In March of 2013, we answered questions from students enrolled in a digital journalism course at the Zurich International School in Switzerland. We are sharing our answers with anyone that would like to know more about our process or audio feature production. If you would like to ask us any questions not covered in the FAQ or this document, send us an email or find us on Twitter.
Q: I listened to two of your podcasts on your blog, Everything Sounds. I enjoyed your podcasts and was just wondering, how do you make a perfect sound transition? This is something that’s extremely difficult to do but yours seemed effortless.
George’s Answer: I’m not sure if there’s a specific transition you’re referring to, but I’ll do my best to answer the question in terms of different situations.
Sound transitions are crucial when editing. They allow the piece to sound seamless and the transition should often go unnoticed, or at the very least, if it is noticeable, it should also be ignorable. One of my personal favorite things to create are collages or montages — an example of one is our introduction, actually. There are certain elements that need to be included: some should act as a bed (something to be in the background, still heard but not as noticeable) the secondary sounds should be the ones that stand out (not the most crucial elements, but still important) and finally the primary elements are the ones that are supposed to be heard and don’t really overlap with other elements.
To break down the introduction, let’s start with the bed sounds. Some of these you can’t actually hear that clearly, but that’s kind of the point. There’s a helicopter, crickets in the forest, the sound of a sailboat in the water and the light hum of a florescent bulb. The secondary sounds are the ones you hear clearly but only for a short while such as the coughing, dog bark, wind chimes, door squeak or the grandfather clock just to name a few. The primary sounds in this piece are the beeps at the beginning and the countdown but the most important part of the primary sounds are the voices saying ‘Everything Sounds.’ Those I wanted the people listening to hear the most clearly, so they’re a bit louder than the other elements and often they’re not overlapping other sounds. The glitch sounds in-between everything somewhat act as tape holding the elements together.
In most situations a collage or montage is not going to be necessary, but the sound transitions you’re asking about still play a crucial role. There are a few that come into play, and different ways of going about them.
First, we’ll focus on music. Music can be transitioned into in a couple ways — each of which can be heard in any of our episodes. They are the ‘cold in’ and ‘fade in.’ ‘Cold ins’ are simply the music beginning when no one is speaking, or after someone has just spoken. Most commonly it’s brought in a bit louder then faded to bed level (when the music is loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be distracting). ‘Fade ins’ are when the music is slowly brought up to bed level while someone is speaking at the same time. Alternatively, the same could be said for ‘cold outs’ and ‘fade outs’ — they’re the same, but taking the music out rather than putting it in.
One thing you may come across is that something you may have found online or recorded yourself may not end cleanly (in a way that doesn’t sound sloppy), so some measures need to be taken to fix it. An easy fix that I’ve utilized a lot in our episodes is to include a little sound effect. It not only removes the bad sounding ending to whatever it is, but also ends what needed to end without detracting from the listening. An example of this type of edit can be found just after the 3-minute mark of Episode #14.
Probably the most important sound transition and most common is the person-to-person voice transition. When going from the presenter of the podcast to the interview subject of the podcast what’s important is to listen to the interview closely and find natural points in their speech to have them begin speaking and when to have them end. Often times this may take a little work. Let’s say they don’t clearly set an answer up well, but the rest of what they say is perfect. You can set up the beginning of their answer for them (being that you basically paraphrase what they say at the beginning — the part you want to leave out) and allow them to ‘pick up where you left off’ in a sense (with the part you’d like to include).
What I mean by ‘natural points in their speech’ is not beginning or ending what they say in the middle of a sentence, but rather beginning at the start of a sentence and finishing with the end of a sentence. Their inflection is important when taking this into consideration.
Craig’s Answer: George is primarily responsible for the way that the show sounds, but the best way to learn is to practice with different audio sources. My favorite exercise was to edit songs and match up different parts of the music or create instrumental loops. It also helps to listen closely to the programs that you enjoy. Over time you will begin to develop your own sense of what sounds good. However, your transitions and production skills will only improve by practicing. I think Ira Glass of “This American Life” addresses this very well in the beginning of this video: http://youtu.be/BI23U7U2aUY
Don’t get discouraged and keep trying new things when you are editing and producing.
Q: I listened to two podcasts on Everything Sounds, ‘Music and Memory, and ‘The Sounds of East London’, and have some questions regarding the great use of technology and journalistic techniques in the Everything Sounds podcasts.
First of all, I was surprised with the interesting topics in the podcast. (1) I wonder how you come up with or decide what topics to use for podcasts that are interesting and original? (2) What tool (internet, social media, people, etc.) do you use to research about a person? (3) Do you use or look for mainly primary or secondary sources when researching?
(4) When working on podcasts I try to not make interview parts too long to prevent it from becoming boring to listen to. Do you use a maximum amount of time for interview- or music clips in a podcast of Everything Sounds? (5) And do you normally ask permission from each person you interview or for sounds such as the Big Ben bells to use those clips a podcast?
