WRITING FOR SOUND - MORE

One of the most dreaded and avoidable listener complaints can be summed up in the phrase “cheesy, canned sound effects”. On the surface, it appears to be a comment about the quality of the sounds themselves. It may also speak to cases where the sound was not artfully employed. But in my experience, that kind of comment is most often about sound effects that are not narratively necessary. And the root cause (over-zealous sound designer notwithstanding) can almost always be traced back to the writing.

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I can think back on numerous situations where I felt boxed in by writing that did not leave room for the sound to carry exclusive parts of the narrative load. In many of those instances, the requested sound was mere window dressing to the narration or worse, unnecessarily redundant to it.

An anonymized example:

NAR: Torrential rain drenched the City as Janet and Earl made their way across the busy street, and up the stone steps to their heavy wooden front door.
(sfx: rain - wet footsteps - door opening)

That kind of writing is what you might find in print. Lots of words telling you everything you need to know. So when being “adapted” for audio the sound effect notes are added to the script but the writing itself isn't changed.

It’s easy to mistake this as a scene “written for sound" because of those sound notes. But you’ll notice the narration is already telling us everything and that the requested sounds are now redundant.

While the sound effects in this scene may "dress it up" a bit - this approach leaves a lot of story-telling potential on the table. On the simplest level, the sound can convey all these details of our scene without any narration or dialogue at all.

Rain pounding the street.

Cars slowly rolling over drenched pavement.

Splashy footsteps across the sidewalk and upstairs.

Fumbling with keys, a door opening.

Assuming these scene setting details are important to the narrative of our story we can now see that no narration is needed to communicate them.

So now, with sound telling that part of the story our narration and dialogue is liberated to do something sound alone can’t do - like tell us what someone is saying, thinking, feeling or what they’re smelling, or seeing that’s not making a sound.

When we decouple narration/dialogue and sound design from each other they’re both empowered to perform in complementary ways - we get choreography instead of mimicry, design instead of post-production. Sound used this way isn't as likely to be perceived as "cheesy" or "canned" because it's serving a unique narrative function.

This requires a big shift in how our stories are written. Just as filmmakers are encouraged to "show" rather than tell, audio story-tellers should be equally encouraged to let our audience "hear" rather than be told.

If your scene is really incorporating sound in this way it should feel somewhat incomplete if you read through it without the sound notes. That’s a great sign you have incorporated sound into carrying exclusive parts of the narrative. If that seems like a high bar to clear, well, it is. This is not a well-worn skill, yet. But as an audio-only medium we should be seeking to use sound to its full advantage.

We can begin with thinking about how to tell the story so that sound naturally and organically carries more of the narrative load. What kind of sound? Depends on the story - but writers should be aware that “sound” in reality is physically a verb - it is action - it’s air molecules being excited by a force in an environment. It can be small and subtle or enormously explosive. So then the question becomes what kinds of sounds are important for the characters in our story and our listeners to be hearing. They don’t always have to be the same sounds and they certainly don’t have to be literal. Instead of thinking of sound as “background” to the story think of it as an equal but unique layer through which to weave our story-telling.

A simple way to start is to write the description of the scene and actions like you would normally - but instead of using it for narration or dialogue put that information in the script as a sound design guide. Then write for the narrator/characters knowing the sound is already telling it’s part of the story. Your narration and characters can be aware of that sound or not - it’s incredibly freeing.

Once you've got the hang of that then you can turn to even more artful uses of sound - like portraying subjective points of view, for example.

Some of the more compelling scenes I’ve designed have been for the Wondery series "Imagined Life". An important trait shared among those scenes is that they put the listener in a first-person perspective of a character for whom a physical or emotional condition alters their perceptions. It could be an illness, or joy, grief, injury, or triumph. In that approach, the normal sounds representing the “objective” world can be morphed into a subjective and designed "experience" influenced by their condition. It makes for powerful story-telling that leverages the unique strengths of both sound and voice in an audio only context.

Think about anything that colors or alters a character's perception of events - or characters expressing subjective points of view and memories and you’ve found beautiful and unique opportunities to use sound more creatively in your story-telling.

FAVORITE SCENES: Imagined Life - The Bride

Spoiler alert - this clip reveals the identity of the subject of the episode!

So if you haven’t heard the episode and don’t want to know who YOU are yet, don’t click play.

Otherwise - as always - pop on some headphones and join the journey.

For me this sequence highlights what is special about the show - putting YOU in the experience of another combining drama, tension, tragedy and redemption.

First, we start outside “viewing” this as we customarily might - from a distance in 3rd person. Then we cut to inside the vehicle and now we’re clearly first person perspective. YOU are in the car. Our perspective leaves the car for a bit so we can get a sense of speed and place and then we’re back in the car again until…

Stick around for the end and the reveal - it’s quite touching.

Narrated by the amazing Virginia Madsen

2019 OFF TO AN AMAZING AUDIO START

The latest Wondery mini-series I designed audio for “Over My Dead Body” just hit the pod-verse and the response has been pretty terrific - still at #1 on Apple Podcasts as of this writing two weeks after publishing.

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Across the board we tried to approach this story without using the standard True Crime tropes.

For example - there’s no 911 call, victim or even a crime to kick off the series.

Instead of returning to the ominous style underscore I’ve enjoyed creating in previous series this series is outright perky & plucky at times.

All is not so bright though - it’s kind of a slow cooker and it does get dark.

Imagined Life came back from holiday break with a few decidedly more, ummm shall we say controversial characters whose sometimes less than ideal lives we immerse you in. Some of my favorites so far of the series!

