As part of NSDF this year, there were a number of virtual seminars on offer, including one titled What is Sound? delivered by the Association of Sound Designers, featuring Sam Vincent and Sarah Angliss.
The session was mainly focused on sound for theatre, but the content still felt incredibly relevant for me as a podcast assistant and general audio content fan. As Sarah Angliss said, even though they do have different features, theatre, TV, radio and podcasts all have striking family resemblance when it comes to sound design.
One of our main topics of conversation was the physical effects sound can have on the body, a science known as psychoacoustics. Sam gave an example of a soundscape designed by Tom Gibbons for The Oresteia, which began so quiet it was imperceptible to the ear, gradually getting louder until it became noticeable and then, overwhelming. This slow creep and eventual overtaking of the senses was one of the ways the production team created unease, by creating an atmosphere where the audience didn’t know what was coming next.
One thing that was clear when listening to both hosts talk was that sound design is as much a science as it is an art. It is an act of using sound waves to create visceral reactions in the audience.
Sarah Angliss talked about one play in particular, The Hairy Ape, where she played with a mixture of animal and machine sounds to create an uncanny effect which heightened the emotional impact. She emphasised that theatre is an abbreviated form. For example, you don’t need a whole set to let people know you are in a living room, you can just use chairs to create the sense that you are. This is something you can mimic when using sound, using tactics which suggest an emotion rather than overtly state them.
This reminded me of one of my favourite audio projects, The Quiet Part Loud, produced by Jordan Peele, which tells the story of a right-wing podcast host investigating the disappearance of several Muslim teens in the wake of 9/11, unlocking a terrible evil in the process. The project relies heavily on sound rather than speech to create a sense of dread, using crackling sounds, low tones and whispers.
Both hosts were clear that sound design is a collaborative art, not just with the team creating the show, but with the audience themselves. The idea of a collaboration with the audience is most relevant for podcasters, whose content will often be consumed by one person on their own, often wearing headphones. Podcasts in that sense are the ultimate conversation between the sound designer and the audience.
The only other format I can think of which shares this much intimacy with its audience is the novel. This, to me, makes podcasting and audio-only storytelling one of the most exciting new formats of recent times. Having learned just how powerful sound can be, I have to wonder how much untapped potential podcasts may have.
The seminar really opened my eyes to these possibilities, creating some new and exciting ideas that I can’t wait to explore in my own creative practice.