Using ambience and sound effects for podcast soundscapes

Computer monitor open to Descript among abstract pyramids and music notes

There are a range of ways to think about and implement sound effects for podcasts. Maybe you’re making an atmospheric show, set in a cozy fictional village which requires immersive sound design — or maybe you’re just trying to add intro and outro music to a chat show. 

Either way, you should include some sound effects in your podcast to give it a little texture, and maybe a signature moment or two. There’s something comforting about the moment a familiar theme song kicks in, the first notes of a refrain a listener will recognize: these sound cues become part of the ritual of listening to a podcast, which will help bring listeners back over and over again. Music can also act as a transition between segments, giving the listener a sense of rhythm and a brief rest from paying attention before she tunes in again. 

But then how do you add in exactly as much as you need without overpowering the story you’re trying to tell? Where do you find music you can use without paying a fortune or inviting legal trouble? And what other kinds of sound might you want to add to your podcast before you publish it for the world to hear?

Let’s start with the basics:

Finding Music

The internet is full of music — Spotify playlists, TikTok sounds, and endless sites to scour for free beats. The trick is figuring out what you can legally use and how much it’s going to cost you. So if you’ve found a song you’re dying to add as an intro, start by checking the copyright. If the song you’ve set your heart on is in the public domain, you’re in luck: you can use it whenever and however you want!

But if it’s not, you’re going to come up against two issues: rights and royalties. Anything that’s not in the public domain is subject to regular old copyright law. There are a lot of myths around podcasts and music, so let’s clear the air: 

  • it doesn’t matter how long or short your clip is
  • it doesn’t matter if you credit the artist
  • and it doesn’t matter if you’re not making money off of your podcast

You still don’t own the sound, and so in many cases, you can’t use it unless you pay for it — and sometimes not even then.

The exception is something called “fair use,” which allows, for instance, journalists to quote from books they didn’t write, and may apply to your podcast if, say, you’re discussing the song in question. Fair use is a complicated topic, and it’s very circumstantial — you can read more from The Copyright Alliance about how it works here. But if you (or your legal counsel) decide it applies in your situation, you can use some portion of a song for free.

If not, you’ll have to license the song. There are many different types of licenses — a Creative Commons license, for instance, allows the creator of the work to set the terms for how it can be used by other people. Creative Commons licenses are often more generous than standard copyright language, so if you see that, it’s a good sign.

You might also look for royalty-free music, which is often a cheaper option than other kinds of licensing. It’s important to note that royalty-free is not the same thing as in the public domain, so you still have to license this music — and you might even have to pay an upfront fee to do so. But once you’ve done that, you can use the song as many times as you want for as long as the license lasts. Unlike with music that requires royalties, there are no recurring payments based on the number of times you play it.  

Bottom line: It’s really, really important to read the fine print when deciding what music to use in your podcast. Copyright holders (especially big record labels) are more tenacious than ever about coming after people who use their music without a license. And if you’re trying to make your podcast on the cheap, legal fees are the last thing you need. 

But music isn’t the only sound you might add to your podcast! You might also be looking for cheap or free sound effects as well. 

Why Sound Effects?

To be clear, when we say a sound effect, we don’t necessarily mean like what you hear punctuating jokes on a corny morning radio show. (Boi-oi-oing, a sad trombone’s wah wah wah, etc.) Here are a couple of types of common sound effects that can help pace and shape a podcast:

Bumpers

An audio bumper functions a lot like a car’s bumper does: it’s used to create a buffer between one part of the show and another. So you might insert a bumper to let audiences know that you’re about to transition from the intro into the main body of the show, or from the show into a commercial break. Bumpers are a little piece of music like a jingle, no longer than 15 seconds, often with a voiceover laid on top of them. (Don’t forget to use the ducking feature so the audio track and the vocals don’t get muddy!) Think: “Well be right back… after these messages.” 

Stingers

A stinger is basically a bumper, but shorter — usually only around five seconds. They might be musical, but could also be some other type of punctuating sound. Stingers are classic sitcom techniques — think the bass line that plays to let you know a scene has ended in Seinfeld. 

