From script conversion to editing & mastering, a great deal of care goes into each and every Soundbooth Theater production. “The Making of” is a new in-depth SBT blog series designed to give listeners an inside look at how our various series and serials get made, and all the work that goes into getting them to jump off the page and into your earholes. Got a particular title you’d like to see featured here? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.
At Soundbooth Theater, we pride ourselves on our dramatized productions, currently known as Audio Deep Dives (though stay tuned for big changes on that front, coming next month…). “What is an Audio Deep Dive?” you might be wondering to yourself. Glad you asked!
While all our productions are immersive, Deep Dives — our answer to audio dramas — take it to the next level. Each one boasts multiple actors, a composed soundtrack, full sound effects engineering, and a consolidated manuscript to maintain the flow and tone of the action.
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There’s a lot about Kaiju Battlefield Surgeon that sets it apart from other GameLit/LitRPG titles. While there’s no shortage of gallows humor, KBS is many shades darker than Dinniman’s other works, (including a little series you might’ve heard of called Dungeon Crawler Carl). It leans heavily into the horror genre and features a lot more gore than many GameLit fans are used to.
Episode One, “The Mural,” sets the overall premise in motion with a bang. Duke, a starving artist with a litany of problems looming over him, has been commissioned to paint a mural for a pay-out of $15,000. The catch? In order to see what the client wants him to paint, Duke must jump into the VR video game, Kaiju Battlefield Surgeon, and “experience” the game. What he finds after loading into the virtual world is far more than he’d signed up for. It’s too much…
Trapped in a bloody, merciless nightmare, Duke only has one goal — to survive. And in order to survive, he must play the game. He must win the game. And to do that, he must become the cruelest, most ruthless monster of them all.
Content Warning (this one’s for real…): Kaiju Battlefield Surgeon covers a variety of mature themes, contains vivid descriptions/depictions of gore and violence of all sorts — physical, emotional, and mental. To be frank, it’s not for the faint of heart. You have been warned. Are your faces prepared yet?
Matt first approached our CEO & Lead Narrator, Jeff “El Jefe” Hays, about KBS back when Dungeon Crawler Carl was but a twinkle in his eye. In Matt’s own words, “When the book first came out, I talked a little with Jeff about Soundbooth possibly adapting it. Sales, however, were only lukewarm, and he passed on it. It had two major strikes against it for the LitRPG crowd; it was a standalone and it was horror-based.”
As much as Jeff wanted to take on KBS, he felt it was too much of a gamble financially. Ultimately, Tantor picked it up for an audiobook narrated by Joe Hempel. While Hempel did a great job, neither Matt nor Jeff gave up on the idea of someday being able to bring KBS to SBT.
Achievement Unlocked: Metamorphosis
A couple years later, with the success of DCC, Matt and Jeff were finally able to figure out a way to move forward. “… Since the audiobook already existed, we needed to make it a full-on audio drama,” Matt says, “A different product all together. I really liked the idea of it. Plus, I love hearing what you guys come up with in terms of gross, squishy noises.”
It ended up being a blessing that we needed to do it as a Deep Dive; “This genre kinda lends itself to the over-the-topedness [sic] that can come with hammy audio drama,” Matt adds.
Creating something that could capture the absolute horror that is KBS requires seamless collaboration — our cast and crew need to be on the same page both figuratively and literally every step of the way.
Converting: Manuscript to Script, a Refinement…
The first step of the adaptation process is script conversion. Aurelia Vazquez, one of our seasoned script converters, worked side-by-virtual-side with Jeff on this feat. “… I did [the full manuscript] at once,” Aurelia says, “Then, later, it was broken into episodes, and I transferred Jeff’s FX, Music, Setting, and Direction notes into the episodes.”
A hallmark of most audio dramas is that they contain little to no narration. In order to convert a manuscript, Aurelia and Jeff transcribe the dialogue and figure out how to convey what is described in the narration between the dialogue using sound, music, and more dialogue. In many ways, this is one of the most critical parts of the process. “You can’t just take a regular book and straight turn it into an audio drama without lots of tweaking,” Matt adds, “And Duke, the main character, is going through all this stuff while he’s alone with nobody to talk to in a lot in this, which is extra challenging. The story is tighter, more raw. In regular, vanilla audiobooks, they read everything, including all the ‘he saids,’ and ‘she saids.’ That’s not what they do here. It’s literally a movie without images.”
While this complicated adaptation practice may sound like a Herculean feat, perhaps the most difficult part of the process for Aurelia was deciphering Jeff’s margin notes, which he scrawled using a stylus.
Settings: Audio Dictation Enabled
Once the scripts had been created, it was time for Jeff and the other voice actors to record their lines. Similar to how he produces a Classic Audiobook that he’s narrating, Jeff records his lines first, and then the other voice actors add their lines. Members of the Jeff Hive will notice a huge difference between the tone with which he approaches KBS compared to his other titles. “The writing and circumstances led to that change,” Jeff says, “Duke is tired before he lands in the game. He’s mourning his son, struggling to retain his relationship with his wife — who blames him for the death of their son — and he can’t bring his daughter back into his family. On top of all that, he’s struggling as an artist… now he’s just in hell.”
