Podcasts are exclusively a sonic medium, yet many don’t take advantage of the power of sound design (things like sound effects, music, environmental sound, etc.) to enhance their content. Instead, many podcasts tend to use the same format over and over again: theme music at the top, followed by a voiceover intro and either a recorded interview or people having a discussion, then at the end, a reprise of the theme music.
Fortunately, not all are like that — in fact, there are some that get incredibly creative with sound design. In this article, we’ll spotlight five podcasts that use imaginative sonics to bring their episodes to life.
(Note: In films, sound design typically gets split up among different specialized professionals, such as Foley artists who recreate real-life sounds like door slams and footsteps, and music supervisors, who are in charge of finding appropriate music. On a podcast, most of those tasks are more likely to be done by one person, often the producer.)
Dust is a science fiction podcast that focuses on a different theme or storyline each season, featuring well-known actors such as Lance Reddick, Corey Hawkins and Toni Colette. The first season contained one-off sci-fi episodes. The second covered multiple stories around the single theme of an airplane that disappears and lands in the future. The third season, called “Chrysalis,” was a multipart space opera.
Dust episodes include plenty of creative sound design to spice up the stories. You’ll hear the internal sounds of spaceships, explosions, robot noises and alien voices, as well as some Foley. The use of music is subtle but effective. It features a lot of droning synths and is designed to heighten tension. The sound designers also use the stereo field to good effect, which makes this show an even better listen on headphones.
This is also a sci-fi series, but one with a twist: It’s done in the style of an old-time radio drama, though very much tongue-in-cheek. It offers over-the-top stories, often with multiple episodes, always filled with superb sound design. The voice characterizations are impressive and quite funny, including the intro, which features an old-style radio announcer voice.
The episodes are typically short — usually in the 15-to-20-minute range — but the action is non-stop. You’ll hear plenty of corny orchestral music stabs, occasional Foley and fantastic sound effects, including massive explosions and impact sounds.
For fun voice characterizations, check out the Nightkeeper character in “Theater of Terror 4 ‘Night of the Nightkeeper,’” and the creatures in “The Amazing Audio Adventures of Moonman Manscout! – Episode I.” You can find all the episodes on the Theatre of Tomorrow page of the Midnight Disease Productions website.
This show comes from the same producers of ESPN’s 30 For 30 film series, who describe these podcasts as “audio documentaries.” The topics are all sports-related but focus on off-the-field issues and are frequently edgy. However, you don’t have to be a sports fan to be fascinated by 30 For 30 Podcasts, because the episodes are captivating, both for their narrative power and their sonic excellence.
With a company as big as ESPN behind it, it’s no surprise that this show has excellent production values. The voiceovers and interviews are clean and professionally recorded — which isn’t something you can say about some of the shows in the podcast universe — and, when appropriate, the producers mix in clips from sports broadcasts and location interviews.
But what’s most sonically striking about this show is its use of music. You hear it (primarily instrumental music in a variety of styles) underneath most of each episode, though it will sometimes stop when the dialog cuts to a new character. Variations like that change up the pacing in a way designed to hold your attention. Overall, the music serves as an underscore that heightens the drama of the stories, which are already quite compelling.
The current season focuses on the impact the death of rapper Nipsey Hustle has had on NBA players. Previous episodes have featured subjects like Romanian gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, WNBA stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi’s experience playing Russian professional basketball, and the “curse” of the Louisiana Superdome, among others.
Hosted by Dallas Taylor, the creative director of the successful sound design studio Defacto Sound, Twenty Thousand Hertz offers an entertaining and educational look at myriad topics related to sound and sound design.
For example, the “Creature Speakers” episode focused on how sound designers create monster sounds. “Blind Sports” looked at how blind athletes play games like beep baseball, where sound, rather than sight, informs them of the action. One of the show’s most popular episodes was “The Windsor Hum,” which investigated the mystery of a strange rumbling noise heard for years in Windsor, Ontario.
As you might expect from a show created by professional sound designers about sonic subjects, it sounds great! Taylor brilliantly uses instrumental music and sound effects to move the episodes along. In addition, each episode features its own superb illustration to accompany its online link, so you have something cool to look at while you’re listening.
An audio adaptation of the popular TV show of the same name, this true-crime podcast looks at unsolved homicides and paranormal occurrences and presents them in a dramatic documentary style.
The Unsolved Mysteries podcast consists of episodes that are typically 30 to 40 minutes in length. Steve French, who has what people used to call “a voice made for radio,” narrates each show. Unlike the narrator in Theater of Tomorrow, French’s voiceovers have a modern sound that would be appropriate on a TV car or beer commercial.
Each episode focuses on a different unsolved case. The stories get told with spoken words from the people involved, interspersed with French’s narration. Underneath is a variety of eerie and mysterious music, which helps set the mood and emphasize specific bits of dialog. Overall, the production is first-rate and the stories compelling. If you’re looking for a true crime / mystery podcast that sounds great and keeps you riveted, this one’s for you.
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