99% Extra – Mike Duddy

Mike Duddy is a freelance Sound Recordist / Post Sound Mixer / Audio Engineer, based in the North East of the UK.  His recent projects include working on ITV’s Beowulf, the BBC’s Dumping Ground, and on various feature films.

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Mike taught two sessions with our first year radio production students yesterday (where I lecture on audio production & journalism) on how to use boom poles effectively, and what to expect from a career in sound recording.

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So, the essentials.  “Being a boom operator is all about creative problem solving.”  Mike explained the art of being as discreet as possible whilst carrying out the role on set, whilst seeking the best quality audio possible.

“A little difference in space makes a big difference in sound, so you have to get as close to the dialogue as possible, without getting the boom in frame.”  They’re the very basic principles, of course, but the more you research and the more you practice, the more skilled you can become.  Down to memorising the spacial qualities of each lens being used.  That way, “if you hear a crew member shout out for a specific lens change, you’ll know instinctively how close you need to be.”

Mike asked the class what qualities they thought were essential to boom operation.  Second suggestion in both groups; being tall.  “Being tall is helpful, of course, but it’s not essential.”  What’s more essential to the profession is patience, steadiness, an ability to pick up scripts and sequences, and most of all, top-notch stamina.

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“You’re always chasing the best “polar pattern” (each different kind of microphone picks up a different shape of sounds around it).  It depends on the actors, of course; Hollywood types are professional at repeating movements and delivery in the same way with each take.”  But that’s not always the case, and a lot of the time he’s just acting on instinct to best capture the dialogue.

It must be a difficult task, to predict the movement of actors, but I was even more surprised when Mike revealed how he achieves this:  “I’ve learned to read neck muscles, they’re usually the first sign that someone is turning their head.”

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We’ve chatted about some of the fundamentals of recording sound, but what about the business end?  Some students asked Mike about how easy it is to pursue a sound career in the screen industries.

“Broadcasting companies like ITV and the BBC take on very few staff across their TV projects, and mostly use freelancers.  It’s standard to get on board with a fixed term contract, for instance my work on Beowulf was a 27 week contract.”

His advice mirrors Joanna Makepeace‘s recommendations in the latest episode of the 99% Perspiration podcast; “It’s mostly ad-hoc work – you’ve got to email producers, email line producers.  You’ll often get work from knowing people, knowing sound mixers, knowing boom operators, knowing film crews; so get out there and meet people.”

“It is quite a competitive industry.  There’s a lot of jobs, but a lot of people.  Stay professional, keep emailing.  Don’t pass up opportunities to meet people, to do work experience.”

“A lot of people say they’re keen to get into the industry, but many of them don’t get out there, aren’t proactive.  You’ve just got to do better than the guy next to you.”

“I watch a lot of TV shows, and you can get names from the credits and shoot them an email.  And then put yourself forward for shadowing, ask if there are any opportunities going…”

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And finally, one of our students asked the all-important question of how much you can make from a sound design career working in TV.

“You can get up to about £300 a day working with TV crews as a boom operator.  Which is better than a lot of professions!”

“And there’s a lot of work in commercials as well – there’s massive companies who spend millions on 30 seconds, so that’s great to get into; not just for sound, but for other industries too.”

If you want to find out more about Mike Duddy, and what it’s like to have a career in sound recording, make sure you check out his website.

 

 

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Audio Documentary – Advice from a Lecturer

One of the reasons I’m absolutely loving my time as a lecturer at the University of Sunderland is working alongside skilled lecturers who have been.  And occasionally, I get to sit in on a class.  I never took a specific radio documentary class during my Media Production BA, so it was great to see what I’d missed out on first time round, and gather some more techniques from an industry professional/lecturer.  Intellectual osmosis at its best!

And in the spirit of paying it forward, I’m passing on the insight to you too.

So, a lot of Andy Cartwright’s documentaries on BBC Radio are unified in some interesting way by a running theme; something that ties the documentary together.  For example, in a documentary about the “shoddy” trade in Batley, he used a train ride linking the towns in West Yorkshire together, and explored the landscape through stopping at different destinations.  Narrative shaping devices like this smooth the structure, and give the documentary a hook to keep a listener on board.

But don’t be afraid to be experimental.  I’ve heard radio documentaries that are tied together by a dramatic narrative as well, such as the Charles Parker 2015’s prize-winning entry; it’s an investigation into the supernatural story of Black Shuck, however we’re led expertly through the supernatural segments by atmospheric sound pictures bringing the stories to life.  We hear the dog, the trees, the creaky church doors…  It’s structured almost like a radio drama at times, and I really enjoyed these elements.  However, he did mention that when using sound effects to support an audio documentary, it’s best not to mirror what the interviewee is talking about.  Be more suggestive. But, whatever technique you do, follow a journey, and get your listeners invested!

Another cool tip is to introduce an interviewee with one of their key sentences, or a great stand-alone soundbite, before the presenter introduces them (if you do opt for a presenter led documentary).  It’s another way to hook your listener; and continuing to do that throughout your piece is so important, especially for longer documents, to keep your audience attentive and on your frequency.

The audio documentary industry has established certain ground rules over its time, and so it’s wise to stick to some key structural elements and avoid sounding jarring.  In a documentary section that features two voices at once, crediting is key.  If you order people “incorrectly”, if there is even such a thing, it’ll sound “wrong”.  Here’s what to do – if your narrator is saying the name of two or more people before you hear them, they credit the first person you hear last, whereas if your narrator speaks afterwards, they should credit the last person you hear first

Think about your structure, using likeminded interview segments together effectively, or use juxtaposition (strikingly different) when you want to be shocking or thought-provoking.  Think about a male-female balance, or (when relevant) different accents – make your piece sound “colourful”, as they say in radio.  Think about the eb and flow of speech, of each indivual, of the story.

Because audio documentaries by definition are, well, audio, when there’s no sound there’s nothing else – no images like visual mediums can rely on.  Successful radio dramas use this lack of sound, this silence, effectively.  A well-placed silence can have big impact, draw the listener’s attention, and be very interesting.

The world has changed a great deal since digital technology began, so here’s something I would never have advised – but having sat through the class, I certainly saw how this had merits.  Log your interviews.  Transcribe your material, even just a rough transcription.  If you’re making a long documentary, it’ll help leaps and bounds.  If you’re looking for someone some says, it’ll be much easier to search for specific words in a document than painstakingly trawl through your audio.  Andy also showed us how using the transcriptions allows you to construct a structure quickly & effectively, by highlighting on paper what you intend to include.  And, you know what?  I learnt something there!  (I’m a huge believer in the notion that you never stop learning.

So.  Just some handy tips if you’re interested in producing audio documentaries.  Because of technology today, It’s never been easier to put together an effective audio documentary – you can head out with a smart phone, interview some people you know and mix them together in an editing software.  And if you’re already producing audio documentary, (or even video documentary), hopefully you can take something else away from this blog post.

And if you have any suggestions yourself, do leave a comment below.

Until next time…

Stay productive, stay awesome!

– Jay