Using Sound Design to Explain the Inexplicable
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.
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.”
Beyond the numbers
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.”
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.
How did he do it?
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.
1. Use sound design to convey numerical data or a sense of scope or scale, especially for very large or very small things.
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.
“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.
2. Forget what you think, and listen with your ears for what works.
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.”
3. Don’t create a false reality or alter factual information with sound.
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 email@example.com, 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 Freesound.org 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: https://freesound.org/people/lori.mortimer/
- 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.)