Creating a World: sound design for an audio-drama podcast

How do you take someone to a distant research station using only their ears? How do you create sounds for sounds that have never existed? And most importantly, what’s the right bag of nuts to use?

Oblivity sound designer, producer, mixer, and all-round recording hero Joe Carr lets us in on how he created the aural world of Falconer and team.

The title of this blog sounds way too grandiose. But it’s short and snappy and got your attention, right? The more accurate and modest title would be “How I Went About Trying to Make A Research Station on the Outer Edge of the Solar System Sound Convincing”, or HIWATTMARSOTOEOTSSSC for short.

One of the first things I asked for from writer/creator Rob when thinking about how to bring his creation to life, was a sketch of the base. It didn’t have to be a work of art (it really wasn’t) but the idea was that I’d have an understanding of where the different rooms are, and thus which direction people are going when they enter/exit a scene.

If you close your eyes and listen to your surroundings (please don’t do this while driving) you can focus on not only the different sounds but their locations around you.

I felt it was important to try and place the listener with a purpose specific to the scene. In some cases, the listener follows the characters through doors and into corridors. But in every instance, we were ‘viewing’ Research Base Persephone from the same perspective based on the original sketched layout.

Consistency is critical

I appreciate that not everyone listens to podcasts on a set of high quality stereo headphones or even a 5.1 surround sound system (although if sound engineers ruled the world, this would be law), but for those who did I wanted to make sure the effort was rewarded with a much more immersive experience due to the stereo positioning of character movement and certain sound effects which place items or actions (or gerbils hitting walls) in a very tangible space relative to the rest of the base and consistent throughout the series.

I did actually toy with the idea of mixing the whole thing surround sound, carefully placing each character and sound effect closer, further away, moving them about and ultimately having depth as well as width to work with, but quickly realised this was a silly idea and just like many people wanted the show completed this century.

The right kind of swish

In many ways creating a soundscape for a sci-fi comedy based in an isolated research station is very easy. What’s the background atmos going to be in this scene? Generic background hum. Tick. It’s not as if they’re catching the train at a busy station or running through the streets of Even Greater London chasing a bad guy.

But then again in other ways you’re creating sounds which don’t exist or have never existed… not really, other than in sci-fi shows or films we’ve grown up with. How do you find the right swish sci-fi door sound? Or exactly the right kind of hum for the different rooms the characters might be in? Is it very deep and dark or light and airy? Does it change with the mood of the scene?

Nuts and guts

I can tell you that roughly 50% of the sounds in Oblivity are recorded specifically for it and the other 50% sourced through sound libraries, then edited to make it fit the need. Sometimes it’s just easier to record it yourself. You won’t believe how long I searched online libraries for the sound of a bag of nuts being opened and poured into a bowl before I reluctantly went to the shops and bought a few bags to record it myself, and even then I went to pretty much every shop looking for exactly the right kind of bag of nuts (they were salted if you must know).

When trying to find a sound in a library, I was very rarely happy with how the sound sounded. It wasn’t quite right. Something in my gut was telling me that it didn’t suit the scene. Sometimes it could be edited to fit with a bit of EQ adjustment, reverb, etc. Sometimes it was just the wrong sound.

The key thing is this: as a sci-fi fan for most of my life (between the ages of 0-5 I was more into 1920s German expressionistic cinema, obviously), I’ve subconsciously logged a library of sounds which I associate with sci-fi things. Doors, spacecraft engines, that background hum of life support systems, bleeps and bloops of consoles as people prod inanely at various buttons… it’s all in there (I think) for all of us for any genre we’re a fan of.

So, when trying to create a world which the listener instantly can understand, you need to tap into the intuitive gut instinct of what feels RIGHT. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error. But you’ll hone in on it and when you’ve got it, you’ll know. YES! That’s the sound! That’s the sound of a cryovolcano erupting and a ship flying off just as it avoids the debris! (or other examples).

Stay in the story

I appreciate I haven’t really explained much of the technical process here, but I think like most things the conceptual approach is actually the most important aspect.

You could be great at capturing sounds and even edit the most crisp, perfect and pure quality effects known to humanity, but if it doesn’t connect with the listener as the right type of sound - pulling on the drawstrings of their subconscious library of what a sci-fi (or other genre) sound effect should sound like - it’s going to take them out of the moment.

And at that point they’re not thinking about the story, but instead wondering what that sound was.

Ultimately it’s all about the story and making the characters really exist in the world you’ve put them in.

At least that’s what I think.  But what do I know, I almost called this blog HIWATTMARSOTOEOTSSSC (and that’s just silly).

Thank you for reading. We want to give Joe more sound-design challenges to solve by creating a second season of Oblivity. But we really need your help to get started.

Please back Oblivity by helping us meet our Season Two crowdfunding target before Thursday 17 October. And if you can help, we’ll send you some fantastic rewards! Find out more here!

Read more of our blogs here.

Rob Stringer1 Comment