Intro to Audio Documentary
Documentary Studies 251C
Tuesday/Thursday 12:40-2 Library 113
Office Hours: Tuesday 2:15-3:30 in Harder 130 (down a hallway and tricky to locate)
Or, by appointment: adamtinkle.youcanbook.me
Required Texts (in SkidShop):
Reality Radio (ed. Biewen and Dilworth),
Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
In this class, we will learn the skills relevant to the work and craft of the audio producer. We will focus strongly, but not exclusively, on audio production for narrative storytelling, i.e. the sort of storytelling we hear on public radio and in podcasts. In the course of learning the tools and practicing the varied crafts of the audio recordist/editor, sound designer/mixer, and radio writer/performer, we will produce a substantial portfolio of creative audio works, which we will extensively and repeatedly revise. Meanwhile, we will learn something of the history of documentary approaches to sound and become fluent with theoretical and practical issues in the business and art of contemporary sound storytelling.
What skills can you expect to gain? (Learning goals)
About LIB113 and technology
LIB113 is an audio-visual media production lab and is the home space of MDOCS. It is staffed by student workers who specialize in various media applications and technologies, and is open to the full campus during some scheduled hours (posted on door). There are also two graduates of previous semesters’ Intro Audio Documentary courses, who will also hold drop-in tutoring hours in LIB113 on Sunday and Monday nights, 7-9pm (Kira Hastings and Julia Cavicchi). Seek them out especially for tips and tricks with ProTools, and when you need another set of ears to help you interrogate your work-in-progress.
You will be given all-hours swipe card access to LIB113, which will permit you to work whenever the library is open. Please be conscientious about keeping LIB113 clean and secure at all times: close the door behind you when you leave; keep food and drinks away from the computers; don’t leave equipment sitting around; contact me immediately if anything seems out of place, missing, or broken.
LIB113 consists of 3 interlinked spaces, and we must be conscientious about maintaining the simultaneous usability of all of them as much as possible. While working in the big room/lab area, use headphones at all times and keep noise and conversation to a minimum. The seminar area is for classes and other meetings. Please don’t use it for personal meetings outside those times so that the third, smallest space, our miniature recording booth, is usable as often as possible. Please be mindful of other users and use the sign-up system for the recording booth (which entails emailing MDOCS program coordinator Jesse Wakeman at least 24 hours in advance) when you know you will definitely be in the space for a certain time. Beyond these guidelines, let’s use common sense, open lines of communication and personal responsibility as our tools to make sure that LIB113 remains a welcoming, productive, creative space.
MDOCS: Evidence-Based Creative Practice
The John D. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative (MDOCS) is a fast-growing interdisciplinary program and I am very proud to be its Associate Director. As a media-agnostic (i.e. any and every artistic/communications medium potentially welcome) documentary program within a liberal arts context, our program is completely unique. This is its third year (and my third year teaching in it)—and we are still working to articulate and communicate our mission to the wider campus and world.
The Documentary Arts are, in my view, construed very broadly. I’m interested in and open to any creative work that is driven by the collection and presentation of carefully and sincerely gathered evidence. Any time you gather an actuality (“tape,” “footage,” etc…), you are documenting. Anything that puts these actualities together is one standard (and simple) definition of documentary.
So far, Skidmore has no media-makers’ major (as you would find in a film school, a journalism program, or a digital arts curriculum). Instead, MDOCS aspires to scaffold media production skills on top of the existing liberal arts curriculum. One correlate of this is the idea that any term paper or senior thesis could also exist as a radio feature, a film, a website. But this is ambitious, somewhat untried terrain. What will, and what should “evidence-based creative practice” mean in the context of our school? From my perspective, there is no reason to determine, a priori, that it needs to start from journalistic presuppositions, or sound like NPR. While my background is as a sound artist and designer, most of the readings and listenings comes from the NPR world. Expect this course to split the difference between narrative audio journalism and my own personal approach to sonic art—which is that sound is a medium in which you can tell any kind of story, and convey any kind of experience.
There are also practical reasons why this is (mostly) not a journalism course. Skidmore students rarely have the flexibility in their schedules that learning to be a journalist/reporter requires—you can’t drop everything and drive around during work hours. This course requires a small amount of conventional reporting, for which you would be wise to plan WAY ahead.
