A day at the recording studio

06-Jan-2012

As an editor, I usually spend my days quietly working away at my desk, occasionally communicating with members of my team but hardly ever with the outside world – and I love it that way! Once in a while, however, I get to go on little adventure days out at the recording studio and these trips are a nice change to my usual routine.

Before going to the studio, I put together the recording scripts. We process new materials in batches and so there will be a list of new exercises which require audio. I extract the audioscript from the exercise text and, if necessary, insert sound effects. If it’s a pronunciation activity, I make a note of what is being practised, i.e. whether the actors will need to use a certain intonation etc. Once I’ve put the script together, I book the actors, usually one male and one female actor. There is a group of actors we work with regularly, who have a lot of experience with ELT recordings.

A day at the recording studio starts by meeting the actors in the studio and introducing the script to them. Then, the sound engineer sets up the microphones for them and checks their levels are right. There is usually one other editor with me and the engineer on one side of a sound-proof window (we can hear the actors but they can’t hear us, unless we press a button) and the actors are on the other side. Once I had to go to the other side and be recorded myself when we needed a recording with a German accent. I’m still traumatised by the experience – because of the soundproofing, it’s eerily silent ‘on the other side’ and the actors’ job is really hard to do for an untrained person like me. Also, I knew that the people behind the glass (my colleague and the engineer) were talking about me without me being able to hear what they were saying. It’s difficult not to become a little paranoid under these circumstances! I now make sure I stay on my side of the soundproof window.

During the recording session, we (the editors) listen out for the following things:
•    correct pronunciation
•    text and numbers read according to house style, for example ‘double-oh’ in phone numbers (instead of ‘oh, oh’)
•    that the actors are saying exactly what’s in the script (otherwise, we’d need to change the audioscript for the exercise and, potentially, the activity itself)
•    that the actors are reading at the correct speed for the level
•    intonation
•    general credibility: for example, if an actor has to read two different characters’ parts for the same clip, they have to put on different voices, which need to sound like two different people; actors need to portray the characters’ ages, accents and attitudes correctly
•    mistakes in the text: as the audio is recorded at a stage when the material isn’t finalized, there are sometimes minor mistakes in the text that need to be changed in the script

Any of these points can lead to little debates on our side of the soundproof window and sometimes requires listening back to what we’ve just recorded.

Each type of material has its own characteristics. Pronunciation activities can require a lot of listening back and often take several attempts until they’re right. At the same time, they can lead to lots of giggles, especially if an actor has to read out words that share sound qualities but not meaning and tries to make up stories about the words. Often, the actors manage to maintain a straight face throughout the recording while we behind the glass hide behind our recording scripts. Recently, we all had great fun when one of the actors had to read out many word lists for an exercise identifying vowel sounds, which went like this: ‘plumber stone honey much’ and ‘mustn’t trouble indulge junior’. I guess actors always try to breathe some sense into what they’re reading.

More serious sessions are the ones where we are recording academic or business English materials. Although, we did have a session where an actor had to leave the room for a bit because he couldn’t stop laughing at the description of how a vacuum cleaner works.

Starter and beginner exercises can also be quite tricky to record as they have to be quite slow without sounding too monotonous. There is a small set of vocabulary that is used for these exercises, with some word sets appearing again and again. One time, an experienced ELT actor remarked that it was interesting what seems to be considered important basic vocabulary. He said, ‘Apparently, this is what you need to learn first when learning English: The alphabet, numbers, the days of the week, colours and the words burglar, thief and serial killer.’ There’s a strange obsession with crime in ELT.

I general, the sessions are very entertaining and the actors always surprise us with their own take on things and making characters that only have a few lines really come to life, complete with attitudes and accents – although recently learnt from a couple of actors that it’s quite difficult to put on a Welsh accent because it’s very easy to slip into a Pakistani accent half way through. As much fun as it is, all this constant reading along and listening intently leaves me very tired at the end of a day at the recording studio and I’m happy to return to my desk the next day.

Kerstin

Comments(2)

  • Hi Kerstin, I like your article, I can imagine every detail.
    My name is Brendan Simpson and I have been in ELT for the past thirteen years. I am also a qualified Sound Engineer and I am involved in recording foreign languages for a website. I am keen to get involved with a major ELT publisher. I would be delighted if you could help. Yours, B.

    Posted by Brendan Simpson on May 02nd 2013
  • Hi Brendan
    Thank you very much for your comment. I’m afraid, we always work with the sound engineer at our recording studio so we don’t need to recruit our own. I’m sorry I can’t help but wish you every luck in your pursuit. Recording is fun!
    Kerstin

    Posted by Kerstin Schneider on May 03rd 2013

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