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Location recording for more dramatic radio drama

Radio drama has traditionally been the preserve of big, acoustically varied recording studios. This is still largely the case but location dramas are giving more scope for realism. Sound designer Eloise Whitmore talks about the benefits and the Award winning My Boy.

Drama is among the most technically demanding fields of radio production, equalled only by outside broadcasts. Traditionally plays have been performed in carefully designed studios offering a number of areas for different acoustics – dead, live and so on – and sounds, with carpeted floors, a gravel tray and stone slabs to create the illusion of real places and movement.

This long-established way of working was recognised during this year’s Sony Radio Academy Awards, held on 13 May in London. Studio-based plays The Resistance of Mrs Brown and The Grapes of Wrath took the Gold and Silver Awards respectively but the Bronze went to My Boy by Laura Lomas, which was recorded on location to give a greater sense of reality to the story of inner city isolation and anxiety.

Sound design for My Boy was by Eloise Whitmore, who was also involved in another nominated production, Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels (pictured, Whitmore, left, with actor-writer Maxine Peake). Whitmore started out in drama, working in the sound department of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, but in 1999 she joined the BBC, initially in News and Current Affairs.

Moving into drama production Whitmore started recording and mixing radio plays and has carried on with that, plus working on documentaries and features, since going freelance three years ago. She estimates that her workload is split 50-50 between the two disciplines, saying she likes the world of radio because it gives her “complete control of things”.

For drama Whitmore records on a Sound Devices 744 using Neumann RSM191 and Sennheiser MKH 418 microphones. On the news and features side she uses a Sony PCM-D50. This recorder has now been discontinued and will not be replaced, something she says she is “gutted” about: “It’s got a really nice sound with a lot of depth to it.”

Whitmore has a post-production facility at The Sharp Project, a media development to the north of Manchester City Centre. This houses a Pro Tools 10 system, Avid 003 mixing desk and a sound booth for single voice recording and Foley work. The workstation is loaded with “lots of plug-ins”; Whitmore says she “particularly loves Altiverb”, Audio Ease’s convolution reverb plug-in. When more studio space is needed she uses the facilities of music and audio post operation 80 Hertz, which is also in The Sharp Project.

In her drama work Whitmore comments that “as much as possible” is recorded away from the studio, explaining that “my thing is location sound”. This was the basis of My Boy, although, as with other productions, some effects were added in post. Whitmore occasionally uses library effects but always records wildtrack, something that has allowed her to build her own collection of sounds. “The first thing I do when I receive the script is make a list of wildtracks needed and record them, particularly where pets, children or vehicles are involved,” she explains.

My Boy featured a number of effects recorded as wildtracks, including police sirens, planes, children playing in the distance, bins being emptied and hen parties. Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels needed even more precision as it involved very specific makes of bicycle in the story of Beryl Burton, who dominated women’s cycle racing in the UK from the 1950s to the 70s and was still riding up to her death in 1996.

“I went to Coventry Cycle Museum and recorded the style of bike Beryl rode, particularly gear changes and the wheels,” Whitmore says. In much of her work Whitmore uses a pole-mounted mic like “a roving camera to follow the action” but with Beryl individual Rode lapel mics were used on each of the actors as they peddled away. Maxine Peake, who wrote the play as well as played Beryl, was, says Whitmore, “enthusiastic about trying different methods to create the best sound world and happy to experiment with lapel mics and different ways of recording until we found something that worked for both of us”.

Most of Whitmore’s work is with independent production companies and she comments that it is these that mainly favour a location approach: “Usually the reason comes down to budgets. Generally indies can’t afford the studios and internal overheads mean BBC productions can’t afford to record on location, as they’re paying for studios anyway. When I first started at the BBC in 1999 I’d say around a third of drama was recorded on location through Producer Choice.”

The cost production is always an issue but Whitmore hopes more location-based plays will be made: “I do think listeners are beginning to prefer the sound of location recording and this is being reflected in the plays which are nominated. Obviously good writing leads the way to which plays win and gain the best press coverage but with more people listening on headphones I think the location sound world can be more believable and enhances the listening experience.”