"As we came to the Platte, the troubled sky turned dark as night and a terrible storm broke upon us,” the narrator intones over the sudden crash of thunder and the sound of falling rain.
“Hand me the whip, ma, I think we’re starting.”
“Keep her going, son, or the current will carry us down river for sure.”
“Come on you ornery long-ears, giddy-up!”
The sharp crack of a whip is followed by the lumbering of wagon wheels, the rasp of hooves on wet gravel, and the clanking of pots as claps of thunder continue to fill the air and the roar of a rain-swollen river is heard in the distance.
Is that not enough to quicken the pulse and kindle the imagination? Will the Morrison family make it safely across the river, or will the next set of sounds be the foundering and breaking apart of their wagon as the raging river sweeps away their hopes for a better life? It all seems so real, but is it?
Well, not exactly. The thunder is a suspended square of sheet metal and the sound of rain is made by pouring BBs slowly into a paper cone. The crack of the whip is a slap-stick, the wagon wheels, the turning of an old ice cream maker, and the hooves are nothing more than coconut shells in a tray of gravel.
Sound effects are to radio what seasonings are to food. They help an ordinary meal—the story—come alive by adding complexity and an element of surprise. And children delight in figuring out how to make just the right sound. In an age of digital entertainment, they love the sensuous pleasures of dialing an old rotary telephone—”Hello, may I speak with Detective Merriweather?— sweeping their fingers across a bell tree as the hero dons his magic cape and disappears, and crumpling cellophane and snapping twigs to simulate a crackling campfire out on the plains.
Recorded sounds can be added as well to further the illusion, the thumping of a steam engine as a boat full of escaping slaves slips past the threatening guns of Fort Sumter, the incessant clatter of a cotton mill as a man photographs the young children who work there, and the sharp reports of rifles and the booming of cannons as a brave woman attends to the needs of wounded soldiers. All add their special magic to the theater of the mind. All come with detailed instructions on how to add sounds to your radio drama production.