Creating a podcast about monsters that lurk in American folklore requires a surprising amount of restraint in the sound effects department, says Chelsea Davis, producer of REI’s Camp Monsters podcast. But they’re still essential to drawing in listeners.
“I wanted to stay away from hokey sound design, which I think you can easily slip into with these kinds of fictional podcasts,” says Davis. Instead, the production team, which includes editor Nick Patri and writer/host Weston Davis, use the audio space to bring people to the campfire where each episode takes place.
Getting listeners there, though, requires voluminous research and a commitment to regional realism. The REI team did their monster research on how to properly contextualize legendary beasts like the Ozark Howler, the Jersey Devil and a mysterious mole creature that inhabits the labyrinthine New York City sewer system.
“In planning out the sound effects and music, it all starts with the script,” says Patri. “Wes typically starts with a description of that week’s setting, and then I research the location to find what types of critters might be making noise if you’re camping in that area.”
Davis was actually against using sound effects in the beginning. In fact, the only sounds in the first season of Camp Monsters were the narrator’s voice and the sounds of a crackling campfire. But she felt the lack of tension hurt the storytelling process, and that convinced her to bring in audio cues for season two.
“I listened to some of the episodes and I was like, ‘Nope, this is wrong,’” she says. “We need to have the moment that you’re building [to], that ‘Oh, no, we’re about to meet a monster’ [moment]. We needed to have that tension buildup through the sound design. [Patri] just throws it in there where you don’t even notice it’s happening almost, and then all of a sudden you’re smacked in the face with, ‘There’s the monster.’”
The team recorded the first season in a professional studio setting, allowing them to be collaborative and in the moment. For season two, which was produced after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team scattered and then scrambled to get set up again, this time remotely. Although they used a Shure SM7B microphone in the studio for season one, Patri sent an Electro-Voice RE20 microphone and a Zoom H5 recorder to Davis to record narration for season two, which he tracked in his sufficiently creepy dirt-floored basement. Patri preferred the Electro-Voice mic because it wasn’t as squeaky clean as the Shure, which made it a better match with the podcast’s vibe.
While they’re no longer working in the same room, the close-knit team stays in touch through the Asana project management platform. They communicate back and forth on Patri’s drafts and finalize the episode usually after three or four passes. Patri mixes the vocals in Hindenburg, where he has a workflow set up for equalizing the vocal takes, and then edits the full episode in Pro Tools.
Their efforts are paying off, Davis says. Once they settled into a stable workflow and established the podcast’s tone, that freed up more time to consider ways of framing the listener’s journey into the heart of darkness for each episode.
“It was really about transporting people to a campfire, whether or not they could actually be at a campfire,” says Davis. “I think that’s what makes it special—bringing people to a setting without it being so overwhelming that you don’t pay attention to the story.”
Camp Monsters • https://www.rei.com/blog/podcasts/camp-monsters