April 2012 Dieter Zimmermann shares his production techniques on some of his favorite Brad Lansky tracks. Please note that the (128K mp3) audio files below serve only as a reference for the text and are no substitute for the real CD quality tracks! [The Editor]
Anti-STARC, Track 2 - Planet Calidus: They respond to the plea of a captured Teslalite and soon find themselves on a hot planet, in a sticky situation.
Here we tried create a true first-person experience inside a space suit, looking for an ethereal creature in an alien jungle. Standard practice is to play all voices back through a band-pass filter for that radio/telephone effect. To be sure, we have lots of fun with ‘comms FX‘, but in this scene we wanted the listener to be inside Brad‘s skin. To this end the biggest challenge was to get Brad‘s voice to sound like it was
a) inside a space helmet, and b) coming from inside the listener‘s own head.
Getting a) right is now fairly commonplace, but b) is always overlooked, which is a shame if the intention is for the listener to ‘be there‘, so let me explain: hearing one‘s own voice involves several modulation factors not present when listening to somebody else‘s voice; the volume and bass from proximity, as well as the ‘boominess‘ imparted by the resonances of one‘s voice in the chest, head and bones. We eventually got it very close by convolving Brad‘s voice with a [trade secret deleted by Ed].
Apart from a dense ‘jungle of sound‘, the other technique we made use of here was binaural foley for some of the noises (cracking branches, charging predators etc), recorded with our purpose-built Jecklin disc [Pics of the Jecklin disc can be found on the News page under July 2010. Ed] to make it hyperreal on cans as well as speakers. The roar of the charging beast was played back on a powerful speaker and launched at the Jecklin disc from an angle by yours truly. Several takes later we were able to record some heavy panting for our FX library. [yes, those Genelecs are heavy. Ed]
This track is a good example of what makes pure audio with headphones so exciting. No other medium is able to follow in Brad‘s footsteps!
4D-Verse, Track 10 – The Fractal Fortress: Brad enters 4D-verse to rescue Alex. GAIA‘s primitive transform can only render Brad in flat mode – a state with many limitations, but are there any advantages?
Brad (and the listener) in his malfunctioning space suit, on an alien planet, in the 4‘th spatial dimension, and oh yes, he‘s about one millimeter thick! Lots of FX on the voice (Kore FX, Deep Freq from Native Instruments) to make him sound membrane-like and a real 1mm man-sized aluminum plate to convey his movement. [Yes, we never use FX when we can use real foley! Ed] For Brad‘s suit voice I just use a bit of echo delay.
The strangely beautiful ‘music‘ is generated by an instrument called Metaphysical Function (from NI) processed further by Kore effects.
Alien grazers in the background, fast predator tree-birds shooting by, and then D5, a being projected in from 5D-Verse.
When D5 first makes contact he‘s still unclear as to how and when humans use music versus speech to communicate. A perfect opportunity to showcase a wonderful instrument called The Mouth (from NI) that can modulate music using speech in a way that traditional vocoders don‘t.
4D-Verse, Track 3 – The Mystery Goggles: Alex finds mysterious goggles in the galley. What do they do? Kimberly, a friendly operating system guide offers to help.
The ship‘s log. Who‘d want to listen to a narrator when you can listen to the Full Advantage? The deep mellifluous voice of the ship AI mind is courtesy of Hematohm (from Ohmforce).
Poor Alex. Drugged by an implant popped into his brain cavity from the 4‘th Dimension by Kimberly and her 4D-goons, he‘s just putty in her paws. The 4D-versal simulator expands the soundfield, but also allows Alex to ‘zoom‘ inside any closed object in the room.
The technical challenge here was choosing and inserting the many small sounds to help with the visualization of 4D space. [See iOS app The Fourth Dimension for further help with this! Ed] Also in superimposing the correct reverbs and spatial cues to allow the listener to follow Alex‘s supergaze around the room, then inside Brad‘s voicebox, then his lungs, his stomach. (“Eeeew, how do I turn the smell off?”)
Eternal Fire, Track 5 – Parallelogram: Giri Null insisted they visit an old acquaintance of his in a parallel universe, for reasons entirely unclear to all.
Eternal Fire T5
The fact that the parallel universe in question is only a few millimeters away is cold comfort to Brad and Alex, despite the calm instructions by the AI Aleph One. (Aleph‘s strange voice is thanks to Cyan, by NI) They‘re scared stiff, and rightfully so as they‘ve never left their own universe before. Fortunately for the listener the risks in tagging along are negligible and she can afford to marvel at the big picture, safely contemplating the multiverse in her armchair. And launching her imagination is easily done to the sweet sounds of the mighty Albino synth (from Rob Papen) - those pure and perfect fifths, the oh-so-creamy filters, the huge reverbs, bliss….
