Using Music: Brendan Baker

Intro from Jay Allison: If you like sophisticated sound design with your stories, you’re living at a good moment. Digital tools and obsessive artists have converged. To reveal more secrets of this world, Transom presents another in our series on using music in radio stories. This one is by Brendan Baker of the strange and inventive podcast, Love + Radio— "a collage of non-narrated interview, electronic music, and sound effects mixed with creative production techniques. I think of our episodes both as 'augmented' radio stories and as music compositions that happen to contain a story." Brendan delves deeply into the 'chemical' process of sound mixing, including a really deep breakdown of one of his audio sessions that will satisfy the serious students in the front row.

Scoring Love + Radio

Love + Radio is a pretty weird species of radio: a collage of non-narrated interview, electronic music, and sound effects mixed with creative production techniques. I think of our episodes both as “augmented” radio stories and as music compositions that happen to contain a story.

When I first stumbled into producing radio, I was struck by how chemical the process seemed. You take a surprising or insightful interview. You mix it with some music that conveys a certain mood or sense of energy. But if these ingredients resonate with each other — even in remarkably subtle ways — you’ve created something far more potent than the sum of its parts. I can’t say how this works, exactly. For me, scoring radio is often intuitive and based on trial and error. But I have a hunch about why it works.

People say storytelling is an act of co-creation between you and your audience. You describe. The audience interprets. And through that process of active interpretation, they turn your words into vivid scenes in their minds. The final experience is something you create together. Scoring works because it taps into that same process.

When we mix radio on a computer, it’s easy to see scoring (literally) as simply laying music waveforms beneath the “dialogue” waveforms of your piece. But of course your audience never sees these waveforms or the computer screen. They can only listen.

Influences and Inspirations

Like a lot of radiomakers interested in sound collage, I’ve been influenced by the band The Books. I love the way they compose music from disparate samples and voices, giving you glimpses of some underlying narrative. Each song is like a subconscious radio story. (This is probably why radio artist Gregory Whitehead calls them “remarkable psychic engineers” in his Transom essay.)

On The Book’s final album, there’s a moment toward the end of the song “Group Autogenics 1″ where a voice sampled from a new-age meditation tape urges:

If possible, in our modern world / listen for your eyes in your ears…

Sure, it’s a silly cut-up, but it’s also great advice for scoring radio: when you hear an interview and start to see a series of images playing in your mind, it’s a usually a good place to add music. That’s probably where the listener is seeing images, too.  

I suspect that the power of scoring doesn’t come from matching music to the words in your story, but matching music to your listener’s translation of those words into images. In other words, you’re scoring for a film playing in someone else’s head. (Of course, you can only guess at what this film looks like, so… I suppose you’re scoring to your interpretation of their interpretation of your story. Whatever.) It’s also a different experience for every listener; however large your audience may be, on some level you’re always collaborating with an audience of one.

But even if you’re scoring for someone else’s film, you still have major editorial influence. With the right music or sound design, you can frame these images for the listener so that they resemble those in your own mind. In this way, your score is also a meta documentary; your impressions and reactions to the story are recorded in your musical choices.

Challenging Conventions

I usually keep the music playing along with my tape until just before the scene ends, or the action completes, or we transition into a new idea. If you want your listener to focus on a certain phrase or idea, take the music out.  If you want to give them a moment to reflect on an idea, play some music “in the clear” for a few seconds. This is the conventional wisdom, at least.

But one of the conventions Nick and I want to challenge is this idea that radio is a didactic medium — that producers should guide the listener through every turn of the story, and explain what it all means. I think this didacticism has spread to scoring, too, when the music or sound design is a bit too “on the nose.” I understand why this didacticism is considered best practice for broadcast radio. But as a podcast, we can ask for more patience from our listeners. They can pause and rewind.  They can also listen to the piece multiple times. This opens up new creative and editorial possibilities for us. We can take some artistic risks.

So when I score for Love + Radio, I’m trying to push toward something more intuitive and avant-garde, more like The Books. (L + R sort of takes the opposite approach: we start with the voices from our radio stories and then add disparate sounds to create a kind of music.) And what I see in my head when I work on Love + Radio “looks” something like an Errol Morris film layered over a green screen music video from the 80s. (Another thing Nick and I keep coming back to is Errol Morris as a reference point.)  Whatever that looks like, that’s pretty much how I want Love + Radio to sound.

