Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Making The Gates to Dreamland: Recording and Editing

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On 25th September, my new locative audiowalk game The Gates to Dreamland launched to the public. Created as part of the A Different LENS project in Margate, The Gates to Dreamland explores how interpreting our surroundings figuratively, through imagination and motion, can connect us to different places, times, stories and circumstances, finding resonance within our own lives.

Set around the boundaries of the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, it tells the story of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s journey towards publishing his final book – one that would change the study of science forever. It imagines the obstacles he faced, under house arrest with his eyesight and health failing, and the changes in perspective that entailed.

In this series of blog posts, I’m delving into how The Gates to Dreamland was made, discussing how my contribution to A Different LENS came about, how the design of the project evolved, ideas and inspirations, research and planning, writing the script, how I created the audio, and how this project connects to my other work.

More information on how you can try The Gates to Dreamland for yourself is at the bottom of this post.

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Preparation

Once the script for The Gates to Dreamland had been written, the process of recording and editing the audio diary extracts was surprisingly swift.

I was fortunate that I already owned the necessary equipment to make high-quality voice recordings from home. This simply consisted of a condenser microphone, a stand and clamp to keep the microphone steady, a pop filter to eliminate the distortion from plosive sounds in my speech, and my laptop where the files were recorded. Windows has an in-built voice recorder which is perfectly capable, and the files it generates can be imported into audio editing software.

My recording setup

For each of the six diary extracts, I decided to record three full takes. I could then use the editing software to select the best bits from each recording and merge them together into a single track to upload for each entry on the A Different LENS map.

I use Audacity for audio editing. It’s excellent, open-source software that is freely available online for all operating systems. The basics of importing/exporting files, copying/pasting, recording, cutting, zooming and playback are all very intuitive for regular PC users. Many more complex functions are also possible, with plenty of guidance available online.

However, before any recording or editing was done, one consideration I had to make was the 5MB file size limit for audio that could be uploaded to CGeoMap, the webapp which hosted the A Different LENS map entries.

From other map entries already uploaded, I could see that there were audio clips that far exceeded the length mine would be. But the limit did make a small difference when it came to the quality of the final files that would be uploaded, as I had to export my files in Audacity to MP3 at a ‘standard’ quality of 170-210 kbps to ensure they remained within the 5MB limit.


Voice acting

After the technical needs of the recording were sorted, one of the most daunting – yet ultimately rewarding – experiences in this creative process was taking on the role of a voice actor.

Originally, I had toyed with the idea of finding someone with experience in voice performing who could conceivably replicate the voice of a man in his 70s. But with the project deadline approaching ever closer, and not having the money or contacts to hire a voice actor, I decided that I’d attempt the narration myself.

I sought out as much advice and guidance as I could before I made the recordings.

A couple of the other artists contributing to A Different LENS shared their words of wisdom during our regular Zoom calls, including speaking somewhere where you can see your reflection, and over-enunciating your words.

Online, I also found plenty of tips for beginner voice actors relating to breathing, posture, warming-up exercises and practising. I found it particularly helpful to record myself when practising, so I could identify the points in the script where I’d have a tendency to mumble, or where I could afford to take breath.

I’ve mentioned previously in this series of blog posts how I drew inspiration from the video game Dear Esther, in how its narration evocatively connects distant places, times and characters. As well as learning from the game’s script-writing, I was inspired by the performance of its narrator, Nigel Carrington.

Carrington had also performed in a beautiful soundwalk called Fields Were the Essence of the Song (incidentally also made by Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck, the creators of Dear Esther), which was another key touchstone for The Gates to Dreamland. It is described as a ‘site-specific soundtrack to a film which does not exist, one which is created by the ever-changing relationship of the listener, formed by their self-steered journey, around the environment’.

I listened carefully to audio from both of these works to pick out voicing techniques Carrington used.

One of the most noticeable features, I found, was how he varies the pitch in his voice throughout sections of speech; much more than anyone would in everyday conversation.

Lowering the pitch at the end of a phrase gives it the quality of a remark – an observation or expression of something inevitable. Adding a roughness to this kind of phrasing gives it the quality of a sigh. While raising the pitch perhaps indicates a sense of surprise, or that there is something notable you should pay particular attention to.               

As the speech navigates these contours of expression, the recording takes on a sort of melody that leads the listener along a thread of individual thought; drawing you into the headspace of the character being narrated.

