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From corn starch to a walk in the snow

Created date

September 8th, 2009

An old pair of hard-sole shoes, two halves of a coconut shell, and a mashed box of corn starch wrapped in duct tape might be junk to most, but for Tom Keith, they're tools of the trade. As the sound effects man for A Prairie Home Companion, he's responsible for the footsteps, door slams, wind gusts, and revving engines that help bring to life the characters and locations in each episode's skits. Like the sound men of radio's glory days, Keith sits beside the actors, moving between props with the choreographed precision necessary to satisfy the scene's rapid succession of sound cues. One second he's clicking coconut shells like the hooves of a trotting horse, and the next he's squeezing a box of corn starch for the sound of footsteps in snow. "This job is kind of like doing a dance," says Keith, who's been with the show since the mid 70s. "I use the rehearsal to practice my movements because sounds can sometimes come very rapidly. I also find it helpful to have all of my instruments in the right order before we go on the air." These instruments are typically everyday items like egg cartons, Styrofoam plates, and small wooden boxes filled with gravel or glass all of which are very effective and easy to get. But discovering them in the first place is what Keith says takes some time and persistence. "My job isn't as much about technique as it is just playing around with different things and figuring out what works best," he explains. "For instance, I found that a wooden frame with a few rows of pegs on it is great for doing the sound of marching feet. If you bring them down at an angle onto a tabletop, they won't hit at the same time, which gives you the barrumph, barrumph, barrumph of marching feet." In the end, that's what makes Keith so important. The sounds he makes using the most ordinary items help give radio listeners an extraordinary show.