Sounds Complicated [SOTG #5]

As New Hampshire Public Radio’s Taylor Quimby learned, you never know when a plastic sled and a jar of marbles might come in handy.

Taylor was the sound designer on Outside/In’s Windfall series. With the sled and marbles, he created my favorite example of sound that explains complex information.

Windfall is about the history and future of offshore wind farms in the US. In the first episode, “Sea Change,” the Windfall team conveys the size of wind turbines through visual writing.

They describe blades bigger than airplanes and predict rotors the size of three football fields, with a turbine the size of “a giant, spinning sports complex.” This writing style helps listeners picture these structures in the real world.

But sometimes it’s hard to find an analogy, especially for numbers so large or small that we can’t wrap our minds around them. We need a frame of reference, and sound design can provide it.

For example, the Windfall team found it challenging at first to explain the exponential growth in wind-farm energy-output.

“We knew that transmitting the scope and scale of growth was the most important thing,” Taylor said.

“Yet, especially when it comes to energy, that’s really hard because it’s a subject full of jargon. You’re talking about kilowatts, megawatts, gigawatts, and most of us don’t have a sense of how they factor into our own lives.”

Early episode drafts described power output with numbers. But the team realized numbers weren’t communicating just how significant the increase in power was.

In an editing meeting, someone asked, “How can we use sound to help transmit scale in a way that’s almost like a type of synesthesia?”

Taylor remembered an old anti-smoking public service announcement that started with a ball bearing being dropped into a bucket. The bearing represented one smoking-related death. Next, a bucket full of bearings, representing thousands of smoking-related deaths, was poured out.

“You hear the one ball bearing, and then you hear this just unimaginable staggering amount of sound that represents all the people that die of smoking,” he said.

“And the point is not that you can individually pick all those things out. The point is to be so overwhelmed by a number and the comparison between those things that you just get a sense of this as almost beyond comprehension.”

And in the spirit of stealing like an artist, the Windfall team borrowed that idea.

First, they chose a unit of measurement other than watts. The first offshore wind farm, near Vindeby (pronounced in English “vin-eh-boo”) Denmark, became their base unit of energy. Next, they chose the sound of one marble to represent one Vindeby-sized wind farm. Over time, as the wind farms grow in size, so does the number of marbles we hear.

Listen below for how the marbles create a sense of scale.

Next, wind farms continue growing, and the marble sounds juxtapose a large number with a much smaller one.

Listen below for the big sound-design payoff.

Did you notice how long it took for 7,000 marbles to pour out? Thirty-five seconds, an eternity in audio. That was intentional.

“We wanted to do it slowly and hear the movement and hear it building and clicking and clacking and feel like it’s going on forever and ever and ever and get that sense of scale, so that it feels overwhelming,” Taylor said.

After the 7,000 marbles roll, we get the big payoff: the sparse thunking of a few marbles representing the minuscule output of US wind farms. The sonic contrast tells the tale. No words needed.

Screen capture of a sound wave in a digital audio workstation. The wave is in color, with a long, dense black section in the middle that represents the sound effect of 7,000 marbles rolling.
Can you find the 7,000 marbles?

The marble concept was ingenious, as was Taylor’s method for creating the sound effect. Taylor borrowed a marble collection from NHPR Senior Producer Jack Rodolico’s son. He took the marbles home and started experimenting.

“I dropped a marble in a bucket, and it just made a thunk.”

And when Taylor dropped a bunch of marbles, “it happened super-fast, and it did not communicate what we talked about trying to communicate. You needed a sense of movement. And marbles are heavy, so they just drop.”

For a sense of movement, the marbles needed to roll. Taylor tried a few more things before grabbing his son’s sled, made of high-density foam covered in plastic.

“I propped it up at an angle and dropped a marble on it. You hear the thunk … thunk … thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk. And I thought, this is what you need because somebody can listen to this, hear the movement, and picture the marble dropping.”

Now he just needed to create the sound of 7,000 marbles.

“I counted out 100 marbles so I could record 100 falling, and then I multiplied that sound file a number of times in my DAW, over and over again to create bigger and bigger numbers,” he said.

Taylor offered some tips for using sound design when words alone can’t paint the picture.

Example: Outside/In’s 250th episode tells the story of Earth’s largest mass extinction event, which occurred about 250 million years ago. After a series of natural disasters, the Earth’s landscape was barren. Then fungi and ferns began popping up.

“To transmit the idea of all Earth’s continents being populated by countless numbers of fungi,” Taylor said, “we used little popping sounds, like bloop… bloop … bloop … bloop bloop bloop … bloop-bloop-bloop-bloop-bloop-bloop. Nature documentaries often use little bloop sounds during time lapses because that’s what we imagine. So, I thought, let’s take that thing that people will inherently understand and make a sonic landscape that might help people imagine this world I’m describing.”

To hear the mushroom world popping up, start listening at 24:00.

Example: Episode 3 of Patient Zero, an NHPR podcast about Lyme disease, explains how the Lyme-causing toxin gets from a tick into the human body. This time, Taylor borrowed from the Magic School Bus.