Thinking about my voice performance in this way subsequently affected how I edited the script I wrote.

One technique I found particularly effective in Fields Were the Essence of the Song and Dear Esther was the use of short sentences with very few conjunctions. Paying close attention to the words made me acutely aware of how every moment you spend using words that don’t paint a picture, you’re gradually drawing the listener out of the world into which you’re inviting them.

Having learnt from these examples and having sought as much guidance on voice performing as possible, I finally recorded all 18 takes (three for each diary entry) over a couple of hours, in order from the first to the final diary entries.

I took plenty of sips of water throughout, and short breaks between each entry, but it still put a noticeable strain on my voice. Fortunately, my gradually thinning speech was appropriate as I moved towards narrating the later diary entries, which describe events that happened as Galileo has become older and more unwell.

 

Editing

Once all the takes were recorded, I listened back to them very carefully for each point of the walk. I created a document in which I colour-coded the script according to which take I thought sounded best for each line (sometimes even more fine-grained than that, if there were enough pauses to make a clean cut when editing).

This document then guided the editing process. Editing mostly consisted of importing the three recordings for each location side by side as separate tracks in Audacity, then cutting and pasting the relevant sections from each into a single final track.

A screenshot taken during editing of the third recorded diary entry

I was particularly attentive to the pacing of each piece of audio. I wanted to ensure I gave listeners enough time to reflect on the words they heard and their observations at each site, curating a listening experience that was mindful and atmospheric. This meant focusing on the pauses as much as the recorded speech.

I was able to easily adjust the length of pauses between each section of speech by cutting and pasting ‘silent’ sections of the track. In most cases, this involved lengthening the gaps to enhance opportunities for reflection. I also tried to ensure that pauses were of roughly equal length, to create a consistent rhythm that might help participants attune with the words of the script.

Once each final track was complete, the final stage of editing was reducing the background noise picked up in the recordings. Condenser microphones are very sensitive, meaning that even in quiet locations faint sounds will be picked up (the bulk of mine came from my laptop’s fans).

Thankfully, Audacity has a noise reduction tool that I’ve always found very effective. The way it works is that you select a ‘silent’ portion of the track (i.e. that only contains background noise) and feed it into the tool. The tool will then filter out sound from the track that matches the profile of the background noise sample, which is particularly effective when the noise in question is relatively constant, like my laptop’s fans.

You can adjust the sensitivity of the noise reduction to match your needs, as in some audio projects you may want a degree of ambient sound to remain. In my case, I wanted as little noise as possible, because I wanted the ambiance of the listening experience to come from sounds in Margate that listeners would hear in situ, rather than those from my living room.

After this stage was complete, I was left with six very clean, detailed audio tracks that effectively captured the nuances of my voice performances.

Editing was painstaking, precise work that involved a lot of tinkering and repeated listening back, but ultimately was a fairly swift process, only taking a day or two.

The next post in this series discusses the process of curating each recorded diary entry into an entry for the A Different LENS map.

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How to try The Gates to Dreamland from home

The Gates to Dreamland is primarily designed to be experienced by walking at the relevant sites in Margate. When you load the A Different LENS map on mobile, only the first of my six entries is visible on the map, and you must discover the remainder by finding the rest of Dreamland's gates in person.

However, you can try a version of The Gates to Dreamland for yourself online via PC/Mac (this is the only way to access all six points of the audiowalk without being in Margate).

To do this, visit the A Different LENS map here and find the blue pin titled ‘The Gates to Dreamland’, with ‘1 of 6’ as a subheading (it is the most southerly blue pin in the main cluster). This is the start of the walk, while the pink pins that lead from it show the route you need to follow. Read the introduction and instructions that appear when you click on the pin.

Then, open up the link here in a separate tab. This is the starting point for the walk in Streetview.

Each point of the audiowalk is located by one of Dreamland’s gates. When you reach the next gate on the walk, navigate back to the A Different LENS map and click on the relevant pin to play the audio for that location. Try to stay in Streetview as much as you can on the walk, but there may be times when you need to check that you’re at the correct location by switching to satellite view and comparing with the A Different LENS map.

The walk should take about 30 minutes to complete. Think about the relationships between the words you hear and what you can see in Streetview.

If you do try it and have any feedback you’d be willing to share, do send me an email using the contact information on my About page.


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