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!

  • Nick



    I think it’s ok to sound design a story from a guest, or other content the listener would have to imagine. It’s generally not ok to add sound design to any documentary / historic recordings, because you could be falsifying that media. I’m sure there are some exceptions to both rules.

    As for not making things sound cheesy – try turning down the sound and adding reverb. You’ll probably be like 70% of the way there 🙂

  • Andrew Garrison



    I am thrilled to have discovered Howsound and I loved this episode. I have a different point of view regarding using sound effects with actuality material. At least in the example used, the question of whether to add a fire burning effect to material from a rabbit hunt in a cane field that was burning. I do not see that as crossing an ethical boundary. A fire was burning. It is the truth. Maybe thenproducer recorded just the sound of that very same fire, but moments after or before the event used in the story. .Would that be wrong? If you boosted the bass would that be unethical?
    At what point is it okay to manipulate the sound and when is it not? We are always picking and choosing to paint a picture. The fundamental thing is whether we are presenting something that was really there, happening.

    This is different than presenting historical evidence. And different than a news report.

  • Rob Rosenthal



    Hi Andrew,

    You’re right: The producer recorded the sound of the fire during the rabbit hunting then layered some of it later. That’s not wrong. And it’s common practice in journalism and non-fiction audio storytelling.

    I don’t know if the producer boosted the bass of the fire. But, if they did so for clarity, then I don’t think there’s an issue journalistically speaking. That would be no different than a photojournalist who, say, brightens a portion of a photo because it was shot too darkly.

    But to include the sound of fire from some other place that had nothing to do with the rabbit hunt, that crosses a line — unless it’s clear to the listener that this is a kind of recreation. At no time, as Jad says, do you want to fool the listener if the producer’s intent is to tell the truth.

    Let me put it another way using another photography example: If you produce a photo essay about the architecture of a house and you forget to take a picture of the front door, can you just insert a photo of some other door? I think not. Same with audio.

    Hope this helps and thanks for listening!


  • Mitchell Black



    Not in love with the way Jad described mood boards as fruity and then adjusted the voice the way he did when impersonating an architect using a mood board.

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