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Our Mutual Friend - sound design - Colin Guthrie

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Colin Guthrie 15:50, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Right from the start it was clear that the sound of water would feature heavily in the soundscape of the production - the river Thames could be considered the central character of the piece as so much of the story is woven in and around it. Drownings and near drownings, Lizzie Hexam and her father earning their living in a small boat on the Thames and the rain drenched streets of London meant that the sound of water would play a big part. One of the big differences between doing a production like this on the radio and on film is that, generally speaking, the actors stay a lot drier on radio. Having said that, on a number of occasions we set an actor in front of a washing up bowl full of water and asked them to plunge their head in and emerge, gasping for air as if with their last breath. Which, for some of the characters, it was.

For a fifteen minute episode we have half a day in the studio to record the actors and add a lot of the sound effects. The main assembly of the programme then takes place in the editing channel. In the editing process we use four different types of raw sound:

  • The words spoken by the actors
  • Sound effects recorded in the studio
  • Sound effects from pre-recorded sound effects libraries
  • Music

All of these can be manipulated in the editing process - precise editing to isolate the sections you want, adjusting volume levels, adding reverberation etc.

The scenes involving drownings are good examples of how the radio sound picture is built up using a number of different elements. The drownings all involved a struggle with two characters; so we would record the dialogue leading up to the struggle and the vocal sounds of the characters fighting and gasping for air. We might then record the sound of their feet, scuffing the pavement and some additional splashing. A lot of the picture would then come from pre-recorded sound effects - the background sound of the river flowing and the surrounding ambience, splashing and the sound of scuba breathing.

Creating the image of the characters going underwater needs precise placing of sound effects and acoustic treatment of the sound to paint the picture without the help of any dialogue to explain what is happening. A splash as they fall into the river, vocal struggling and splashing, followed by an isolated large breath from one of the characters. This breath subconsciously leads us to expect they are going underwater. As they go under, the bright sounds of the splashing are suddenly reduced in volume and the higher frequencies are taken out to give the murky, dull sounds you associate with being underwater. The scuba breathing gives us the rising bubbles and the classic underwater sound. A rasping breath signals their breaking of the surface, the volume of the splashing is increased and the high frequencies are brought back as they hit the night air. We would then add a track of Roger Goula's music, possibly adjusting some of the timing of the scene to fit the drama of the scene with the shape of the music.

I spoke to Roger about his music for Our Mutual Friend:

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Colin Guthrie was sound designer for Our Mutual Friend

  • Roger Goula writes music for film, television and radio. His personal web site is here.
  • Radio 4's 20-part adaptation of Our Mutual Friend is on-air now.
  • Radio 4's 20-part adaption of Our Mutual Friend is on-air now and because it's part of the 'series catch-up trial' you can listen online to all the programmes in the series until seven days after the last episode airs.
  • We'd love to hear your thoughts about Dickens dramatisations you have heard and enjoyed on the radio. And which of the novels do you think Radio 4 should tackle next?
  • There are production photos of the whole cast, taken for Radio 4 by Phil Fisk, here.


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