Dispatches | November 22, 2008

Unlike some things — the UK lottery, apparently — you can’t win our audio contest if you don’t play. If you’re going to play, though, play to win!

The deadline is Dec. 1, and I know what you’re thinking. Not enough time, right? Then you learn that the payout is as much as $1500 for first prize, and you’re like, Oh snap! Plenty of time! So while you’re running through a few vocal warm-up excercises, here are a few helpful hints from an audio contest judge from last year’s contest, yours truly.

Tip #1: Keep it clean
By “it” I mean the quality of the sound in your recording. There were some heartbreaking cases last year when we pressed play and listened to insightful, provocative submissions that had the sound quality of messages left on an answering machine by people driving with the windows down. Does that mean only those who rent studio space to record their submissions can win? No. But as you’re firing up Garage Band and clearing your throat, make sure you’re someplace very quiet. Car honks, dog barks, baby burbles  … all those background noises show up in the file, believe it or not. So do the pops and hisses our lips make when they form p’s and s’s, not to mention that gooey, moist, peeling sound human lips make when they separate after period-sized pauses. My friend Richie Narvaez, an expert podcaster and the editor of The Journal of Asinine Poetry, suggests shelling out for a USB mic, pointing out that there are decent ones to be found online for less than $100. He also recommends alluringly dressing the mic in pantyhose to take the edge off those popping p’s.

Tip #2: Avoid drawing our Ira
OK, I admit it. I’m a sucker for This American Life just like most of the other white, middle class, university-employed liberals I know. It’s a ridiculously good show. In fact, at this very moment in a different window on my desktop, last week’s episode is downloading away through Itunes. I’ve seen TAL host Ira Glass on tour. I have his comic book. I’m pretty sure it was his bespectacled face that materialized in my oatmeal this morning. But as much as I can’t get enough of my Notorious I.G. (that’s my little name for him … Ira Glass, that is), I find that when people try to sound like him it doesn’t go so well. Instead, try to sound like yourself, with your own speech patterns and inflections and brilliant little allegorican waxings.

Not to say that the Ira Glass method isn’t worth learning. One of my (numerous and frequent) Ira Glass Google searches turned up some inspiring and helpful interview footage. Check it out if you want, but remember that this is one party where you have to bring your own flavor.

Tip #3: Own it
Say you used to have this crappy job taking reservations for a hotel chain, and you discovered pretty quickly that there were situations where people needed help — a family of five whose car broke down in a thuderstorm, for instance — but certain policies, such as the two-night min. stay rule, would have prevented you from assisting them … unless you went rogue! You defied your gluttonous corporate employer, vowing henceforth to help weary, defensless travelers whenever possible! What a sweet audio essay that would make! And just as your voice reaches crescendo at the story’s triumphant climax, where you relate how you gave everybody who called that night a travel agent discount and quit in a really spectacular way, up comes the Robin Hood theme song. Freaking epic, right?

Not so much, because you don’t own the rights to the Robin Hood theme song. So remember, if you don’t own the rights to the music in your piece, we can’t accept it, even if it rules.

There are other options for sprucing up your submission with sound, like creating a background loop in Garage Band or another audio program. Or if you’re friends with someone in a band (chances are good that you are), a little pestering and some shpiel about “free promotion if I win” might go longer than you’d think. Plus, there’s always the Internet; a quick Google search for “free royalties free music” came up with gobs of results. None of them quite match Michael Kamen’s soaring Robin Hood score, but it’s not really about the music, anyway, is it?