Audio Drama’s Best Friend: The Power of Suggestion

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It’s been said that audio enters the brain through the side door. And it’s often true.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.  In movies, a subtle twist of the enunciation of a single word may change the whole atmosphere of the scene.  The style and tempo of the music will subconsciously shift the audiences’ expectations.

Though sound may enter through the “side door”, it can be more instrumental in setting the mood and stirring the emotions than the actors themselves.

Even more so with audio drama.

A sound designer’s job is not simply to put in sound effects here and there to communicate what the characters are doing.  That’s bad audio drama sound design.

While movies often cut those “background sounds” (and they aren’t needed in video), audio dramas require a sense of setting.  Every room is filled with noises, whether it’s the clock ticking or the floorboards creaking.

Now imagine two audio clips of the exact same fist fight.  One is poorly designed.  A few swipes, strikes, growls and “oofs!”

Sadly, a lot of audio drama productions are like this.  They have decent actors and interesting dialogue, yet it’s hard to really “see” what’s happening.

But now think about how great sound design makes you feel: a fist swipes through the air – two pares of feet maneuver back and forth on the crud of a city alley – one man shouts and jumps at the other – they slam into each other.  They fall to the ground with a grunt.

Both of these scenarios get across the point – two men are having a fist fight.  But one of these does it in a way that you are practically forced into imagining a vivid struggle.  And the other is weak.

So we know that good audio dramas “build” their setting and atmosphere.  But there’s more to it.

Rather than relying on dialogue between characters to explain what’s happening, a good sound designer will use a combination of music and moody sound effects to communicate.

While this is not possible in every situation, it’s a tool that is often overlooked.  Great sound designers are not simply people who attempt to convey what’s happening through sound, as we mentioned before, they also influence the listener’s mood – is it peaceful?  Tense?  Humorous?  And without even saying one word, we imagine the faces of those characters.

Great sound design is not just a supplement for picture – it’s an art of it’s own.  It’s about creating emotion.  Subtly, without forcing it on the listener, it creates a sense of place and atmosphere, and most importantly an experience that is solely unique to the audio drama medium.