Interview: John Kassab

Once a proud and popular source of entertainment, the radio play has arguably become a bit of a relic of tradition in modern times. Award-winning sound designer John Kassab talks to Matt Fellows about why he is keen to see a resurgence of the format, which brings its own unique set of challenges… 

Australia-born John Kassab has worked on a number of award-winning projects, including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning short film Deeper Than Yesterday and the Oscar-winning animation The Lost Thing.

His most recent project, King of the Egg Cream, is a 10-part serial radio play starring Richard Kind (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire) and Justin Bartha (The Hangover). Set in Brooklyn during the prohibition era and the golden age of radio, the project is a fitting way to bring the medium back into the limelight.

How did you get involved with the project, and what was its primary aesthetic goal?

I was invited onto this project by the writers, Emil and Sigmund Stern, who had heard my work on The Lost Thing. They were keen to make it cinematic and take advantage of advancements in audio technology, but they still wanted to retain an old-world feel. During the peak of this medium in the 1920s, the recording, transition and reproduction frequency bandwidth was very limited and creatively restrictive. Given that this project was created for electronic/web distribution, is pre-recorded and benefited from all the modern advancements in audio technology, it presented an opportunity to create the ultimate radio play production that our golden age predecessors could have only dreamed about.

How did you manage to retain that old world feel while also utilising modern audio technology?

We continuously walked a very fine line between old and new-world sound production aesthetics, as we still wanted to retain the charm and sensibility of the older programmes. This was achieved by being conscious of the stereo image and frequency band. We went wide and full band on the big stuff. We had to gently guide the audience from the narrow comfort of mono with a limited frequency width to the bombastic full width of stereo with all tops and bottoms included, then gently strip away at the layers of sound to contain things back to where they were, leaving the audience none the wiser of this stylistic transition.

Very early on in the process there was the temptation to narrow the frequencies to that of a traditional radio play, but this made for a very boxy listening experience and, given our contemporary listening expectations of what narrative sound should sound like, it was a bit too much style-overkill.

The solution was to make it feel old but make it sound new. This was achieved by limiting the use of bottom-end frequencies. The use of sub bass has very much defined the overall contemporary theatrical film sound aesthetic; given that we were going for an old-world feel, and the plain fact that most people have the bass in their cars turned up way too high, I really had to pick my low frequency moments to retain a bygone aesthetic.

Can you tell us about some of the equipment that was used to achieve this?

The vocals were recorded in isolation booths at Goldcrest, Argot Studios and CDM Studios in New York, and ST5A in LA. At Goldcrest, the vocals were recorded using a Neumann U87 into a Millennium Pre; at Argot Studios a Neumann U89 into a Rupert Neve Portico 5032 was used – applying light compression with a Manley Stereo Variable MU tube compressor – and at CDM recording engineers used a U87 into a Focusrite ISA 220, as well as a Rupert Neve Portico 5015.

The sessions were cut by Emil and Sigmund Stern using Pro Tools, then sent to me for sound design with a list of sounds they would love to hear at the various cues.

We spoke a lot about the technology of the day, which led to a lot of independent research about soundscapes. I collated a library of era-specific sounds, and for stylistic consistency, pre-designed locations to make sure they matched and were stylistically consistent and historically believable. I recorded using a Sound Devices multichannel portable recorder and preamp solution, using a range of instrument or super cardioid microphones for mono effects and small diaphragm match pairs or stereo mics in XY placement for stereo recordings. I also carry a Sony PCM-D50 portable recorder, which I love because of its build quality, low noise, tonal transparency, stereo image flexibility, weighted silent gain control and its wonderful ‘divide’ button, which creates a new file mid-recording with a five second lead up. This is a life saver, particularly when recording stubborn wildlife and other sound events which require patience to capture.

How did you account for the average listener experience?

Given that this project was most likely going to be heard on headphones and through car speakers, I sound designed it on my laptop monitoring though headphones and then cross-referenced it on domestic stereos and in cars. As there was no picture to sync to and no theatre acoustics to replicate in the studio, the portable studio solution was perfect as the session can be taken straight to the car, home stereo, and other listening environments for cross reference and adjustment. Once the designs were complete, the tracks were then delivered for mixing and mastering.

What do you think the future holds for the radio play medium?

I am very excited about the future of radio plays and I am keen to see a resurgence of this long-forgotten medium. Obviously the audiobook and podcast are now with us; these mediums have created more distribution channels and broadened listening audiences, which have readied the market for an onslaught of radio plays. However what excites me most about this medium is that it will allow a greater number of filmmakers to tell their stories through sound. Radio plays give rise to a much cheaper mode of production to tell ambitious stories which would otherwise not be heard.

Photo credit: Solomon Belfort