Zen Ear, Beginner’s Ear [SOTG #2]

As a rule, I don’t do rules.

That’s one of the reasons I love sound design: no rules. Not for me, anyway. Except maybe “Don’t damage anyone’s ear drums.”

Other than that, it’s principles all the way down.

Principles are far more interesting than rules. While rules involve one-size-fits-all, almost mindless application, principles provide guidance and encourage flexibility.

On their face, rules seem simple, clear, and oh, so certain. What are rules, if not a list of dos and don’ts and when to do or don’t them. (Wait … eh, you know what I mean.) You merely need to remember the rules and apply them.

In reality, rules suck. They may promise certainty, but they rarely anticipate every scenario, and that’s where they crumble. Suddenly we make new rules or create exceptions. Or worse, we start justifying why we’re not following the rules. Now the rules aren’t so simple anymore. (Shout-out to “i before e except after c,” which has so many exceptions it’s actually just wrong.)

Principles ask us to trust our judgment in new situations. Designed to be flexible, they feel open and full of possibilities because they don’t tell us what to do. They guide our thinking and decision-making.

And most importantly for beginners, principles offer more learning opportunities.

Do you have any principles?

In the first issue of SOTG, I encouraged copying ideas from other people’s sound-design work (the ideas, not the work itself!). Today I’m suggesting a follow-up: distill some of the ideas you like (including your own) into a set of sound-design principles for your show. Then you can refer to them as you produce each episode.

Let’s take a look at the sound-design principles I developed for Mementos.

Each episode, a guest tells the story behind a cherished keepsake and how it became a container of meaning, memory, emotion, and human connection for them. As a result, from a sound-design perspective, it’s a quiet, reflective show.

I created the principles in the table below to align with the show’s overall tone. They may seem familiar because I based them on some of the things I listen for in other people’s work, which I described in the last issue.

PrincipleWhat it means for sound design
Know who your soloist isWho or what (speaker, music, sfx) should have the audience’s focus right now, like a soloist in a band? Does the sound design reflect that? It’s more than volume. For example, does the sound design interfere with the tone or quality of the voice or conflict with what’s being said in mood, beat, or fullness/sparseness?
Cadence matters Listen to the speaker’s voice — not just what they’re saying but also how they’re saying it. Most people have a natural cadence — a pace, plus highs and lows and points of emphasis — to the way they speak. How should the sound design work with the speaker’s cadence? Should it imitate it? Complement it? Be completely different?
BreatheIs there enough time for the listener to reflect on something important or thought-provoking the speaker said, before starting the next scene or continuing with the story?

While making an episode, I periodically review these principles to make sure the episode aligns with my overall intent for the show.

For a different type of show, I’d have different principles. For example, Have You Heard George’s Podcast? is “a fresh take on inner-city life through a mix of storytelling, music and fiction” by George the Poet. The show sounds nothing like mine (or anyone else’s), and therefore any underlying sound-design principles would differ from mine, too.

What is your show about, who is it for, and what do you want it to sound like? The answers to those questions will help shape your show’s sound-design principles.

Questions are better than answers

You may have noticed that I described my sound-design principles with questions instead of statements (aka, rules). The questions enable me to answer differently in different situations.

A rule about letting the piece breathe might assert something like, “Leave at least four seconds between something profound the guest says and the start of the next scene.”

A principle asks, “Did I leave enough time between the profound thing the guest said and the next scene?” I won’t know what “enough” is until I’m making that episode. It might be different each time, even within the same episode. Maybe it’s four seconds. Maybe it’s six. Or two.

You might be thinking this is just semantics. I get it. But for me, the difference between rules and principles, between answers and questions, is about learning to trust my ear.

I’ll give you an example. On social media, I’ve seen a few good-natured debates about whether it’s okay to fade music in or out, or whether, instead, music should always have a “hard” start and finish.

Some folks believe that music should never fade in or out. But as a newb, why would I adopt such a rule? It takes away half of my options and leaves me with no chance to learn what sounds good to me and what doesn’t.

Instead, I would ask, How should I start the music here, and why? Asking and answering a question ensures I listen closely and decide what sounds better in this case. Other times, I might apply the same principle and arrive at a different conclusion.

*An Instagram post of mine from 2017, well before I started podcasting. At least I’m consistent!

Trust your beginner’s ear

I don’t want to wander too deep into Zen philosophy, mostly because I’ll screw it up. But Shunryu Suzuki’s concept of the beginner’s mind works for sound design, with a twist.

Suzuki says, “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities [emphasis mine].”

Beginners have fewer, if any, expectations and preconceptions. They’re unobstructed by past experiences (good or bad) and lessons learned. The secret to Zen practice, Suzuki says, is the beginner’s mindset. The aim is to clear your mind and think, experience, and be like a beginner.

Being a beginner usually feels like a disadvantage, like the time my game-loving 12-year-old utterly destroyed me, the newb, at Settlers of Catan. But in sound design, we can flip that dynamic upside down. Being a beginner can be an advantage.

Borrowing from Suzuki, I think of new audio makers as having a beginner’s ear. We listen differently and hear differently than experts. Our ear is untrained and unencumbered by past experiences. It doesn’t know the rules yet, so it hasn’t “ruled out” any possibilities.

So forget about rules and dos and don’ts and always-s and nevers. Consider instead a set of sound-design principles, aligned with your show, that encourage you to ask questions and answer them yourself.

Embrace your beginner’s ear. Listen for what sounds good to you, and choose that.



In the next issue of Sound Off the Ground: less philosophy and more resources!

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Copy That! [SOTG #1]

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.

Color photo of tortie cat sitting and facing the camera, with a window behind her. The photo is repeated four times in a square layout. The photo is labeled "Copy cat".

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.

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.


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’sWindfall” 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.



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