George’s Answer: (1) Craig and I research however we can. We love getting recommendations from our listeners, friends and family or people we’re simply talking to about the podcast. Otherwise, we primarily use the internet to research topics. Craig and I agree that one of our favorite episodes was Episode #11: Microphone Museum, and the way I researched that was simply by luck. Milwaukee Wisconsin is only an hour and a half away from Chicago, so I decided to see what it had to offer. I typed in ‘Milwaukee sound’ into Google and the first thing that came up was ‘Select Sound Service’ a sound installer in Milwaukee — but with a little digging I found that the owner of the business also has a microphone museum. It just happened to work perfectly.
Otherwise, Craig and I make a note of everything that interests us along the way — and we had a head start on our production as we began compiling a list of potential topics and interview subjects months before we even sat down for our first interview. By the beginning of production we had over 400 ideas to work with.
(2) We normally use the internet to research our interview subjects and topics — that’s a major point — always be prepared for an interview. Most often the company or organization you’re speaking with will have an ‘about’ section on their website, and check for any news articles already written about them, but do your best to not tell the same story. Going back to Episode #11 for a moment — a year prior to our interview with the museum owner, there was a YouTube video made about him and his museum. I watched the video and while in the museum I spoke to him about everything I found interesting that they didn’t cover in the video.
(3) Primary and secondary sources are both important, but always try to get the primary sources. If they’re not available, a secondary source will work in a pinch, but it’s most often worth waiting until you can get the primary source. For instance, in Episode #05: Florasonic, Craig and I spoke with someone that works at the Experimental Sound Studio — which is what we were doing the piece on. They have an installation in Chicago called ‘Florasonic,’ but while our interview subject was a primary source for the Studio, he was actually a secondary source for the Florasonic installation. He told us that the Studio’s owner, Lou, knew more about it and we should talk with him. So, Craig and I chose to hold putting the episode together until we could get Lou’s input on the installation. It was well worth the wait as he gave us information and content that our original source could not.
(4) I agree. Sometimes long chunks of interview can be tolling to listen to because it’s a lot of content and you can often lose listener’s interest quite quickly. I normally try to use nothing longer than 45-60 seconds. Anything over that and it’s probably a bit long. In some circumstances, these long chunks could easily be used — there are some ways to keep it interesting.
First, if the interview subject is extremely compelling, or the story they’re telling is engaging or if what they’re saying is important to what you’re trying to say (for instance if the interview subject is talking about their father and begins to cry ultimately bringing the clip to almost two minutes long) — leave it. It’s better to let it stand alone than trying to mess with it.
Secondly, let’s say that 45 second clip is all important information, but it needs a little spice. Depending on the matter of the topic, don’t be afraid to have some fun! If they reiterate something you’ve said earlier interject with a ‘told you so!’ That will get the listener’s attention and then the 75 second clip doesn’t seem so long.
Alternatively, you can also paraphrase what they’re saying to shorten the clip. Let’s say you have a 75-second-long clip. Hypothetically, if the subject is talking about what they wanted to achieve with a certain project for the first 30 seconds and then presents the outcome of the project for the final 45 seconds, paraphrase what they were hoping to achieve and let them take over the rest.
(5) Always ask the person you’re interviewing if you can use their material. It saves you the trouble of trying to recreate something and it makes the piece more complete and richer. In the episode you’re referencing, Episode #13: The Sounds of East London there were a number of sounds used. When I’m talking about Dominic’s project, I’m using the sounds he collected when putting the project together. I asked him for his permission to use them and he allowed it. At the beginning I’m retelling the story of England’s bells not being rung during WWII and those sounds Dominic did not give me. There’s a fantastic website called free sound.org that allows you to use sounds recorded or created by other people just by simply providing credit. You’ll hear I used bell sounds, birds chirping, war sounds and gun fight sounds — those were all from free sound.org and in the post for the episode, Craig and I simply listed the sounds used and which user provided them. Simple as that. But as often as you can, ask for permission or provide credit — or, record your own!
Craig’s Answer: George and I develop stories based on what we find and encounter in our everyday lives. We share a document full of ideas that we have developed over the past year. We try to make the program interesting and original by focusing on stories that we personally find to be engaging. Everyone knows what makes a good story. We tell each other stories every day. To find good topics, think about what fascinates you in your life and find a way to tell the story that is compelling and meaningful.
The internet is incredibly valuable for our research. News articles, lectures, blogs, and other sources can be helpful in your research, but it is important to learn how to ask the questions to learn how to gather information from interviews that you conduct. Since we are independent producers, sometimes it can be difficult to find experts in some subject areas that we can record. We often try to speak with individuals directly involved with the topic we are covering, but sometimes that isn’t possible. We don’t often think in terms of whether a source is primary or secondary. Our goal is to find the sources that will help us tell a story to the audience while maintaining objectivity and accuracy.