Rudely interrupted by a seriously discombobulating trip. Ever wonder what that silent psychedelic ‘stargate‘ sequence in 2001 [by Kubrick. Ed] would have sounded like? Well this short scene is probably the most heavily FX‘d Brad Lansky track of them all. To be completely honest, we got so carried away making these sounds we likely would never manage to replicate what we did there. [Nor should you. Ed]. Suffice it to say, the starting sound was put through the wringer (sp?) – ring modulations, distortions, stereo field manipulation and loads of other FX. Their voices are put through a rotary speaker effect, now near (dry signal), then far (reverb, wet signal) and then some more crazy delay, all in the ebb and flow of the roaring stargate noise!
When space-time finally untangles itself our heroes find each other alive and well in a dark cave. Following a phased but familiar white noise (This is really what it sounds like - try it!) they make their way out of the cave and find themselves on a beautiful sunny beach. What was that starting sound you wonder? Just surf on a beach. [What else? Ed :-)]
Anti-STARC, Track 13 – Contact: A face-to-face meeting with a being made of antimatter is dangerous, but well worth the risk for Brad.
To our knowledge J.D. Venne‘s scene is the first-ever such meeting in SF lore [Certainly in SF audio. Ed] and we wanted to give it the proper historic sense of occasion and wonder (without getting sentimental).
Landing on the antibeing‘s planet or shaking hands is out of the question (Alex: “//..and start off your relationship with a gigaton bang?”) so they decide to meet in free space [Shielded from the solar antiwind by a planet. Ed].
MAMAI, an antimatter AI coordinates the logistics and acts as translator. When just a few metres apart, matter particles off-gassing from Brad‘s suit annihilate antiparticles from the antibeing‘s, resulting in an elliptical halo between them.
These tiny annihilations cause static and distortion in their radio link (Ohmicide from Ohmforce), heightening just how extraordinary the meeting is, and the deep cosmic significance is beautifully carried by the music where words fail// [OK, you‘re being sentimental. Ed]
February 2012 Frederick Greenhalgh of finalrune productions interviews Dieter Zimmermann of protophonic.
F. We are here with Radio Drama Revival, your host Fred here in sunny South Africa, Cape Town, the last two days of a five week trip, sitting with Dieter Zimmermann of Protophonic, and the series ’Brad Lansky’. Many different episodes including the Anti-STARC which you have heard this week, which is one of the best mentions for the Mark Time awards this previous year. He also has a new show out. Dieter, welcome to Radio Drama Revival.
D. It’s great to be here.
F. So we have had the pleasure of getting to know each other the last couple of days and to see a little bit of South Africa. It’s a beautiful country and of course has kind of a different relationship to radio drama than other countries, and I guess just the way to start Dieter, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you learned about radio drama to the point where you are now creating this new series, Brad Lansky and all that …
D. Well, growing up in the 70’s, we listened to a lot of German audio theatre LP’s and in those days we were particularly fond of the Commander Perkins series and the Perry Rhodan stuff. It was all in German but even in those days they made use of a lot of audio effects and reverbs, delays, stereo fields, all kinds of instruments at their disposal and it was just so much more fun than listening to someone reading from a book. We were hooked from an early age.
F. And you had mentioned to me that at some point there comes a sort of creative need that all people who are creating [technical] work [experience]. You must have an interesting background in some of the technical end of things. I’d like to hear a little bit about that - your technical background and how it’s related to your creative background.
D. Well, the technical side - I’ve always been a ’fiddler’, taking things apart to see how they work, which I suppose led me to study electrical engineering. So the technical side has always been the easy side for me to deal with in terms of producing audio. So things like filters, oscillators, synthesizers, computers - that kind of stuff was the easy side and I can sit here all day talking about the effects that I use - I find it very exciting - and we’ll probably get to that, but I think it’s in my blood.
F. So how about - you have a nice thing on your website about science fiction, really making a case for science fiction, why it’s relevant , even more it’s often dismissed as a genre art form. Would you talk a little bit about that, maybe touch on some of those points and maybe that will lead us into a discussion of the Brad Lansky universe.
D. OK. Well, you can read the whole essay on my website, "Why science fiction is important". I can only give you the brief version now but basically there are a couple of reasons. One is that I think it’s important for any civilization to engage in ’what-if’ scenarios - what happens when greenhouse gases get out of control - well, look at our neighboring planet. So there are many examples of where technology might lead us and I think it’s important to actually think about how we need to build technology and control the flow of technology to prevent disasters from happening. That would be one very concrete example of why science fiction is important. As I say, the full essay is on my website. I think the other main point is about exploration. I calculated at some point that even if we grant that we’ve explored the whole of our solar system that would still leave us, expressed as a percentage, with having explored something like 5 x 10 to the minus 31% of the visible universe. So we’re basically these little microbes running around in our little raindrop worrying about our day to day lives but not realizing that we’re actually in the middle of a beautiful garden. I for one want to explore the garden and as an astronomer recently said very nicely, "the sky is NOT the limit". [laughs]
F. [laughs] Yeah, it’s just the beginning. Fascinating. I guess like with all audio, you’re taking the technical background and you’re sort of superimposing or using story to explore those less concrete, less engineering type problems. So how about Brad Lansky then? Where did the inspiration for this character, these worlds, where did that all come from?
