Intro to Audio Documentary
Weds 12:20-1:40/ Fri 12:20-2pm -- Library 113 “DOClab”
Office Hours: Weds 2-3:30, Filene 2##
Or, by appointment: adamtinkle.youcanbook.me
Required Texts (in SkidShop):
Reality Radio (ed. Biewen and Dilworth, Second Edition preferred!)
Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
In this class, we will study the theory and craft of audio production, documentary storytelling, and sound design, with a strong but non-exclusive focus on narrative, voice-driven storytelling, i.e. what we hear on public radio and in podcasts. In the course of learning the tools and techniques 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 critique and revise. Meanwhile, we will engage with the history and breadth of documentary approaches to sound and become fluent with theoretical and practical issues in the business and art of contemporary audio storytelling.
What skills can you expect to gain? (Learning goals)
About DOClab and technology
DOClab (headquartered here, in LIB113) is the home space and teaching lab for MDOCS. It is staffed by student workers who are all adept in storytelling, and who specialize in various media applications and technologies. It is open to the full campus during some scheduled hours (posted on door), but, because you are enrolled in this class, you can swipe in any time. Go to any DOClab staffer during their office hours when you need another set of ears to help you interrogate your work-in-progress, and consider specially seeking out DOClab’s Adam Simon, an alum of this course, especially for tips and tricks with Pro Tools and other audio-specific questions.
You should already have 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. Don’t move the iLoks!
LIB113 consists of 3 interlinked spaces; please 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 meetings. Please don’t use the seminar area, or leave your things there, if the third, smallest space, our miniature recording booth, is in use. Please be mindful of other users and use the sign-up system for the recording booth (which entails emailing MDOCS program coordinator Jesse O’Connell at least 24 hours in advance) if you know you definitely need to 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 DOClab remains a welcoming, productive, creative space.
MDOCS: Evidence-Based Creative Practice
The John D. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative (MDOCS) is an interdisciplinary program that offers workshops, course support, and a summer Documentary Storytellers Institute, in addition to production-focused liberal arts courses (but no major or minor). I’ve been part of the program since the beginning, so feel free to ask me anything about it, including how you might find out more about summer opportunities (e.g. at the DSI info session 10/3). As a media-agnostic documentary program in which multiple media are supported, and which exists in a liberal arts context, our program is unique.
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.
While my background is as a musician and sound artist, most of the readings and listenings comes from the NPR world, and the vast podcast ecosystem that it has spawned. This course splits the difference between that tradition of narrative audio and my own personal canon of experimental sonic art. This is 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 work off campus, for which you would be wise to plan WAY ahead. Doing some fieldwork “beyond the bubble” is important because it forces us to be accountable to the ethical imperatives of documentary: listening to and seeking understanding of those who may be unlike us.
In the interdisciplinary, collaborative 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--that’s certainly been my pathway that has gotten me here. 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 audible cultural practices, ones you already engage in. My challenge to you in this class is: find your own radiophonic “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 at least 16 GB of storage space. You will always work from this drive, never from the internal drive of DOClab computers (which are wiped clean of your work at every logout).
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 USB stick on a recognizable keychain--something bulky or noisy is best.
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 may 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” is not 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, regardless of discipline. But knowing how it works and doing it well are 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--and one 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 that exist. 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 technological distractions during seminar discussions and critiques--just as in any other moment of any class, but more so. :-)
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 field’s premier 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 some occasions, I will assign entire, uncut podcasts of 30 or 60 minutes--if you must listen while multitasking (i.e. while taking a walk, lying in the grass, staring at the clouds, etc), make sure you have a way of taking notes on what you’re hearing. 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--listening critically and thinking deeply about documentary work are absolute preconditions for producing it. Thus, scattered throughout the semester, we will occasionally shift into seminar discussion--I want to hear what you are hearing, and what you think of it!
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, there are many walkthroughs of every conceivable ProTools functionality--although they vary widely in quality.
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.
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.
--4 short audio documentaries, 2 drafts each
Study in Mixed Environments (a collage of field recordings, draft 9/14, final 9/18) duration 1’-2’
Audio Diary/Postcard (a piece that you narrate, draft 9/26, final 10/8) 2’-2’30”
Vox Pop [group project] (with several interviewees’ voices, draft 10/16, final 10/22) 2’30”-3’
Audio Portrait (interview by 10/29, tape log 10/31, script 11/4, draft 11/6, final 11/12) 3’-4’
--2 short audio narrative experiments, rough draft only
Found/Archival, (pitch with raw tape 11/16, draft 11/30) 2’-4’
Audio Fiction/Radio Play (pitch draft 12/11) 2’-5’
--Final draft of either of the audio narrative experiments, revised in collaboration with an animator from Motion Graphics and Animation class (due date TBD)
--Portfolio: 2 past pieces from the course, incorporating substantial reconceptualization, revision, and refinements beyond the last draft submitted for credit. Portfolio will be presented on air, on WSPN, and you will come prepared to talk intelligently about your work, live on the radio, during our scheduled final exam, 12/17
--Practical exam (in the form of screen capture video of you doing a series of basic tasks in Pro Tools) due Mon 9/24
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 fieldwork that the course requires. The portrait assignment requires that you find a non-Skidmore student to be your interview subject, or do a more abstract “portrait” of an interesting place or event. Don’t wait until the last minute on this. Start thinking now about who/what you want to make this piece about.
