The Sound of Podcasting: Scoring & Sound Design
So we talked a little bit about the look of podcasting, and now my favorite, this is actually always my favorite area to talk about, the sound of podcasting. So what are the options for the sound of your show? Can we just throw out, like, just throw out one word. What are the sonic elements of a podcast?
Music. Anyone else?
(laughs) Sponsor breaks, yes. Revenue will come up in a while. What are the other things you hear? Think about your favorite show. What are you hearing in that? Interview. Voice. Sound design, for some. Scenes. Place. Pauses. Yeah, the lack of sound is sometimes an actual tool in the toolbox to use. Absolutely, chemistry, rhythm, all, you know, there's a lot that your ear is gonna pick up on with every show. And I think that, I generally, I generally vote for thinking deeply about the sound in your show. Now, if you have a straight interview show, come on, you're not gonna wanna stick sound effects in there for the sake of having...
sound. But I always remind people to think about why are you doing this in the audio medium, anyway? You could just put a blog out with interviews on it. So what is it about the audio that's bringing this idea to life as a podcast? And never hurts to put some sound in there, some music, give people something to continue to identify your show with. It's great to have a theme song stuck in your head. And then the sound design itself can be very intense and crafted, or it can be very simple but intentional. So we're gonna hear now a few examples of short clips that are either promos for shows or clips from podcasts that I think will give us a nice range of how to approach and think about sound design. So the first one is actually the promo that we made for The Great God of Depression, which in the end was actually very highly sound designed. We had people write music for the podcast, and you'll hear some of that, as well as a bit about what it's about and the host's voice right there. It's all in there for you.
I often felt that there was this other kingdom, like, the night kingdom, that was just on the other side of this world. Like, right now, it's right there. (mysterious music)
In 1998, a brain scientist named Alice Flaherty developed a mysterious mental illness. She couldn't stop writing. She scribbled on walls and even covered her own skin with words. As she tried to figure out what was wrong with her mind, she turned to a memoir by the world-famous author William Styron. He had battled suicidal depression and writer's block.
And it suddenly hit me that what he had was the opposite of what I had.
She didn't know it then, but one day Styron would show up in her office seeking her help because he believed she was the only doctor who could save him. The Great God of Depression is a true story of two conjoined minds and the modern history of madness in America. (mysterious music)
That tail tells you more about what you're in for than maybe all, you know, some of the words in there, as well. So, you know, the point of that promo was to give a sense that there were some dark themes in here, some discordance. We were gonna talk about some, you know, messy subjects. And so I feel like all of that comes through in the sound design. Now, the next clip is from Ear Hustle. This is from an episode called Looking Out. It was our third episode of season one. And the general topic was about caretaking in prison and prisoners who had, were able to develop relationships with animals and insects, and, like, kept pets in prison. So this is at the end, toward the end of the show, Nigel, the co-host, Nigel Poor, who makes the show with Earlonne Woods. Now, Nigel's a volunteer who has been coming into San Quentin for seven years. Earlonne is, lives at San Quentin. He's been there, and he presents the inside story of the podcast. He and Nigel talk to the guys and present the stories together. You're gonna hear them out in the yard asking guys a question that I don't think you would expect to hear from a prisoner.
I know we're talking about deprivation, but there are two things that can never be taken away from you in prison, and that's your fantasies and your memories. So I've got a question for you. Since we've been talking about animals, I'm curious, if you could be an animal, what would you be?
A beluga whale.
(laughs) What? What? Wow.
(laughs) There's no rhyme or reason for it, but it just sounded cool. But we did go to the yard and ask some guys what type of animals would they be.
If I could be any animal, I'd be a penguin. They're super cute in tuxedos, and they're, like, the coolest animals ever. And they slap box like crazy, too.
I would wanna be a panther, and the reason why is I like the sleekness of the animal.
A dog, because I know that someone would adopt me.
A Galapagos turtle, because they live to be over 150 years old.
Lion, 'cause he's king.
Marmot, because they're misunderstood. Everybody thinks they're weasels, and they're not. They're marmots.
I wanna be a water buffalo, because it's diligent, and because it says very little.
It would be a eagle, because they can fly, so that means I would always be free. I would always be safe.
Tiger, 'cause tigers love independence.
A jellyfish, because it has no natural enemies.