“Whenever I’m narrating from Duke’s perspective, I just picture him exhausted and covered in grime, always feeling disgusting or in the muck,” Jeff adds. But maintaining such a dour tenor consistently is not without its challenges. “It’s hard to bring that energy of misery and suffering to a character (and to a narrative) without being a drain to listen to. I had to find a way to mix the despair and exhaustion into Duke’s motivation to move on, to show how desperate he is to move on with his life and get out of this situation. Somber and miserable with drive is a tricky thing to pull off.”
But pull it off he has, if we do say so ourselves. And his poignant performance inspires the other voice actors on the series, Annie Ellicott, Andrea Parsneau, Dorrie Sacks, Will Watt, Harlan Guthrie, Justin Thomas James, Gary Furlong, and Hannibal Hills. For every episode, Jeff hosts one-on-one directed sessions with each actor. Approximately 95% of the voice actors’ lines (besides Jeff’s, of course) that make it into the final version of an episode are recorded during these sessions. The remaining lines are delivered during the retake process.
You Have Added a New Skill: Spaghetti Practice
Before you go getting your parmesan cheese ready, you should know that “Spaghetti Practice” is a term Jeff coined to describe how the man, the myth, the eldritch legend, Ahmed Mahmoud, achieves aural gore. Spoiler alert: he uses pasta. But squishy carbs aren’t the only inspiration for our Director of Sound’s no-holds-barred KBS sound design.
“For KBS the primary concern was the story,” Ahmed says, “It’s more of a horror thriller, so it’s the twists and turns that inspire the more shocking elements within the sound… We also work really hard to capture the ambient environment. In the old kaiju films [like Godzilla and King Kong], no one ever went inside the kaiju. So, we have to take our cues from the writing when we think about what it would be like to be inside a monster.”
Of course, a lot of imagination goes into creating the soundscape as well. “We take a lot of inspiration from ultrasounds and underwater sounds,” Ahmed explains, “Imagining a city inside of a body does a lot too, given that we’re spending a lot of time in the literal guts of a beast. To make the world really come alive for the listener, we focus on maximizing the more minor things. For example, how would a vein sound from inside a body? We created that sensation by inter-layering big, rich sounds — like a real river and the flowing of blood enlarged through sound. It’s the Ant-Man effect of taking something that we as people hear really ‘small’ and then making it larger than life.”
Is That Boss Music We Hear?
To round out the KBS universe, Ahmed works closely with Aaron J. Morton, our Lead Composer. For Aaron, sometimes the key to achieving the “in-game” feeling that so many people love about KBS is not trying to achieve that feeling at all. “There are certainly a couple of instances where ‘in-game’ was the objective,” Aaron says, “But I will say the score is dedicated to being music for the story… it’s intended to help the audience understand the emotional side of what’s going on, rather than being a ‘functional’ part of the story.”
Since Aaron receives the audio files with all the dialogue and many of the sound effects already in place, he has a lot to draw from to help inform his musical vision. “My favorite part of the process is when the SFX intersect with some really awesome musical moments to create adrenaline for the listener.” As for his favorite pieces of music from the series? He’s partial to a piece used in darker situations that contains a live cello solo from Tulsa-based cellist, Austin Pendergrass. He’s also really proud of the incredible main theme music.
Once all the dialogue, SFX, and music are finalized, Sound Engineer extraordinaire, Richard Smith handles Editing & Mastering. The purpose of this step is to make sure each episode is up to our high standards, regardless of how one listens to it (i.e., headphones, in the car, etc.). After that, the final audio files are handed over to the web team, so they can prepare the product page on our website and the SBT Direct app. From there, it’s up to our Marketing & Communications team — aka the same fools responsible for this blog post — to sound the alarm that the new episode is ready!
With the penultimate episode coming out this Thursday (September 29, 2022), you might be asking yourself what’s next for Matt Dinniman beyond DCC. Or perhaps you’ve listened to the series and are now wondering what the hell is wrong with Matt Dinniman? Either way, we have the answer:
“I’m just getting started,” Matt threatens, “The version that published is much more toned down than what I had in the first draft. I will always consider myself a horror author first. I am fascinated with the ideas presented to us in books like Hellraiser or the short story ‘The Jaunt’ by Stephen King. Where death is the happy ending, and that there are things out there much, much worse than anything we can imagine. That’s the playground I choose to explore. So, what’s wrong with me? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me. Or maybe it was just Catholic school.”
You heard it here first.
REMINDER: Kaiju Battlefield Surgeon is still free for just two more days. Starting Thursday, September 29, each episode will have a price tag. Get the first ten episodes free while you can.