In film, sound is often considered secondary to the visual elements, says Dallas Taylor, creative director at New York-based sound design studio Defacto Sound. “If the industry itself—where we only have visuals and sounds—still has a hard time identifying sound as a really creative storytelling tool, then I think the rest of the world probably still has a hard time with this,” he says. Now Taylor aims to challenge—and erase—those misperceptions with his podcast, Twenty Thousand Hertz.
Taylor lives at the intersection of visual and audio media every day at Defacto Sound, which specializes in movie trailers, promos for television networks and other entertainment ventures. That immersion is often reflected in the topics on Twenty Thousand Hertz, which dives into the stories behind well-known sounds, such as the Netflix “Tah-Dum” and the signature slap-and-pop bass guitar riffs on Seinfeld, to let the general population into the secrets only sound engineers know. Taylor also takes on deeper subjects like the loudness wars and how we transmit sound as radio signals to satellites, the moon, Mars and beyond.
Every episode follows the rule that if a sound is mentioned, it must be represented. “It’s one thing to say, ‘On the moon, we have a delay of two-and-a-half seconds round-trip,’” he says. “It’s another thing to hear that delay happen in real time because you really start to hear that latency between the two.
“At some point,” he adds, “you get so far that the radio frequencies we’re searching for get so noisy with everything else out there that we completely just fade into the background. Even if we were trying to get the communication out there, it’s so muddled with the noise of the universe.” To illustrate for listeners, in the “Space Audity” episode, Taylor degrades the audio of an astrophysicist explaining the concept until the glitches fade into white noise.
When creating a podcast about the nuances of sound, the idea that listeners are hyper-tuned into the audio quality is never far away. That presented new challenges for Taylor when the pandemic made it no longer possible to send a tape syncher or book studio time to record interviews. Now, each interview has a unique set of circumstances he works to overcome through apps like Tape Sync, platforms like Zencastr and Cleanfeed, and occasionally the microphone of a smartphone—but that’s a worst-case scenario.
“Surprisingly, the microphone on new phones are pretty good,” he says. “The reason we sound worse over the phone just has to do with the infrastructure. There are some options to record people with the raw mic from an iPhone or an Android phone. It’s just a matter of tapping that.”
The simplest way, he notes, is to have the interviewee change the phone’s voice memo setting to high quality and record on their end. Tape Sync does basically the same thing, but it sends the audio file to him at the end of the interview. Zencastr and Cleanfeed open the door for outboard USB microphones, which naturally provide a much better sound.
“I’ve noticed that post-COVID, more people have microphones because of the circumstances—that’s good for us,” he says. “We have somebody on our team running them through the tech and getting them set up and prepped, and [they] send over a sample before we ever get on a call. When we actually connect via Zencastr or on Cleanfeed, we have it all worked out beforehand. Even if someone isn’t super technical, if they have a USB mic, we can usually get around that.”
For his own voice, Taylor tracks with a Shure SM7 dynamic microphone because it only picks up what is directly in front of it and has a stable tonality. “I like the fact that a dynamic microphone is not picking up my kids screaming from downstairs,” he says. “I’ve taken this microphone to hotel rooms, and I’ve had to do little one-line pickups for the show, and they match perfectly. It doesn’t pick up the room nearly at all.”
For a podcast about sound, that kind of perfectionism is crucial, as it helps underscore the show’s ethos. Twenty Thousand Hertz, says Taylor, grew out of the idea that sound deserves a seat at the table. “I wanted to make something that started to bring the joy to sound itself, almost like a chef’s table feel, but for sound,” he says, “to hopefully get culture more in tune and more conscious about their sense of hearing.”