I asked Roach what kinda animal he'd wanna be, and his answer is pure Roach.
(laughs) I wanna hear that.
If I could be an animal, any animal, it would be a wish dragon that would only appear when the kid needed it, because my experience with imaginary friends, they were needed. So the thing about being a dragon is they eat meat, and I couldn't do that, so I'd have to be a vegetarian dragon. A thin vegetarian dragon, because I would spend a lotta time looking for food. That's a lotta carrots. That's a lotta apples, oranges. That's just a lot of vegetables. Who's gonna grow those vegetables for a giant dragon? Unless I'm a baby, a tiny dragon. Then I'd just eat a little slice of cheese. I didn't think about that.
So that was actually the clip in the Ear Hustle pilot over the summer that helped, you know, really seal the deal for me that this was gonna be a very special project and go places that we're not used to going and talking about these subjects of incarceration and the criminal justice system in America. But I wanted to point out the sound in that, right? 'Cause it's not that, there's not that much going on. There's some scoring, there's some host banter at the top, and then there's a vox pop, which is, like, a very common tool of the trade. So it's just a matter of editing, right? We need the editors on board to help shape those things and create a cohesive moment in the podcast and those different sonic elements. My next clip is from Criminal. I don't know if anyone in the room listens, but they just put out an episode recently, the most recent one, that was heartbreaking, and it's where they interviewed three of the nation's most accomplished trauma surgeons about how they deal with violent gunshot wounds that are rushed to them. And here's just a couple minutes from that. (mumbles) jump into that.
Do you think that you've gotten tougher over the years?
No, actually, I think it's been harder and harder for me to continue to deal with this after all these years. I don't think it's gotten any easier whatsoever, and I surely know that I have not gotten hardened to it. In fact, I think I've gotten much more sensitive to it.
Why do you think that is?
Because I think there's only a certain number of patients' fathers and mothers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters and kids that you can say, I'm sorry, your loved one has died, and then brace yourself and wait for the wails and the screaming and the overwhelming sadness that follows.
I think it's the worst job in the world to explain to a mom or a family how a child or a loved one who was normal at breakfast is now not here because they've died from an injury. That's the worst.
There's just no good phrase or term to use, but I do think you have to be definitive. I try not to use euphemisms and, you know, say he passed or they're gone or, I think you just, you have to be direct and just tell them specifically that their loved one has died. And it's hard, but they need to hear those words very clearly from you. You know, and then you just gotta try and do what you can to support them. I try whenever I do it to take our chaplain and social worker with us and try to provide some support, but it's never enough.
I told one of the residents the other night that it won't be the long hours and hard work that finally do me in. It will be the emotional strain of telling just one more family member that their loved one has died.
So again, very simple. It's never simple. But to your ear, it's simple production. It's voices and a little bit of music. But what you're not maybe understanding right away, but if you are starting to produce, you will soon, is that so much about those two minutes and I think it's 10 seconds are about the balance of the voices and the order of what you hear. The woman doctor starts and finishes the section, sorta brings it full circle, and Phoebe just asks an elegant question at the beginning and gets outta the way. This is, again, I think a question that you don't often hear doctors talking about, and it's sort of something maybe we've all wondered, how do people in that situation go to work every day and do those things? So I think Criminal is very minimally produced overall, and that is one of its strengths. They, Phoebe is an expert at asking the right questions, kind of getting out of the way, and letting her subjects really tell their stories. But then in the editing, they're figuring out how to put those stories together so as a listener, you take away a very cohesive experience with the show. But yeah, I think the sonic elements in that clip further express what you can do. You can, you know, sort of less is more sometimes. And then we're gonna, because that one is quite heavy, I thought we'd bring it up a little bit and I would just play for you the promo for Everything is Alive, which is, remember, an interview show. So, ultimately. (bright music)
This season on Everything is Alive.
I mean, I was bred to be a killer. I'm a killing machine.
Interviews with inanimate objects.
You know, I'm a mousetrap.
I am a subway seat.
My name is Lewis and I am a can of cola.
You know, I come from a very large family tree, over 100 feet.
Literally a tree.
What they think of themselves and what they think of us.
I have a great function for people who wanna get rid of mice, which is all people.
You know, I spend all day, hopefully, with someone sitting on me, and so the butt is my window to the soul.
Am I just a can? Am I soda? Once the soda's gone, the can remains, but bye-bye me, I think.