In the media-inside-liberal-arts spirit of MDOCS, I hope you will consider working from your pre-existing skills and interests to forge your own approach to sonic storytelling and artmaking. Some relevant skills/practices that you might draw on here might include: facility with the written word (writing poetry, prose, plays, essays, blogs), facility with the spoken word (theatre, debate team, MCing, slam poetry, standup/sketch/improv comedy…), facility with music (instrumentalists, singers, occasional guitar-pluckers, music producers, iTunes obsessives, radio DJs, self-appointed party DJs), not to mention skills cultivated in other academic fields such as ethnography, media critique/analysis, bilingualism/translation… Sound is a keystone of human life, and encompasses an infinity of heard cultural practices, ones you already engage in. My challenge to you in this class is: find your own “voice,” building on the sonic “you” that already exists.
You need to purchase a new, (blank) high-capacity, high-speed USB stick. That means USB 3.0 transfer speeds and 32 or 64 GB of storage space. You will always work from this drive, never from the internal drive of LI113 computers, which are wiped clean every week.
Label this drive clearly with your name, both as a drive name within the OSX file system, and also ON the physical object, e.g. with a sticker or sharpie. Put this drive on a recognizable keychain--maybe something bulky or noisy.
You should also plan to back up your files for this course regularly, whether on your home machine, another external hard drive, on the cloud, or on a 2nd USB stick. “I lost my files” is not an excuse for late or missing work. As in the real world, you are personally responsible for the storage, backup, and maintenance of your own media. It behooves you to be a conscientious and potentially even obsessive librarian (see Media Management)
You may choose to purchase an additional Micro SD card for your Sony PCM-10. This will allow you to record longer (more than 4 hours) before you offload files to a computer. You’re unlikely to need to record this long, unless you are making extremely long recordings, or doing a lot of recording during a period when you’ll not have computer access. Full-res audio takes up about 1 MB for every 8 seconds, per channel. So, in stereo, that means your hour-long interview is almost a gigabyte!
You will need to create a Soundcloud account. We will post all our work, both 1st and final drafts, on Soundcloud, and comment on one another’s pieces there as well, so be judicious about whether and how much you would like to interlink your Soundcloud page with any other social media. (Soundcloud will give you the option of linking to Facebook or Google+, and I don’t recommend you do this at this point, because your draft work will be tagged with your classmates critiques.)
Everything else you need (recorder, headphones, add’l mics) is being loaned to you by the MDOCS program. However, if you lose or damage any of that stuff, you will be held liable for the cost. Other students will need these exact same kits next term!
Media Management and Storage
Media management is the science of where you put your audio files and project files, and how you keep track of them. Most bang-your-head-on-a-wall, ruin-your-week sorts of frustrations in the life of the digital media maker arise from scattered media (mis)management.
In this course, I will ask you to work only from a single drive. Never save anything on the internal drives of LI113 machines or your own computer. ALWAYS save everything on your USB drive. It’s best to back-up everything at the same time that you offload your files to your USB drive, and before you wipe your recorder/SD card, and again at the end of every day that you put in a lot of work on a project. “My hard drive/computer/other piece of technology died” will not be accepted as an excuse in this course—late work will still be marked down.
Make a sensible file structure: a folder for every assignment of this course, raw audio folders within each project, and sensible, evocative titles for audio files. Give every project a sensible name, save your project every half-hour (AT LEAST!), and “save as” whenever you make a momentous change. When you open your project on a subsequent work day, “save as” with that date as a new file, and leave yesterday’s project unaltered.
A Note on Group Critiques
I think group critique is a valuable experience for everyone, but knowing how it works and doing it well is especially crucial (and professionally expected) for anyone engaged in artmaking or media production. It is also (potentially) one of the most sensitive situations in which you will ever encounter classmates—listening to, and making constructive suggestions about – unfinished creative work in a medium we are all new to. This class will work best if we can all cultivate a climate of the utmost respect, support, and caring. We should view one another as potential collaborators, people who we should expect to offer and accept aid and advice from throughout the term, and not just during the required moments of group critique. Despite all our best efforts to be kind and helpful in this (and all) parts of this course/life, it is inevitable that some of us will feel, during critique, that we are being adjudicated/criticized, and, for some of us, this aspect of the course may be hard. However, group critiques are, at their best, one of the most profound and helpful academic experiences in existence. Thus, we will be vigilant about creating a culture of respectful yet useful--that is to say, constructive--criticism. If you are having concerns about the classroom climate in group critiques (or even Soundcloud comments), please let me know.
Because of the potential precariousness of a classroom culture that balances comfort and criticality, I have a high bar for your respectful treatment of one another and a low tolerance for acts of disrespect. Please refrain from ANY and ALL phone-touching and web-surfing during seminar discussions and critiques.
