independents Group

12 Apr

It’s been a few weeks since my last blogpost – we’ve been moving house and without broadband for a few weeks – but I haven’t been idle on the radio doc front. Creatively I’ve been recording material for this year’s Third Coast Short Docs Challenge, which this year is all about interacting with our neighbours. And what better time to get to know your neighbours than when moving house? It so happened that one of my neighbours saw us loading and unloading the van, and asked us to help him out – moving his beehives. More about that story later.

On the practical front, I’m continuing to develop my knowledge of the BBC radio commissioning process, and getting as much advice and input as possible into how it works, what the different stations are, and the best ways to start pitching and producing as an independent. You may recall that a few weeks ago I met with Nick Lowe from Demus, a Glasgow based production company. Well, one of Nick’s pieces of advice was to join the Radio Independents Group, or RIG.

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Lights Out Listening Group

23 Mar

Hanging out in a dark room listening to experimental radio and audio may not sound like a good time. But I beg to differ.

Last night I had my first taste of the Lights Our Listening Group, a monthly event for audio aficionados at the Old Hairdressers in Glasgow. It took place in a sort of industrial looking room above a bar called the Old Hairdressers on Renfield Lane, with simple chairs and benches laid out, and a few tables with candles, and a program of what you will be hearing that night – perhaps around ten different pieces, split into two acts.  People enjoy a drink or two before the show, and then the lights go out, and you blow out your candles.

My ears had very little idea what to expect.

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Demus – my visit to an established production company

21 Mar

Last week I was lucky enough to meet Nick Lowe, the founder and director of Glasgow based Demus Media, a well established production company in Glasgow with 18 years of independent radio production. Nick was kind enough to give me some advice and help about pitching radio feature ideas to the BBC, and about some of the challenges involved.

Nick’s advice probably came down to six main points.

1. It’s all about the idea. If you have a great idea, and are passionate about it, it won’t matter if you’re not a big established production company, because there is such a demand for good original ideas.

2. Try to find something – a story, a character, or a presenter – that they want, and that only you can deliver.

3. It’s intensely competitive. And Radio 4 is the toughest nut to crack.

4. Personal relationships matter. You need to be known, or become known, to the commissioning editors. (Although refer back to point 1.)

5. Persistence pays off. Nick has sometimes spent years pitching a story before he has got it commissioned.

6. Collaboration is important.

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Useful books – Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger

5 Mar

I’ve had Michael Rabiger’s “Directing the Documentary” for several years now, but only recently really had the time and the patience to properly digest it. It’s not so much that it’s over six hundred pages, but more because Rabiger manages to pack so much useful detail into every paragraph that it rewards slow reading and absorption.

Although the book is primarily focused on documentary film, it’s been an important influence for me because it eloquently describes the ethics and spirit you need to cultivate in order to be a good documentary maker.

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New friends, new links

28 Feb

It’s sometimes amazing what happens when you create a new blog. Before you know it, you are making connections with people who share your interests, irrespective of geographical distance or time. I only started this blog last Friday, and already I’ve had a guest post appear on the Scottish Documentary Institute’s blog, and been contacted by the author of a very interesting blog about audio, called EarRelevant. And from that I’ve gleaned at least half a dozen new sources of inspiration and ideas.

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