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Radio Drama—How It's Done!

by John C. Alsedek:

Orson Wells records War of the Worlds, 1938

Ever wonder how a radio drama gets produced?

Well, the original SUSPENSE and other old-time radio shows were done something like this: once a script was decided upon, the casting was done—often featuring leads who were about to release a new film that they wanted to promote.

The cast gathered the morning of the broadcast, rehearsed, got notes from the director, rehearsed some more, broke for lunch in the early afternoon, and then came back that evening to join the Foley effects man and orchestra to do the show live on the air for millions. So that's how we do things on our revival of SUSPENSE, right?

Um, no. That’s not how we do it. AT ALL. Especially since I occasionally end up playing parts. *breaks out in hives just thinking about trying to do lines in one take*

First, the actual writing/casting process varies from episode to episode. I'm going to use as my example the original story "Duet," since that's the one I'm currently starting to edit. It's also a fun example because it's our first ep to include a 'fourth generation' SUSPENSE actor (I'll explain what that means in a moment).

The process for "Duet" began back in mid-January, when our Amy Pemberton (she's the computer "Gideon" on the CW's Legends of Tomorrow) emailed me to introduce her actress friend Fredericka Meek. I asked if the two of them would like to do an episode together, and they happily agreed. Amy had been introduced to me originally by her fellow Brit SUSPENSE-er Darren Jacobs . . . who had in turn been introduced by the source of so many of our voice performers, the fabulous Adrienne Wilkinson (Adrienne has been with us since Day One, so she's 'first generation'—see what I mean?)

Both Amy and Freddie are not just terrific actresses, but they're also accomplished singers. So we came up with an original story that not only stretched their acting chops, but also let them do a song. And that's where "Duet" came from—a story of a club singer who overhears the wrong conversation and finds herself in a situation where her only hope is a stranger who may be gunning for her as well. We set up a date to record at our home base, Melrose Music in Hollywood, and went from there.

On the day of recording, we arrived at 11a.m., just in time to head into the booth. In a more perfect world, we would do some rehearsals beforehand; however, given how difficult it is to mesh the schedules of multiple people without imposing too much on their free time, it rarely happens. Instead, we have a luxury that the original SUSPENSE and other old-time radio dramas didn't have: the opportunity to do multiple takes. The first take is normally more of a dress rehearsal, while the second (and sometimes third) are the "money" ones. But not always. Sometimes, we'll end up taking lines from take #1 if there's a problem with that line in the second/third take, such as a popped "p" or a turned page that shows up on-mic. But other times, the energy is just "right" on that first take! We do a couple passes through the script, and two hours later we've got our recordings. At that point, the easy part is over, and the mind-numbing task that is editing begins.

Audio engineers would probably be horrified to know this, but I do all our editing on an eight year-old HP laptop with a fried screen (it's hooked up to a desktop monitor), using a video editing program that's probably 10 versions behind the current one. Honestly, it's just familiarity that keeps me from changing to something more high-tech; I've done 80 episodes of SUSPENSE and two dozen other audio projects using this setup, and I don't want to take the time to learn a new system. The actual editing process goes something like this:

  • First, I listen to each take, making notes of potential issues within it—a flubbed line here, background noise there, whatever.

  • Next, I combine the individual tracks for each take into one track—replacing individual lines as needed.

  • After that, the layout process starts for each scene; the dialogue is laid out, with spacing/overlap added as needed, as well as sound effects such as footsteps and gunshots.

  • Then the dialogue/sfx track gets balanced—softer sections increased in volume, overly loud parts decreased in volume.

  • Then the dialogue/sfx track is finalized and ambient noise is added such as rain, wind, traffic noise, crowd muttering, whatever.

  • Repeat the process with the other scenes, and the episode is very nearly done. . . .

Now comes the part that’s actually the toughest for me: music cues and other compositions. Why are they tough for me? Simple . . . I’m not a musician! Oh, I can hear what would be a perfect piece of music in my head; but getting it into a tangible form can be like pulling teeth. And with an episode such as "Duet" that has an actual original song in it, the problem is compounded. Fortunately, I have a large library of musical loops that I can slice & dice, change the pitch and speed of, and combine in all sorts of ways. One of my favorite examples is how the ending of our 33rd episode, "August Heat," turned out—it’s darn near perfect, or at least as close to feeling like Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Herrmann as I’m ever going to get. Hahaha!

Anyway, once the music is done, I piece it all together (along with the intro and credits) and create a master track. Add the MP3 cover art, and an episode is done!

Thanks for stopping by! Next time, I’ll be talking about the original SUSPENSE. . . .

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