Readings/Listenings…and what they’re for
Everyone who becomes skilled at creating in any medium spends an enormous amount of time consuming what others have made in that medium. Thus, there is substantial listening assigned for this class, representing a wide range of narrative audio and sound art, with many of today’s major makers represented both by their audio and by essays in Reality Radio or on the premier industry website, Transom.org. Very frequently, I will assign short clips and expect you to listen with the same focus and seminar-preparatory note-taking you’d employ in a readings-driven class. On rare occasions, I will assign entire, uncut podcasts of 30 or 60 minutes; in these few, feel free to listen more casually (i.e. while taking a walk, run, or drive). One particular challenge will be to listen as a producer, to take a step back and try to listen not so much for what is said, but also how, noting those approaches you find particularly exciting or useful. This will not only make our discussions more lively, it will help you in your work
This class is also a bit of a hybrid between a production class and a liberal arts seminar—the balance I envision is about 80%/20%. Thus, throughout the semester, we will shift into seminar discussion mode, and have structured lecture/discussions about some of this work. Thus, in addition to hard-nosed, how-to readings, we will be reading a small handful of book chapters and articles that approach sonic creation from a more theoretical, historical, or interdisciplinary angle. I expect that these readings will expose you to broader vistas and inspire you to push beyond what you’ve heard and create a personal voice.
When you experience technical difficulties
Begin by googling for an answer—there are thousands of forum threads aimed at helping out beginners in all of these applications. If you prefer video tutorials, the campus has a subscription to Lynda.com, which has step-by-step guides to learning nearly every piece of media production software.
Part of being a digital media maker is troubleshooting—often this translates to teaching yourself by checking application-specific documentation. If I were to do all of your troubleshooting for you, I would be doing you a disservice and wasting valuable class time, because applications and their functions change nearly every year—it’s precisely that old saw about teaching a person to fish. If I solved your problem for you this time, you’d lack the tools to solve it for yourself next time. The goal of our instructional time is to focus on matters of craftsmanship and aesthetics.
The SAS tutors (Ms. Hastings and Cavicchi) who took this course before may also be able to help you in the lab between 7-9, Sun/Mon PM.
However, if you find yourself in a technical pickle from which you absolutely can’t extricate yourself, you may of course email me. By emailed request (give me enough notice and try to get to class a few mins early to open your project), I will try to diagnose and solve your problem during class—but no promises.
All students will complete the first five audio assignments
Mixed Environment (a collage of field recordings, draft 2/3, final 2/8) 1’-2’
Audio Diary (a piece built around your voice, draft 2/15, final 2/18) 2’-2’30”
Vox Pop (with several interviewees’ voices, draft 2/24, final 2/29) 2’30”-3’
Audio Portrait (script 3/7, draft 3/9, final 3/11) 3’-4’
Found/Archival (draft 3/28, final 4/4) 3’-4’
There are 2 options for the final project, draft , final 5/12:
Third Coast Short Docs Challenge: an international competition to produce short works on a theme chosen by the Third Coast International Audio Festival (the “Sundance of radio & podcasting” The theme/rules will be unveiled in March. 3’
A locative audio piece about, and designed for listening at a specific location within, the Skidmore campus, implemented within the Detour locative audio app as part of a long-term multi-authored project on the natural and human history of the site occupied by Skidmore and the North Woods. 3’-6’
Additionally, all students will participate, live and in person, in TangWaves II, a live, low-power FM radio broadcast from the Tang Museum, by introducing an audio portfolio consisting of
2 past pieces from the course, incorporating further revisions and refinements beyond the “final” drafts already submitted.
Rough draft of final project
Please hold 4/28 from 4-9 for participation in this event. The schedule is still being fleshed out—you will be responsible for being live on the radio for TBD portions and duration of this evening-long event.
Planning ahead: The syllabus is carefully structured to ensure that you are able to plan way ahead to do the small amount of time-sensitive reporting required. The portrait/event assignment due Fri 3/11 requires that you find a non-Skidmore student interview subject, or report from some kind of non-Skidmore-centric public event, by or before 3/7. Don’t wait until the last minute on this. Start thinking now about who/what you want to make this piece about. Similarly, the open-ended “story” project due 4/18 will be immensely aided by advance thinking and planning about what documentary story you would like to tell.
Production Ethics and Waivers
Documentary work (and all public-facing media production) comes with a unique set of ethical concerns beyond those in other sorts of classes. When we take others’ voices and craft our own pieces from them, we need to balance the rights of the participant (e.g. by having honest and forthright communications with them about what we intend to do with the material) with our own needs as producers (e.g. to feel confident that the subject will not attempt to deny you the right to use the interviews you collect).
