Understanding Audio: Before Now

Sound in films and media is vital in our understanding of what is happening. A movie soundtrack makes or breaks a film. Sound effects and audio quality have similar importance; if the sound effects are too excessive or abrasive, or if the voice levels and quality differs from one person or scene to the next, people take note. Ensuring that the quality is consistently good is something that should take precedent in media. Music evokes emotion, and it only seems natural that a slow string orchestra should go with a suspenseful scene, or a swelling ensemble should accompany a moment of elation. Similarly, the sound of an actor’s voice has to fit the emotion of the scene or the character falls flat in vital moments. Someone shouldn’t sound bored when they reveal the secrets of the universe.

As far as podcasts and radio shows are concerned, people have nothing more than voices and sounds to understand what is happening. Good, cohesive audio and storytelling is absolutely vital in this case, and it takes a lot of practice to get sound to work well enough for an audience. One consistent error is enough to ruin a whole show for listeners. At the same time, just as Ira Glass explains, the storytelling has to be done well; perfect audio means nothing if the audience can’t make sense of what is happening.

I am a big fan of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, a fictional, radio show-style podcast featuring a news reporter in a rather peculiar and supernatural town. (I’m woefully behind on the series, unfortunately, but I’ve heard that it’s only gotten better.) This podcast has become a massive success since its pilot episode three or four years ago, and the producers have already announced their creation of another show due to the positive reception from their first one. Thanks to my close following of this show for its first couple years, I am a little more aware of how a podcast goes than I might have been without it. The musical cues are spot-on, the fake commercials are deceitfully persuasive, and the voice acting – especially from the main character – is very impressive. Especially considering the whole show (aside from live performances) is free to the public and runs almost solely on donations and touring. While the audio performances are undoubtedly noteworthy, the story itself is also incredibly well-done. The listener is limited only to what the main character “broadcasts” from his news station, so when he isn’t there, or if something happens that pulls him away, the listener can only guess what is occurring through other sounds and subtle cues in words and voice inflections.

The podcast isn’t directly western-related (although it is based in a town somewhere in the Southwestern part of the United States), but I admire the way it uses audio to tell a story. In my midterm podcast, I would love to get a group together to do a storytelling round of our own. But I’ll continue that thought in another post.

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