Before we get started: Last month, I participated in an AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) webinar about how non-musicians can learn to make their own podcast music. As one of three panelists, I focused on showing how easy it can be to use free or inexpensive iOS music apps. AIR members can watch the webinar for free. If you’re not an AIR member, you can view the demo videos I made on my YouTube channel. Also, check out the benefits of joining AIR — members receive discounts on AIR programs and trainings.
When a novice writer asks how they can improve their writing, the answer is often “read, read, read.” I feel the same way about becoming a better audio maker: I need to listen, listen, listen to other people’s work.
But in addition to listening to podcasts for their sound design, I also listen to podcasts that explain sound design. I love getting under the hood and listening to an audio maker describe their overall approach for a piece or how and why they added sound design or music to specific scenes – or why they didn’t.
Sound School, a podcast from Transom.org and PRX, is one of my favorite resources for these kinds of discussions. Host Rob Rosenthal has been teaching audio storytelling for years, including at Salt and the Transom Story Workshop (RIP) — experience that comes through in the clips he selects to examine, the questions he asks his audio-maker guests, and how he explains nuanced details in a way new audio makers can understand.
On Sound School, Rob has covered everything from interviewing to field recording to story editing (and more). With over 200 episodes to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin.
So I’ve curated a beginner’s sound-design course for you. Here are five of my favorite sound-design-focused Sound School episodes to help you get your sound off the ground. I’ve put them in the sequence that makes the most sense to me, but of course you can listen to them in any order you like.
Sound Design Basics
Sound designer Matt Boll explains how he and the Gimlet team developed the sound-design principles they implemented on the first season of Crimetown, which focused on crime and politics in Rhode Island.
Key takeaways: Keep it short and simple when adding sound design to a scene. Emotionally heavy moments sometimes work better without sound design – let the speaker convey their own emotion. Sound design is an iterative process: “You just have to keep trying until it works.”
Avoiding Cheesy Sound Design
Radiolab, the groundbreaking investigative journalism radio show/podcast, has its own unique production style and sound. In this episode, Jad Abumrad explains some of his sound design principles through examples from the Radiolab episode “Nukes.”
Key takeaways: Avoid overly literal sounds. Brainstorm about what you want each scene to feel like. Why do you need sound design there? What emotion or experience are you trying to evoke/create?
She Sees Your Every Move
Musician and sound designer Jonathan Mitchell explains how he used music to help shape the story in his piece, “She Sees Your Every Move.” It’s about a photographer who takes pictures of people in their homes at night, from the street and through their windows, without their knowledge or permission. (It’s creepy af!)
Key takeaways: The music and the story are not separate from each other. They’re both equal parts of the story. The music choices inform the clip choices, and the clip choices inform the music choices, “like a soup that’s getting stirred.”
Scoring Stories Part 2
(There is, of course, a Part 1, but it’s not necessary to listen to it before Part 2.)
Rob makes subtle changes to the music in Tiarne Cook’s audio piece (with her permission). Through trial and error, he shows how small changes can make a big impact. He explains how to choose where to start and end music at different points in a story, as well as how to choose which music to include in an audio story.
Key takeaways: There are some basic principles about scoring that can guide you, but it’s still important to experiment and to vary how you score an individual audio piece, so that the use of music doesn’t become predictable or boring.
Remixing the Music
The term “wallpapering” refers to sound design or music that plays throughout most or all of a piece. In this episode, Rob makes a few narration cuts and remixes the music on a wallpapered audio story (with producer Neena Pathak’s permission) to show how a different approach, one where music comes in and out at key points, can change and, in his opinion, improve the listening experience.
Key takeaways: Try to use music strategically at different points in the story, to emphasize a change in scene or mood, or to emphasize, or to provide a moment of reflection before moving on to another scene. Try to find places where the speaker’s words can and should stand alone, without music, for the most impact.
Go ahead and drop these episodes in your queue. Maybe listen to one and see how it resonates with the kind of work you do. Are there any takeaways that appeal to you for the kind of audio pieces you create? Which principles might you adopt or adapt for your own sound design approach? Then maybe practice a little and move on to the next episode for more ideas you can copy.