Despite being huge sound design fans, when we listen to any narrative soundtrack, our attention is naturally focused on the voice. “Dialogue is King” – plays a particularly key role when listening to radio, where you don’t have the benefit of pictures to tell the story.
I spoke to Ralph van Dijk, who is an award winning, radio commercial’s writer and director, to find out more about the techniques and considerations that go into getting that great voice performance. You can listen to his work here www.eardrum.com.au.
Designing Sound: First of all, what got you interested in making radio commercials?
Ralph van Dijk: I reckon it was because it combined a few of the things I really enjoyed at the time when I was deciding what to do. I love music, I love writing and I like acting. I was doing all of those things to varying degrees – of awfulness. Advertising itself was interesting because it was a combination of all those things. Plus comedy. I’ve always enjoyed comedy. Radio was like a very condensed version of all those things. I could experiment with all those different areas in a very short space of time.
That’s the other great thing I love about radio, is that you can conceive and execute the idea in a matter of days. Whereas with television, back when I worked in an advertising agency, it was just so frustrating to have an idea, then to have to wait for months whilst it went through research and client changes, before you could even go anywhere near actually making it. And when you have a very short attention span, that’s not a good thing.
I guess it was also very satisfying creatively because writing radio is quite liberating. You can do whatever you want. And I felt I could do it well.
DS: What are the key elements of good radio?
The first thing you need to do is engage. Engagement is critical because radio is a secondary medium. You’re often doing something else, or thinking about something else at the time of listening, so you really need to reach out and intrigue and engage the listener with something funny, interesting, arresting. So that’s absolutely a major requirement.
Intimacy is also important because the medium itself is very intimate, as in, it’s one to one. You’re listening to your choice of station, on your own, in your own environment. So an ad that’s conversational fits the situation well because it is a communication medium heard where people are very relaxed. The best commentators on radio are those who communicate naturally, sounding like it’s all from off the top of their head. So a good radio ad should reflect that.
DS: What kinds of things do you first consider when you get a radio script, prior to the studio?
When I get a script, the first thing I look at is to define the tone and emotion of the piece. Whether it’s a character’s monologue or a five-word corporate end line, because if you don’t assign an emotion, however subtle it is, it could end up being bland and forgettable. So that’s the starting point, just to work out, what is the emotion? What is the feeling and tone we’re trying to convey? It makes the casting more streamlined. Ideas on appropriate people seem to fall out of the woodwork once you’ve defined what feeling you want to capture.
DS: So when you are casting actors, are you considering their skill over their experience? Or is it the quality of their voice?
RvD: The most important criteria is acting ability and that’s followed closely by skills and the experience they’ve got. By skills I mean things like breathing and timing. Voice quality is less important for a lot of the roles we tend to be involved in – which are more character roles – and the priority there is to achieve a more natural, authentic performance. When I say character I don’t mean silly voices, I mean being someone who might exist beyond the ad, not just a voice floating around in the ether. In a straighter read where the voice is representing a brand, the texture and timbre of the voice then becomes really important. Some actors are blessed and have it all! They have the acting ability, the technical skills as well as a beautiful voice.
DS: A lot of your work transports your listener to a specific space in the ‘theatre of the mind’. What are some tips you have for achieving realism in your radio works?
RvD: Let’s assume the actors are brilliant, have been cast well and understand the script. So that’s a starting point there because you’re not going to bother trying to imagine where the character is, if you don’t believe they exist in the first place. I guess after that it’s mike dynamics, which make a big difference. Encouraging the cast to move around as they would if the scene was being filmed. Approaching the mike for a conspiratorial tone, or turning off mike to help suggest movement. It means often setting up stereo or multiple mikes. The changes in perspective create a much more vivid picture for the listener.
I always tell the cast where the scene is set and play relevant sound effects in their cans. That just helps them get it clear, in their minds, where they are and dictates their projection and performance.
DS: Is there a different skill set required for directing a voice only piece as opposed to directing theatre or film?
RvD: I always say, our ears are incredible bullshit detectives. Authenticity is more important when you are just working with voice. You have to be so much more in-tune with the tonality of the piece when working with voice alone. There are subtle nuances I use to communicate emotions that you would normally see on an actors face.
DS: Such as?
RvD: I guess I’m talking about sub-vocals – which are meaningless sounds that occur in the middle of a sentence when someone is responding to something someone is saying, that can tell you exactly what they’re feeling, without having to use words or wait for their lines. The benefit of seeing both characters on screen is you know how the other person is reacting without having to use sounds. In radio, by having little sounds and responses, noises or pauses in strange places, it can suggest a lot of that information that you wouldn’t have otherwise had to do audibly, if you had it all there for you to see.
It’s all about that authenticity. It’s going to sound like a cracked record! But anyone can make written words audible and it’s up to me to make sure those words are actually pulled to life, so they mean something.
So it’s all about an awareness of the details, to achieve an emotional authenticity.
DS: Has there ever been a point in studio when you have felt ‘this isn’t going to work’ and how did you get things back on track?
RvD: Yes – quite a few times! Some of the techniques might be stopping, bringing them into the control room for a cup of tea and having a chat about something completely unrelated. That’s just usually because the words have become a bit meaningless and they’re getting a bit tired, starting to question everything. So we just need to recalibrate and take a break. Also, taking their headphones off is a very simple way of getting people to stop concentrating on what their saying so much and start to become more instinctive and fluent.
If they’re not getting the right tone or emotion, I’ll sometimes play music. Whether or not that music’s going to be used in the final mix, it takes their minds off concentrating on how they’re saying the words and they naturally match the tone of the music. It also helps them drive the pace. Then you just take the music away and presto!
The other one is sitting in the studio with them and turning the script into an interview, so they respond to real life questions. It adds meaning to the words on the page.
You know if you’ve been working on something for too long, it’s hard for actors to unlearn everything. So a lot of it is about distracting and trying to help them not think too much.