The length of an interview doesn’t always determine whether or not an audience will be bored. The substance of the interview and the guest’s ability to share their story in an engaging way can shape how the audience will feel. If we feel bored while editing and listening to our own show, then we know we need to make adjustments. Some people sound wonderful on our recordings, and sometimes we need to work to make their story more understandable or engaging. It’s a good idea to let someone else hear your work before it is completed to help you determine if your piece is interesting enough to hold their attention.
If we cannot record the audio, in most cases we ask for permission to use someone else’s recording. However, in some cases we do not have to obtain permission. Some audio that we use is in the public domain in the U.S. These works can be used freely and often without attribution. U.S. copyright law also includes a provision for “fair use” of recorded works that would involve more explanation that I have time to provide here! There are also numerous resources such as http://www.freesound.org/ that allow you to utilize sound effects with proper attribution.
Q: (1) How long does it usually take to record and edit one podcast?
(2) Do you have some sort of a script prepared for each podcast? If you do, are the scripts more like questions you want to ask or a word for word script you read off of while recording your podcast?
(3) What little details in a podcast make a really big difference to the audience that’s listening to it? (background music, transitions,etc.)
George’s Answer: (1) Craig and I were asked recently by a fellow podcaster in the US ‘how many episodes do you have in the bank?’ Essentially, he was under the impression that we had a collection of episodes already produced, and then when each week came around we chose which one to release for that week. That’s not how we do things. Craig and I literally produce each episode on a week-to-week basis often making it necessary to have interviews in the bank rather than episodes.
From start to finish (interview to completed product) I’d say that a good 30 hours or so is put into each episode. Between the planning, scheduling, interview, layout, recording, writing music, editing, finalizing and online promotion it just about adds up to 30 hours, but in terms of actual recording and editing I’d estimate somewhere between 7-10 hours depending on the length of the episode and the amount of elements used in the episode. Craig and I have developed a pretty tight system of how we put the episode together so since Episode #01 we’ve probably cut the production time in half while also providing a more polished episode.
(2) Depending on who we’re interviewing, Craig and I will either have questions written or we just know what needs to be asked. It’s better to read from a list of questions rather than trying to remember what you wanted to ask, don’t think it’ll look unprofessional.
In terms of each episode, Craig and I do what we call a ‘layout.’ We call it that because essentially, it is a script, but we don’t treat it like one. We go through the audio and write out what should be said around what specific clips. From there we record it together, but we’re not always reading. Often times what we write is what’s need to be said, but we find ourselves off script quite often as well. We really try to have fun when recording so whatever we can do or say to show our personalities, we try to include. We don’t just want to be voices to a podcast, we want to be people talking to listeners. To achieve that, we usually need to go off script.
(3) Background music and transitions are important to the podcast, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that they make a big difference to the audience because most often background music and transitions go unnoticed, and that’s kind of the point. What makes a difference to the listener is what you’re telling them, how you’re telling them and the pace of the podcast amongst others. Pace is important — if it’s a slow episode then people may not listen to it all the way through. However, if it’s supposed to be slow the content should be engaging and the use of outside sound is encouraged. For instance when putting together the introduction for Episode #13, I knew the story was interesting but I also knew it would make a bigger impact if told slowly. I used audio clips from the period and sound effects to help shape the story and engage the listener. The episode that followed was more upbeat.
Try to find an interesting topic or story to present, or if it’s not necessarily a grand topic, but it’s still interesting do what you can to make it engaging. Our first episode was about a sound sculpture which was literally a table that tipped up and down as balls slid across the top. Totally boring as it stands. But the content we got, how we presented the piece and how we told the story of the sculpture and what it looks like made the episode engaging.
Craig’s Answer: The amount of time to record and edit depends on the episode. We once recorded and edited a show in less than 24 hours. Other times, we work on a story over a period of a few weeks. We often have multiple stories and episodes developing at the same time, so it can sometimes be difficult to gauge how much time is spent on each podcast. Generally, it takes a few days of work to produce one podcast.
I bring a list of questions to each interview, but I often abandon many of them while talking to our guests. The best responses come during the course of a conversation. We listen to our guests and respond with new questions based on what they share with us. Flexibility is important when you are asking questions to your guest.
When we speak to each other in the show, we often follow a layout that includes all of the important information we would like to share. We improvise and change elements during the recording, but we have the basic structure developed before we begin recording.
Q: I’ve listened to Music & Memory and Bicycle Sounds; two very interesting podcasts. I was wondering how you know what people would be interested in listening to in your podcast or if it is just personal interest that people happen to enjoy to listen to?
