Years ago, one of my sons was drawing a picture after dinner. He said he was copying something his friend drew that day in preschool.
I said, “Oh, that’s nice. But why don’t you draw your own original thing?”
He said, “My own original thing is copying people.”
Turns out, he was on to something.
We learn by copying others
You can expect copying to be a recurring theme in this newsletter. As in, don’t be afraid to copy, borrow, or imitate ideas and techniques from other sound designers. That’s the best way to learn.
Sound Off the Ground began germinating in my brain when I read the first issue of Alice Wilder’s newsletter, Starting Out. In an interview with Alice, Tobin Low said the most helpful mentors to new audio makers are often not experts or higher-ups but people just ahead of them in skill and experience.
But for independent podcasters who don’t work on a team, it can be hard to find a mentor or discover work by people who are slightly ahead of you.
Luckily, we can still learn from the work of people who are far more advanced. My favorite podcasts tend to be narrative-style shows made by experienced, professional teams with actual budgets (god love ya!). These teams make complex, rich, immersive podcasts that sound amazing. Of course, their skill sets and resources far exceed mine.
How can I learn from my favorite “higher-ups” if there’s such a big gap between them and me? How can I copy what they do with my skills still in the larval stage?
By narrowing the scope of what I’m listening for in their sound design.
Concentrate on timing and music
When learning a new skill, sometimes you get worse before you get better. But I never wanted to reveal that to my audience. I wanted each episode to sound a little better than its predecessor.
So I concentrated on what I knew I could manage — what was within my skill set or just a little past it — when listening to other audio for inspiration.
I started by giving most of my attention to timing and music because to me, they’re the core of basic sound design. I just needed the ability to:
- make basic edits in my audio software (DAW) of choice
- listen to and identify cadences and patterns in speech and music
Keeping in mind my preference for narrative shows, here’s what I listened for (and still do).
- Transitions between scenes or when music or sound effects start, end, or blend together. When is the music fading in or out? When does it start or stop suddenly, without fading? What’s happening in the story when the music starts or ends? Is that effective? Would I change it or leave it the way it is?
- Pacing and spacing. Does the timing sound intentional? Does the story “breathe”? If it doesn’t, is it that way for a reason? When a speaker says something important or reflective, is there time for the audience to sit with it and their own thoughts and emotions for a few seconds, or does the scene jump quickly to the next thing, killing the buzz?
- The music or sound effects under someone speaking. Does the volume level or style of music compete with the people speaking, making it harder to hear or follow? Does it hang back a bit and help move the speech along? Does it complement what’s being said? Would another style of music have been better?
- Repetition. Does the same music appear more than once in the episode? When does that happen? Why do I think it’s repeated in those places? Is the repetition effective for the story or is it just … repetitive?
Timing + Music:
- The beat or cadence of the music under narration. Does music line up well with the phrasing and timing the speaker’s words and pauses? Are quiet parts of the music that allow the speaker to be more prominent? Do musical beats align with the words the speaker is emphasizing?
By listening intentionally for these sound-design choices, I stayed focused and was able compare similar scenarios across different podcasts and episodes. Over time, I developed a sense for what sounded good to me. And then I tried to mimic it in my episodes.
Example: Outside/In’s “Windfall” series
Sometimes I nerd out and listen to a show or episode more than once, focusing on different things each time.
I did that with Outside/In’s “Windfall” series about the history and future of wind farms in the United States. The first time through, I listened because I wanted to learn about wind farms. But it had such great sound design that I listened again to focus on that.
The entire series is beautifully sound designed, and I’ll probably talk about it again in future issues. But focusing on timing, specifically, I learned from “Windfall” to expand the transitions between scenes in an episode. Here’s an example from “Windfall Part 1: Sea Change.” (If you’re reading the newsletter in your email, click here.)
Notice how long the musical transition is between the end of the first scene (when Sam Evans Brown says “…to reshape the future of where our energy comes from”) and the next one (when Annie Ropeik says, “In the spring of this year….”).
It’s 16 seconds.
In audio, 16 seconds is an eternity. In many cases, including probably all of my Mementos episodes, it would be too long. But not here.
The hosts have just spent the first seven minutes establishing the background for the series, and they’re about to delve into the details. There’s no rush to get to the next scene. Listeners are afforded the time to reflect on what they’ve just heard about the context for the series and the multiple voices they’ll hear throughout it.
Although a 16-second musical transition would be too long for my episodes, I still took something from this “Windfall” example: I can trust my audience with longer transitions than I thought.
Conventional wisdom says audiences are busy and have short attention spans, so you better keep things moving. But the “Windfall” example showed me that’s not necessarily true and that I could play around with longer transitions between scenes. If the story was good, the listeners would still be there when the next scene started.
I wouldn’t have noticed that minor detail had I not been listening specifically to learn. It’s important, I think, because over the course of an episode, making small adjustments to timing and pacing can make a big impact on the listener’s experience. And those kinds of adjustments are often within a beginner’s skill set.
So the next time you’re listening to your favorite show, pay close attention to timing and music, and see if there’s anything you want to copy as “your own original thing” on your next piece.