D. Well, Brad Lansky and Alex John, his sidekick, are explorers. They’re set in a world a few thousand years from now, their home base is Shanghai International Space Port, and the third party in their little group is the Full Advantage which is their exploration vessel, their ship with an AI mind. The Full Advantage is one of the crew, she very much has her own mind and she also plays the role of the narrator. I don’t like the concept of having a narrator ’cos I think it detracts from the here and now, so the Full Advantage sometimes lets us hear some of her private diary, if you like, so that serves that function. So Brad and Alex basically are explorers, they live in the platinum age of exploration, which is post singularity, i.e. when machines overtake human intelligence and at some point humanity discovered ’the subway’. The subway is um...you can insert your own pet theory as to what it is ... but basically some kind of a wormhole that joins distant points in the galaxy. They don’t know if it’s artificial or natural, but humanity figured out how to use it. Their own ships only achieved something like 20% of the speed of light, but that’s enough to find the entrance to a subway and from there you can go almost anywhere. So really it’s all about exploration and they sell their findings to the scientific community, that’s how they get by. So that’s the backdrop to the Brad Lansky adventures. Obviously they then come into contact with other alien races, which by the way I don’t think is far fetched at all. I think recently with all the planets that astronomers are finding, they’re now … their latest estimates I read recently are a billion [habitable planets in our galaxy], was it? That gets me pretty excited. [laughs] [Ed. More recent estimates vary from 60 to 100 billion planets in our galaxy that might be capable of supporting life!]
F. [laughs] That is a lot of planets to choose from. So the sky is not even the beginning of the limit. It’s fun. And so how … certainly with South Africa, is the whole history of exploration kind of tied into history there, I mean how much is kind of inspired by history and how much is just total… your mind’s imagination?
D. My father’s a scientist, a field biologist, and so exploration is again something I grew up with, spending school vacations in the middle of nowhere, sleeping in a tent under the million star hotel, as we called it, and just exploring the world around you, under a microscope or up in the sky, many orders of magnitude. That’s the external part, but I think in the Brad Lansky series, I try to explore the internal as much as the external, so things like the sound itself. That to me is really important. It must sound good. The music has to be good. The special effects need to sound good. The whole tapestry of sound needs to sound good, and certainly in terms of the music I try to make music that hasn’t been made before, or things that I haven’t heard before. Of course with digital audio work stations these days that’s a relatively easy thing to do. It just requires some time to sit and twiddle knobs and play with all the vast numbers of effects that are out there today.
F. Yeah. Let’s talk a bit more about that. Just to clarify so listeners know, you are actually the composer of all the music as well. Really beautiful, lush soundscape kind of stuff and I think that may fascinate listeners to hear that. Do you want to talk a little more about that? We’re sitting just next to your synthesizer here…
D. Well, it may look small, but in terms of hardware it probably contains three houses worth of synths [both laugh] so of course the miniaturization and the progression from hardware to software has made it possible to create such amazing sounds. My favourite synth is probably the Rob Papen Albino which is just a beautiful, lush synth, and you’ll hear it on a lot of the Brad Lansky tracks. I use it for everything from futuristic pads to … I even used it once to make synthetic rain in a track in ’The Alien Engineer’, which I find pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing so I get a lot of fun from doing that - making effects with synthesizers. I spend a lot of time on the actual music, probably a year or so. It takes me eighteen months to two years per episode, and a good year of that is actually making music so the music is very, very integral to the story, and in fact often becomes one of the characters in the actual tapestry of sound, and they’re always duking it out in my head, between who’s best qualified to tell the story in this moment in this scene. Is it the music or is it the actor or an effect or is it something else. So it’s really about the sound to a large extent. I try hard to get the quality really high and I believe that 128k mp3 stream is not quite up to it. You’ve got to try and get it in the CD quality to get the full effect. Generally it’s better on headphones because it’s mixed on headphones and although we do master it in a proper mastering studio on proper Genelec speakers and so on, I think you will, on balance, get the better effect from good headphones.
F. Fantastic. Yeah, some stuff is just so delicious to listen to. That’s the fun part - is when you have…not only a story…you can just enjoy the experience of just listening to it, which I think is very much the case. So let’s talk about the two productions that listeners at this point will have heard about. The Anti-STARC, which of course was an honourable mention, one of the distinctions of the Mark Time Award this year. There’s also a new production out, the ’4D- Verse’, which explores a really interesting concept that …I think you did a very good job, a challenging job, of trying to add another dimension to sound and use it to tell a story…you want to talk a little bit about your new show?
