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Eleanor McDowall: Make the audio that you want to exist in the world

The incredible Eleanor McDowall had some brilliant tips and inspiration as our guest at a recent Scotland Audio Network producer Q&A.

Eleanor is co-director of Falling Tree Productions, which makes a host of award-winning podcasts and radio features including BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts.

Eleanor also runs Radio Atlas, which is dedicated to showcasing innovative audio from around the world, subtitled in English.

And, as if all that wasn’t enough, she also produces Field Recordings, ‘where audio-makers stand silently in fields (or things that could be broadly interpreted as fields)’.

Here are our favourite take-aways from Eleanor’s thoughtful advice

Make the audio that you want to exist in the world

Eleanor is inspired by bold, authentic audio which doesn’t just ‘sound like’ Radio 4 (for example), or fit received wisdom of what a radio documentary 'should be'.

Instead, she says you should make a programme or podcast that represents you, and how you see the world.

If you’re having doubts about something you’re working on, take it to someone you trust to get feedback and support, but don’t be afraid to follow it through if you believe in it.

Listeners value authenticity, even if funding and commissioning structures can make this difficult to pursue.

Learn through leaping

For new producers, a great way to learn is to listen to all different types of audio.

Return to the audio that provokes a reaction. Dissect it; think critically about why you like or dislike it.

However, you’ll learn more still from simply making; from leaping into work, and then reflecting afterwards on the successes and failures of each piece you make.

Eleanor talked about how the first programme she made after completing her Masters filled her with terror, but how it also usefully took her out of her comfort zone.

Try out 'The Schwartz Technique'

Getting a contributor to speak in the present tense when describing an experience can bring the listener fully into the moment.

To really encourage a contributor to describe a memory or an experience visually, Eleanor will sometimes uses the 'Schwartz Technique'.

The contributor is asked to lie down with their eyes closed, to re-visit an experience. As a producer, you then ask them to visualize and describe what they are seeing, and to build up the image in little details.

The technique is named after Detroit-born Stephen Schwartz. You can read more about it here. You could also check out The Night Watchman, the first documentary in which he used it.

Sound design should always be in service of storytelling

Sound design can be about bombastic music, but it can also be a choice to leave in a pause, or purposefully to tell your story in a simple, 'no-frills' way.

Music and sound design choices can draw the listener closer in, or they can dazzle them from afar.

Similarly, an extended silence can be an invitation for the listener to co-create the images painted.

We talked in particular about Roller Girls, a documentary about roller derby that Eleanor produced early in her career.

It opens with a sequence of frenetic Jazz music mixed with high energy natural sound from a roller derby game, to paint a vivid scene of competitors whizzing about on skates.

She says it was one of the first pieces she made, in which she could identify her own radio ‘voice’.

Eleanor used a variety of microphones for this project, but generally records most things on the mic that comes as standard on a Zoom H4N.

Take a break

Eleanor talked about the value of having a healthy approach to work, so you can stay creative and avoid burnout.

To have new ideas, it’s important to have time off; to daydream, consume art, and do things that inspire and motivate us.

She talked about how much she values the positive culture around breaks and work/life balance at Falling Tree.

Thank you so much to Eleanor for sharing her time and advice with the Scotland Audio Network. It was a real pleasure for us all to chat with her.

You can find a huge archive of Falling Tree’s excellent work on Soundcloud (including Roller Girls) here.

Bespoken run the Scotland Audio Network as a free collaborative space for professional and aspiring producers to meet, share, and get support in navigating the industry.

Keep in touch, to find out about future Producer Q&As.

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