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The Zeal Archives: Audio Drama 101

It’s the summer, and that means two things:

  • It’s way too hot outside
  • It’s crunch time for the various projects I’m working on!

I definitely intend to finish my series of blog posts about NodeCG development, but a few matters are a bit more pressing than the Race Against Time (though, only slightly). 🤏

Considering that it’s almost July and the Race Against Time is in August… what could possibly be more pressing?

The Zeal Archives!

The Zeal Archives is a monthly podcast that I produce that’s part audio drama, part discussion about the world of Chrono Trigger that runs anywhere from twenty to fifty minutes. I’m right in the middle of the third season, so I have a pretty good sense of how much effort it is to produce each episode… or so I thought.

For now, I want to talk about what goes into the production of an episode.

The Process

Most of my experience podcasting has been doing a weekly discussion podcast, so the Zeal Archives has been quite a different beast. For podcasts like Fanthropological, the process is pretty lightweight:

  1. Agree on a topic with co-hosts
  2. Do research, and think about interesting discussion topics
  3. Record
  4. Edit
  5. Release show notes + promote
  6. GOTO 1

That process has to be lightweight, because otherwise it wouldn’t be possible in a week1! It’s also lightweight because it’s just a few roles (i.e. host(s), dialogue editor, showrunner).

But with a longer release schedule and an audio drama component… the process expands quite a bit. 😅

I tried to think of the best way to outline how the process expands, and the thing that made the most sense was to think of the podcast’s production in terms of an idealized timeline.

Pre-Production (3—6 Months to first episode)

Pre-production is any of the work required before an episode can be recorded; it is the domain of the Showrunner and the Writers. Even though the podcast is composed of audio drama and discussion podcast, the vast majority of pre-production is driven by the audio drama since it determines the characters, topics, and environments that will be required2.

I like to establish a rough idea of how the season will conclude and then work backwards from there, or sometimes I like to think about where I want the next season to end so that I can plan the current one accordingly---There’s a lot of bouncing around. In either case, ten episodes short (or twenty ‘sections’) isn’t a ton of time for plot to occur, so I use that as a constraint to outline a few things that I want to happen in each episode at a high level.

I also try to pick a topic or theme for each episode from the world of Chrono Trigger trying to balance between people, places, items, and so on as well as making sure that episode topics bounce around between different time periods. The topic can also be helpful to connect the discussion and audio drama sections or to spark ideas to fill in the plot! With a topic selected, that episode’s research can get started.

Once I have a rough outline, I can start writing the script. I wish I had any particular tips or details for this, but I don’t really have any: I’m not a professional screenwriter!

Because it’s just me writing, and because the outline is fairly loose, I end up writing the scripts in order so that the events of the plot are more or less consistent (or at least, consistent from episode to episode). I just use Google Docs and an Add-on called Fountainize that formats the writing in a script-y way.3

Lastly, there’s casting. After I’ve written all the scripts, I need to think about how I want different voices to sound, and then try to find people who can perform the role. While there are sites you can check out to find free voice actors, I feel really bad asking strangers to help out a project without getting paid… so instead, I enlisted the help of friends and friends of friends 🤣

Production (1—3 Months to first episode)

I’d say that this is where the magic happens, but honestly it’s all pretty magical! Production is where the Director, Voice Actors, and Hosts really shine. If this were a bigger budget production—or if it were not a pandemic—this might be the situation where you have the talent sit in a sound-proofed room, read the script, record lines, have the director give feedback, redo lines, etc.

While I mostly have the tools for that, it’s not feasible to get a dozen-or-so people to my home to record. 🙃

Instead, I do the following:

  • Send written instructions on how to record and how to improve the recording quality—not everyone is a streamer / podcaster / musician / voice actor, after all!
  • Send a character guide which includes a sentence or two describing the character, my directions for the character, and other pronounciation details
  • Ask them to record at least three different takes of each line. That could be different emphasis, pacing, or mood, but I leave it up to them.

I try to get the recordings as early as possible so that I can check them for audio quality (sometimes people are too quiet, or the recording upload can fail) and get them re-recorded as needed.

Then the directing begins! Normally this would happen in-person, but instead I create a new project in Adobe Audition for the part of the episode I’m working on, add the actor’s track, and start listening to the takes. Since there are at least three takes, and usually more, I can pick the one that best fits the scene, or select parts from different takes to frakenstein together a new take with the best parts from multiple! Going through this process also helps in case any of the lines are missing from the recording.

It’s not a perfect process, but it does a pretty decent job considering the constraints. 🤷‍♂️

Production for the discussion part is even easier: as the host, I introduce the episode, set a timer, and me and my co-host Nick G talk until the timer is up or the conversation ends—whichever is more natural—referencing the research notes and topics as needed. Sometimes there’s too much to cover, or less to cover than we expected, or we end up going in a completely different direction… but that’s part of the fun, and what helps with the chemistry of all!

Unlike with the audio drama, I don’t go through these recordings to decide what content to keep or throw away; I do that as part of editing in post-production, since there’s generally less editing to do.

Post-production (the month before episode release)

This is the realm of the Sound Designer and Dialogue Editor! Where all of the random voice clips somehow get transformed into real, living worlds… or I try to do that, anyway. It’s the magic of the editing process!