Podcast IDs

Most podcasts have some kind of tagline that the hosts use at the top of every show to let new listeners know what they’re in for — on Call Your Girlfriend, for instance, it was “Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long distance besties everywhere.” Usually this is re-recorded with every episode as part of the intro, but you might also make a fancier pre-recorded sound effect you can just drop in to do that for you. On the radio, this is called a sweeper — a little sound bite that lets listeners know what they’re listening to.  

Finding Sound Effects

The good news is that if you’re not a composer, there are tons of sites that offer free, high-quality sound effects. Here’s an extremely not-comprehensive list of places to start looking:

  • Freesound is a database of tens of thousands of sounds that exist under the Creative Common license, allowing them to be re-used by third parties. (Though how those licenses are written vary, so do double check what your rights are before you grab something from them!) 
  • Zapsplat is dedicated to providing free and royalty-free music and sound effects to creators, and everything on the site is licensed for commercial use. If you want some of the site’s fancier options, though, such as downloading raw files instead of MP3s, you’ll have to buy an upgraded membership for £4 GBP per month, or £30 GBP per year (about $4.50 USD per month or $34 USD per year).
  • SoundBible also offers a variety of free and royalty-free sound effects for download. Their free sounds aren’t always available for commercial use, though, so again, read the license carefully before you make a decision!
  • A Sound Effect is a clearinghouse for sound effects made by independent sound designers. They aren’t offered for free, but the good news is that everything on the site is under the same license, so there’s no case-by-case analysis to do if you find something you like — once you understand the terms and cost for one sound effect, you understand it for all of them! And if you do buy from A Sound Effect, you’re supporting other independent creators, which is always nice. 
  • Music Radio Creative offers royalty-free music, but it’s also the place to go if you want a professional voiceover artist to record a custom stinger, bumper, or intro for your show. 
  • Storyblocks is a collection of free stock audio as well as video and images. Its library is extensive — but to gain access, you have to subscribe. Plans start at $15 per month and go up to $35 for the Pro option. 

How to use ambience and sound effects in your podcast

For this one we turned to Brandon McFarland, an audio engineer and composer at Vox. Some of what he does is making things sound better — all of that compressing and equalizing and then maybe compressing and equalizing again. But he also helps bring podcasts to life by “scoring” them, or adding music that will make them feel cinematic and immersive. 

The shows that need the most scoring are the scripted ones, Brandon says. “On a talk podcast, you really just need music at the top, music to signal the ad breaks, and at the end,” he explains. “But I’ve worked on a lot of investigative pieces, and they have tons of music, because there's tons of stuff that needs to be explained. There's characters that need to be introduced, and all the characters deserve their own music. Or certain scenes that are being described need music under them. There can be upwards of 40 pieces of music in a single 30 minute episode.” 

His general rule of thumb is that, in addition to the character themes he describes above, if anyone is going to talk for more than a minute straight in a scripted show, there should be some kind of music that comes in, so that the listener doesn’t get bored or tune out. 

Brandon sometimes composes original pieces for the podcast he works on, but he also uses databases of existing sounds as well. He prefers being able to work with audio that’s been separated into tracks called “stems” so that he can customize it for what he needs and make sure that the music isn’t overwhelming what the show is actually trying to say. “That way I can get really granular,” he explains. “I get down to okay, this piece is working, but not with all the instruments playing at once. Maybe if I just use the violin right here, it'll make more of an impact.” 

Brandon’s last tip is to record as much field sound as you can, so that you have natural soundscapes and ambience to include in the finished product. Pre-recorded stuff always sounds hokey, in his opinion, and trying to re-create something in Foley is never quite the same. “If you're doing a scene, stay there in that scene with your recorder,” he urges. “After the interview is over, just record whatever’s going on so that we have plenty of options later.” 

His aim is always that the music doesn’t call attention to itself. “It’s not making you feel a certain way,” Brandon says. “I don't like music to guide me into a feeling, so much as just being there, enhancing the moment.” 

Image by Dan Stark on Unsplash.

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