Sound Design Basics

Listen to “Sound Design Basics”

After teaching documentary storytelling for seventeen years, I feel confident in the advice I give students, most of the time. But, as soon as someone brings up sound design, I’m flummoxed. I feel like my advice is next to useless.

Typically, what happens is this: a student feels like their story is boring so they want to throw some sound in — something from a sound effects library. They think it will make the story more dynamic.

And, typically, I respond by saying, “If your story is boring, write better. Or, play around with the structure. Or, find better quotes. Don’t expect to solve a problem by tossing in some sound. It will end up sounding cheesy.”

I do think that’s solid advice. But, in reality, there are times when a bit of sound design might actually help a story. Not to make it less boring, but to drive home a point or help the story be more visual.

That’s when I return to my problem as an instructor: I don’t know how to help.

But here’s the good news. I produce a podcast about audio storytelling and I can actually ask people for advice! And so, I did.

My first stop was Matthew Boll. Matt works at Gimlet as a lead producer and music composer. Of particular interest to me was his work on Crimetown, a podcast on crime and politics in Providence, Rhode Island, that uses a lot of sound design.

Matt and I covered quite a bit of ground but I feel like I’ve only started to understand how sound design works. So, consider this the first in an ongoing, from time-to-time, set of episodes on sound design that will appear over the next few months.


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  • Jason



    Excellent episode. Crimetown is one of my favorites and I’m waiting in earnest for the second season. The first four episodes created nearly the opposite of a “driveway moment” for me, Great information on how and why the sound is done the way it’s done.

    Thank You

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