Things I've Learned:
An occasional series of hard-won-wisdoms from the mischief-making, pixie-dust-sprinkling, original-thinking auteurs of the audio world
Photo: Jer Clarke
Please supply a short 'official' biography
Cristal Duhaime is the co-creator of Love Me as well as Pen Pals, a fiction series that puts unlikely pairs in conversation. Previously Cristal worked for 9 years on Jonathan Goldstein’s WireTap. She also recently co-produced Toccata which recounts the harrowing tale of getting human botfly during a trip to Costa Rica. Cristal is now worm-free and based in Montreal, Canada.
But who are you, really?
I’m still the nerdy girl who refuses to come out and play marbles after school because I’m just too busy reading Sweet Valley High books and deeply invested in how the Wakefield twins will ever reconcile their differences, they couldn’t be more opposite!!!
Who are your influences (in any medium)?
Radio: Jonathan Goldstein. (My first radio job was on WireTap – hugely formative experience for me that continues to inform my radio. The rest of these I’m not sure if I would call influences as much as creators having made an impression on me:
Writers: Miranda July, Joan Didion, Flannery O’Connor, Zadie Smith, Lucy Maud Montgomery, David Sedaris
TV: SNL, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Comedy Bang Bang, Louie, Girls, Better Things, anything Jill Soloway does
Standups: Tig Notaro, Maria Bamford
What's your favourite of all the things you've made and why?
Oh wow, this is difficult, like choosing your favourite child!! I love each thing I’ve made for very different reasons… I love Call of Dating because of the pure experimentation/joy/craziness in trying to pull off a video game in audio… I love the more recent piece The Cliffs, which we produced with Jodie Taylor about a volunteer who falls in love with a Syrian refugee in the Calais Jungle... And I also love Romeo + Juliet from our Pen Pals series for the pure whimsy and getting to imagine what Heaven and Hell would sound like! I hope that’s not too self-indulgent to choose so many!
What's your (current) favourite piece of audio by someone else?
Phil Smith’s “A Very Different Time” produced for BBC Radio 4 Shortcuts
I’m not sure how to talk about this in a way that does it justice! Phil seems to have developed a language all his own in this textured piece – it’s sound art that also holds up as a structurally complex documentary. He uses the W.H. Auden's poem Paysage Moralisé as a frame with which to explore/comment on experiences of displacement, exile… It is deeply sorrowful. Alienating and warm. Jarring and coaxing. Just listen to it!
Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio
Screenshot of Nancy Drew & Wonder Woman session
This is a screenshot from the most intensive sound mix I’ve ever done. It was for the episode featuring Nancy Drew and Wonder Woman from our Pen Pals fiction series. The whole story happens in the Twittersphere and we also drew from comic book tropes so there were A LOT of sfx going on. This was only edit #13 and I think our final version ended up being #24 so you can imagine just how crazy-making every time something needed to be altered on this timeline. If death by protools were a thing, this session would have caused it!
What are your top tips for making audio pieces?
1.Think of your opening scene as a time signature that sets the tone/pace of the entire story. If the story is going to be on the long side and is more serious in nature, take more time with the opening, rely on longer passages. If it’s a shorter, comedic piece, snappy editing off the top will prime listeners for something of that nature.
2. When recording highly personal/delicate true stories, try to do it in a space that is more conducive to intimacy, like the interviewee’s house. A studio, while likely offering the best sound, can inhibit comfort and exacerbate an already fragile storyteller’s nerves.
3. Leave room for improv when working with performers. (This more applies to directing dramatic performances). Think of recording sessions as an additional opportunity to rework some of the script on the fly, punch up jokes or get the actor to try out things you wouldn’t have thought of when the script lived only on the page. Some of my most satisfying professional moments involve hearing actors bring something I wrote to life and making it better. When the actors are good, you essentially get to hang out with the character you created. You wanna take advantage of that and LISTEN to what they’re saying to you.
4. Be quiet. Use the negative space of audio. Sometimes a pause can imply more about a character’s feelings/stance than all the words in the world. A well-timed drop-out can zoom us out of a scene. A lengthy bit of room tone can communicate tension. A slow fade-out of ambience to nothing – that’s powerful stuff. There’s so much that lives in non-sound!
5. Move it over. And then some. When you need to add a space, take whatever your instinct says is a good amount of beats... and double that! Wiretap played with pauses as a comedic tool and a lot of our mix notes would pertain to just pauses. They can always be longer than you initially think and make all the difference. Same goes with music – wherever you’re naturally inclined to pop in music, push it over by 5-10 seconds.
6. Back it up. When you’re making edits, relisten from the end of the scene that comes before the affected section. Listening to scenes in isolation is misleading and you’ll end up fixing it later anyways. You need to hear how it works rhythmically in relation to the whole.
7. Reframe yourself as a sound artist. The label of “radio producer” can sometimes be restrictive in that it imposes an idea of what it is we’re meant to be creating, what the limits of that should be. By thinking of yourself as a sound artist every now and again (pretentious as that designation may sound), you get to shed some of those preconceptions and loosen up without fear of not meeting expectations (because who the f knows what a sound artist is??)
8. Go weird! My collaborator Mira and I have made a few off-kilter pieces over the past few years that we were fearful would get us banished from the radio community forever. But there’s a certain amount of glee in trying to pull off something that is less sure, less conventional. It’s important to reconnect to your sense of play and go for the stranger ideas if they ignite something in you. (And we did not get voted off the radio island in the end and instead actually won an award for one of said pieces).
9. It’s ok to not have a resolution. Not all stories need to be wrapped up with a neat bow. Life certainly doesn’t work that way. Some stories are powerful precisely because they end on a note of uncertainty/unknowing. That said, make sure you’ve still done your job fully and brought the story to its most satisfying conclusion. Which brings me to the next tip…
10. Take good care of your stories. You’re the first set of ears so listen to them intently and let them do the guiding. On Love Me we deal with a lot of intimate material. Stories that deal with trauma and big feelings. But never do we hide the fact that these stories are edited and manipulated for maximum effect. This past season we featured the story of a man, Kurt, who is asked by his father-in-law to build him a coffin, because he’s dying of cancer. We went through many many versions of the piece until we felt satisfied we had found the version that spoke most to the core of Kurt’s experience. But we were still nervous about how he would receive the final piece. After he heard it, he sent us this email that I have printed on my fridge. It said: “You take good care of your stories. It’s good work – I think it’s sacred work.” Sounds so simple but it really brought home what our job in all this is. To take good care of stories.