An Example

The best way for me to explain how I score is to walk you through one of my edit sessions.  We usually break our episodes down into individual chapters, and each chapter has its own Logic session.  (I’ve been using Apple’s editing software, Logic Pro, for most of my L + R work, but I also use Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Reaper for various things, and they all have their respective advantages.) While we don’t score every chapter in the episode, each chapter can become its own kind of “song,” and themes from these song/chapters sometime reoccur and develop as the story unfolds. Here’s a screenshot from the opening chapter to, Jack and Ellen:

Screenshot of "Jack and Ellen" editing session
Screenshot of “Jack and Ellen” editing session

Here’s the audio for this opening chapter, so you can follow with the screenshot.

Listen to “Jack and Ellen – Opening Chapter”

[The letters below correspond to the letters in the photo above.]

At the top of the session, just below the timeline and ruler, you’ll see some colored word blocks outlining different sections within the chapter. These sections can function like paragraphs and also like verses and choruses. (A “verse” might be music that goes along with a story’s development, while “choruses” could be a way of reflecting on ideas or repeating a theme/motif.) Sometimes I use the same musical themes, leitmotifs, for a specific character or idea. For instance, the navy blue regions labeled “blackmail” throughout the chapter all use similar music and correspond to moments where Ellen explains her get-rich-quick scheme.

Tracks 1 and 2 are the primary interview or “dialogue” tracks. All the tape comes from a single interviewee, Ellen, but I modified her voice with a pitch-shift plugin effect on the first track to create “Jack,” Ellen’s catfishing alter ego. We’re introduced to Jack first, but Ellen (in pink—apologies for the gendered colors) interrupts his interview until the moment where both voices speak the same line together. The sound design tells us that Jack and Ellen are the same person. From then on, Ellen takes over. Tracks 3-7 are also dialogue tracks, but with various audio plugins to mimic the sound of phone tape or to move the voices in binaural surround sound.

Tracks 8-24 are all music and sound effects and this is where things get a bit more complex. Rather than scoring with a given piece of music like a typical radio story, I create loops from moments in several different songs (tracks 9-11). I’ll pitch-shift and stretch these loops so they fit together in the same tempo and key signature. Then I assemble these loops in different combinations. This lets me mix and match them modularly, making new arrangements for key moments in the story. Tracks 12-19 are various synthesizers, bass lines, and other virtual instruments to flesh out the arrangement, and I compose these sounds directly into the session with a MIDI keyboard. Tracks 21-23 are drumbeats.

I’ll also set the tempo of my editing software to synchronize with the beat of the music (134 BPM in this chapter). This lets me compose to a metronome and snap music regions to the tempo grid. Once I have a rough draft of the music, I can also use the grid help re-edit the dialogue. I pay attention to how the dialogue edit sits in relation to the beat of the music, and I’ll nudge words and phrases so certain syllables are emphasized when they fall on strong beats or gaps in the music. This creates a musicality to the dialogue. Our interviews “sing” along with the score.

Finally, tracks 25 and 26 are “bus” tracks—or two submixes of all the dialogue and music elements above. That way I can export this whole chapter as two discrete audio files, called “stems.” Here’s what the music stem sounds link by itself. I’d like to think you can make out the various turning points in the story narration even without the dialogue stem:

Listen to “Using Music: Brendan Baker”

Then I’ll import these stem files into a final “assembly” session. Here is a screenshot of the assembly session from a different episode, our season opener, Fix:

"Fix" editing session
“Fix” editing session

Here you’ll see all the stems from each chapter in this episode stitched together. Each chapter has its own color. There are 17 chapters in this story, so to get an idea of the whole episode, imagine 17 versions of that first screenshot I shared, lined up side by side. It’s ridiculously time-consuming, and that’s part of why it takes us so long to produce the show. But I hope you can hear its value in our stories.

This kind of production is closer to what you might find in a music album and isn’t practical or even appropriate for every radio story. But I like to think that we’re all still in the wild west of radiomaking, and all production tricks are fair game — this is just how I’ve been creating L + R’s own brand of radio weirdness. So whether you produce sound art or a news features, I think the most important thing about scoring is to give yourself some room to experiment. Listen for your eyes in your ears.

Brendan Baker

Brendan Baker

Brendan Baker is an independent radio producer, editor, and audio artist living in Brooklyn, NY. He experiments with the craft of public media using sound and music as tools for creative storytelling. As a part of Love + Radio, he received the Third Coast Gold Award for Best Documentary in 2011, and an Honorable Mention for Best Documentary in 2013.

More in this series