Dark Air With Terry Carnation: An Interview with Sound Designer & Producer Chris Kelly
We speak to producer and sound designer Chris Kelly of Webby Award winning Kelly&Kelly about the process behind crafting the retro horror of fictional podcast Dark Air with Terry Carnation (starring Rainn Wilson, Karan Soni, Aaron Lee, Susan Sarandon, and Yvette Nicole Brown) - and dive into the process behind ensuring remote recordings sound seamless, sound design, mixing, gear, plugins and all the other elements involved in crafting a fully immersive fictional audio world.
Eimear O Sullivan, Musicngear: Could you run us through the process of recording all of the actors remotely?
Chris Kelly: So, we used Zoom primarily to talk to each other; with regards to the recording side of things I had to do a lot of troubleshooting in order to find the best and most straightforward way to do this remotely. So, there are some great web based interfaces and tools that are used for recording both sides of conversations (such as Squadcast, Riverside FM) however, we ended up not using these in this particular instance as they don’t record losslessly, and don't record the full bandwidth.
Amazingly, the simplest and most useful tool (especially for a non-technical person who has to record themselves) was Quicktime. The beauty of using this is that it records locally onto everyone's computer, it has a big red button for record and it is so straightforward and easy to use. So, the process was, we would fire up Zoom, make sure everyone was recording, do a clap, and get each person to say the scene number, episode number, take number and their name, etc.
Musicngear: As everything was recorded remotely, how did you go about maintaining consistency between the voices, so that it wouldn’t sound like people were recording in separate rooms and environments?
So, first and foremost, the most important element is the energy between the actors. As Dark Air with Terry Carnation is scripted and is a comedy - it is important for everyone to act as if they are responding to each other. Doing it via Zoom allowed for this.
From here, it would then be about how to go about making everyone sound like they were in the same room. To be completely honest, this part was very tricky. We made sure that everyone was using the same mics; so we got everyone to use an Audio Technica at2005 USB mic with a Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen (we initially just used the USB directly into the laptop, however, to reduce hiss we used it with a soundcard).
I am a huge proponent of using dynamic mics for this kind of stuff, as it is way more forgiving. For example, TVshow Dramas are usually recorded on Boom or lavalier mics; so the ear is used to hearing a thinner sound; it is not used to hearing a big robust diaphragm condenser, it is more accustomed to hearing a thinner, mid-range sound.
With regards to the recording environment, I asked everyone to record in what I would call a soft room. So, I would ask them to record in a room that has lots of pillows in it, or a lot of carpet; or I would get them to record in their closet, or to put up a blanket, all with the aim of trying to get as dead of a sound as possible. Then, in post production all of this would be folded in with reverb, etc.
I also want to mention that I had a lot of help with this side of things as I was not in all of the recording sessions, I mainly just designed them. The producer and co-director Thom Harp ran the sessions, he had to learn a lot of things on the fly, and he did an amazing job.
Rainn used a Shure SM7 very briefly on one of the episodes, and although it is a great mic, the particular sound quality of that mic wasn’t fully suited to this medium as it’s too muddy and is too much of a broadcast mic. The Audio Technica paired with the Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen is straightforward, easy to use, and gives great results.
I would say let’s throw in some neon light sounds, or some people coughing in the background to show this is a sick office
Musicngear: What DAW and plugins do you use once everything is recorded?
The whole show is made in Adobe Audition ( I have been using this software for 15+ years) and for the most part, I use a lot of the built- in plugins that come with this software; a lot of this being to do with the fact that I have to share the sessions with other editors; and this makes things a lot more straightforward, as they can just open it up and there won’t be any plugins missing or anything. As a company, we have to set a baseline to make this as easy as possible.
A big tool we use on the show is a plugin by Brainworks called bx_solo (we got this from the Plugin Alliance); which is such a clever and simple tool; it is a stereo expander but also operates as a mono converter. The reason why this tool played such a crucial role in the sound design was because we needed to portray to the audience that we are going from a scene out in the world, to an on-air radio segment. For example, in a scene, the full width of the stereo field is being used, however radio is mono, so whenever we go from a big scene to radio we automate this and switch it to mono. I also put a small parametric EQ on it also to thin it out and make it sound like radio; however the main trick is going to mono.
