(No) More Marimba

I'm gonna say something, and I don't want you to get offended.

Can we stop with all the marimbas?


Look. I get it. This isn't your fault. One fateful day, not long after the dawn of podcasting, some hot shot producer walked into a podcasting studio and declared that marimbas made for really good background music.

I blame Christopher Walken.

(And yes, I made my own meme of this very moment. And yes, my photoshop skills are really, really terrible.)
Image of the More Cowbell meme with a marimba instead of a cowbell.
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If I'm being honest, the reason why so many of us use so many marimbas in our podcasts is that marimbas really work well. For almost everything.

Need to signal some bright optimism?

Cheerful marimbas are great for that!

Scoring a slightly scary scene?

Try some tense marimbas.

Have a boring bit of analysis that needs something, but not anything too distracting?

Yep. You guessed it. That's a neutral marimba moment.

Before you know it, you'll have an entire episode entirely scored by marimbas.

And while each music bed is different, in the end…they all tend to sound the same.

So, as the calendar flips over to 2023, I'd love for us all to commit to using fewer marimbas in our work.

Don't worry. I'm not actually saying that you can never again use your favorite marimba music bed.

I'm just saying…try some alternatives.

Try all the alternatives.

Let's make marimbas the musical instrument of last resort.

But never fear. I'm not gonna throw that challenge out there without giving you some ideas of what you can use instead.
Pick a Vibe

I suspect that one of the reasons so many of us turn to marimbas is because we haven't actually thought deeply about what our story should sound like.

Marimbas are the ultimate neutral. Or, at least, they've become the ultimate neutral, simply because so many of us use them to signal so many different things.

(Again, I blame Christopher Walken.)

So when you use a marimba bed in your story, you're not actually making a statement about the musical universe your story lives in.

But when you take the time to choose a musical vibe for your piece, you open up the possibilities of what can sound "neutral." It works like a global reset.

A stripped back, pulsing electronic bed is going to sound totally out of place in a piece that's scored with cinematic, orchestral music. But it's going to sound just right in a story that's already got a futuristic, spacey vibe.

So, think about the themes of your story.

Is your story brash? Bold? Do you have characters who are standing up to authority? Bucking tradition? Breaking all the rules?

If so, maybe your story lives in a rock universe?

Does your story take place in an urban setting? Is it maybe a bit dark?

Try some super chilled out, low-fi beats.

Does your story have a temperature? Is it very cold? (Like, cave diving inside an iceberg cold?)

Maybe your music should be ambient? With bright, clear notes and twinkling bells?

Figure out the musical universe that your story dwells in. And then explore what the word "neutral" means inside that universe.
Use Different Search Words

Look, we've done this to ourselves. Because so many of us have chosen to use marimbas, the search engines are now offering marimbas as our only neutral option when we make our searches.

So shake up the vocabulary you're using to search for songs.

Try words that convey movement. Like walking, ambling, running.

Or words that signify tempo. Upbeat. Laid back.

Search for "pulses" if you want to convey action. Or reflection.

Consider some "light drones" for tension or suspense.

Look for songs that are "ambient" if you need to signal a mood without movement.

Try going electronic instead of acoustic.

(Seriously, if I never heard another acoustic guitar or piano in a podcast, I would not be sad.)

Once you find a song you like, look at the words used in the description. Pop those into the search engine and see what comes up.
Preview Your Music With Your Mix

I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating.

Don't just listen to songs until you find one you like. Chances are, you'll pick something that clashes with your content.

You'll end up with a song that's too fast or too slow.

You'll end up with a song that's too busy or too boring.

Or you'll end up with a song that uses musical instruments that are too close to the vocal range and pull attention away from the voices in your story.

And then, after becoming frustrated with downloading and importing song after song after song, you'll just turn to a trusty marimba bed, because you know it will work.

Save yourself all that frustration. Do a rough assembly of the portion of your story that you'd like to score. And then press play.

While your assembly is playing, try out some songs. Like, a lot of songs.

I'd estimate that I usually try 15-20 songs before I find something that I vaguely like.

Sometimes I'm lucky and I love the first song. But if you're saying "yes" to the first song every time you do a search, you probably need to develop a more discerning ear.

Once you find a song you vaguely like, go back to the beginning of the section you want to score and the beginning of the song. Press play on the song. Press play on the assembly.

Listen to how it lines up. Do the posts naturally hit at good moments? That's a sign that you've chosen well!

What happens when the song shifts and the instruments change? Does the song still work? Does it work even better? Can you edit that shift to come earlier or later, to better align with your content?

As you get to the end of the section you want to score, skip to the end of the song. Does it have a solid cold ending? Or is it going to need to fade?

If it needs to fade, think about your content. Is this a place where a fade could work well? Or do you really need to go back and find a song with a cold ending?

Once you've answered ALL of these questions, you are finally ready to download and import the song. But…don't be dismayed. All of those "almost right songs" aren't going to go to waste.

Go ahead and bookmark those. Because when it comes time to score the next section of your piece, you're going to want to save yourself a whole bunch of drama and try them first.
Fix Your Content

Oh gosh, I really hate to say this…again. But it seems like every time I say it, I get at least one or two emails from people who feel like they're hearing someone say it outloud for the first time.

If you're adding a lively marimba tune to try to "liven up" a boring section of your piece, you're doing it wrong.

The only fix for boring content is to make it less boring.

No exceptions.
And finally…

If all other options fail, you have my permission to use a marimba.

For reals.

Sometimes, the perfect song just doesn't exist. And while I'd love to search all day (or create my own song with one of the many, fancy music creation tools) I just don't have time for that.

Creators gotta create. Deadlines are real. And perfect is the enemy of good.

So if you have to use a marimba, do it.

I'll only cringe a little. On the inside.

I promise.
Thanks to everyone who followed this little newsletter in 2022. It's been such an exciting year! I'll be taking some time off in January, so don't be surprised if my next newsletter is Hawaii themed…or travel themed…or work-from-anywhere themed.

In the meantime, if you have a question you'd like me to answer – or a tip for how you avoid using marimbas in your work – please hit reply to this email. And, as always, feel free to share this newsletter with anyone who'd get a kick out of my silly attempts at audio analogies…and photoshop.