The art of subtle sound

Enhancing the podcast experience by avoiding audio distractions

In the realm of podcast production, sound holds the power to immerse listeners in a world created purely through auditory sensations. As a podcast sound editor, your role is pivotal in shaping this auditory journey. 

However, an often underestimated aspect of sound design is the potential for poor choices to actually distract rather than enhance the listener's experience. One area where this can be particularly evident is in the use of overtly literal sound effects, including inappropriately selected music.

Imagine listening to a thrilling mystery podcast, where every scene's audio is meticulously crafted to emulate real-life sounds. You hear the protagonist mention a door opening, and immediately, the sound of a creaking door fills your ears. 

While this might seem like a faithful representation, it actually breaks the suspension of disbelief and disconnects the listener from the story. Why? Because the human brain is adept at creating vivid mental imagery when given a narrative prompt. When the narrative already implies a door opening, adding the literal sound effect becomes redundant, if not counterproductive.

As human beings, we are naturally wired to imagine scenarios when provided with context. If a scene is being described in a podcast, our minds conjure up visuals and sounds that correspond to the narrative. When podcast creators spoon-feed us with explicit sound effects, it robs us of the opportunity to utilise our imagination. Rather than enhancing the experience, it detracts from the depth we could have created on our own. 

Take the door opening example: instead of blatantly introducing the sound the moment the door is mentioned, you can generate intrigue by describing the character's apprehension, their gaze "fixed on the slowly turning doorknob".... As tension mounts, a carefully timed creaking sound can evoke a visceral reaction, amplifying the suspense rather than undermining it.

A more effective approach lies in the creation of ambience that complements the narrative. Instead of inserting the literal sound of a door opening, you can build an auditory environment that conveys the scene's mood. The subtle rustling of leaves, distant traffic, and a faint murmur of voices can set the stage without resorting to obvious sound cues. By allowing listeners to engage their imagination, you create a richer and more memorable experience.

To truly captivate listeners, the podcast narrative and its sound design must be in perfect harmony. Consider the scenario where a character urgently needs to escape a perilous situation. Rather than explicitly playing the sound of a car starting as the character makes their getaway, let the narrative pave the way for the sound. 

For instance, weave in narrative cues like, "With a racing heart, they knew they had to flee, leaving danger behind." This primes the listener for an impending escape. As the character's decision unfolds, the subtle sound of a car engine roaring to life gains significance, aligning seamlessly with the storyline. 

This subtle approach not only respects the listener's imagination but also deepens their emotional connection to the events. By refraining from prematurely exposing significant sounds, you can also masterfully build suspense. 

Equally crucial to sound effects is the role of music. Music has the extraordinary ability to evoke emotions, accentuate moments, and guide the listener's emotional journey. However, the wrong choice of music can be as distracting as literal sound effects.

Imagine a podcast scene filled with tension as the protagonist delves into a dark mystery. Suddenly, an upbeat, cheerful tune begins to play in the background. This discordance between the narrative and the music can be jarring, pulling the listener out of the intended mood. Music should enhance the emotions evoked by the narrative, not contradict them. 

Just as with sound effects, music transitions should be seamless and aligned with the narrative flow. Consider the transition from an intense chase to a moment of quiet introspection. Instead of abruptly changing the musical tone, opt for a gradual shift that mirrors the character's emotional journey. This transition maintains the listener's engagement while preventing sonic distractions. 

In the world of podcast sound editing, the art lies in the subtle dance between sound and narrative. One of the perfect examples of this is Wondery’s Dark Sanctum, which should be recommended listening for all podcast sound designers. Rather than spoon-feeding listeners with overtly literal sound effects, it elevates the auditory experience by cultivating a sense of atmosphere and leaving room for the imagination to flourish. 

By skillfully aligning sound design with the narrative, you have the power to immerse listeners in a world that transcends mere auditory stimulation. Remember, a well-crafted podcast respects the listener's capacity to envision and feel, resulting in an experience that lingers long after the final episode fades away.