Sound Design for Really Smart People
Hello friends,

Last week, after teaching a workshop, I got a few questions from an attendee. And it made me realize something.

Sometimes, when you've been doing something for a really, really long time, you forget what it was like at the beginning. When you were starting from scratch.

And that's what had happened here. In my quest to explain some of the best practices for sound design, I had skipped over some of the basics. And basics are really important.

So that's what I'm going to try to do today. Go back to the beginning, and work through it step by step.

In fact, I thought really hard about naming this edition of the newsletter Sound Design for Dummies, as a nod to that book series that was super-popular back in the early 90s.

But then I realized, I don't consider myself to be a dummy. And I don't think you should either! So let's call this "Sound Design for Super Smart People."

(And, by the way, if sound design isn't your thing, scroll all the way down for a couple of exciting Narrative Beat updates!)
Remember these books? Photo by Marcus Quigmire via Creative Commons License.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet? Click here to subscribe now!
Don't wait! It's never too soon to start thinking about sound design.

As you're gathering your interviews, think about the sound universe your story lives in. Is it light? Airy? Bouncy?

Is it serious? Gritty? A little bit dark?

As you start to write, make sure your writing belongs in the same sound universe as the rest of your story.

And when you come to a spot in your script where you know you want to give your listeners a chance to breathe, mark it down!


<add a beat>

Are there opportunities for nat sound? Or sound effects?

As you script your piece, be sure to write around these elements. Don't just try to slap them in all willy nilly at the end. Create a place for them to exist, so that they sound like they're supposed to be there.
Get familiar with the volume graph.

I was recently chatting with a fellow producer, and he mentioned, "Put 100 sound designers in a room, and they'll come up with 100 different ways to mix a piece."

And he was absolutely right.

None of us can agree on a single method for mixing a story. And many of us are 100% convinced that our way is the only right way.

But the truth of the matter is, there are probably a dozen ways that you could reasonably approach mixing a story. All of them will bring you to a perfectly lovely result in a totally reasonable amount of time.

But if you're not dropping little dots (sometimes called keyframes) onto a volume graph and manually moving them around, you're doing it wrong.

Let me say that again…

You're doing it wrong.

Look, I know. There are all sorts of automations that you can use. Other ways to set the basic volume of one track compared to another. Automated fades and crossfades.

And I have seen mixes done by serious, professional people who have relied entirely on setting the volume on a clip and using automated "fade in," "fade out" and "crossfade" functions.

And those mixes have been awful. Truly terrible.

When I set a volume graph on a piece of music. It looks pretty messy.
It might start off at a little more than bed volume, dip down under the voice, dip down a bit further when more instruments come in, pop up for a beat or two at important moments, and pop up again at the end of the song.

When you look at my volume graphs for nat sound or video clips, they look even funkier. A single fade might be made up of six or eight or twelve different dots. I might fade slowly for a few seconds and then suddenly dip down quickly. I might fade down really quickly at first and then slow it way, way down.

It might be possible to do all this with automated fades. But it's gonna be a lot easier if you just drop in those little dots and move them around until it sounds right.

So get familiar with whatever this function is called in the mixing software you use. It might seem more complicated at first, but it's going to save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run.
Audition your music alongside your mix.

This is another trick that seems like a waste of time at first, but actually ends up making things go much faster and more smoothly.

Don't just listen to your music options on their own. Instead, line up the section of your story that you're planning to score. Open up your music library in another window.

And hit play – in both windows.

Look, it's gonna be a mess. Your music is guaranteed to be too loud. It's not going to line up right. It's probably gonna feel pretty overwhelming.

But by doing this, I find that I can really narrow down the songs that "fit" with the audio.

Some I will discard after a second or two. Some I will keep playing for longer. And start asking myself some big questions.

How does this interact with the voices in the piece? Is it too fast? Too slow? Do the instruments overwhelm the voices? Do the voices overwhelm the instruments?

Quite quickly, I'm going to be able to start discarding songs that don't work at all and narrowing down my focus.