Because we were recording remotely, I did have to buy a basic iZotope package for everyone as they have amazing restoration tools; which was used alongside SPL De-Verb (which is an incredible tool and is the best de-reverb tool on the market) so once the de-clicking, de-humming, etc was done, that allowed us to have a clean audio baseline from which we could start adding to it and treating it, etc.
It is less about the plugins and more about thinking about what sounds are associated with the room you are trying to convey.
Musicngear: While listening to it, you get very strong visuals of what the rooms they are in look like, which is an amazing thing to be able to do via an auditory medium, what plugins or techniques did you use in order to make the characters sound like they are in a specific room?
So there are two things happening there. I use what I call signature sounds for room tone and sound effects, in order to put the listener's mind into the room they are supposed to be in. For example, if they are in an office, and I want to convey from the get-go that this is a bad, run down office, I would say let’s throw in some neon light sounds, or some people coughing in the background to show this is a sick office or the sound of a bad vending machine; so adding these in does most of the work, and from there it just using basic plugins (such as convolution reverb, which I use on almost everything at varying degrees), and dialling the room and the sound of the room just right.
It is primarily the sound FX (so the room tones and the ambiences) that do the work for me. So, my advice for this would be to start with the room tone, start with the ambience, and once you get that right, go from there and add plugins, etc. It is less about the plugins and more about thinking about what sounds are associated with the room you are trying to convey.
Musicngear: What headphones do you use for doing the sound design?
I mix on the Sony MDR-7506 - these are industry standard headphones as they are the flattest, most true sounding. I do all of my cutting with these, and as I get towards locking the cut, I will listen on speakers just to get more of an idea of the relative mix, to make sure it all sounds good, and finding the balance between the two (I use Yamaha HS 5 speakers, which are nice and balanced)
I have been working with the Sony MDR-7506 since 2005, and I think that if you find something that works for you ( be it hardware or software) that it becomes part of you and you learn how to express yourself through it. It becomes less about using the most sophisticated tool for the job, and more about what you can use in order to accomplish the idea you have in your head.
Musicngear: How do you go about sourcing the sounds?
I have a fairly big library of sound effects that I have collected over the years, so I find a lot of them in there. In addition to this, I use a website called Pro Sound Effects which is an amazing library that you can subscribe to.
An advantage also in using sounds from my own library is that I am familiar with them, so I know how they work; for example, I have this sound of people murmuring in a courtroom (from a collection called Hollywood Edge) and I have used that sound in so many scenarios across a variety of different productions; for example, imagine you are at a convention, or at a political rally, and someone says something stupid or bad, this is the perfect sound to layer in to show that someone said something they are not supposed to.
Musicngear: For someone who was interested in getting into sound design, what are some resources you would recommend for learning about it? Or is it more of a learn as you go type of endeavor?
To be completely honest, it is a lot of trial and error.
Transom.org is a really fantastic resource for learning anything related to audio storytelling. It is primarily non-fiction; but I think a lot of it applies to how we tell stories in the fiction space also.
They also have some sound design type courses also, which I would definitely recommend checking out. One of these days I am definitely going to build out a course on audio fiction/storytelling.
Musicngear: If someone was interested in doing a podcast like this, that involves coordinating a lot of people remotely - what would be some good general advice or things you should know before doing this?
I would say break down your script and put it into a spreadsheet of some kind, and understand who is involved in every aspect of things (by scene, episode, etc)
Another thing I highly, highly recommend is always having some version of a script supervisor, who is making notes on the takes; as those notes are invaluable when it comes to moving to the edit, even just hiring them for the recording period.
Musicngear: Were there any particular audio worlds that you used as general points of reference in order to create the world of Terry Carnation?
So as it is kind of a kitschy show; and there is kind of a 70s/80s retro quality to it (so we are dealing with AM radio; and when I think of aliens and sasquatch and things like that, there is something very 70s 80s about that) so we had to portray this particular quality in the podcast.
There is a famous host that Terry Carnation is kind of riffing on; by the name of Art Bell, who hosted a show called Coast to Coast AM. If you look at photos of the two (so the turtleneck, the chain) you can see that he is a reference point for this character.
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