Often one of the most challenging aspects of starting a new podcast for brand managers is learning how to talk about sound. It can be a major hurdle in both the development of a concept in the early stages of a podcast and a continuing issue as feedback is provided on episode drafts. So one of the tools we use with our clients to help make sure we’re on the right track from the very beginning is an audio moodboard.
This was a concept introduced to us by Jocelyn Gonzales, who is the Director of PRX Productions. Their teams use audio moodboards when working on new shows, so that everyone on the production team has a sonic reference for the show’s sound moving forward. It also helps them flush out their ideas and communicate with any production partners they might have. So shoutout to Jocelyn for showing us the ropes and getting us hooked on these!
The client teams that we work with are often brand managers and marketers that have a very strong grasp on their brand’s identity. They know the ethos of the brand. But often, they haven’t ever worked in audio before (hence why they hired us!). So a challenge for us is finding ways to translate the language around the brand, into language about music choices or other audio characteristics. We’ve found moodboards to be a perfect way to start those conversations and teach our clients how to give us feedback on audio.
Alright, let’s back up a bit and actually talk about what moodboards are and why I personally think you shouldn’t do any creative projects without one.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of a moodboard from magazines or Pinterest (I know I spent a fair amount of time as a middle schooler looking at fashion moodboards in Seventeen Magazine). Visual moodboards are very commonly used in design, fashion, and photography to sketch out the overall feeling and concept for a project by creating a collage or palette of inspirations and ideas. The most important reason for spending the time upfront making a moodboard is that it helps keep the vision for your project consistent as you move ahead. Audio moodboards help us achieve the same goals, but through a collection of sound.
One of the biggest benefits of making an audio moodboard in the early stages of developing a new podcast is that moodboards provide a fast way of getting our client’s ears on something at the beginning to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. It’s much better to identify when something isn’t working before diving into the heavier lift of production. Maybe the style of music that was used isn’t evoking the right feeling, or maybe the pacing is too fast or too slow. Iterating on an audio collage that’s a few minutes long, versus going back to the drawing board on a full length episode is much more time and cost effective for everyone. We also benefit from going through this development process by gaining a stronger understanding of our client’s brand voice, which helps inform decisions later in the production process.
So how do we actually make an audio moodboard?
As a production team, we put together a piece that is typically 2–4 minutes long and includes voices, sound effects, and music from various sources. We include audio from existing projects that are providing inspiration for what we’re making — that can be TV shows, YouTube channels, other podcasts, movies, you name it. We use audio from the host — or, if there isn’t one attached to the show yet, an aspirational host. We also pull audio from potential guests, sound effects that would likely be used in the show, and any other piece of audio that can help us evoke the feelings and essence of the show. If the client we’re working with has an established sonic strategy or a sonic logo, we’ll make sure to work those elements into the moodboard as well to ensure that their podcast keeps in line with other sonic properties the company may already have.
But before we can dive into pulling all this audio together, we have to ask a bunch of questions first to make sure we’re getting close to the mark. Usually at this point in our conversations with our clients, we’ve already got a bit of an idea of what this podcast is being “hired” to do. In other words, “what business problem is this podcast solving?” And those discussions will have helped inform the subject matter questions. We will also have likely already discussed considerations such as audience (who is this show for?) and broader format choices (seasonal / serial? episodic?). Our clients have probably even heard some small amounts of audio at this point because we often show them examples of different types of podcasts to get their reaction to various styles and to start helping them understand ways to think about sound. Sometimes after hearing a variety of examples of existing podcasts, clients will say something along the lines of “we want a show that sounds like podcast X meets podcast Y”. A media mashup reference is super useful information for us when we’re building out a moodboard because it gives everyone on both the production and client teams easy reference points.
But the next step is to dig further by asking the brand managers we’re working with to answer some of these questions:
What’s your show’s mission?
The mission of the show should align with the business case, but it should also align with the brand and any other choices made about the stylistic aspects of the show. For example, Song Exploder’s podcast logline and mission are: Story. Swagger. Sincerity. A Podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.
Knowing that information informs the kinds of guests that are on the show, the format of the show, and the overall energy you’d expect to hear.
From there, we can dig deeper into things like:
What perspective does the host bring? What’s their lens on this?
We often even go so far as to give the host (assuming there’s one attached to the show at this point) a short list of questions about the types of music they attach to certain to feelings or moments in their life. For example, “What do you listen to when you’re sad? Happy? Trying to get hyped up?” These choices can help us find music that works both with the host’s personality while also supporting the brand goals.
Other questions we ask our clients are:
What tones are in this show?
Is it warm? Approachable? Smart? Fast-paced? Serious? Motivating? Soothing? Curious?
What does the show feel like?
Is it raw? Gritty? Real? Authentic? Vulnerable? Down to earth?
Once we’ve got all of this information, we can hit the ground running and pull audio from everything we can think of that might fit the overall concept for the show. This part of the process should be focused less on the individual pieces of audio, less on the overall narrative, and more on the sum of the parts and the way they evoke emotion.
This process should be quick and dirty, no real mixing, no smoothing, just getting ideas out into something tangible that our clients can hear. Once we think we’ve managed to capture everything we learned from our initial meetings and questionnaires, we play it for the client and get them to tell us what it made them think about. How did it make them feel? What did the audio moodboard have them expecting to hear next? Are those feelings and overall vibe a fit for the goals for the show?
How about I show instead of tell?
We’ve talked a lot about sound, but I haven’t actually given you a demonstration yet! Since the moodboards we work on for our clients are preliminary stages for eventual shows, I can’t show you any of those. But instead I’ve gone ahead and made a mock up for a feasible show.
I’m going to imagine that my client in this case is a climate science NGO. They’ve come to us with a grant that they want to put towards raising community-level awareness. Let’s say the hypothetical show’s logline and mission are:
"Climate awareness. Solutions oriented. A show that brings tangible climate topics to everyday folks with solutions they can implement in their own communities."
And let’s say that our hypothetical client wants to have this feel raw and honest, boots-on-the-ground, yet still approachable and not too doomsday. When asked to try and explain it as a media mashup, they said, “it should sound like PBS meets Planet Earth.” They have identified really liking things like nature shows and “go out and do it yourself” documentaries.
Let’s also say that they haven’t picked a host yet, but they want someone who is informative, clear, and not intimidating to listeners that are new to the topic. This client wants a show that leans into curiosity and leaves listeners feeling motivated.
Since I don’t have a “real” host attached to this show yet, I can’t really ask them about the music they like, or their personal lens on the topic. But I can make some educated guesses for music based around the rest of the client’s ideas.
This should be enough for me to go and start pulling clips of existing stuff that I can make a moodboard with. I pulled tape from field recording archives I had, YouTube videos, some documentaries, and a handful of other podcasts. Here’s what I came up with:
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that YOU are this imagined client. How did listening to this moodboard make YOU feel? How would you describe this show? Did I manage to capture the things you outlined in response to our questions above?
We have found that by spending the time upfront to go through the initial questionnaire and build out a moodboard, we are able to find a way to “show” rather than “tell” during the early stages of development. The client is reassured that their company’s values and identity are being considered in the making of the show, and it gives everybody involved a north star to refer back to as the project moves forward.