The Seven Sacred Rules of Sound Design
Hello friends,

I generally try to fill this space with advice that's helpful for anyone who considers themselves a storyteller. Audio, video, print, or even performing on a stage. It doesn't much matter. I want this to be a helpful space for all.

But this one is for the audio geeks.
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Fun fact: I started my career in public radio as a work-study student in the audio engineering department.

This was back in the days of razor blades and reel-to-reel machines. Complex mixes felt like symphony performances, with a reporter in the booth, an engineer at the board, and, sometimes, a director standing in the middle of the room, shouting and pointing and keeping everyone in sync.

It was magical.

I loved it.

The switch to digital happened pretty early in my career. And I loved that, too.

After a few years of pushing buttons, I wanted to make stories of my own. So I left engineering to become a reporter.

But when my radio show switched to narrative, we found that we sometimes needed a few extra fingers at the mixing keyboard.

And so, I dusted off my old skills. And developed some new ones.

And you know what?

It's still magical.

I still love it.

The more familiar I am with a story, the easier it is to mix. I know where I need to add a little bit of pep and when to take advantage of rising action. I know where it needs to breathe, with longer, slower music cues and yes, maybe even a little bit of silence.

The past couple of weeks, I've been doing lots of sound design and mixing for The Long Game, a podcast I'm producing for Foreign Policy and Doha Debates.

And so, I figured, why not share some of my best takeaways in this week's newsletter?
Rule #1: There Are No Rules

I love Jonathan Menjivar's Transom manifesto, Using Music. In it, he very clearly lays out the guidelines This American Life uses when scoring stories.

When that article first came out, I read it over a few times. And then I made my own list of guidelines. Principals that would keep me on track as I mapped out the sound design for a story.

At first, I followed those guidelines way too closely. I treated them as absolutes.

Jonathan mentioned that TAL generally used about a minute's worth of music at a time, and that music should stay out for about as long as it was in.

And so, if you listen to a lot of my stories for Only A Game, you can almost time them with a stopwatch. One minute of music. One minute without. One on. One off. And on and on and on.

But in his essay, Jonathan is very clear to say that these guidelines are just that -- guidelines. And he gives lots and lots of exceptions and alternatives.

Each story is its own living, breathing thing.

So, for the most part, there are no rules.

And there is really only one absolute:

You cannot "fix" a bad story with sound design.

Sure, you can distract from minor flaws. You can make the most of what you have.

But if your story is a dud, scoring ain't gonna fix it.

If that section of your story is boring, adding sound design won't make it exciting.

Sound design and scoring can make a good story better.

But it won't make a bad story good.

So...don't make bad stories, okay?
Rule #2: Stick to a Single Soundtrack

Look, you don't want every song in your story to sound exactly the same. But you do want there to be some commonality between the songs you choose. I like to think of it like a movie soundtrack.

Sometimes, it might be a John Williams' Star Wars type of thing, where every song sounds like it was written by the same composer and performed by the same orchestra.

Or it might be more along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy. Each song comes from a different artist. It has a unique style. Maybe even totally different instrumentation.

But there's something about the vibe that suggests that all of these songs belong together.

That's how I like to think about scoring my stories.

I want there to be variation.

But I want it all to hold together as a whole.
Rule #3: Layer, Layer, Layer

Let's face it, sound effects can sound really, really cheesy on their own.

So can news clips. And even nat sound.

But layer a few elements on top of each other, and you start to have something.

Layer in some music on top of that, and you might have a winner.

The most fun I ever had sound designing a story was when I mixed this piece for Only A Game.

Matthew Stock had conducted the interview and produced the story. But he had to leave for his new job before he had a chance to sound design it.

As I listened to Matthew's interview, a whole concept rolled out in my head.

I found a bunch of songs that sounded ethereal, cold and icy.

I downloaded sound effects of rushing water, bubbles and breathing in scuba gear.