In production presently is a very cool series I can’t name yet, written by my frequent collaborator Mark Ramsey. In 6 audio rich episodes we dive into the life of one specific former Undercover agent and their experiences drawn from a 20+ year globe spanning career. Big action and some surprise names in this one.

Also in production is a pilot for an original anthology horror series by Mark Ramsey and myself. This show NEEDS to happen! :)

I’m hearing rumors that POPS! - The Amazing Story of Louis Armstrong staring Reno Wilson might finally be published this year - I will be thrilled to get that out there.

Plenty of other projects in the hopper - a few pilots with some incredible names attached, another season of Inside____ (insert famous movie) and of course expect more crazy true crime stories too!

As always - I’m super grateful to be able to design audio for incredible stories like these - I look forward to sharing even more cool stuff in the weeks and months ahead!

Till then - THANK YOU for listening!

WRITING FOR AUDIO #1

First rule of writing for audio is - you don’t say the sound.

The second rule of writing for audio is - you don’t say the sound!

“The dog barked loudly” (sfx: dog barking loudly)

“His heavy boots pounded across the hardwood floor” (sfx: heavy boots pounding across hardwood floor)

See?

It’s redundant.

Sound tells it’s own story so liberate your narration and dialogue from telling listeners exactly what they’re hearing. Conversely, liberate your Sound Designer from having to put specific sounds to sounds that are said.

You can and should reference sounds in the production notes so the designer has an idea of the environment the scene is taking place, what is happening there, etc… but let sound speak for itself and the narration and dialogue will be free!

Dr. Death series launches to incredible response

Over 36,000 Five Star Ratings (a record) 1000+ raving listener reviews on Apple Podcasts in the first month of release - and already optioned for adaptation for a Television series - DR DEATH has been a wild ride and holds an interesting lesson.

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I was fortunate enough to work on last year’s break out hit audio series Dirty John and it was hard to imagine I’d get the opportunity to work on something that connects with such a large number of people that powerfully and that quickly. Enter Dr. Death.

DR. DEATH is 6 episode investigative mini-series about a medical system that failed to protect 33 patients in Dallas. Reported and hosted by Laura Beil produced for Wondery - Sound Design and Production by yours truly.

The series has gotten coverage in The CutPopsugarThe Daily MailVice, Rolling Stone , Esquire among others.

The audio production on this series is more forward, designed and cinematic than public radio journalists and listeners are accustomed or even prefer. It’s the kind of work I most enjoy doing - scoring these stories as I might a film.

It might seem a risky move from a pure journalism point of view - but when it’s done right it can get quality journalism into the ears and minds of people that might not have previously consumed it.

While a few from the public radio corner of the audio space will comment with concern that if the journalism is that good “you don’t need” that kind of sound and production approach - I’d argue the opposite. It’s easy to forget that podcasts are still not consumed by most people (only 17%) and most of those listeners came from the public radio space. That’s a small space, relatively speaking.

If the journalism is that good and important - you absolutely DO need that kind of audio design and production so that it can reach as many ears and minds as possible.

This view feels vindicated by the fact that those concerns are not echoed by listeners in the 1000s of reviews and comments about the series. Instead they comment about how engrossing and terrifying the series is and the need to tell everyone they know about it.

That is how the podcast audience expands beyond the 17% of the population.

But that is not really my aim - my aim is to use powerful sound to make great audio stories resonate with ever wider audiences.

Podcast Movement 2018

YES!  Jeff Schmidt Productions will be in Philadelphia for Podcast Movement 2018!   If see me walking around looking dopey please say hello!  

JUNE 2018 UPDATE!

Lots of work has been going on behind the scenes. The results of which will be hitting your earholes soon!   

First -

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INSIDE JAWS: 

The follow up from Mark Ramsey & I to Inside Psycho and Inside The Exorcist.  7 Episodes of our signature style audio rich single narrator story-telling inspired by the stories behind the making of a classic.  This is a great follow up for the Inside series - and you'll definately want to bring it to the beach!

Next

POPS! The Remarkable Story of Louis Armstrong: 

Written by Mark Ramsey, acted/narrated by Reno Wilson and audio design by yours truly - this is a mold breaker.  We take the single narrator audio rich approach of the "Inside" series and make it a first person account by Louis himself - from birth to death and 6 episode of goodness in between.  Can't wait for you to hear this.  

True Crime?  Check!  Sept is the release - will share more information as soon as I can.

Several more in early stages. 

Will update as allowed.  

Happy listening!

--jeff schmidt

PODCAST: BEHIND THE SCENES OF INSIDE THE EXORCIST

Just a wee bit meta here - Mark Ramsey and I chat about the making of Inside The Exorcist podcast.

We cover: 

Why The Exorcist? Why tell the story of the film and its makers in podcast form? And why choose a fresh audio graphic-novel storytelling approach? Those are just a few of the questions answered in this “behind the scenes” look at the making of one of the hottest podcasts of the year. Series creator and narrator Mark Ramsey talks with the show’s amazing sound designer Jeff Schmidt. Don’t miss the discussion about the secret “Easter egg” hidden in the audio that was only recently discovered by a Russian fan, or the inspiration for the chilling ending (hint: It is a movie, but it’s not The Exorcist).

LISTEN HERE:

BEHIND THE AUDIO OF "INSIDE THE EXORCIST" WITH A SOUND EFFECT

Sound effect library website A Sound Effect is a terrific resource for indie sound effect libraries which I use quite often. Beyond that -  It's also an amazing resource for behind the scenes interviews with some of the most creative sound designers in media - film, TV, video games - and now - podcasts!  

I was honored to share the behind the scenes of my audio work on Inside The Exorcist and a bit about Dirty John as well. 

Check it out HERE and make sure to check out all their other interviews as well - lots of inspiration and stuff to learn!