George’s Answer: That’s part of the fun we have with this podcast — we don’t know what people are interested in — but that’s also part of the secret. If you choose something you’re interested in, you can add your own excitement and interest into the podcast, which will in turn engage your listeners. If it fits what we do, provides enough content for an episode and we can have a good time with the topic, usually that’s all we need. What’s important is to take each topic and think about what would be necessary for making an interesting episode.
Between the two episodes you mentioned, Music & Memory and Bicycle Sounds it’s easy to figure out which one is more interesting based upon topic alone — Music & Memory. But with Bicycle Sounds the episode wasn’t so much about the sounds the bicycles made, but rather the person behind the project, the work he put in and his finished product.
Sometimes your interviewees are more interesting and quirky than what the actual episode is about. If you’re interviewing someone and they turn out to be interesting by themselves and you don’t have any time constraints, look away from your questions and ask them questions about themselves — get them to tell you stories, what drives them, what they’re about rather than the topic you’re talking to them about — sometimes you’ll learn more about what they’re doing by who they are rather than what they tell you about it.
Craig’s Answer: We can never know what the audience will enjoy or generalize about the interests of everyone that hears the show. We try our best to tell stories that fascinate us. No matter what you create, there will always be someone who doesn’t enjoy it. There are a number of films, books, music, and other media that I do not personally enjoy. I understand that some people will feel the same way about our program. We do our best to create podcasts that are entertaining and engaging for a wide audience, but we also understand that no work is free from criticism. In fact, criticism can extremely helpful as a way to help improve your work. George and I enjoy what we do and appreciate positive feedback about the show, but we do not worry too much about any negative feedback unless it is something that could help us improve.
Q: I listened to Goldmines & Gum boots and The most Relaxing Song and I have a question not about to final podcast itself, but about interviewing people. What I want to know is how do you guys find interesting people to interview? How do you find someone out of the ordinary to make the podcast more interesting?
George’s Answer: As much as we’d love to find people out of the ordinary to talk to us about certain subjects, the topics always come before the subjects. It’s just a matter of luck, really. But the thing is, you’re talking to them about what they do — and they’re obviously interested in what they do, so they’ll have wonderful things to say. We research topics and either the person we contact (our primary source) is willing to sit down with us, or we sometimes get told to reach out to someone else instead (another primary source). It’s up to you to make the interview questions interesting and ones that would provide an interesting response.
Ultimately, if they’re willing to be a part of it, you’re going to get decent material to work with. Be sure to ask them questions that would interest THEM, not only you or the listeners. Make them think, and often times you’ll get answers you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. One example is in Episode #07: Music Restoration, which is about a record label that rereleases music from decades ago that either went unnoticed or didn’t sell very well. On the fly Craig asked ‘do you think the work you’re doing matters?’ which many may perceive as rude or too personal — but that’s the point! His answer was incredible, and it was actually how we ended the episode. If you get deep within what they do or who they are, that quirky, honest and real side of the person will arise. Just start with an topic that interests you and find out what makes it so interesting and why it interests them.
Craig’s Answer: Finding the right interview subject involves research and dedication. The Internet is an excellent tool for finding sources. You have access to just about anyone on the planet in your hands. With some patience and creativity, you can usually find someone that knows something about the subject that you’re interested in covering.
I believe that every person is interesting in his or her own way. Your job as an interviewer is to try to connect with them and get them to openly share their life or area of expertise. I’m reminded of a quote that’s attributed to an American television personality and science educator, Bill Nye. He said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” I think everyone has something interesting to share if we can ask the right questions and show our own curiosity and interest in their lives.
Q: I have some questions about how you make a podcast professional. (1) Do you need some general research about the person before interviewing? And how could I research a person best (social media, Google, etc.)? (2) Another question is about editing a podcast, how can you create perfect and flowing transitions in your podcast?
George’s Answer: (1) Researching our interview subjects is the backbone to each of our episodes. We find out as much as we can about everything we could possibly talk about. We look into the interviewee themselves (who they are, what they do, what they’ve done, any articles written about them, biographies etc.), what we’re talking about (the project, business, organization they work for, or what they’ve created, how they’ve done it etc.) and of course where we need to be to interview them (so we don’t get lost!). Researching is difficult and tolling, but the more you do, the better your questions will be and the more you’ll know about the person and topic so going away from the questions you’ve prepared is easier.
In terms of where — literally anywhere you can find information is where. In Episode #11: Microphone Museum (as I explained in Claire’s answer) once I found out about who we wanted to interview and about what, I then researched him a little more. So, I typed his name and ‘microphone’ into Google and up came a video that someone else had done to profile him. From his answers to their questions, I learned more about him and what he does, so we could then have more specific questions prepared. And using the News search feature in Google helps as well. Try typing their name and the company and/or organization they work for in and see what comes up. Use that information to educate yourself about them and their work, but try to not craft questions that will provide similar answers they’ve given elsewhere.