For this class, I will ask you to get your interview subjects to sign release forms (which I will provide) that will serve as a legal guarantee of your permission to use the material only in the following circumstances:
In the case of a lengthy sit-down interview with a subject who you expect to be a major character in your story or if the subject matter of the interview is controversial.
Most reporters and writers do not obtain signed interview releases because they presume that by giving the interview, the subject has consented to the interview and, therefore, cannot claim invasion of privacy.
It is common for an interview subject to ask to read or edit the interview or to have some comments removed or kept “off the record.” Any agreement that is made with the interview subject (including an agreement for anonymity) should be documented. (AT: e.g. by email or recorded into your interview)
If the interview subject is willing to proceed with the interview but does not want to sign a release, ask if he or she will make an oral consent on audio- or videotape.
MDOCS is committed to instilling exemplary ethics in media production. Thus, all students in this and other MDOCS production course will be required to attend an “Ethics Bowl” event where we’ll delve deeper into law- and ethics-related issues on February 7 6-8pm, Emerson Auditorium.
The following scale will be used to determine course grades:
5x smaller audio projects (before spring break) 10% each
Final portfolio (live-on-radio presentation of 2 revised pieces) 10%
Final project 20%
Participation 20% (incl. attendance, and active engagement in crit process online and in person)
A+ 98-100 B+ 88-89 C+ 78-79 D+ 68-69 F 0-59
A 93-97 B 83-87 C 73-77 D 63-67
A- 90-92 B- 80-82 C- 70-72 D- 60-62
Note, on the attached rubric, the important features that I’ll be looking for when I give grades for this course. If you put a lot of effort and imagination into the ideas for your pieces, you will have a much easier time creating work that stands up. The editing stage is hugely important, but don’t neglect the design and collection phases. For example, if you find good interviewees, ask them the right questions, and log the best stuff from your tape as you collect it, you might be able to cut your editing time from 10 meandering hours to 2 laser-focused ones.
Audio narrative is a particularly iterative medium: there is no obvious upper limit on the amount of revision that is possible or worthwhile. By including drafts for every project in this course, and requiring 3rd draft revisions for 2 pieces of your choice for the final portfolio, I hope to instill in you good habits for drafting and revision. This is why I weight the responsiveness to critique of your drafts so highly in my grading. Despite the fact that I anticipate and expect big changes from one draft to the next, I still need to see you rough out a complete vision in every first draft, and adherence to the time guidelines for every assignments.
While the gradual and eventual achievement of technical impeccability and finesse is my expectation for everyone, I want to stress that this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s work will sound the same. Since this is not a journalism class and I am not compelling you to work towards NPR formats, I will not be assessing you on whether you achieve a “professional” (i.e. NPR-like) sound. Instead, I want to urge you to experiment and I won’t fault you for going out on a limb for some of these projects. I’m looking for you to stretch out and show increasing ambition over the course of the term. Sometimes bold failures are a necessary step towards forging your own voice.
Technical aspects of the piece
Numerous or severe tech issues: clipping, handling noise
A few audible tech issues
Unmarred by tech errors
Demonstrates superb facility with technology and technique
Creative idea/manner of execution
Idea is dull, inchoate, unconsidered
Deeply thoughtful use of the medium
Legibility of narrative/intent
Can’t tell what you’re going for!
Crystal clear in aesthetic intention/story
Lots of unnecessary stuff left in
Ruthless and to the point
Little audible change from draft
Issues raised in crit are well addressed
First draft submitted on time: 0/5 (no credit if drafts go up late)
Final draft submitted on time: 0/5 (You may submit ONE of your first 5 final drafts w/o penalty)
Meets length guidelines: 0………5
Total : ________/40
Absences and Lateness:
Everyone is allowed 2 unexcused absences. Each additional absence beyond the 3 will result in a reduction of your final grade by 1/3 letter (e.g., a B+ would turn into a B). I have an infant at home, and ask you to please not come to class if you are ill. However, I am not allowed to ask for a note excusing illness from Health Services, so please use your absences on illness. Habitual (i.e. more than 3x) or severe (i.e. more than 15 mins) lateness will similarly result in final course grade reductions.
Please, don’t cheat or plagiarize. If you have any questions about what this means, consult the Academic Handbook. If at any point, you have a question about whether your work is giving due credit to sources, see Skidmore’s policies on documentation and plagiarism. Plagiarism on any assignment constitutes a violation of the Honor Code, and all violations of the Honor Code must be reported to the Dean.