When I finally find a song that feels right, I often find that the existing posts in that song naturally line up with the important moments in the piece. It should feel like kismet. Like these two things belong together.

That's when I download the song and import it into my mix. Otherwise, I'm just wasting a lot of time -- and space on my computer.
Work backwards.

I used to obsess a lot about where to dip a song under narration. I'd move the voice track back and forth, trying to find the exact perfect spot.

The truth is, there is no perfect spot for a song to duck under.

But there is a perfect spot for a song to pop back up!

So when I identify a section that I want to score, I start by very roughly just placing the music on a track underneath it. I identify approximately where I want the song to start and where I want the song to end.

Then, I look for a good edit point, and I edit the music so the song can start and end cold.

(Obviously, this is easier if you're just fading the music in or out. But I am a sucker for a cold end. And, besides, even if I'm fading, I want to find a good spot to fade on. So I'm almost always making music edits.)

Then I'll place the last vocal track of the scored section so that it ends just before the music post I want to hit.

Most songs have multiple posts, so it's up to me to decide, do I want to hear the last three notes of the song? The last eight notes? Maybe just the very last "ding"?

Once I've got my audio positioned to take advantage of the ending I want to use, then I go back and adjust everything else. Sometimes, if I want to slow down the action or "use up" excess music, I might add a few places for music to pop up for a beat or two. Other times, I cut a few unnecessary pauses -- or even phrases -- out of my audio, so that I can fit it to a music bed that's just ever-so-slightly too short.

Keep your editorial vision in mind. Don't ditch great content in order to fit the music. But at the same time, remember that your audio and sound design should be working together to make a great story.
Try a waterfall.

So, we all know what a crossfade is, right? That's when you have two audio sources. One fades out while the other fades in.

Crossfades are really useful. But they're not as useful as the waterfall.

In a waterfall, one audio source starts to fade out. And usually, as it gets to about 50% volume, a second audio source comes in, more or less at 100%.

This is really, really useful when mixing together news montages. They get really messy if you just crossfade between news sources. But waterfalls often work perfectly.

The same goes when you want to transition between one piece of music to another. I mean, sure, if you want to completely hide that transition, a crossfade is the way to go.

But if you want there to be some intentionality to it, if you want to signal the change of mood or of tempo, try allowing the first song to fade about halfway out, and then start the second song cold.
Some of these concepts go beyond "beginner" level. So if you feel like you're not ready for them all yet, that's okay. Wherever you are on your sound design journey, grant yourself some grace.

As you work to improve your skills, there are going to be a lot of people who tell you that there's only one way to do things. They're going to say you're doing it wrong. That you can never succeed, unless you do it their way. (And they will say these things louder and more obnoxiously if you are a woman.)

But the truth is, unless you're going to be sharing mixes with other members of your team, you can use the method that works best for you.

You do not have to follow my advice. Or that guy on the internet's advice. Or Bob from engineering's advice. (No offense, Bob. You were always everyone's favorite!)

You can ignore everything I have written here. Except that dropping dots thing. I will fight you on that one!
Narrative Beat Updates!
As promised, I have updates!

First, thanks to everyone who attended the Narrative Beat workshop, Stories that Sing, on Feb. 20. If you purchased a ticket to the class, the video recording is now available. Just go back to the Tixoom link, and you'll find it.

If you weren't able to attend the workshop, you can now view the recording for a discounted price. Here's the link:

Stories that Sing!
(But seriously, if watching pre recorded webinars isn't your thing, hold tight. I will be offering this worship again.)

And secondly...for those who want even more bad jokes and pretty powepoint slides, I am bringing back my four hour WTF is Narrative workshop.

This is the full shabang. The workshop I've taught for the PRX Podcast Garage and public radio newsrooms. It covers everything from interviewing to structuring to scripting and sound design.

This class is longer and more expensive than the others I've offered here. So I want to make sure I schedule it for a day and time that works for the majority of people. If you're interested, fill out this doodle to help me choose.
WTF is Narrative
As always, just hit reply if you have any questions for me. And please continue to share, share, share this little newsletter. Our community is growing bigger and stronger every day.