(2) See my answer to Domenique’s question on transitions. Again, I’m not entirely sure if there’s a specific transition you’re hoping to get answers about, but if my answer doesn’t answer the question, feel free to get in touch with me again. I’ll be more than happy to help out more.
Craig’s Answer: Preparation is extremely important. It shows your guests that you are interested and curious about their life or work. Your research allows you to know enough about the subject to communicate effectively with your guest. However, sometimes it is important to ask basic questions, even if you have a great deal of knowledge about the subject. Your audience will not have the benefit of research before hearing the interview. Your research allows you to develop interesting and detailed questions while still addressing the basic information, if needed. The best tools for research depend on the subject. Professors might have lectures on Youtube. Artists might have Facebook pages or blogs with photos and commentary of their work. Good research involves finding the most relevant, accurate, and useful sources online or in the real world. The Internet is convenient, but books and libraries still have a wealth of information for you to explore as well.
Q: (1) First of all considering that each podcast is about sound, do you think that you will eventually run out of interesting topics to talk about? (2) Also how are you able to incorporate such a wide array of sound effects into your podcasts, and still keep them engaging and interesting to listen to.
George’s Answer: (1) That’s the beauty of having a podcast about sound — it’s literally all around us and plays a crucial role in every hearing-abled person’s life whether they recognize it as important or not. Finding topics hasn’t been difficult at all, but finding topics that don’t require much travel is a different story. Craig and I have traveled over 3000 miles to produce the first season, but we’re not traveling just for the podcast. He went on vacation to New York and I went to London — but while we were on our trips, we set-up interviews ahead of time so we ultimately need to work while on vacation.
Also, we can stretch the definition of ‘sound’ when concerning topics. Our first episode was about a sculpture that makes sound, so that makes sense. Another was about how music affected Alzheimer’s patients, so that makes sense. But at the same time, we had an episode about a microphone museum — microphones don’t make sound by themselves, but when used they amplify sound so that then made sense. Another was about the process of handing down jokes and playground songs — while the topic isn’t explicitly about sound, it’s the passing down of oral traditions that we chose to focus on. I don’t think we’ll run out of topics because sound will always play a crucial role in our lives and there are millions of topics out there for us to research.
(2) If the use of sound effects is making the piece uninteresting and disengaging the listener, they’re far too distracting or just not right for the piece. Sound effects should be used in a very subtle and appropriate manner. In Episode #13: The Sounds of East London, I put the sound effects at the beginning the help craft the story I wanted to tell. It added visuals to the piece while making the story more engaging and interesting — without them it would have just been me talking about something, but with them it allowed a picture to be painted. In the episode itself, because we were talking about the sounds he captured, NOT using the sounds would have been a complete loss.
Using sound effects is tricky. Sometimes it can be seen as cliche or contrived, but when used correctly, then it works. For instance, in the episode about passing down the jokes and playground songs, which is Episode #12: Playground Sounds — we didn’t use playground sound effects to show that’s what we were going to be talking about. It wasn’t the primary topic of the piece and it just wouldn’t have fit. At the same time, whenever we say something along the lines of ‘we went to New York City to find out more, I wouldn’t put a sound effect of a city street there because it’s unnecessary and pointless. However, in a recent episode, Episode #17: Most Relaxing Song, at the beginning we did use a sound effect, but it not only accented the piece providing some imagery, but it also acted as a bridge between the bed music for the episode and the music we used to help tell the story.
Craig’s Answer: The great thing about focusing on sound is that it seems like a narrow topic, but there are so many things that we can explore within sound. Scientists are learning more about sound and hearing every day. Artists and musicians are finding new ways to utilize sound in their work. Technology is altering the way that we engage with sound. We can draw from history to tell stories about sound as well (Listen to Episode #08: Gold Mines and Gum Boots, for example). George and I have collected hundreds of ideas that we hope to one day utilize for the show. We try to find inspiration everywhere.
I think the use of different sound elements is part of what makes the show engaging. Whether we are using music, sound effects, or interviews we try to ensure that everything that you hear has a purpose. Some sounds help to illustrate a point we’re making. The music can help create a mood or move the story along. Sometimes the human voice is enough to convey everything that we want to. We try to use sound in a way that assists in telling a story, but doesn’t distract the audience from it.
Q: I listened to episode #17 and I think it’s very interesting, good and creative. I always wonder how you find your topics and ways of talking about it.
George’s Answer: We get our topics a number of ways. You can refer to Claire’s question for more information but I’ll write a bit here as well.
We really just use the power of the internet for our topic-finding and interview-researching. We’ve gotten ideas from the people in our lives as well as our listeners. We rarely turn a topic down unless it just flat out won’t work, but most time we include it in our ideas list and find a way of telling the story.
