You’ve got a great podcast with a dedicated audience, but you want to know how you can take your show to the next level. This article will give you five tools and tips about how you can use sound to improve your podcast:
But first, why audio? Why turn specifically to sound to improve your podcast?
Sound, whether music or plain background noise is incredibly impactful. White noise puts babies to sleep, ASMR, trance and Matthew McConaughey’s voice helps adults fall asleep, focus music helps us study, pump up music helps us work out and John Williams or Hans Zimmer can bring stories to life with their movie scores.
Music, sound, audio – it’s everywhere.
And you can use sound to improve your podcast. Whether it’s leveraging a background track to tell a story and inject mood into a narrative, or using a musical cue to snap a listener back to attention, there are many ways to use sound effects in your podcast, beyond just your intro and outro.
However, sound can be a double edged sword. Sound effects or music can be annoying and detract attention from what really matters – your content. Additionally, our brain is great at tuning out noise after a while, eliminating the efficacy of sound effects.
We analyzed the audio of some of the most popular podcasts of all time – from Serial to This American Life to the Joe Rogan Show – in order to pinpoint which techniques they used that set their audio apart, and today we’re sharing that knowledge with you.
At Alpe Audio, our focus is always on ways to help our listeners learn more and learn smarter as they progress through our audio courses. But whether you’re hosting an interview podcast or scripting a fiction podcast the following tips and tricks will help you use sound to improve your podcast.
Good audio provides listeners with something new to feast their ears on every 40-90 seconds: new facts, new stories, a new plot twist or a new sound – whether you’re adding tones, music or shifting to silence – these ‘audio shifts‘ change the pace for listeners and keep their brain from turning off. A great example of this can be found in the way that the podcast Serial sets up its openings.
Throughout the first few minutes of each episode, there is constant movement. Beginning with a few bars of music, the audio will shift to a snippet of a phone recording from one of the episode’s main characters before moving into the introductory voiceover. The music rises and falls, various speakers take turns narrating events, and dramatic silences signal to listeners when something important is about to be said. When recording a prewritten podcast, it is easy to integrate these shifts into your script. But even if your podcast is based on conversations or ad-hoc interviews, you can incorporate audio shifts into your sound editing.
As you edit your podcast audio, listen for points every 40-90 seconds where it would be appropriate to include an audio shift. Is there a natural transition that’s about to take place? Is there complex information that should be followed by a moment of silence, to allow the listener to process? Or alternatively should that section have no background music so listeners are focused purely on that?
By using background music, audio effects, and even just different tones of voice you can use sound to improve your podcast, without making any changes to your show’s format or content.
One of the easiest places to step up your podcast audio is in how you utilize your theme music. At Alpe, we make sure that every one of our audio courses gets its own course theme music (think Star Wars, but slightly less dramatic). This theme serves the main goal of focusing and inviting the listener into a different space – in our case, it’s the learning space of a specific course, though the space you invite your listeners into will obviously differ. The main thing is that the music serves a cue associated with the content of our courses – exactly like the Star Wars theme serves as a cue for a movie audience that they are now entering a galaxy far far away.
Theme music can typically be used in three spots throughout your show (not exclusive to either/or):
However when using sound to improve your podcast, remember to be consistent. That brings is to our next tip:
Using the same sound or music repeatedly can create a powerful association in our minds. This doesn’t have to be limited to theme music, but can also be used to cue ‘focus time’ or specific topics of discussion.
For example, in every Alpe lesson where there is a summary of what we’ve learned, whether in the middle of the lesson or at the end, we will always use the same music at the beginning. Once a listener has heard this music a few times, they develop an automatic association where hearing the music means, “I better pay attention. A summary is coming up.” (This is just one of the cognitive tricks we use in order to help our listeners learn more effectively). This is an example of how we use sound to improve podcast listeners’ information retention.
You can use this technique in your podcast wherever you’ve got a segment that is consistent across episodes. Do you end your interviews by giving your guest a chance to plug themselves or their work? Start editing in a consistent audio cue to indicate to your listeners that this is where they can learn more about your speaker. Do you run midway ads? Including a pre-ad sound effect helps to differentiate between your content and sponsored content. Sound is a powerful tool for creating mental associations. But it does more than that. You can also use sound to leverage existing neural pathways and make your podcast episodes more enjoyable and engaging. This is another way that you can use sound to improve your podcast listener’s experience.
We might think of scene setting as a skill that belongs firmly in the realm of visual media, but audio scenes can be just as powerful as video – sometimes even moreso.
If I play you the sounds of a rainforest your mind will automatically conjure up the ‘missing’ visual information. Because your brain is creating the scene itself, the likelihood of you remembering the visual elements of that rainforest is higher than if I were simply to show you a picture of a rainforest. This principle is what makes sound effects so powerful for podcasts and other audio content.
Scene setting for audio usually takes the form of background noise. A scene set in a restaurant will have the sounds of indecipherable conversation and cutlery clinking. A historical scene might include period music or the sound of cannon fire. Whether your podcast covers current events or a niche hobby, scene setting can help to add depth and resonance to many different scenarios.
No matter how you apply it, the one rule to remember about audio scene setting is:
Your audio shouldn’t interrupt the narration, it should be in the background, amplifying the scene setting.
This rule holds true for other audio elements that you can use in your podcast in order to keep listeners interested. Those are covered in our final tip:
Booms, dings, dongs, chirps or airplane sounds. All are sound effects (SFX) you can use to bring your stories to life or force listeners to snap out of monotony. A few rules of thumb when using sound effects to improve your podcast:
Do: use SFX to snap users back to attention in between sentences or paragraphs and to bring points home. You can also use them to denominate long lists or give emphasis to specific points.
Don’t: overuse them. SFX can be very very distracting to many people, so keep them to a minimum.
Likewise, audio snippets from other pieces of audio such as interviews, phone calls or movies can be a fantastic addition to any podcast: you get the original voices of the storytellers, and shake up the audio (yes! audio inserts count as an audio shift!).
A great example of this comes from the Masters of Scale podcast. In this excerpt, the first speaker is the guest and the second speaker, Reid Hoffman, is the host:
BRIAN CHESKY: Joe and I are broke. We’re losing weight, and I didn’t have a lot of weight to lose. You know those binders that you put baseball cards in? We put credit cards in them. At this point I am $25,000 in credit card debt. Joe is tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. So this is make-or-break. We need a lifeline.
REID HOFFMAN: That entrepreneur in need of a lifeline? That’s Brian Chesky. Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, a service that lets you rent a couch for the night. Or a cabin. Or a castle. Today, Airbnb is valued at $30 billion. Eight years ago? A very different picture.
What’s great about this example is that it makes use of all of the tips and tricks we talked about in this article. The sounds of cards being slipped in and out of folders set the scene for Brian’s description of his years in debt. Audio shifts are employed every 40 seconds to keep listeners interested, and the intro music that comes in right before Reid speaks signals that we’re about to get some important information.
These tips and tricks represent the best practices for integrating sound and audio effects into your podcast, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. We’d love to hear from you about how you’re using sound to improve your podcast and make it stand out. Is there anything you’re doing that we didn’t cover? Reach out and let us know. At Alpe Audio we believe in lifelong learning, and we’d be happy to learn from your experience.