Professional podcasting goes far beyond the typical tools of the audio producer’s trade. On top of microphone choices and post-production editing software, podcasters are responsible for coming up with creative ways to use sound to tell a story that can’t be seen—in short, podcast sound design.
Sound design—the audio tracks that go underneath the narration and guest voices, whether sounds or music—can add that extra dimension to podcast storytelling. Podcast Pro has talked with two-dozen of the most innovative producers in the game, and here’s five crucial tips for creating, maintaining and strengthening the sound design of your podcast.
A podcast’s sound design is tied directly to its identity. Compose from the beginning with your brand in mind.
“Once the composer has written a cue that’s going to be the theme, it becomes everyone’s North Star,” said Julia Lowrie Henderson, senior editorial producer of ESPN’s 30 For 30 podcasts. “It helps everyone figure out or keep pushing the direction, the story, the style, the writing, [and] how you’re thinking about tops and bottoms of episodes.
“I think a big part of sound design and scoring is actually finding the moments of simplicity, where you can pull back, so that every time you do use something, it’s effective,” she says. “So much of the artistry comes from finding moments where you can bring silence back into the picture.” [Find out more in Sound Design Leads the Way for ESPN’s ’30 For 30’ Podcasts ]
You can hit a home run with sound design without bashing listeners over the head.
Keep it subtle but relatable. Matthew Beaudoin deals in high-stakes storytelling realism as the senior producer of hit podcasts like Disgraceland, a true-crime show about musicians behaving badly, and 27 Club, which recounts the final days of musical icons who died at the age of 27. When it comes to supplementing tales with audio, Beaudoin dials down the literal.
“With our sound design, we wanted it to always be figurative in nature,” said Beaudoin. “[We are] very much focused on, ‘How can we get music to support this narrative that we’re telling? How can we get the music to work in concert to support that narrative, and make the experience as immersive as possible?’” [Find out more in The Cinematic Sound Design of ‘Disgraceland’ and ’27 Club’ ]
Creating a sense of place brings listeners deeper into the story. And that requires creativity.
The audio team behind Overheard at National Geographic embraces the challenge of creating a sense of place throughout the podcast series, even when working in nondescript locations. “One of the learnings we took away from Season One was, ‘How are we going to push the show further, and how can we think of ways to incorporate more of that field sound into the show?’” said Whitney Johnson, director of visuals and immersive experiences at National Geographic.
Producer Brian Gutierrez puts that adventurous spirit into practice. For an episode about smuggled dinosaur bones, for example, he pointed a shotgun microphone at a wall to get audio bounce-back when he interviewed a paleontologist, and he used binaural omnidirectional condenser mics while walking through a warehouse to give listeners the full experience. Planning ahead and sometimes experimenting on the fly can result in more varied material to work with when developing sound design for a given episode. [Find out more in Field Recording: Producing the ‘Overheard at National Geographic’ Podcast ]
Use original musical scores to give scenes depth and realism.
When telling a unique story, having a custom-tailored score can help it resonate. “Scoring is the thing that really sets Revisionist History apart from so many other shows,” said executive producer Mia Lobel. “That’s really become a huge part of the character of the show.”
Composer Luis Guerra is a valuable tool in Lobel’s arsenal. “Early on, we had a discussion where we wanted the scoring to be on traditional instruments to get that sense of history, but done in a modern style so it feels of the present,” she said. [Find out more in Inventive Scoring Informs ‘Revisionist History’ ]
Know your subject and let it lead the way.
Draw inspiration from your subject matter for podcast sound design. Floodlines podcast sound editor David Herman was intent on using sound to express the desperation the people of New Orleans felt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Naturally, he turned to the city’s signatures sounds for inspiration.
“Two instruments in particular we talked about were the low brass instruments, trombone and tubas, because they are a very visceral component of Second Line music, but also because they convey this feeling of being underwater,” Herman said. “They have a bubbly, drowned texture to them, which I think we were really attracted to.” [Find out more in ‘Floodlines’ Podcast Tracks Tragedy in New Orleans ]