And finding ways of talking about things really come after the interview as the episode is taking shape. We listen to what our subject had to say about the topic and then shape the episode around what they say. The ‘ways of talking about it’ that I think you’re referring to have to do with how we liven the piece with our own interjections and information. Those just come naturally with trying to tell the story around what they’ve already said. We never go into an episode with an idea of how it will play out ahead of time, we just do the interview and work our way up.
We try to be as detailed about the topics as possible, while at the same time not bombarding the listener with information. We try to explain how something works, or what it does in an interesting and fun way, while also having fun ourselves. If we’re not having fun with the episode, the episode won’t be fun to listen to. Craig and I aren’t afraid to try other ways of doing things or saying things — we see if something works, and if it works, we keep it, if it doesn’t we lose it. Sometimes things just happen — Craig yawned when we started recording once and we put it into the episode because… why not?
Craig’s Answer: Our lives are preparation for the show. Many of the stories we have covered on the show were based on articles we have read, stories we have heard, or our own experiences. Curiosity is incredibly important. I’m less concerned about what I know and more interested about everything in the world that I don’t know. I’m astounded at how little I know! I do not intend to belittle my own intelligence, but it is the truth. Despite all of my experience and education, I learn something new every day. We live in a time where we can communicate instantly with people all over the world and access information on nearly any subject at any time. You can find inspiration anywhere and from every person.
We try to talk about the topics in ways that we think will be interesting. Sometimes an interview can be useful. Other times we need sounds to help us illustrate a point to our audience. When George and I narrate the program, we try our best to be conversational. We don’t want to be thought of as experts because we’re not experts. I think part of why people enjoy the show is because they are learning and engaging with the topic through our discovery and exploration.
Q: To what extent do you consider audience when thinking about a topic and throughout the process of making the podcast? I know audience is an important aspect to consider when making a podcast, but I haven’t really been able to get my head around how to structure a podcast for a certain audience.
George’s Answer: This kind of touches on Kirsty’s question, but it goes a bit deeper. The thing is, there’s no real way of knowing what the demographic of our audience is. We think it’s pretty safe to say it’s anywhere from 15-35 year olds, but again, that’s just a guess. With that in mind, we don’t really craft the episodes FOR the audience, but we do take the audience into consideration when making it. If something doesn’t make sense, or needs explaining then we’ll rearrange it or reword it or if something is too long or short we’ll adjust its length. While we’re making this podcast for the public to listen to and we’re always inviting new listeners, we don’t necessarily make it for them specifically.
We love doing what we do and sharing it with others and getting feedback and ideas from them is extremely rewarding. We’re excited to know that people like what we’re doing and are engaged with the content we provide. But really, if you break it down — if we personally enjoy the episode we put out, then we’re happy with it. We just hope others will too.
In terms of thinking about a topic that serves the audience (you can refer to Kirsty’s question again for this as well) we try to find intriguing topics and subjects for the episodes and then try to make it as interesting as possible from there. It’s a challenge trying to form an episode that both suits the Everything Sounds mission statement of exploring the role of sound in art, science, culture and our everyday lives while also educating, informing and entertaining, but that’s the fun behind it. So, those are our criteria — we just have fun working around and within them.
Craig’s Answer: We try to think about what will inform, entertain, or engage the audience, but we know that our show isn’t for everyone. With the internet, it is much easier to reach a niche audience. Broadcasters often have to try to develop programs that reach the largest audience possible. We are simply trying to reach the individuals that have the most passion for the subject matter. Luckily, most people have a personal connection with sounds or music, so that is a good starting point. However, we are aware that there are some people that will not enjoy our show. There is nothing wrong with that! The best thing that you can do is focus on telling a great story. Nearly everyone loves a good story. Think about the elements that make you enjoy a story and want to share it and find ways to incorporate those things into your pieces. If you tell a story that is meaningful, informative, or entertaining, there will be an audience for it.
Q: When making my own podcasts I often have trouble with the background music that I insert into my podcast and find it difficult to select a piece of music to play in the background. How do you determine the piece of music and the genre of music that best suits your podcast?
George’s Answer: Background music is an utter hassle, but at the same time it’s a lot of fun. I know that doesn’t make sense, but bear with me. First, let’s begin with what qualities of background music are good and which are bad.
Good background music will accent the story or piece (which I’ll get to in a little bit) but is also very ignorable. The music shouldn’t be distracting, or have vocals — if you find yourself editing and instead of listening to what’s being said your foot is tapping along with the music, that may be a bad thing. At the same time, if you find yourself paying too much attention to what they’re saying because the background music is so busy, get rid of it. By ‘busy’ I mean that if the music has a guitar solo or a series of notes that command attention. Simplicity is usually a fantastic route to take. Anything that helps move the story giving it some pace, but at the same time is so simple that you can just mute it in the background — bingo, that’s it.
