5 sound design tricks inspired by literature

The podcast that I co-produce for KCRW, Here Be Monsters, often floats away from reality into some deeper, darker sonic spaces. There’s layered music, looped ambience, distorted voices and more.  

Before I began designing sound for podcasts, I assumed that there was a certain sorcery to it. There isn’t. In fact, I discovered that I already knew all the fundamentals—I had learned them in my high school english classes.

Watch my Independent Producer Project workshop on sound design

Here are 5 lessons, stolen from literature, to take your sound design to the next level.

Leverage the limitations of audio

Early poets discovered that line breaks could be used for impact. Newspaper publishers discovered that many stories could be crammed onto a single page. L33t H4x0rs discovered they could keep people under 40 from reading what they were writing—yet, despite their departures from traditional prose, all of these forms share the (nearly) fundamental limitation of writing: they’re all just lines on a page (paper or digital).

In audio, view the limitations of the medium as your dimensions of freedom.

Non-Exhaustive List of Highly-Related Audio Dimensions:

  • Volume (how loud is it?)
  • Proximity (how close is it?)
  • Clarity (how intelligible is it)
  • Tonality (is it treble, bass, or mids?)
  • Position (is it coming from the left, right, center, above or below?)
  • Speed (how fast does it move?)

When you design sound, play with the balance of these dimensions. Exaggerate them, diminish them and push against them. See if they’re as solid as they seem. See also Rikke Houd’s Amazing Radio Vertikalisator.

Build sonic motifs

When I started designing sound, I experienced a lot of writer’s block. It was a feeling of anxiety I felt every time I opened up my audio software to discover yet another blank screen in front of me. It was the potential for a piece to unfold a thousand ways without me ever knowing which was best.

I wish someone had just sat me down and told me to start with a sonic motif. A sonic motif is a repeated song, a looped phrase, a recurring sound used to mark the passage of time, a familiar character, or another element that you want your listener to grasp onto.

These motifs serve two purposes. First, motifs help your listener say “yes, I know this, this fits in as part of the whole.” Second, motifs grant you, the creator, a starting point—a place where you can say “here’s something sonic that represents the sentiment, the core of what I’m getting at.”

Let your tape breathe

If comedy is 90 percent timing, then sound design is 75 percent pacing: stacking up sounds, spacing them out appropriately, then trimming the excess.

In concept, it is quite simple. But long editing sessions lead to tired ears and brains. Tight deadlines make for impatient editing. Overcaffeinated editing makes for jittery audio. And for these reasons, I think that the majority of editors cut their tape too tight.

Slow down, let your tape breathe. Punctuate important points and transitions with sounds, music or even silence.

Be careful with narration, especially in transitions. Ask whether you’re adding information, or simply recapping what your source has just said. If it’s the latter, leave it silent or use music. Your listeners will mentally write their own narration in these gaps, reflecting on what they’ve just heard.

Design Sound both Figuratively and Literally

The immediate temptation in sound design is to pick out nouns from a script or interview, and add those sounds into the piece, a la:

“I walked down the hallway [footsteps sound], and slowly opened the door [creaking door sound].”

This practice is rampant in radio and podcasting.  I call it “literal sound design.” And it’s not wrong, per se, but it can be predictable and (at its worst) exhausting. Sometimes it’s okay to be predictable or exhausting—just do it intentionally.

Figurative sound design looks at audio’s intention. Once intention is established, it’s easy to find allegorical audio to represent it. Instead of footsteps, try finger snaps. Instead of a door creak, build a crescendo. It’s simile and metaphor.

Figurative sound design presents another advantage: it won’t be mistaken for truth. It shows your hand in manipulating your listeners’ emotions. Whereas literal sound design must be used very carefully, especially when you ask your listeners to judge the truth of a situation.

In my own work, I mix the two approaches. I use the literal for grounding, and the figurative for atmosphere.

Pay attention to the listener’s subconscious

This last suggestion is my favorite. It’s not very literary, and it may be snake oil, but here it is anyway.

Usually, you should be bold when you mix audio. Do it so that listeners who hear your work on their car stereos in traffic won’t have to strain their ears.

But once you’ve taken care of your freeway listenership, remember the others who will listen wearing headphones in the quiet of their homes.  They might listen at night and they might’ve had a glass or two of wine. And these wine-in-hand listeners experience your work differently. They can hear more layers of audio, are more prone to suggestion.

And so I use subconscious sounds. Sounds so quiet, or so slowly entering, or so otherwise delicate that the conscious mind might not even notice them. These sounds are definitely, certainly there…but so easy to miss.

Bring in the quiet hum of fluorescent lights behind music and voice. Or a field recording from your source’s backyard. Consider the quiet sound of their refrigerator running, or the box fan on their table as a little gift your wine-in-hand audience’s hindbrain. Done right, it can add meaning to the piece.

Ethically, this practice is dangerous. Be aware of the manipulation that you introduce, and don’t use it for evil.

Conclusion

These tips are simply suggestions, not dictum. I presented much of the above using the terms of literature, but similar comparisons could be drawn just as easily by a painter, psychologist, or physicist, using the terms of their respective fields. So here’s a bonus tip: take what you know deeply, and apply it to audio. Do it again and again. Do it until you run out of comparisons. And then keep going.