I found an actual underwater recording of an iceberg breaking apart.

I even asked a friend to eat some pop rocks in front of a microphone.

Any one of these elements would have sounded ridiculous on their own. But mix them all together and the result was pretty cool!
Rule #4: Avoid Anything that Feels 'On The Nose'

Hey, look. I understand. If your story is sad, you think you're gonna make it better by adding a little bit of sad music.

But sad music is really just going to make your listener feel manipulated.

The same can be said of happy music. And scary music. And uplifting music.

Instead, try enhancing a scene's more subtle themes.

Are you working your way to a happy ending? Try using music that's ever-so-slightly hopeful.

Does your story still have unresolved tension? Try for a teeny bit of suspense.

Or maybe just go for sparse and ambient? Let the emotion of your scene stand on its own.

Whatever you do, DON'T USE SAD MUSIC!!

Walk away from the sad.

The most important word in your music-searching vocabulary is the word, "neutral."

Similarly, if you're in the mood to use some sound effects, please, please, please do not feel like you need to use one every time your story mentions something that makes noise.


Like with so many things, moderation is key.
Rule #5: Don't be TOO Predictable

Look, I am a sucker for cold ends. I looove them. And I pride myself on making really great music edits so that I can put that amazing cold end exactly where I want it.

Fades are for the weak.

And when I do fade out on music, I usually do it in the clear...and use it as an opportunity to create space between two sections of a story.

Similarly, I love a music bed with a good, cold open. I love using news clips that start cold. And sound effects.

In a nutshell, don't come at me with that wishy-washy crap. I want my audio elements to enter the mix with confidence!

But if I use my favorite tricks every single time, my sound design is going to start to get repetitive and predictable.

So whatever your favorite thing is, be sure to step away from it from time to time. Challenge yourself to do something different.

You might even find you like the new thing better!
Rule #6: There's Nothing Wrong with a Little Repetition

Let's go back to our movie soundtrack analogy. Have you ever noticed how, in some movies, a certain piece of music follows a character?

I'm looking at you, Darth Vader.
If you have a storyline that you're going to put on pause for a while, consider introducing it with a song you can use again when the storyline comes back.

Or if you have an idea that comes back time and again in your story, consider associating it with a particular song. Or a particular instrument.

If you have as story that comes full circle -- as so many of them do -- think about maybe starting and ending your story with the same song.

And while we're at it...

You do not need to come up with an entirely new slate of songs for every episode of your podcast.

That's entirely unnecessary, and it's way too much work -- especially given the amount of crap you have to sift through to find a decent piece of music.

There are certain songs I've used over and over. I know them by name. I associate them with certain themes or moods. And I feel no need to re-invent the wheel every time those moods come along.

Sometimes I hear those songs on my favorite podcasts and realize that they, too, are repeating the same songs. Not every week, of course. But if you listen for long enough, you WILL hear repeats.

It's fine.

I promise.
Rule #7: Less is More

Your story does not need wall-to-wall sound design.

Trust me on this.

I know that you are intricately familiar with all of your story's flaws.

Maybe your main character wasn't as compelling as you had hoped.

Maybe you're not happy with your writing. Or your nat sound.

Maybe -- especially if you're a woman -- you hate the sound of your own voice.

But none of these are reasons to cover your entire story with music. Or sound effects. Or boring nat sound of your subject driving a car or going for a walk in the woods.

The places where you choose to add sound design are just as important as the places where you decide to take it away.

And if you put music under every thought, or use a sound effect every time someone alludes to something that makes noise, you're going to take all the power out of those techniques.

Worse yet, you're going to take all the power out of your story.

Sometimes, the most effective thing you can do is to remove all the artifice covering up the sound of the human voice.

That's why, quite often, the most emotional parts of your story won't be sound designed at all.
What's your favorite "rule" for sound design? Reply to this email and tell me about it.

And, as always, if you like this newsletter, please share it with someone who would appreciate it.