Everything is Alive, season one. Coming soon.
All beings endeavor to persist in their own being. Spinosa said that. I heard about that from a cup of coffee.
Radiotopia from PRX.
So very entertaining. You get a sense from the clip that you're gonna enjoy the show. It's gonna bring some joy. There's gonna be some philosophy, some poignant moments, but also a nice balance of humor, I would say. Not even comedy, but humor, right? And you get all of that from that clip, I think. And also he's, you know, playing with the stereotypical deep announcer voice, so there's a lot you can do because your listening audience already has a sense of what things sound like, so you can play with those expectations a little bit. You can subvert those expectations a little bit, which is always fun. But I do wanna point out, I mean, I often fly the flag for sound and thinking about what things sound like. It's so important that you use the medium to your benefit, and also, as makers, that you're listening to other shows and thinking about what are the sonic qualities I'm hearing? What do I like? What do I not like? Get beyond that dichotomy of what do I like and what do I not like. Being able to articulate for yourself what you hear in other podcasts is gonna really help you as you're developing your own. Things you wanna emulate and things you wanna stay away from. So along with that whole sort of sound of podcasting, keep in mind that you will learn a lot from listening to other shows, and it's a very important part of the education and part of the process. Now, you're not, you don't have a lot of time, right? It's hard enough to find the time to make your show. But I think it's, you owe it to yourself to find the time to listen to other shows and get a sense for how other people are doing that. So...
Before we move on...
I wanted to open up and see if anybody in the studio has any questions specifically to sound, just so as we go through, yes, please.
So I loved the clip from Criminal, and it definitely had a tone to it, and I'm wondering, do they interview thinking about the tone of the final product?
Oh, that's a good question. I can't speak for them exactly, but I would say I think they have a very good sense of what the show is about and how it sounds. They're very consistent in the sound of the show. And Phoebe just has a way that's very consistent. She's had a lot of experience interviewing people. And so I think they always have that end product in mind. And that's also what your editor's along for the ride during the interviews, to say, wait, no, ask it again this way. We'll need this for the ultimate episode. I think they're always thinking ahead, but because what they're thinking ahead is such a natural and organic output of what they would make as artists, it's sort of built into the process. But yeah, I think at all times, you're thinking about how is this gonna fit into the end product. So, yeah.
All right. Thanks.
Intentionality at every step of the way just helps.
So my question is more about the music that you hear. Each of the different ones has a little music overlay...
...and they're different, but they're not recognizable. I also listen to podcasts that use popular music.
And so copyright always comes into question.
My area is specifically working with musical theater and mindfulness and mental health, and so obviously copyright is a big question mark...
...in terms of what I can use, how I can use it, et cetera.
So what concerns do you need to be aware of?
(laughs) Stay away from commercial music if at all possible. Now, there are websites out there that have a lotta music that's safe for use with attribute, which is a nice way to give people credit. The Free Music Archive from WFMU is a great tool for that. But I actually think of this creative challenge as a way to meet musicians in your community. Start thinking about what you want. This is where you get to own the sound of your show. If you can work with someone and give them the experience of making work for a podcast, you credit them, they get their next job with that, perhaps. It's really better to have music that you have all rights to and you don't have to worry about anything happening down the road. We have had, you know, labels and interests come back to us on Radiotopia shows and ask for episodes to be taken down because permission wasn't gotten. Now, in some sense, you can say, well, I'm just making a small little podcast. Are the Beatles really gonna mind if I put, you know, Hard Day's Night in the background? But, yes, they will. Someone will mind. And it's actually, why even give yourself the headache? I really recommend embracing the challenge by letting people work with you and create a sound that's all yours, all brand new, and go forth with that. And, I mean, this is expensive and it takes time, right? But these are the things about your podcast that you have to realize going into it. You will be spending some money and it will take more time than you think. It's worth it in the end for your own creative experience and as well as for the output. Now, if you're working with commercial music that's built into the topic that your show is, that's a little harder. I will say for Sound Exploder, Song Exploder, which Hrishi, you know, takes music that's out there and talks about it. He plays the entire song at the end of the episode. He has someone that helps him negotiate rights on every episode for that. So he pays a little extra and he pays someone for that time, but they go the very legal route and get all the signatures that they need to do that. It's a headache, but one of many.