04 SEPTEMBER 2017
written by Mike
Let’s talk about my favourite aspect of podcast production – music.
When it comes to podcasting, you only have audio to convey the message, to tell the story. No fancy graphics, no 4K video to distract the audience, no place to fool the listeners.
There are few elements of sound that you can use while crafting a story:
–a narrative, the most important aspect of podcasting
–sound effects, which add a layer of realism and drama
Music has always been part of human culture. It helps to connect people, to establish an emotion, to dramatise a story. Music will play a role, albeit smaller, in interview talk shows but today I wanted to focus on drama shows, storytelling podcasts. Look at the most recent top podcasting charts; you will notice that dramas, especially true crime stories are trending.
The demand is visible, now let’s talk about supply.
Stories always draw people in; it can be music, films, books, poetry. Dry facts are helpful but often boring, and in my opinion, any topic can be taught with success if presented to the audience as an interesting story. Audio dramas are nothing new, the minute the radio was available to general public; some artists creatively used the medium. The most obvious one that comes to mind is Welles’ War of the Worlds that in 1938 scared the US nation and skyrocketed Orson’s career.
Audiobooks are perfect for dramatisation; however, there is often restriction when it comes to audiobook production. You will occasionally find publishing houses that allow music, sound effects and voice acting on material but more than often you will find just a dry narration read.
Podcasts are something else. The relatively new medium hasn’t got that many regulations yet and as a creator, you have a pretty much free hand in creating content.
There are many kinds of podcasts, as many as there are creative ideas but let’s look at dramas, or dramatised true stories such as Casefile.
These kinds of podcasts require a lot of work, research, scripting, narration and stellar production. Music plays a huge part in all that; it’s the emotional connection to the story, it often underlines the feelings that we have during listening, it exposes them.
Casefile is a quite different show. It’s not a drama per se, but it is produced like one. While the Host and our talented researchers focus on the story, I look at it from a different angle.
I also see it as a show and for the lack of better word, entertainment. It’s a thin line between sensationalism and making something respectful to anyone involved in the events. But the show must also be entertaining to listen, to connect with the audience and presented as a well-produced podcast.
After working on Casefile for some time, I learned a few tips that you can do with music, how you could make the episode even tenser and more real to the listeners.
Know the story
It’s important to know the story before you start composing.
The first thing I always do is to read the script, and sometimes I will research the case before I get the script. I’m interested in the beginning, in the drama, in the final twist and conclusion.
During the read, I will note down the people involved in the events, the ‘scenes’ that take place in the timeline and musical cues where I possibly will need to add something more substantial than just an underscore.
The ambience of the episode is crucial.
All of the episodes are tragic but there is a very different character to each of them, and it will guide how I write the music. Before I sit down behind my MIDI keyboard, I compose in my head, not the melodies but the style. I will know what kind of music different parts of the story need, be it rhythmic, soft, dramatic, hopeful or dark.
Know the podcast
I don’t always know the next episode of Casefile; sometimes we change the story at the last minute, sometimes we have a break from the show. That doesn’t mean that I stop writing.
To keep my hands busy and improve my skills, every day I try to compose a cue or two, build up a music library for the next episodes. To do that effectively I need to know the show, the podcast. I need to know a general atmosphere, the overall character, the nature of what we do as a team.
When composing for the future, have in mind the characteristics such as the length of the podcast, the audience and what kind of musical impact you are looking for.
Does the drama require more an underscore or is it music-heavy?
Try to develop the style that the audience recognises immediately.
Don’t go overboard
It’s easy to get lost in composing melodies, including a multitude of different instruments and effects, creating elaborate cues. What I learned with Casefile podcast is that the story always takes the first place.
The music is there to underscore the voice, to help make seamless transitions between parts of the narrative and to bring life to the dialogue. There will be parts where I want to make an impact, a statement with the score but 90% of it will be an ambient, soft tones, almost invisible to the listener.
It’s easy to get excited, especially when you feel like you wrote something great, however, unless it is a deliberate effect, then don’t go overboard with the melodies and cues.
Use instruments that don’t clash with the voice
Another thing that you need to keep in mind is the timbre and nature of the voice. Once you know how the narration sounds on its own, you will know what kind of instruments and pads to use to compliment the voice, not the other way around.
With Casefile I try to avoid melodies with high pitch, especially when I write for string instruments, piano or guitar. These are instruments that sit in the similar spectrum to the human voice and will often clash with it.
Most of the time I will use atmospheric sounds, soft pads to underscore and melodies only where required, where a dramatic focus is needed. I’m also quite careful with rhythmic sounds.
Bass or arpeggiated synths usually work well, but drums or percussion can often be too distracting.
Rhythmic parts are great to build suspense and intense moments, but it’s easy to go overboard with them.
Listen to feedback
Even though I have pretty much a creative freedom when it comes to producing and composing for Casefile, the most important aspect of the work is communication between team members.
I’m not the only composer on the show, Andrew Joslyn sends me musical cues for each episode and often scores up to 50% of each podcast. Because the workflow is unique I often need to adjust, change or drop the cues altogether.
The voice always takes the priority, the music is there to glue all the parts together so mixing it low, or cutting elements of it are usually the best way to do that. I also look for the comments from listeners. Many people will comment on the voice or the music, but I’m interested in feedback that talks about the show as a whole.
We don’t want any elements to shine on their own; the podcast needs to work as one piece, as one story. Also, a lot of people won’t listen on a dedicated system, in the example of Casefile – headphones.
That means even though you may spend days on composing and mixing music, there will be some listeners who won’t notice it at all, listening in their cars or through laptop speakers. That’s fine too, don’t skip on the quality just because not everyone appreciates it.
In the end, it’s all about having fun, experimenting and improvement.
Even though I have enough music that I wouldn’t need to write for a few months now, I still sit down and compose new cues every day. It helps me to stay sharp and develop the craft, and of course, I like doing it too.
In the future, I will show you the technical approach to composing music for Casefile and what is my exact workflow.
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