A Beginner’s Course: Five Episodes from Sound School Podcast [SOTG #4]

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.

Looperman: The Hero We Deserve [SOTG #3]

Today, I’m going to gush about a sound-design superhero: Looperman (www.looperman.com).

Animated gif of 1970s comedian Andy Kaufman lip syncing to the Mighty Mouse cartoon theme song, “here I come to save the day.”

Looperman will save us all!

Looperman has nearly 230,000 loops (short music clips) that you can use for free in non-commercial and commercial projects.

It illustrates the power of crowdsourcing. Musicians upload loops they’ve created so other people can incorporate them into their musical compositions. These short clips, typically somewhere between 10-30 seconds long, are intended to be looped (repeated) in songs, creating an extended rhythmic or melodic pattern in those songs.

Musicians are clearly Looperman’s target audience, but luckily for us, nobody checks credentials. In fact, creators may be happily surprised to hear their loop in a podcast episode instead of a song. When you use a loop, you’re asked to leave feedback with a link to your work so the loop’s creator can check it out.

Screen shot of a comment thread on a Looperman loop. 

User lmortimer wrote: I used this loop in a podcast episode at min 1:57 and again at 7:21. It was perfect for what I needed. Thank you. 

User Nightingale replied: I lvoe the idea. Excellent use at 1:44 and very sexy on 7:07. Thank you too for the feedback.

It’s all love in the comments.

I’ve also started adding Looperman to my episode end-credits and linking to the loops in my written credits. When someone allows me to use their work for free, that’s the least I can do in return.

A couple of caveats:

  • You need to create a Looperman.com account before you can download any files.
  • Looperman offers other types of music for download, such as tracks (songs) and “acapellas” (vocals with no music). But they have more stringent terms and conditions. Example: to use a track, you have to get permission from the member who created it. Please read the terms and conditions carefully.

Needles in the haystack

On a site with more than 220K loops, how do you find just the right one? Luckily, Looperman’s search tools work pretty well.

First, be sure you’re on the Loops & Samples tab. Then you can see the list of tags, genres, and categories by selecting those options near the top of the page.

Screen capture of the Loops & Samples tab on Looperman.com. The top menu area is outlined in red to call attention to the Tags, Genres, and Categories links.

Make sure you’re on the Loops & Samples tab.

Take a gander at the variety of options for genre and category, as well as the number of loops in each one (in parentheses).

Screen capture from Looperman.com. The heading says "Find loops sorted by genre." Then there are three columns of musical genres, such as Dub, Country, and Fusion. Next to each genre name, in parenthesis, is the number of loops available in that genre. In total, there are 69 genres.

What’s in the “Weird” genre, I wonder?

Screen capture from Looperman.com. The heading says "Find loops sorted by category." Then there are three columns of categories, which are the names of instruments, such as Accordion, Harpsichord, and Strings. Next to each category listing, in parenthesis, is the number of loops available in that category. In total, there are 40 categories.

The didgeridoo needs more love.

To search using the Filter options, select Search for Free Loops on the Loops & Samples tab. The more filters you use, the more narrowly you can target the type of sound you’re looking for.

Just for kicks, I searched for mandolin loops in the fusion genre. The results: there is one fusion mandolin loop. Now that’s a needle in a haystack.

Screen capture of the Loops & Samples tab on Looperman.com. The Search Free Loops menu option is outlined in red to call attention it. Further down, the Filter area of the page is outlined in red to call attention to the different filter options: Category, Genre, By Member, By Keyword, Key, Date, BPM/Tempo, and Order By.

Make sure you’re on the Loops & Samples tab and that you’ve selected Search Free Loops.
Then select your search criteria in the Filter area.

Search tips

When searching, start by selecting the genre and category (instrument) you want. Then try one or more of these filters to further refine your results.

  • Date filter:
    • Allows you to limit search results to loops uploaded anywhere from the past 60 days to the last 24 hours. Using any of these filter options significantly reduces the number of search results.
    • Example: In the last 30 days, 2328 loops have been uploaded to the site. That’s a much smaller pool to start with than the entire database of loops. The date filter is especially helpful when you need a loop in any of the larger genres (e.g., hip-hop and trap).
  • Key filter:
    • Allows you to select from a list of 24 major and minor keys.
    • Major keys are generally happier sounding.
    • Minor keys are generally sadder sounding (look for “m” after the key name).
  • BPM/Tempo filter:
    • Allows you to specify a tempo (speed/pace) range in bpm (beats per minute).
    • Rather than search for a bpm range, such as 100-120 bpm, search for a specific bpm, which will reduce your search results significantly, sometimes by half or more.
    • To search for a specific bpm, put that number in both the “from” and “to” fields.

Make your own luck

I won’t lie, you’ll probably find yourself listening to a lot of loops. Loopscrolling is real, I tell ya.

But it’s worth it. First of all, it’s free. (Bears repeating!) Second, thousands of loopy gems are waiting to be unearthed and used in ways their creators never imagined.

Here’s an example from Mementos, which is the opening scene to the Ruth’s Poetry episode.

This is what the scene looks like in Hindenburg. Please ignore my poor track organization.

Allow me to explain what you’re looking at:

  • I staggered and layered three different loops (numbers 1, 2, & 3) for the music in this scene.
  • Loop 1, the plucky strings, starts alone and loops (repeats) six times.
  • Loop 2 starts next and loops five times.
  • Loop 3 joins last, near the end of the scene, and does not loop.
  • It’s hard to see in the screen capture, but the loops fade out sequentially. Loop 2 fades out first, then Loop 3, and finally Loop 1, so at the end, we’re left with only the plucky strings, just like at the beginning.
  • Even though Loop 1 repeats for about 1.5 minutes and Loop 2 for almost a minute, the music never gets monotonous. A sense of movement and a growing, tongue-in-cheek seriousness develops as Loops 2 and 3 join and complement the narration.

For this scene, I wanted classical-style music to accompany the narration, but in a playful, faux dramatic way, to match my guest’s storytelling style. Think Downton Abbey meets small-town Connecticut. At this point, I was just hoping to find one good loop that would work for the entire opening scene.

I searched for “classical” genre and “strings,” and while scanning the results, I just so happened to notice three loops with similar names:

After listening to them, I thought they sounded like a string-orchestra loop that had been disassembled into separate parts.

Once I started noodling around with them in Hindenburg, I realized that didn’t I need to start them all at the same time, and, in fact, it would sound better if I didn’t. And I figured out the rest from there.

Honestly, I was lucky that I noticed the similarity in the loop names because I never look at the names. They rarely tell you anything useful about the loops. This time, they did. Then I made the most of my good fortune by taking the time to noodle around and figure out a unique way to combine the loops with the story.

That’s power of Looperman. With so many loops and so many ways to search them, it’s worth spending some time getting to know this superhero resource. You never know when you might make your own luck and create sound-design magic.

Get thee to Looperman!