Now we get to where it becomes fun — trying to have it accent the story or piece. Craig writes the music for each of the episodes, and I tell him what I’m looking for — we’re really quite a team. I know what I want, but because I’m not musical I can’t put it together. Craig is musical, so he takes my requests and makes some pretty great stuff. There haven’t been many episodes where we’ve tried to make the music fit the topic for the episode, but there have been a few. Episode #10 is about percussion, so naturally the music Craig threw together was quite percussive. Episode #10.5 was about the same museum, but specifically about an instrument made from meteorites, so he made a very ambient spacey song to fit. You can take your topic literally and craft a song around that, or you can just make a simple song that would fit any episode and work with that. We have used just random songs Craig has thrown together in a lot of episodes.
Now, many people don’t have a Craig to make music for them and others lack musical abilities like I do, so using songs from artists and bands you like is always an option, but you need to be smart about it. Don’t use songs from bands you like just because you like the song or the band. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. That is unless of course you’re talking about that band, then you should use it. But don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.
I’ll give examples from my work, that don’t have to do with Everything Sounds, but it will answer your question more clearly.
There are two pieces that I’ve done where music played a crucial role. One was about the terrorist attacks on Norway in July 2011 called ’22nd of July’ and the other was about coin collecting called ‘Nu-mis-ma-tics!’ In ’22nd of July’ I used music from a Norwegian musician named Nils Økland. He’s known for playing a traditional Norwegian instrument called a Hardanger fiddle. I used his music for a couple reasons. First, he’s Norwegian, simple. Secondly, the sound this fiddle makes is as beautiful as it is ominous. I liked that when retelling the events of that horrific day the music provided some tension to the story and actually helped evoke some of their shock.
In ‘Nu-mis-ma-tics!’ I knew that it is a very niche-oriented subject. I don’t collect coins myself, but I do enjoy learning about them and hearing others talk about them — but that’s just me, not everyone else. So with that in mind, I knew I’d need to pick up the pace of the piece by adding a little spice and a little upbeat music. I took into consideration that coin collecting is kind of a dying pastime and that many collectors have coins that are themselves old, so I wanted music that not only picked up the pace but also added kind of an antique feel. I chose to use Dixieland Jazz because it suited everything I needed and was primarily instrumental.
If you’re interested in hearing the pieces with the music I just described feel free to visit my website georgedrakejr.com.
Craig’s Answer: There are both practical and aesthetic reasons for utilizing different music in our show. In our first programs, we contacted independent musicians that agreed to let us utilize their music for free. However, over time it became easier for us to utilize simple copyright-free generative music that we found online or for me to compose the music. Sometimes I will reinterpret classical music and other times I will develop original rhythms or compositions. I have a fairly rudimentary knowledge of music theory and a program called “Logic” that allows me to create pieces that are appropriate for the show.
In general, the best music for production is instrumental and minimal. Music can evoke strong emotional responses, so consider what you want your audience to experience and try to find pieces of music that make you feel that way. I think Roman Mars uses music very effectively on his show, 99% Invisible. Listen to that show for some ideas on how songs can influence the sound of a podcast.
Q: After listening to “Music and Memory” and “Gold Mines and Gum Boots”, I have a few questions that I would like to ask you two in order to improve my ability to create interesting and entertaining podcasts.
When I make my podcasts I go out and interview people with a series of questions and answers which I think is the common method of interviewing, but my question for you is: (1) How do you then take that boring interview of questions and answers and plug it into a podcast in a way that flows and sounds interesting? (2) Do you keep your questions in there and then give the multiple responses you received in the interview? If you could share some advice as to how you make the interviews fit in so well, that would be very helpful.
One more question I have is: (3) Is it easier to have two people in a podcast? We have only been doing podcasts on pour own and I feel as if I am talking too much, making the podcast boring, so it seems to be more fluent and conversational with two people.
George’s Answer: (1) Have fun with the interview and try to engage the interviewee. Try not to ask questions you already know answers to (sometimes this is ok if you know you’d like to use their response), try to ask questions that will make them think about their response rather than giving you a formulaic answer they’ve used hundreds of times in the past and be engaged along with them. Listen closely to what they say and form questions in response to something they’ve said. No one is making sure you’re sticking to the questions you’ve written ahead of time, feel free to make others along side of them. And ultimately, an interview should be more of a conversation than a Q&A — those get you the best results. The better questions you have, the better responses you’ll get — the happier they’ll be at the end because they gave you great stuff to work with, which in turn makes you look good as well. You can read my response to Colin’s question for further detail as well.