Skidmore College seeks to provide an environment that is free of bias, discrimination, and harassment. If you have been the victim of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, age, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, I encourage you to report it. If you tell any faculty or staff member about such an incident, he or she is required to notify Skidmore's Deputy Title IX Coordinator about the basic facts of the incident: Mariel Martin, Case Center 2nd floor, ext. 8212, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students requiring accommodations should formally request accommodation from the Office of Student Academic Services. Meg Hegener is our Coordinator of Students with Disabilities. She can be found in Starbuck Center, or called at x8150.
A disability or accommodation should be discussed with the coordinator so we can work together to ensure students’ needs are met. Students who wish to have an accommodation for disability are responsible for contacting me as soon as possible. The coordinator for students with disabilities verifies the need for accommodations and assists in the development of accommodation strategies.
***This course calendar is NOT complete or exhaustive; I reserve the right to make changes to it as the need arises, and such changes will not always be announced: sometimes they will simply appear as changes in the digital version of the syllabus, so check that version weekly (at least) to make sure you are accessing all of the readings and listenings, each of which will appear as a separate hyperlink.
Syllabus, Using your audio recorder
Basic editing workshop + phonography lecture
For Mon 1/30: 1 10 min recording of your natural habitat/home environment. Listen back, make a timed log, upload.
Editing workshop/Work day
By Fri 2/3: An edit of the most interesting 1-2 mins of your recording to soundcloud (ENABLE DOWNLOAD)
Audio DSP/effects w/ Paul Hembree
Study in Mixed Environments draft for working crit, due Mon 2/6 9PM.
Group discussion/ working crit
Out on the Wire (OotW) 1-44
Listen to everyone's and tag 1 comment each on Soundcloud before class today. Mandatory: Ethics bowl tonight 6-8pm in Emerson
Reality Radio: Biewen, Carrier, Richman (1-14, 27-35, 128-134)
Study in Mixed Environments: final due Fri 2/10
Group discussion/ working crit
Reality Radio: Sherre DeLys and Dmae Roberts (86-95, 116-127),
Audio Diary draft for working crit due Mon 2/13 9pm. Listen and make comments on one anothers' pieces before class.
Guest: Nicolee Kuester: Text-sound artist
Text-sound art: Oliveros, Whitehead,
Words without Songs without Words: Tang Museum 7pm
Alex Chadwick 50 cent interviews (Transom), OotW "Ideas" 45-76
Vox Pop questions due for in-class presentation 2/21. Final Audio Diary due Mon 2/20 by midnight
Radio as Populist Jukebox
vox pop drafts due Mon 2/27 9pm
WORKING CRIT DAY
each others' projects
Schedule your reporting for Portrait this week! Interviews must be completed and logged before break!
The art of the interview
Reality Radio: Jay Allison,Kitchen Sisters (36-43, 183-195)
Final Vox Pop due Mon 3/6 9pm
Do your interview this week! Make sure to get this release form signed
Character, Voice, Truth
Optional: (More Joe Frank, if yr interested)
Sculpting and editing
OotW "The Edit" 167-207
Interview tape logged by Mon 3/20. Audio portrait drafts due 3/22 for 3/23 working crit
WORKING CRIT DAY, but I will be gone!
each others' projects
Audio Portrait due Mon 3/27 9pm, with transcript!
Hang out with "The World According to Sound" team
Listen to recent episodes of The World According to Sound
The World According to Sound - Weds 3/29 at Falstaff’s 7pm. Required
Found sound, archives, and sampling
Stories from Found/Archival Sources
Reality Radio: Stephen Smith
Story Meeting: Present possible found/archival source tape
Experimenting with Sound
Out on a wire: Sound 145-166, plus Reality Radio: Alan Hall and Jad Abumrad
WORKING CRIT DAY
each others' projects
Found/archival draft due Mon 4/10 9pm for working crit 4/11. Listen and comment to each other's projects on Soundcloud before class
OotW "Story Structure" 107-144, Transom: "My Kingdom for Some Structure", Nieman Storyboard - Jonathan Goldstein on the Little Mermaid
Final Found/Archival due Mon 4/17 9pm
Final Project proposals MEET AT TANG
Propose yr final project to the group at The Table in Tang Museum
Reality Radio: Natalie Kestecher, damali ayo
each others' projects
Rough draft of final projects due 4/26 9pm, listen and leave comments on SoundCloud
(4/28 afternoon, attendance required)
live-announce yr portfolio on-air (15 minutes each)
Rough final project plus 3rd drafts of 2 previous projects, on air
Final project, 2nd draft due on Soundcloud (enable download)