Avoiding Cheesy Sound Design

Listen to “Avoiding Cheesy Sound Design”

I think Jad Abumrad should send me a bill. I’d gladly pay whatever he charges.

For longer than I care to admit, I’ve wanted to understand what it takes to sound design a radio story. Over the years on HowSound, I’ve spoken to producers about sound designing in an effort to figure it out, most recently Matthew Boll of Gimlet. But, despite my best efforts, sound design remained a mystery. It was like I had some kind of mental block.

Then, I spoke to Jad of Radiolab and More Perfect. Our conversation not only helped clear my logjam, but I better understood the root problem I was having: thinking abstractly.

Typically, when I produce radio stories, I use sound from the field — active tape and ambiance recorded on location. That sound is concrete. Real. All I have to do is find the best pieces of tape, then write and mix them into the story.

Sound design, on the other hand, often requires conceptual thinking, especially if you’re looking to avoid cheesy sounding production. In other words, a producer should try to shy away from direct representation of sound. For example, if someone says “I rode a motorcycle,” don’t add the sound of a motorcycle. It’s liable to seem inorganic and inauthentic.

Instead, think abstractly. For instance, think about speed and what speed feels like. Then find and create sounds that evoke that feeling. Which, of course, prompts the question, “How the heck do you evoke the feel of speed in sound?”

Jad answers that question (hint: mood boarding) and lot more on this episode of HowSound. In fact, talking with Jad (and Matt) led me to create the following list of steps to take when considering sound design. I suspect it’s incomplete but it may make for a good start.

  1. Begin by asking why. Why does a segment of a story need sound design? What problem are you trying to solve? What value will it bring?
  2. Be ethical. Produce in a way that doesn’t trick a listener into thinking what they’re hearing is real.
  3. Avoid literal sounds. Try mood boarding, an approach to brainstorming that fosters abstract thinking.
  4. Iteration. Produce and listen, produce and listen, produce and listen… always with others, until you get it right.

What would you add?


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  • David Hecht



    Interesting and honest attempt to deal with a problematic issue with radio. Jad Abumrad says he designs sound for a radio scene like he would for a movie. He has certainly done that amazingly well with Radiolab. But I wonder whether movies and radio are not fundamentally different media. In radio sound is all we have.

    I try to follow a rule with radio stories I get to produce: A sound is character. It needs to be introduced, it needs to say something clear and concise that moves the story forward. A sound may remain under people talking for effect but that’s like a character speaking another language coming in and out of the person translating them.

    How might my rule work with that description of a hydrogen bomb explosion? It’s a rule I only break when I have to.

    David Hecht

  • rob rosenthal



    Thanks for chiming in, David — and for listening!

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