Alternatively, although people may be good talkers, as soon as you put a microphone in front of them they lose their ability to make complete thoughts and, in a sense, freeze up. That doesn’t make them bad subjects, but just any normal person — it’s an understandable reaction. There are things that can be done to make it sound interesting while not including their rambling, stuttering or just bad responses. I touched on this a bit in my response to Claire’s question, but there are tricks you can take to spice it up a bit. Paraphrase what they have to say — don’t leave all of the talking up to them in the podcast, go ahead and explain what they’re saying and have them take over from there. Also, don’t be afraid to edit their responses a bit to make it easier to understand. Take out the ‘ums,’ ‘ers,’ and ‘you knows’ — as long as you’re not manipulating what they’re saying it’s fine to make it easier to understand. And personally, I’ve found that it’s not only beneficial to the finished product, but they’ll often times thank you for making them sound better.
The easiest way around a stiff interviewee is to remain relaxed and conversational — going away from your questions helps here too. If they feel it’s more of a conversation than an interrogation they’ll ease up and not pay attention to the microphone in front of them.
In terms of putting it into a podcast in a way that flows and sounds interesting — just listen to what they say and write around it. Find parts where they say the best things and have them tell the story along with you. Again, paraphrasing gives a lot of intrigue because if you sound engaged then the listener will be engaged as well. Also, only giving them so much time with each clip goes a long way as well. Craig and I usually stick to nothing more than 45 seconds. It keeps the podcast from dragging and by allowing us to insert our thoughts and help in telling the story picks up the pace and keeps listeners’ attention.
(2) Since our first episode Craig and I have never mic’d our responses. Unless we’re all taking part in an activity (like taking a walk or we’re asking them about something we brought in) we’ve found just keeping the mic on them is all we need. And when we ask the questions it’s still picked up by the microphone, but it’s just not broadcast quality, so we know what question they’re answering.
I’d say that 90% of the time the answers we get to our questions are 3-5 minutes long, which is an eternity in radio. Now, that gives us a lot of room for great material, but at the same time it leaves a lot of room for rambling and going off topic on their end, so a lot of it may not even work. Out of every 3-5 minutes we get we probably only use 15-75 seconds worth of it, but not all at once, in chunks (which I touched on in my response to Claire as well). Sometimes the answers they give work, but not as well as you hope — feel free to rephrase the question or try to ask another question on the same topic to see if you can get the response you’d like.
(3) I’m not going to lie, it does help having two people — but one can work just as well sometimes. Craig and I have known and worked with each other for years, so when we sound fluent and conversational — it’s because we are literally having a conversation. Our background helps, but at the same time when working on Episode #08 I had a pretty bad cold, so Craig presented it all by himself. And for Episode #13 Craig was in New York and unable to find a quiet enough spot to record, so I presented that one solo. Each episode was literally just us and the interviewee and I personally think they were two of our best episodes. And we’re a bit different in terms of podcasters — many intro and outro segments with both of them while only one is in the segment itself.
It may sound like you’re talking too much, but you’re probably not, I can assure you. And besides, it’s your job within the podcast to talk to people! If Craig and I do read directly from the script we’ve written, we try not to keep it below 100 words or so, anything more and it’s not only going to be difficult for you to read, but it’s also going to sound like you’re talking for a long time, so be wary of that.
And just a tip — if you’re writing the script only for yourself, write it in a way that you’d feel comfortable reading it and it’ll sound better. Don’t worry about perfect sentence structure — who talks like that anyway?
Craig’s Answer: Every interview is an opportunity to learn something about the world that you don’t already know. It’s hard to get great audio unless you connect with the person you’re interviewing. If the answers are boring, you may want to consider framing the questions in a different way or asking something that you hadn’t planned. The best interviews tend to unfold much like a conversation. It is important to listen and respond to the other person and avoid simply reading questions one after the next. Keep in mind that even if the subject matter isn’t interesting to you, it may be very interesting to your guest or someone that will listen to your program.
However, if you listen to your interview and you find that the audio isn’t compelling, you can choose to explain it yourself in a more concise way and then utilize a shorter clip. As far as which clips to use and the flow of a piece, it is best to think about storytelling and what pieces of audio will help to move the show forward.
It is common for us to leave at least half of an interview out of each episode. We often have much more audio than we need, but sometimes it is helpful to ask questions again in a different way or to ask for more detail.
George and I have each hosted episodes of Everything Sounds without the assistance of each other at some point. If you listen to our single-host shows (Episode #08 and #13) and compare them to any of our episodes where we’re both hosting, everything is fairly consistent in style and presentation. Shows with multiple hosts can be just as good or bad as any other show. Radiolab has some wonderful interaction between their hosts, Jad and Robert, but shows with single hosts such as 99% Invisible and The Memory Palace connect in a very personal and engaging way. Having a co-host is beneficial only if you work well together. Working alone can be great if you can find your style.
You can be conversational by yourself or with someone else. It may seem awkward or strange to record alone and pretend that you’re having a conversation, but it gets easier with practice. Talk to the microphone as you would to a person that you would have a conversation with. Visualize someone that you would want to tell the story to and pretend that they are listening to you tell it. Try not to think of it as announcing. Think of it as communicating.