The Art of Good Sound Design with Dan Leone and Ben Adair of Western Sound

. 9 min read

Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash
Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

Once a week at Pacific Content, we get together and spend an hour or so talking about the business and the craft of podcasting. We talk shop so we can learn from each other, or use our hive mind to tackle story and production challenges.

Sometimes, we invite other podcasters who don’t work at Pacific Content. We’ll listen to their show, and chat with them about how and why they made it.

It’s like a book club, but, you know, podcasts. Naturally, we call it Pod Club.

Series artwork for The Score: Bank Robber Diaries

A little while ago, Dan Leone and Ben Adair of Western Sound in Los Angeles joined us. We chatted about how they made their true crime series, The Score: Bank Robber Diaries, sound so good.

“The language of podcast sound design and music is very much in its infancy. You might stumble on something that frankly no one’s done yet, and that’s really cool.”

That’s what Dan Leone told us when discussing how they approached the sound design of this series.

The Score: Bank Robber Diaries is the story of Joe Loya, a convicted bank robber from Los Angeles. He robbed dozens of banks in the 1980s. The series takes us from Joe’s first robbery attempts to his tragic childhood and his time spent in prison and in solitary confinement. It’s a story full of rich detail, mostly because Joe Loya himself is a natural storyteller.

The challenge for Dan and Ben was to underscore the narrative with smart sound design decisions that informed the story without, as we discuss, making it too “cheesy”. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Pacific Content: How do you think about sound design when approaching any kind of story that you want to tell?

Ben Adair: I think about three different arcs that are at work any time you’re making any piece of audio. There’s the narrative arc, there’s the rhythmic arc, and then there’s the sort of sonic arc of the piece, right? Every piece of audio that you make, whether it’s a talk show or fully serialized, highly produced narrative show, those three arcs are always happening.

I think with this story in particular, we had a few challenges. It’s mostly a historical story. Everything happened in the past. There was no archival even of Joe’s bank robberies.So we really needed to construct an immersive experience through the sound design, through the music, and then through some special effects that Dan was just so great at.

Whenever you’re doing any kind of recreation it’s always an issue that you need to be very concerned about so that it’s not a cheesy listening experience for people. There’s so much that makes Joe a very special person. One of them is his ability to kind of flip-flop from poet-philosopher to thug, sometimes even in the same sentence.

And so we really wanted to lean into that and kind of butch up the sound design and lean into the hardcore criminal kind of part of it. So those are kind of the things that we were thinking about with this story. The challenges of immersing the listener in the story, creating a cinematic experience, when we didn’t really have any ability to collect anything besides interview tape.

Pacific Content: Dan, let’s listen to the first three minutes of the very first episode.

Dan Leone: Sure.

Episode 1 of Season 1 of The Score: Bank Robber Diaries on Spotify

Pacific Content: It’s a really intense way of starting and launching a show. Can you talk us through how you started thinking through the opening of the show?

Dan Leone: Those first three minutes were absolutely crucial for me, so the first thing I did was sweat and panic a lot that I was going to fail, that’s number one, you got to do that.

You have to tell the audience what you’re doing. So you need to tell the audience the language of the show very very quickly. It wouldn’t have made sense to withhold that type of sound design to let’s say the 15 minute mark because it would seem like, “Where did this come from? I’ve just listened to 15 minutes of an interview, I’m not prepared for this language.” So within one minute you already understand this is how this show is going to sound.

When you have a piece of music in podcasting you need to answer the question, “What is the music doing?” And you need to have a very clear answer to that question or don’t start composing. For me, in that first sequence, the music is advocating for Joe, period. The music is on his side, it likes him, it likes what he’s doing, it thinks bank robbery is cool, it thinks what he’s doing is fine, that’s the music at the start of the show.

I need to give Joe a theme. What I’m doing is there are four notes, and that’s Joe’s theme. Those four notes represent his blunt masculinity and rage, and throughout the series those four notes become much more complicated, but I wanted to begin just with a sort of caveman unsophisticated advocacy. Joe at his most grandiose, most self satisfied, Bank Robber Joe, and sell that in three minutes.

Ben Adair: The other thing I would say is like we were pitching this show to the listeners. We really needed to sell the true crime aspect of this show because it was going to get messy pretty quickly, you know? We wanted listeners to kind of fall in love with the true crime aspect of it and fall in love with Joe because we were going to take them to some dark places pretty quickly.

Pacific Content: Because you have no archival audio, you basically have an unfettered imagination to do whatever you want. If you’re not careful, as you alluded to earlier Ben, you can get really cheesy.

Dan Leone: A lot of what it comes down to is knowing what the music is doing. So I kind of divided the show up into three acts, and I said really for the first act of the show the music’s going to be on Joe’s side, like I mentioned, and then the music is going to begin to kind of crack and we’re going to start letting in more complicated themes, et cetera, et cetera. And then in the third act the music is no longer going to advocate for Joe anymore, so the music is going to be commenting on him, it’s going to be commenting on the horror of what he’s doing, it’s going to be showing the show from his stepmother’s perspective, it’s going to be presenting the show from his victim’s perspective, and that map really kind of guided us through.

