The producers of Here Be Monsters have been writing about some of their favorite unusual, eerie and mysterious sounds. Here, Here Be Monsters’ host and producer Jeff Emtman writes about how he worked with sounds for a piece about Scientology.
On a recent episode of Here Be Monsters, we looked into rumors regarding the whereabouts of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. On the episode, I worked with archival tape of an important event in Scientology’s history—a 1986 address given by the (now) leader of Scientology, David Miscavige. The then 25-year-old stood in front of a crowd of thousands and announced the death of L. Ron Hubbard. In his address, he discusses Hubbard’s worldly persistence, even after his death.
This tape is now over 30 years old, and between the challenges of 1980’s recording technology, years of analog decay, poor digitization, and the additional compression given by YouTube, using this tape for the episode was an interesting labor. But, despite the technical challenges, there’s a kind of joy in using this old material.
Below are a few pieces of sound that became important in telling the story of L. Ron Hubbard.
While the stage is still empty, strange and grandiose vocal music plays, moving between three notes, each just a half-step apart. This shows the church’s branding at the time, which had a certain 1980’s je ne sais quoi to it. This is very different from the church’s modern branding, which is very glossy and has a social-media-savviness. Both are undoubtedly Hollywood-y, but in different ways. I used this music as the backdrop for the piece’s opening. Important for scene-setting, you know?
As Miscavige addresses the crowd, something interesting happens. Miscavige eases into the announcement by first speaking in abstractions, like how Hubbard now existed in an “exterior state.” At different times, different members of the audience began picking up on this. And as Miscavige pauses between sentences, the room mics pick up the sounds of I don’t know what…maybe it’s shock or joy or sadness… I don’t know. But in the episode, I increased the volume in these sections to allow listeners to fully hear what’s happening in the supposed silence.
5 minutes of clapping
After Miscavige ultimately announces that Hubbard’s died, and moved on to conduct further research outside his body, applause breaks out, turns into a standing ovation. Two images of Hubbard fade back and forth on the screen. This applause lasts for nearly five minutes, interrupted only by a couple rounds of “hip hip hooray”s and whistling. In Ascended Fiction, I cut this short, but here you can hear the full thing.
When doing field recordings and interviews, the first thing you’re supposed to gather is “room tone” aka the sound of nothing happening. This allows the editor to fill gaps, make pauses. It just makes everything easier. Because silence is never actually silent and astute listeners will hear those cuts and get distracted by them.
Since I was working with archival tape here, I didn’t have the luxury of recording room tone, so I went on the search for a patch of silence that I could loop under my voice as I faded between me and Miscavige speaking. The “room tone” here is quite noisy, because of the age of the recording and because we were in a room of several thousand–there’s just only so quiet that can be.
Originally I searched for my room tone in the usual spots: beginnings and ends, after sections of applause, during changes of speakers. Eventually though, I fell in love with this one, extra long pause that Miscavige takes between words. He’s thinking about how to say something, and there’s just the tiniest fading up of the room’s noise that happens in this moment. I looped it, which created a very gentle rhythm. It became slightly musical and slightly reminiscent of a cassette tape with worn out gears…a regular “ca-chunk” sound that reminds you of the source material’s vintage every 2.118 seconds. It gave a soft texture for me to speak over.
From an aesthetic perspective, this archival tape was the most exciting thing I got to work with for Ascended Fiction. But it’s not the most exciting element of the episode as a whole. The episode looks into the inability to debunk rumors about a religion which keeps its sacred texts secret.
Listen to the full episode below: