LONDON — When Douglas Adams created the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978, he wanted it to sound like a rock album. Instead of the traditional “Door slam A, door slam B, footsteps on a gravel path and the odd comic boing,” Adams thought the voices, music and effects should seamlessly orchestrate to “create a coherent picture of a whole other world.”
BBC studio managers achieved this using analog recording and digital effects equipment of the time. Today, 44 years later, digital audio workstations such as Avid Pro Tools featuring the latest processing plug-ins allow writers and engineers to create imaginative and otherworldly soundscapes faster and far more easily. Audio program makers exploiting this technology include comedian and writer Jon Holmes. His dark topical comedy, The Skewer, has won awards for its unsettling, twisted manipulation of news clips, edited together with jarring juxtapositions over a montage of sound effects and music.
From its pilot episode in 2019 and first full series the following year, The Skewer has been recognized not only for its material — being nominated in the Chortle Awards 2019, winning second place for Best Radio Podcast at the British Podcast Awards 2020, silver at the New York Festival Radio Awards 2021 and gold two years running for Best Comedy at the Radio Academy Awards (2021 and 2022) — but also the audio production. Awards include Best Sound Designer (gold) for Holmes and his technical partner Tony Churnside in the Audio Production Awards 2020, the Sound Art award at the New York Festival Radio Awards 2020, and silver in 2021.
The team behind the sound
Churnside’s technical creative prowess emerged when he worked for BBC R&D at its MediaCityUK labs in Salford, where he was involved in developing object-based audio for radio production. After that, he went freelance.
Holmes’ company, Unusual Productions, produces The Skewer for BBC Radio 4 and now BBC Sounds as a podcast. Holmes has been a regular name and voice for the broadcaster since the late 1990s, appearing on another topical comedy, The Now Show, and creating and co-presenting Listen Against with newsreader Alice Arnold. That show took clips from news bulletins and re-edited them for satirical and comic effect, a technique now used in The Skewer. Holmes comments, “radio has always been my thing” and that he has “always played with sound.” This is reflected in his taking a degree in English with radio, film and television at Canterbury Christ Church University, where he also worked on student station C4 Radio (now part of CSR 97.4FM).
The Skewer has won awards for its unsettling, twisted manipulation of news clips, edited together with jarring juxtapositions over a montage of sound effects and music.
In coming up with The Skewer, Holmes wanted to take the style of Listen Against further. Gone is the linking material from a presenter, with the different items flowing into each other. The approach is similar to Chris Morris’ cult insert Blue Jam, broadcast on BBC Radio 1 during the late ’90s, which was a succession of sketches performed by actors mixed over a bed of ambient music. The Skewer has the same seamlessness style, but assembles the different segments using speech clips from other programs, playing complementary music and effects in between or behind.
“Jon’s pitch for The Skewer was a ‘satirical river of sound,’ but also a topical comedy,” comments Churnside, “which threw me a little.” Despite that, Churnside soon came up with a methodology for assembling and producing the program, which, as well as featuring Holmes’ material, encourages listeners to contribute segments, either as finished “soundscapes” or ideas that Churnside manipulates.
Using binaural techniques
Another element of The Skewer that sets it apart from other radio comedy shows is that it features binaural techniques. Consequently, the show encourages people to listen on headphones as elements of the sound move or appear from different directions. “We use a mixture of stereo and binaural elements,” says Churnside.
“I mix the show using a pair of Sennheiser HD25 headphones; we gear the whole thing towards headphone listening. In general, I’m not a fan of pure binaural as that limits some of the phasing and doubling stereo effects I use in The Skewer. For example, I might take one or two of the keywords from a sound bite, pan them hard left and right and time stretch one slightly to introduce a weird but very wide ‘phasey’ effect. This can be overused, but stuff like this has become a signature of The Skewer’s sound.”
However, there are some instances where Churnside uses pure binaural elements, which are either recorded within the format or binaurally panned. An example of the former is from a few series ago, which featured a door knock that was a binaural dummy head recording. “Even after spending hours mixing it, whenever I heard the knock, I’d turn my head thinking someone was knocking on my studio window,” Churnside laughs. “Sometimes I use binaural panners too, but as our delivery format is a two-channel/stereo file, we can only work with static binaural without any clever head tracking. Until we can deliver in object-based audio, we are stuck to using sparing bits of static binaural.”
Holmes and Churnside mix and edit the show in Pro Tools. Contributions arrive in various formats, including Pro Tools sessions, GarageBand, Audacity and, sometimes, iMovie, either emailed with links to online clips or via Dropbox or WeTransfer. “One of the biggest challenges with The Skewer workflows is just how many formats we work with,” says Churnside. “We have to get everything into Pro Tools as a multitrack, then unpick a lot of it and stitch it back together. It’s from lots of different people, but the art is making it all feel like it belonged to the same program while keeping it immersive, flowing and funny.”
Holmes comments that the aim is to create a single long narrative. “Things have a rhythm and click together,” he says. “It’s about auditory illusions, with sounds going together. The actual news itself is almost secondary to the overall sound, but they still have to work hand-in-hand.” Finished shows are sent to the BBC as WAV files using Signiant Media Shuttle, after which the broadcaster loads them into its playout system.
The author trained as a radio journalist, worked for BFBS Radio as a technical operator, producer and presenter before moving into magazine writing during the late 1980s. In recent years he has got back into radio through his involvement in an RSL station where he lives on the south coast of England.