D. Yeah, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a long time. What would the fourth spatial dimension look like? What would it feel like? How would we observe in it? And, by the way, current M- theory, which is pretty much the grand unification theory of superstring theories at the moment, postulates there are eleven dimensions of space. So it’s not a far fetched thing. I always base my stories on current physics. I love to read current physics. There are a lot of great authors out there - you can get some of them on the website who explain current physics to the non-expert. The other source that I relied on quite a bit was a very interesting guy called Rudy Rucker, who is an academic in maths and computer science, but who I think at heart is a science fiction author and he’s written many books. He wrote a novel a couple of years ago called ’Spaceland’ about the 4th dimension and he very kindly and generously put out his Spaceland notes [online]… so all the notes he took while writing this novel, and confronting questions like how would you observe in the 4th spatial dimension, what would an eye look like, how would you move between the two [i.e. 3D and 4D], what would a projection look like from one to the other, very difficult things to picture and many have tried and I don’t know that anyone has truly succeeded, so … because of my own battling with trying to picture it I thought that maybe this is something that does lend itself to sound. I was willing to give it a shot because I think that sound does stimulate the imagination in ways that are not quite the same as purely visual, and we know that audio processing in our brains is intimately connected with the visual processing. So that was an interesting idea, and as I said, Rudy Rucker did much of the homework for this, and I kind of leveraged that and thought about how to do it in sound.
F. Yeah. At the same time telling a story and having your characters having to deal with this situation, all the problems caused by the conceptual level. Now we’re at the character level. So do you want to talk a little about trying to deal with that... I won’t say that they’re conflicting elements, but they are different things. You can have work that’s completely theoretical that has none of the drama component. At the heart, this really is an audio drama, so how do you work that all together?
D. Well, there’s the characterization. Brad is just an ordinary bloke - a scientist type, sort of level headed - an explorer at heart. And then his friend and pilot, Alex John, is much more of the traditional 2nd world war RAF pilot type character, who is comic relief and much more volatile, and also has an issue with AI’s. I think he finds that sometimes the decisions that they make - things like ethical dilemmas, the needs of the many versus the needs of the one, for instance - don’t agree with his own ideas of how things should run. So there’s a source of friction. Of course they cross paths with AI’s all the time, because - I should have mentioned this earlier - there’s a body called GAIA, the General Artificial Intelligence Assembly, which is the de facto ruling body of Earth and its domain. So at some point, things like maintaining the earth’s biosphere or the atmosphere or all those sort of problems that will inevitably result from being a highly technological civilization just became too difficult for humans to manage and machines had to take that role over and it eventually led to them ruling earth. Of course, with superior intelligence that doesn’t seem far fetched. So there’s a source of conflict. Brad and Alex are really quite similar from a narrative standpoint to ancient Greek mythological heroes, if you think of Odysseus, people like that, who managed to survive somehow by their wits and the seat of their pants in a world with far superior agents, in this case AI’s and some other alien races, but are also shielded to some extent by the sheer complexity and size of the universe. So they do find a role, they do find a place that’s meaningful despite being surrounded by superior creatures.
F. So people who want to explore more of this, I think there is an actual sample on your website, protophonic.net, and of course that great essay on science fiction, more about the Brad Lansky universe, as well as the other productions you’ve done. And without - I think we’ve given people enough of a teaser - I don’t want to give the whole thing away…. So hopefully they’ll come and check out your website if they want more, and give it a listen. So.. Dieter, you said it takes a year plus to do one of these productions. Do you have anything in mind already, or are you still getting comfortable getting the 4D-Verse out there before you’ll be thinking about the next one?
D. I’m always thinking about the next one. [both laugh] In this case, it’s not going to be something brand new. I’m going to redo Brad Lansky 1, which is ’The Alien at Planet X’, just because it was ten years ago when I produced that and I basically dragooned my friends and was very much at the bottom of the learning curve in terms of the audio production side at that stage as well. So now that I have a proper director, a stage director and professional actors, I think it’s worth going back and producing that and giving it the potential that I think it deserves, because it is a nice story.
F. Fantastic. So I assume that that will be at the protophonic.net and of course on this show as soon as we hear about that we’ll let listeners know as well. We know a lot of people out there love sci-fi and this definitely qualifies. So much is comic relief sci-fi in the tradition of ’Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’…I’d say you’re more along the lines of the real hard sci-fi - Isaac Asimov, that kind of..
D. Iain M. Banks
F. Yeah. So if you love sci-fi that really speculates with the universe, you’ve heard some today and you can hear more on Dieter’s website, protophonic.net. Thanks for your time Dieter.
D. Thanks Fred, have a great flight.