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. [e.g. by email or audio recorded]
If the interview subject is willing to proceed with an interview but does not want to sign a release, ask if he or she will make an oral consent on audio- or videotape.
However, simply gaining permission to record and use a recording of someone is hardly the end of the ethics conversation in documentary--there are numerous ethical quandaries that we will discuss across the breadth of the course.
The following scale will be used to determine course grades:
4x final draft audio documentaries 10% each
2x rough draft audio experiments 5% each
Collaboration project with animator 10%
Final portfolio 10%
Practical exam 5%
Participation 25% (incl. attendance, and active engagement in crit process on Soundcloud and in person, and contribution to group projects)
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 down 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 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
Meets length guidelines: 0………5
Total : ________/40
Absences and Lateness:
Everyone is allowed 2 unexcused absences. Each additional absence beyond the 2 will result in a reduction of your final grade. I have kids at home, and ask you to please not come to class if you are very ill. 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, email@example.com.
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.
I strive to create an inclusive classroom and welcome your input (in person, by email, or anonymously) in my effort to make all students, regardless of any dimension of identity or background, feel welcome and free of all discrimination and other unreasonable discomfort.
is available, with hyperlinks to listenings and readings, through the digital version of this syllabus.
But take note now of some required additional evening events
Looking for Langston (9/19 7pm)
Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists (9/27 6pm)
MDOCS Faculty Showcase (Nov 13 7pm)
Basic recording, INTRO LECTURE
Basic editing workshop + phonography lecture
Annea Lockwood - Luzerne (from Sound Map of Hudson River, on campus ony) , Providence Soundmarks (tracks 7-9), One-Minute Vacations (peruse captions and listen to any one of your choice), Chris Watson - The Blue Men of the Minch
Bring to class: a recording of your natural habitat/home environment. By Sunday, record and upload both a raw 10 minute Home Environment recording and an edit of the most interesting 1-2 mins of your recording, to Soundcloud. ENABLE DOWNLOAD and include detailed time log for both tracks, in track description. Email me the link by Sunday night so I can follow you
Editing workshop/Work day
Bring to class: ProTools session w/ a draft edit of Study in Mixed Environments for use in class.
Pair critique, audio effects, using music 1
Study in Mixed Environments draft for working crit due Thurs 9/13 by 9pm. Soundcloud comments posted before class
Yom Kippur no class
Making radio documentaries: the basics
Out on the Wire (OotW) 1-44, Reality Radio (RR): Glass
This American Life #126 “Do Gooders” Act 1 “You Can’t Go Home Again”
Study in Mixed Environments: final due Tues 9/18. 1. Figure out your intentions. 2.Add “active sound” 3. Experiment w/pan, reverb, EQ
Radio Storytelling: First person
RR: Biewen, Carrier, Richman, Washington
Complete practical exam by end of day Monday 9/24
Live Storytelling/The Moth
The Moth at Zankel Sun 9/30 7pm REQUIRED
WORKING CRIT DAY/ Extended voices
RR: Sherre DeLys and Dmae Roberts (86-95, 116-127)
Audio Diary draft for working crit due Tues 10/2 9pm. Listen and make comments on one another's' pieces.
Character and Voice
OotW: Character and Voice, RR: Spiegel, Chenjerai Kumanyika manifesto
Final Audio Diary due Mon 10/8
Vox Pop questions due for in-class presentation 10/10.
Adam is in Canada
Work in groups to listen back and share tape, problem-solve your structure, or do more interviews
WORKING CRIT DAY
Each others’ pieces
Vox pop rough due Tues 10/16 9pm. Listen and make comments on one another's' pieces.
The art of the interview
Reality Radio: Jay Allison, Kitchen Sisters
Final vox pop due Mon 10/22
Schedule your portrait interview! Make sure to get this release form signed
Complete your interview this weekend
Stories (into ideas)
OotW: Story Structure (107-144), Transom: "My Kingdom for Some Structure", Nieman Storyboard - Jonathan Goldstein on the Little Mermaid
Dragon software workshop
Meet in Library 202
Bring your interview audio file on your flash drive
WORKING CRIT DAY
Each others’ pieces
Audio portrait script (TEXT ONLY) due by email
Sun 11/4 midnight. I will mark up and comment on Monday. You will revise script, and then produce Audio Portrait rough AUDI) and upload by Tues 11/6 9pm, comment on Soundcloud before class
Found sound, archives, and sampling
Audio portrait final draft due Mon 11/12
Stories from Found/Archival Sources
Reality Radio: Stephen Smith
In class: present found/archival source tape, raw.pl
Reality Radio: Natalie Kestecher, damali ayo
OotW: Sound (145-166); RR: Jad Abumrad
Working Crit day
Found/archival draft due Thurs 11/29 9pm, Soundcloud comments before class
present pitch for your radio play/audio fiction piece
Working Crit Day
Radio play/audio fiction draft due Thurs 12/6 9pm, Soundcloud comments before class
Sculpting and editing
motion graphics collaboration showing
motion graphics collabs - TBD
Present final draft of EITHER audio fiction OR found/archival piece, in version collaboratively produced with animators
Portfolio Due 1:30pm-4:30
Meet in WSPN
2 past pieces revised, collectively listened to on air, on WSPN FM