Learning how to edit audio is its own gigantic thing, with limiters, and dynamics processing, and lots of other tools and tips, so I’m mostly going to talk about high-level pieces.

Editing the discussion is really straightforward, and my process reflects that:

  1. Throw the two host tracks into Audition
  2. Run ‘Match Loudness’ on the tracks
  3. Sync the tracks
  • I do this manually since it’s only two people, but for larger groups you’ll want a clap or something to mark when recording started for everyone to sync with during editing
  1. Set playback speed to 60%
  • This just helps to cover more of the discussion more quickly while still being slow enough to understand what’s being said
  1. Play through the file, trimming out particularly awkward pauses, speech idioms, topics that don’t lead anywhere, and false starts
  • I aggressively cut out segments that don’t feel like anyone other than me and the host would enjoy, and try to keep a light touch on speech idioms unless they’re distracting
  • Match Loudness does a pretty good job, but sometimes there’s too much variation so I manually adjust the gain up or down for certain clips

For the audio drama though? I don’t even know where to begin! The above process is similar but there’s a lot more fiddly bits and the audio drama has a set of “instructions” (sort of)—the script. There are lots more things to think about, for example:

  • Timing: Even if the take was really good, would it sound better if there were more space between certain words? Would adjusting the timing work better with the music? Would a pause allow for a sound effect or feeling to land better? There’s no science to this for me, it’s all laying out the track and listening to what sounds good: it doesn’t feel like the audio is dragging, nor moving too quickly.
  • Treating vocals: Sometimes, a voice is in a great hall, or a sewer, or offscreen, or the role is monstrous, and in all those cases the voice needs to sound different. Usually this means playing around with reverb, panning, or learning other interesting effects.
  • Finding sound effects: The script may call for the roar of a crowd, but where do you get that sound from? What if you can’t find the ‘right’ sound effect? Fortunately Adobe offers a bunch of royalty-free sound effects and you can also find a bunch on, but oftentimes I find something that’s not quite right and have to layer it with other sound effects or pitch it down.
  • Finding music: The one big benefit of doing a video game themed podcast is that it’s not hard to find video game themed music (and, in particular, music from Chrono Trigger). I get 99.9% of the music for the podcast from OC Remix, which has an extremely permission content policy and a wide variety of styles and tracks to pick from (many of which sound like symphonic, dramatic music)!
  • Building up the atmosphere: Sound effects and music go a long way, especially for action, but there’s more to it than that! Droning sounds are necessary to give locations a more natural feel—think of the sound of the wind blowing and birds chirping for a first scene—and aren’t really a sound effect or music so much as they are their own ambient track.
  • Rolling with the punches: Sometimes, when editing, the combination of my skill level, the available takes, and the script don’t line up. That’s ok! Sometimes what’s on paper is really hard to convey in audio, or the voice actor went in a different direction vocally. I usually have to make a choice to cut a section (works for small bits) or try to convey something slightly different.
  • Outtakes: I am fortunate in that sometimes the voice actors will leave in flubs and mistakes. Sometimes, they’re just goofs, but sometimes, they’re hilarious, so I keep a separate file with the episode’s best mistakes to use later.

…And those are just the things that come to mind! After the discussion and audio drama are done, there’s a small step to combine them into one finished product with a set of plugs at the end. I also compile all the show notes, script, and podcast file and upload to the podcast host.

Promotion (the month that the episode is released)

If you wanted to grow a podcast, this would be a very important part, but I definitely skimp on it 😅. Promotion is the purview of the Marketing Manager and Graphic Designer. Honestly, there’s not much that I do here. It’s mostly limited to:

  • Creating cover art for the episode (super easy once the first template is made)
  • Creating audiograms to tease the episode: I pick a short segment from the episode and then use Headliner to turn it into a video with an included transcription
  • Creating voice actor art showcasing the actor and their role (because they are amazing and should be celebrated!)
  • Scheduling posts for all of this on social media (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, even though reach is terrible)
  • Posting to friends’ discords about the new episode release

…And that’s pretty much what goes into an episode… if you repeat it ten times, I mean.

The Reality

As planned, all pre-production and production would happen before the first episode is released, but in practice it’s sort of a wheels-within-wheels situation where parts of one episode are wrapping up as parts of the next episode start up. As a good example, all of the scripts are written for the season, and I have lines recorded from voice actors for many of the episodes, but I haven’t completed research for episodes six to ten, nor have their discussions been recorded.

Also, while there are many different roles in the production of the podcast, in practice most of those roles are performed by me which means that some actions get blocked not because of dependencies, but just general availability!

And you’d think that, given this is the third season I’d have a pretty good grasp of how long that all takes… but that’s a story for the next blog post. 😉

I hope that this was a little bit eye-opening into what goes on behind the scenes for an audio drama. I didn’t intend for it to be a guide, but I did want to paint a picture!

  1. It might be possible in a week if you have a whole creative team or have supporters of some sort, but all of the podcast I work on have a skeleton crew that are working in their free time for… well, free.
  2. Technically the audio drama and discussion components don’t need to be linked at all, but for some sense of cohesion there’s always some tie between the two, and the two are planned concurrently.
  3. I’ve heard good things about Scrivener and I think WriterDuet but haven’t used either.