Sound Design & Music
Decrease Podcast Listener Drop-off Through the Art of Sound Design
05.20.19 | Podcasting | By: Dayton Cole
“What business is it of yours where I’m from…friendo?” These are the words uttered by Anton Chigurh in the chilling coin toss scene from No Country for Old Men. This is probably one of my favorite scenes in movie history where the antagonist Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) walks into a gas station and asks the proprietor behind the counter to call a coin toss ‘Heads or tails?’ What the proprietor doesn’t know is that his fate rests on this single coin toss. [SPOILER ALERT] He calls heads and Chugurh spares him his life.
Not only does this scene have a great performance from the actors, but the sound design and music subtly add a layer of tension as the scene progresses, which subconsciously puts the audience in an unsettled state. The eerie drone of the desolate wind, the sound of the rusty Texaco sign swaying in the wind, Anton’s slow dragging footsteps across the gritty gas station floor, the low music drone that creeps in during the coin toss, and even the sound of Anton crumpling his candy wrapper (which sounds like a noose tightening around someone’s neck) all add tension to the scene. Without the sound design, this scene would not have the chilling impact that it does.
Much like designing sound for a feature film, sound design and music can help keep listeners engaged in your podcast. One of the biggest issues a lot of podcasts have is the dreaded listener drop-off. Thanks to podcasting platforms like Apple Podcasts, you can track the analytical data of where your listeners stop listening and where they might skip a section (you can learn more about how to use Apple Podcast’s analytics tools from our friends at Buzzsprout here). For example, they may decide to skip the beginning or end of your podcast if it is the same every time in order to get to new content. There are three main things I focus on when designing sound for a podcast: 1) Tone/Style, 2) Pacing, 3) Story. Not only do these three elements help get your message across more clearly to your listeners, but it can also help keep those listeners engaged in your content and decrease listener drop-off.
One of the most important things to know when producing a podcast is the style or tone of the podcast. Is it a dark, intense, murder/mystery? A fun, whimsical, and adventurous podcast for children? An introspective, news driven, political commentary? The style of the podcast helps dictate the tone and thematic elements of the music and sound effects. For example, the Reading Bug Adventures is a podcast for children that takes listeners on an adventure to different places with the help of a little bug with a magical bookbag. Since this podcast is for children, the sound design is more playful and typically goes outside of the boundaries of the natural world. The music typically has more of a rhythmic and melodic quality to it rather than the ethereal drone you hear in most crime/mystery podcasts. The texture of the sounds used in this podcast usually are a little brighter in tone and mixed more up front in order to help keep the attention of young children. This podcast tends to have wall-to-wall sound effects and lots of musical elements throughout each episode to help keep the listener’s attention.
Here’s a before and after example of how sound effects can help support the narration of a story and keep listeners engaged:
Example of Sound Design
Pacing is another crucial element that plays a key role in keeping listeners engaged in a podcast. I’m not talking so much about the technical editing of the dialogue (while that certainly is a very important aspect), but I’m talking more along the lines of pacing the dialogue in relation to all of the other sonic elements in the mix. Since most music has a certain cadence to it, I like to pace the dialogue in conjunction to the beat of the music and even use pauses in the dialogue to allow the music to play around it. This not only can increase the dramatic effect of the music and put listeners on the edge of their seat, but this can also give the listener a chance to take a breath and internalize an important section of the episode.
Example of Pacing and Music
Somebody Somewhere, a true crime podcast series hosted by David Payne and Jody Gottlieb, is a great example of how the pacing of the dialogue and music can add tension to a scene.
Finally, the story is probably the most important element when designing sound for your podcast. If your story is not interesting or compelling, then there are no music cues or sound effects that are going to magically make it better. Everything you do as a sound designer revolves around the characters and the story you are trying to tell. Not every part of your podcast is going to be filled from front to back with music or sound effects. Sometimes the best thing you can do is have a little silence to allow your listeners time to digest what they’ve just heard. A lot of times sound design can be distracting and take away from the storytelling element. If the sound design is not helping the narrative of the story, then it has no place in your podcast. I like to think of the music as the sonic glue that holds the story together weaving different segments seamlessly together. Since I like to cook and bake in my spare time I tend to think of the sound effects as sprinkles or spices. They can definitely be overused and destroy the palate, but when used tastefully they can have a lot of impact and add another layer of depth to your podcast.
So, how do you keep your listeners tuned in to your podcast? It all starts with a compelling story that takes you on a journey. There’s no amount of sound design or music that can cover up a bad story. Pay close attention to how you weave together the sonic elements of your podcast in order to create maximum impact and make sure that you keep the tone and style of your podcast consistent and tailored to your listeners. Also, Keep it fresh and original. You have the freedom to mix up the intro and outro for every episode (there’s a reason Netflix lets you skip the title sequence of a show). Incorporating new and interesting sonic elements like new music cues or enthralling soundscapes can keep your listeners from tuning out and it just makes listening to podcasts more entertaining.
My final advice is to simply have fun. I know that may sound cliché, but if you are not enjoying the process of developing the sound of your podcast, then chances are your listeners will not enjoy it either. Thankfully, unlike the proprietor behind the counter, we have more options than simply ‘heads or tales’ when designing sound for podcasts. Let your imagination go wild and keep pushing the envelope for new and exciting ways to develop your sound for your podcast.
Interested in adding sound design and music to your show? Schedule a call with a Resonate team member today and learn more about what goes into the process, and how we can help you make podcasting easier. Send us an email or set up a call with a team member today.
By: Dayton Cole
As Lead Mixing Engineer at Resonate Recordings, Dayton oversees the audio editing and mixing process for many entertaining podcasts. When Dayton is not mixing and mastering audio he enjoys making tacos with his wife in their home in Louisville, KY.