Fiction podcasts often feel like theater productions in audio form. They’re produced in a similar way, too: both have actors, a director, even a sound designer. But in fiction podcasts, where the sound of a piece is the primary vehicle for telling its story, the sound designer is much more important. In fact, when I talk about my podcast work with theater people, they’re usually surprised to learn how much overlap there often is between the duties of a podcast’s director and sound designer.
Sound designers often make choices surrounding blocking, costuming, and dialogue pace that have a direct impact on the story. Even in nonfiction shows, especially those that follow a narrative, sound designers play a huge role in deciding what information the listener receives and how much of it they get.
I’ve worked on both fiction and nonfiction productions where I play the role of showrunner and sound designer, and productions where I’m called in as an external designer to edit and sound design the show. What I’ve learned from all of this is that knowing how to communicate with your sound designer is extremely important, and not just because their time is your money. No matter what type of podcast you’re creating, here are three tips for a successful dialogue that helps both parties bring their A-game to a project.
When making a show with a team of people, no matter how many, everyone has to get the materials they need to fulfill their role when it's their turn or the entire thing grinds to a halt. I’ve made the mistake of trying to sound design a scene that I don’t have all the voice actors’ audio for yet, telling myself “I’ll just put a marker where the actor speaks and as much space as I think each line will take up, and fill it in later.” That was the devil talking. When editing audio, timing is everything, and when you have to go back in and add lines whose timing wasn’t accounted for in the dialogue edit, or edit narration to music that you only have a temp track for, the timing of things will have to be changed. This makes the designer’s job a lot harder, and can often feel like a waste. Unless you have a super tight turnaround schedule, make sure you have all the materials you need (interview audio, music, voice actor lines, etc.) before you give your designer the go ahead.
You should also budget in a time cushion for if something comes up in the sound design process, whether that’s your designer noticing a flubbed line you didn’t catch and now need to get a retake for or audio you thought they would be able to clean up being truly unusable. Accidents — or mistakes that only a highly-trained ear can catch — happen, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
2. Direct like a sound engineer with ten thousand pet peeves
I don’t mean you should be terrified to record anywhere other than an anechoic chamber. There are, however, some simple things you can do when gathering your audio that will make your designer immensely grateful:
Leave a few seconds of room tone at the beginning of recordings before you start talking. Having a clean and clear slice of just background noise makes it much easier to remove it from the full recording.
If you’re recording on location, be mindful of aspects of the location that may affect the audio. The sound of a real location can be a great storytelling device that brings the audience into the world of the speaker, but recording right next to a construction site or in a huge and empty warehouse can cause noise issues that make the dialogue difficult to understand. Talking to your sound designer at the start of the process about where you plan to record and getting a basic rundown on mic technique (especially gain and when to turn it up and down) will set you up for higher quality audio and more flexibility in the sound design phase.
If you’re conducting an interview, reassure your subject(s) that this is an audio medium that can be edited, so they can take a second to think about their answer before speaking and start a sentence over if they trip over their words! That reminder will help to put them at ease and decrease the amount of flubs and filler words your sound designer has to edit out — or at least make them easier to remove.
3. Script mindfully
Some showrunners have a very specific idea of what they want a scene or sequence to sound like. Others prefer to give their sound designer a lot of creative freedom. However you paddle your canoe, make sure you write your scripts with that style in mind. I love working on shows where the director tells me to just go for it. But when they know exactly what they want and are looking for me to perfectly translate that idea from their brain to audio, it helps to have a script with specific details to guide my work. Here’s an example from the script of an episode of my fiction podcast, Where the Stars Fell:
“LUCY enters through the back door with her cane, opening it carefully and quietly. She closes it behind her, takes a few steps in— and the lights flick on by themselves revealing… uh oh. LINUS in ED’S body, from here on simply called “LINUS”, is sitting in ED’S desk chair.”
When I wrote this scene, I had very specific blocking and staging in mind that I wanted to be able to reference later when I went to sound design it. Instead of just writing, “Lucy enters the cabin and Linus is there,” I noted that she did so quietly (knows someone is in there), through specifically the back door of the house (located in the kitchen, so she’ll be moving from the kitchen to the living room, and also to use the specific screen door sound effect that lets the audience know she used the back door), that she closes the door and turns the lights on (doesn’t know Linus is in the living room), and where Linus is located relative to Lucy (how many footsteps to use, where their starting positions are in the fight that’s about to happen). Look at how much information this gives the audience as they’re listening! If I were working with someone else as the sound designer, I would want to be this detailed to make sure they would create a sequence that includes all this information.
Writing with detail relative to the level of creative freedom you want to give your sound designer can also help you save money in the process — most sound designers charge by the hour, and multiple rounds of back-and-forth edits can rack up a hefty bill. Even if you’re paying them a stipend, a common practice is to set a reasonable number of drafts that can be expected and start charging hourly after you go past a certain number. Yes this makes me more money, but I’d rather get a scene just right for a client after two or three drafts than go back and forth for seven because they can’t communicate what they want.
At the end of the day, working with a sound designer should be a fun and collaborative process where everyone’s creativity gets to shine. Understanding what you want, how to ask for it, and how to set them up for success will result in a better show, done faster, and under budget.