Note: Multitude is a podcast collective and production studio. This piece is part of a ten part series by them to help you create a fiction (or any) podcast. Did you see part six? Make sure you check that out and come back next Tuesday for Part Eight.
In the previous sections of this series, we’ve given you concrete advice on writing, casting, directing, and recording your fiction podcast. While on the surface, these skills may seem specific to podcasting, really, they are all tied together by principles of communication that are useful no matter what industry you’re in.
With post-production, however, you are wading into the territory of a very specific skill set. People spend years studying audio engineering to learn about the stuff the rest of us don’t understand, like preamps, cables, and Pro Tools. Because of this, it’s impossible for us to tell you everything that you would need to know to create a lush audio landscape for your fiction podcast, which brings us to our next piece of advice...
First and foremost, when it comes to the post-production of your podcast, your best bet is to get your hands on an expert who knows what they’re doing. Hire a sound designer with experience and trust what they say. Would you hire just anyone to design your logo? No, you’d hire a graphic designer, and it’s the same with an audio engineer. Make it their job to apply their years of experience and sense of tone to your podcast. In return, you will be rewarded with your scenes sounding EXACTLY like what you think they should sound like.
But hiring an expert is only the first step. To get things sounding just right, you’ll need to explain your vision to this person you hired, which requires patience, planning, and good communication. To help in that process, here are some things we learned while making our audio fiction podcast, NEXT STOP.
So you hired a post-production person. Good job! The first conversation you’ll want to have with them is about the style you envision for your audio fiction podcast. We can break this down into three main traditional fiction categories:
- A Radio Play: Think the BBC or a 1950s radio soap opera. Everyone is recording in the same room, no one ever talks over each other, and sound effects are often performed live with the actors. It’s a classic, but it may feel old-timey.
- Television: In this style, the main cast is played by a few people, with guest actors playing supporting roles. While less big and lush than film, the pacing is often much faster. There is a challenge in apeing a visual medium with an audio one, but it means that the audience has a stronger tether to the kind of fiction you’re shooting for. Within the TV category, think about what kind of show you are aiming for. Is it a single-cam comedy, a multi-camera sitcom, an HBO-style prestige show, a network 42-minute drama starring David Boreanaz?
- Film: The focus here is on aesthetics and in-depth character study. It is beautiful and emotional and often expresses the artistry of a single filmmaker. This also tells one concise story, so it may lend itself to a smaller run of episodes. Also, it’s freaking hard to do.
For NEXT STOP, we wanted to make a TV show. A sitcom is a TV show product and the audience would figure out what we’re doing from the first goof. As we explained what we wanted to our sound designer, Brandon, he told us that from a sound design perspective, it was interesting to think that a TV show is not immersive. We watch it on a screen at home, instead of being immersed at a movie theater with surround sound, and we know it’s a comedy show. In order to lean into that genre, Brandon used a binaural mic, which captures audio on a horizontal plane. That mic created that sense of audio on a “screen,” instead of a surround-sound feeling. We also agreed on the fast pace with no breaks from the jokes and leaning into the tropes of a sitcom, like scene stingers, a theme song with lyrics, and no scoring below speaking.
We also had this initial conversation during pre-production so we could record the actors and most sound effects in the same room. Remember in the last section when we said how awesome it was to have the actors bouncing off each other, keeping the vibe up and giving them props? This is where that idea was locked in.
Once the tone of the sound design is set, figure out what the role is that the sound designer will play. If they have experience, they’ll know how they prefer to work, what they’re responsible for, and a delivery schedule that makes sense. Once the delivery schedule is set, then both parties can adjust it if needed as they work on the first few episodes.
Speaking of what they’re responsible for, let’s talk about choosing takes. This is the director’s job; they deliver a list of takes of lines that they want and give it to the post-production team. But this is the beginning of the conversation between the sound designer and the director. The sound designer should definitely speak up if they think a take choice doesn’t work, and the director will ask to hear the edits and sound design as it’s happening.