The thing that I would say is letting the sound designer into producer type conversations can be very helpful. It keeps the sound designer from being lost. If something went wrong, and I think episode four was probably the difficult one, that one went wrong because I didn’t really understand where we were going with the story. I didn’t know why we were hearing certain things, why this was there, why we were telling this story at this point in the story, and because of that I wrote themes that didn’t really work.

The way that we reoriented that is not with a conversation about music, it wasn’t a conversation about piano or synthesizers, it was a conversation about where are we in the story and where are we going, and I think we learned very quickly that I needed to be on the same page with them and before I would start scoring. “Okay, what is the mission of this episode? What are we trying to accomplish? Where are we going? What are we trying to withhold?” Et cetera, et cetera.

Pacific Content: It’s a word that’s come up a couple times and I think a lot of people know “cheesy” when they hear it, but I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the hallmarks of cheese or the signifiers of cheese, like what makes something cheesy to your ears.

Dan Leone: So I’m going to say some things that probably sound sort of harsh, and it’s not my intent to be rude or disrespectful. What I hear in a lot of podcasting that I might refer to as cheesiness is just sort of a very basic lack of understanding of how sound works, so number one, when you listen to The Score you’re not going to hear a lot of snare drums, and the reason you don’t hear snare drums is because snare drums are in the same place that the vocal sits. You’re going to have a very cheesy effect if you’re listening to someone talk and there’s a snare drum pattern underneath the person talking, it doesn’t work.

And sometimes it comes across as sort of like, “I like this piece of music and I want this piece of music to fit in this thing.” No, the thing dictates the music, period. You know? You don’t work backwards from shoving something in there.

Cheesiness to me is if we brought in a bunch of voice actors, for instance, might’ve given it a cheesiness, to like recreate these moments with the music. No, let’s just use Joe. We use Joe, we use his voice, his natural voice. He’s not performing, he’s just telling the story, we’ll grab his sound design noises that he makes, we’ll use his breaths, we’ll construct it from a real interview, and try not to fake it. Try to do it as truthfully as possible.

Ben Adair: We work with a lot of TV and movie people who are like, “Hey, we’re going to make a radio play.” You know, “It’s going to be like the olden days, the Golden Age of radio.” And I find myself thinking that like any time that you involve TV and movie people in making your shows they’re going to be really really cheesy, especially if they’re following their ideas about what sound design should be. Just like how you place cues, for example, is very different in audio than it is in TV and movies.

I think that any time you just have the shot callers on your production not being audio native it’s going to be super cheesy, and that is really rude and I mean it to be.

Listen to a TV show or a movie and pay real close attention to where the music starts, where it stops, where the explosion sounds happen, sort of how different sounds interact with the dialogue and interact with what you’re seeing on the screen. And then do the same thing for some podcasts that you really like, just kind of notice where the music starts, where it stops, what sound effects are audible, what’s not audible, sort of what sound design is A-roll and what’s just background, you know?

I know Dan does this a lot, even with pop music, like listening to how some hit song is constructed I think can be really really… what was that song that you were breaking down? Bad Guy, right?

Dan Leone: Yeah, Bad Guy, and then just to leap off to give a really specific point to what you’re saying is there’s a song by Selena Gomez, Look At Her Now. The sequence where Joe freaks out in solitary (*this scene takes place in episode 12 of The Score) is inspired by a Selena Gomez song because the chorus of that song is constructed entirely of Selena Gomez’s voice. There’s a baseline, there’s drums, and every other element of that chorus is her voice, and I knew that I wanted to have all these kind of voices popping around and so that was where I pulled that from.

One of the things that I would say is that these rules are not written yet, which is really exciting. The language of podcast sound design and music is very much in its infancy. You know, we learn by doing. You might stumble on something that frankly no one’s done yet, and that’s really cool.

Things to remember about podcast sound design:

  • There’s a narrative arc to your story, but there’s also a rhythmic arc and a sonic arc.
  • Effective sound design can “cue” your listener early on to what kind of story is being told and to how to feel about what they’re about to experience.
  • Let the story and the storyteller motivate your music and design choices. Ask yourself “What is the music doing?” Is it serving the story, or does it just sound cool?
  • You can avoid “cheesiness” by not forcing design choices that don’t respect what’s actually happening in the tape — let the story take the lead.
  • Establishing musical themes linked to characters and narrative acts can enrich the listening experience.
  • Bake your sound designer into the editorial process.
  • Listen to non-podcast sources like film and music for inspiration and influences.
  • Bonus: Before you get started, consider sweating, and panicking, and fearing you’ll fail.

You can find The Score: Bank Robber Diaries here, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

You might also be interested in checking out Western Sound’s podcast series Pandemic Check-inproduced with the team at Brooklyn Minds, a mental health and treatment center.

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