“The Magic School Bus shrinks and goes into the human body. And I thought, let’s do this Magic-School-Bus style, and it’ll be really gross,” he said.

“I’m zooming into a world and imagining stuff. What does a tick thrusting its mouthparts into your skin sound like?

“I used different sound effects to imagine life at the scale of a tick. There was the classic Foley stuff, where you’re tearing or squeezing leather or cutting meat. The sound of the tick walking on skin is fingers palpating a sponge very close to a microphone.

“And I heard from people who said, ‘I think you went too far because that was deeply uncomfortable to listen to.’ But that’s what I was going for.”

To hear the tick feasting on human flesh, start listening to episode 3 of Patient Zero at 14:00. Use headphones if you dare.

Occasionally, an object’s literal sound just doesn’t work. It’s not what listeners imagine, and it can even be confusing without a visual aid. So, through trial and error, listen for the sound that people will just inherently get. Sometimes, a more cartoon-like version of the sound conjures the image better.

Example: Years ago, an Outside/In episode included an Indiana-Jones-style journey where someone got on a train and then on a plane. Taylor didn’t like the sound of a real jet for the plane. “It’s just a whine. So, I used an old prop-engine plane, which was not the actual plane, but people immediately hear it and get it.”

With factual information and real-world scenes, be transparent about what you’re doing so your listeners know when you’ve altered something, Taylor said. “If I have field tape with a reporter in an actual part of the world and then combine that with some sort of fake sound effect, that’s where you can get into some problematic areas where you’re misleading your audience and passing fake sound design off as field tape.”

And don’t forget, the biggest tip in sound design is to experiment and play. When you find yourself at a loss for words, start experimenting with sound design to help you express what you mean.

A big thank-you to Taylor Quimby for sharing his knowledge and experience with us!

Do you have a favorite sound-design example? Send a link and short description to, and I’ll include it in the next issue.

And before I go, I’ve got two resources for you:

  • I’ve started uploading some of my recorded sounds to with Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licensing, so you can use them any way you want. I’ll add more each week until the end of the year. Get them here:
  • PodPeople (@podppl) is an excellent Instagram follow. They’ve been posting reels of their sound designers demoing and explaining how they sound-designed specific podcast scenes. (Thanks to Ashley Lusk for the recommendation.)

Why Sound Off the Ground?

Why did I create Sound Off the Ground? Because just a few years ago, when I was brand new to audio, I got a lot of help from other people in the industry. And now I’ve learned enough to help newbs like you get started.

Hand-drawn illustration on an X-Y axis. Title is "My Sound Design Journey." The X axis is labeled Time. The Y axis is labeled Skill.  The illustration depicts a learning curve moving from the bottom left upward toward the top right corner. The area under the learning-curve line is divided into three sections. The first section is labeled "Steep Learning Curve." There is a stick figure climbing up to the top of that section with a microphone in her hand. The figure is labeled "Me." The figure is just about to reach the second section, labeled "Plateau of Resting and Sharing What I've Learned." And the third section on the right is labeled "Continued Lifelong Learning." 

The image depicts Lori Mortimer pausing during her learning process to share what she's learned about sound design.

Can’t Carry a Tune? No Problem!

Sound Off the Ground can help you.

Let’s get something out of the way right now. Can you: 

  • read music?
  • play an instrument?
  • sing on key?
  • write music?

Me either!

And yet I’ve learned how to make my podcast, Mementos, sound good. I get compliments all the time on my sound design. (And they’re not even from my mom, because she’s dead.)

Not too long ago, I was where you are now.

I know how overwhelming it can feel when learning this stuff. And how many mistakes you make when learning. And how *@$#&! time-consuming it can be. Plus my wallet can tell you how tempting it is to spend money on apps and sound packs that you don’t really need.

That’s why I’m focusing on sound design for new podcasters.

In Sound Off the Ground, I’ll:

  • save you time by sharing lessons I’ve learned through trial and error — I suffered so you don’t have to
  • save you money by showing you free or cost-effective sound resources and how to use them creatively
  • show you how to make your own simple music even if you know nothing about music (I swear!)
  • share new sound-design tips and resources as I discover them along the way

And you’ll be able to: 

  • make your show sound great without spending gobs of money on sound design
  • listen carefully to the sound design of other shows and borrow their ideas, putting your own, unique spin on them
  • find free music, sound effects, and software, and use all of them in ways that fit your personality and show.

What do I mean by sound design?

When I say sound design, I mean the process of choosing, creating, altering, and arranging audio elements — like music and sound effects — to set the tone, create atmosphere, and enhance the story you’re trying to tell.

No matter which microphone or DAW (audio production software) you use, you will be able to use these principles, tips, and techniques. Therefore, I won’t be covering studio setup, which mic is best, or which DAW you should use. Those are all personal decisions.

So go grab a cuppa, and let’s get your sound off the ground. Subscribe here. It’s free and always will be.

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