Sound designers will also send drafts of what they’re working on to the production team looking for feedback. Feedback should be clear and kind, and written down to be as easy-to-follow as possible. This is also part of the director’s job as a communication hub. They’ll take all the notes and bring them back to the sound designer to have one, clear voice.
If you can, try to learn some vocabulary! It is the job of a composer or sound designer to properly interpret what you’re asking of them, but there are certain words that mean standard things in post-work.
- Boxy: It feels like it is in a box, there is a build in the lower-mid frequencies
- Not dirty enough: It’s not natural-sounding enough
- Clipping: A digital distortion can be heard in a take, like if something got too loud.
- EQ: The tool you use to manipulate the frequency content of your mix so that everything is balanced and clear.
- Compression: Reducing the span between the softest and loudest sounds so the average sounds louder and clearer.
What ARE they doing in ProTools? And why does it take so long? Here’s a breakdown of what goes on in post-production:
- Audio Repair and Cleanup: The post-production people have a lot of software that automatically gets rid of unwanted sounds. These processes remove plosives, bad mouth sounds, buzzes and hums from the studio, and help repair actors’ mics bleeding into each other’s tracks.
- Dialogue Edit: As we mentioned earlier, it’s up to the director to choose and deliver the takes to the post-production team. Then, it’s that team’s job to assemble all the takes together into one cohesive story. They also cut parts or add silences to improve pacing and timing.
- Adding the sound effects: This may seem straightforward, but really, it’s not — this process takes a whole lot of time and has many steps that you may not be aware of. There are environmental sounds, which play in the background to make the scene sound like its proper setting. For instance, if a scene is set on a subway platform, listeners should be able to hear people murmuring, trains breaking, other trains riding by, and maybe some birds for good measure. When considering what sounds a scene needs, keep in mind that these effects need to be found, bought, or made if they weren’t recorded as foley during production.
- Mixing and Mastering: It’s important to separate these two processes. Mixing is achieving a balance between everything in the session, so each sound has the right volume in the listener’s ear. So, shouting is louder than whispering, but it shouldn't be so loud that it blows out your ear. Mastering is the final step. Its main process is bringing the overall volume level of the podcast to the -18 to -16 LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale) industry-standard level.
The production team will usually give notes after the dialogue edit, after adding the sound effects and then after the final mixing and mastering. Again, this all gets filtered through the director as the communication hub.
We never said anything about making music; that is a totally different job. We have seen in a lot of productions that they expect the sound designer and the composer to be the same person. This is a huge burden, and the sound designer may not be the best at making music. That’s why, to score NEXT STOP, we reached out to a composer.
When we first contacted our composer, Evan Chambers, we followed the same steps that we listed above for working with a sound designer. We gave him a general sense of tone for the show, and sent some examples of works we liked and didn’t like from the sitcom genre. This step is especially important; matching a style with a type of music is a difficult task as is, and the process is even harder when a composer has no examples to go off of. After we sent them those examples, we set clear delivery dates, deadlines, and expectations, which fit with the release schedule and the composer’s work schedule.
Going in, we knew NEXT STOP was going to be a sitcom with a sound that was like classic 90s and 00s sitcoms. This meant Friends and Boy Meets World themes, but not Full House.
Here is what we asked our composer for:
- Full theme, as if it were a full 2-minute song.
- Short theme, the thirty second clip that would play before episodes
- Theme, but no lyrics
- Stingers to separate scenes
- Montage music for a sequence in Episode one
- Tap music for a dream sequence later in the season
All of those assets were delivered as 24/48 WAV format, plus the stems, or the individual tracks from the sessions.
Throughout the process, our sound designer and composer were in constant communication. The sound effects and the music affect one another, so it was important to make sure that they were in sync the entire time.
Now that you’ve communicated clearly and set a sensible delivery and feedback schedule, just step back and let your post-production team get it done.
Next up, we’ll give you tips on marketing your fiction podcast, so you can get as many listeners as possible. Come back next Tuesday for those, and until then, be sure to go back and check out any pieces in the series you may have missed.