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‘My preferred type of drama sounds like a documentary’: Producer Eloise Whitmore talks recording on location

Kevin Hilton investigates Whitmore's radio portfolio, how technological advances benefit her work and why she records on location

Sound designer and audio recordist Eloise Whitmore has made her name in radio drama by recording on location for a greater sense of reality. Now, she has moved into immersive and object-based technologies. Whitmore fills PSNEurope’s Kevin Hilton in on how she uses these technological advances to support her writing and the scripts she works on…

There are sections of the media and public that view radio drama as old fashioned. This is largely because of the traditional production techniques of actors in a non-real world – acoustic with sound effects, discs of birds, cars, aircraft and spot effects, including rattling door handles and footsteps – to give a sense of reality.

That approach survives today, but there are now radio producers and technicians who are pushing existing and emerging technologies to produce dramas, documentaries and general programmes that can compete with cinema, TV and streaming, in terms of realism, excitement and creativity. Among them is sound designer, recordist and producer Eloise Whitmore, who specialises in recording radio drama on location and, more recently, has played a part in marrying creativity with new immersive and object-based formats.

The most recent is The Vostock-K Incident, which moves beyond the constraints of surround sound loudspeakers and allows people to listen on whatever connected devices are to hand. Whitmore said she likes working in radio as it allows her “complete control”.

Although now closely identified with audio broadcasting, Whitmore started out in theatre and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s sound department at Stratford-upon-Avon. The switch to broadcasting came in 1999 when she joined the BBC. Initially working for News and Current Affairs, she later moved into radio drama and documentaries.

After going freelance in 2000, Whitmore established herself as someone who took a different approach to the recording and mixing of radio plays. This was recognised in 2003 when two productions she worked on were nominated for Sony Radio Academy Awards. Both My Boy by Laura Lomas, which won the Bronze Award, and Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels, were recorded on location, which not only gave a sense of reality but also set them apart from the other winners and nominees.

Whitmore says she always tries to record “as much as possible” on location, starting pre-production by drawing up a list of wild track sounds specific to each production, to augment her own effects library and commercial discs. This approach has continued in the following years, although how much can be done in radio drama – both location recorded and studio-based – depends on how much budget both the BBC and independent producers have to play with.

Whitmore has moved from concentrating solely on sound to being a producer as well; she is managing director of Naked Productions, which is based at The Sharp Project, just outside of Manchester city centre. Built in the former warehouse of an electronics company, it was established to provide a home for media professionals, from solo operators to bigger companies. Whitmore has her own facility within 80 Hertz, a recording studio that offers a big, old-style live room, voice booths, ADR stages and a surround sound dubbing theatre. There are also several edit rooms and offices, which the founder of 80 Hertz, engineer/ producer George Atkins, always intended to be rented by other engineers, sound designers, musicians and general media types. “George runs 80 Hertz as a co-operative,” comments Whitmore. “It’s a great little community.” Whitmore has a room above the main recording studio, which includes a dead booth that is primarily used for Foley and sometimes record actors. Whitmore also uses other facilities when the production demands it. The audio for virtual reality animation Turning Forest, was recorded partly on location, using an array of Sennheiser MKH 8050s, MKH 20s and a single Neumann 191 on a boom, and in the multi-purpose audio studio at MediaCityUK. The spatial mix was performed in the listening room of BBC R&D’s labs and MCUK. The Vostock-K Incident was recorded at Low Four, a music studio within the old Granada TV studios.

Like Turning Forest, it used technology developed by BBC R&D and S3A, comprising the acoustics research departments of the Universities of Salford, Southampton and Surrey. The core audio foundation of the production is stereo, but objects are used to add additional dialogue and elements, and sound effects to the story.

Previous immersive and multi-loudspeaker productions have relied on specific arrays for reproduction, as with Turning Forest, or had to be heard through headphones or a streamed output on a computer. The aim behind The Vostock-K Incident, says Whitmore, was to allow people to start with a basic stereo set-up and add more elements through their smartphones, tablets or USB speakers.

“There are a lot of people who listen on 5.1 systems,” Whitmore comments, “but there are still a lot who don’t. The software we used was designed to allow them to listen on any type of device. As you plug in more devices, you get more of the story and effects. The system also tells you where to place your device, compensating for its quality so it still sounds like 5.1.” The drama was written by Ed Sellek, who created different layers for the story that are revealed as more listening devices are added. The basic premise is that a British pilot, Joe (John Herffernan), is sent to investigate the launch of a Soviet rocket, only to find himself in a time loop being attacked by a Russian fighter. Whitmore isolated Heffernan using acoustic screens to simulate a cockpit, miking him up using a standard LM mic in front and a lavalier on his cap. “I had a lot more mics than usual to get everything as separate sound,” she explains.

“Usually I set up my pole and record all the speech and effects at the same time.” Other recent work for Whitmore includes Amy Dorrit, a modern interpretation of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, produced in association with the Graeae theatre group, which features actors who are deaf or have other disabilities; the third series of Tumanbay, an epic set in an ancient empire; and Lorenzaccio, another period drama that takes place in Florence. For this last production Whitmore used a Italian sound recordist to record location audio in Italy. “If a play is set somewhere, I try to get it to sound as real as possible,” she explains. While Whitmore still sees a place for traditional, studio-based dramas, she will veer towards a more real world style: “My preferred type of drama is something that sounds like a documentary. And my preference is always for location recording, although, really, it is all about the acting and the writing. The creative side needs technology, but the technology should not lead.”