Mixing Spoken Word and Music – Finding the Right Balance for your Audio Drama

Music and sound effects are a wonderful way to bring stories to life. An original soundtrack can take your fiction podcast to the next level and engage your audience in a deeper way. But the blending of music and spoken word can be tricky to mix properly, and the two can interfere with each other if not done properly. Since the story is the most important aspect of any fiction podcast (science fiction or otherwise) the music should not overpower the words but rather add a layer that helps tell the story.

In this article I would like to show you several techniques that I have found immensely helpful for making sure that both the spoken word and the music are both audible, so that the audience can enjoy the story without missing a beat and hear every word spoken.

The first technique, and probably the most important, is using the EQ (equalizer) to remove overlapping frequencies. EQ can be thought of as frequency specific volume control. Basically what happens is that when you add music to spoken word many of the frequencies in the sound overlap and tend to blur together, making both less audible and clear. It is easy to fix this problem with some basic EQ settings. If you are a podcaster EQ is an essential and easy to use tool for improving the quality of your audio recordings.

The human voice tends to sit in specific frequency ranges. Higher register voices tend to lie between 165 to 255 Hz. Lower register voices tend to lie between 85 to 180 Hz. Because the human voice tends to sit in this area of the lower mid-range, these frequencies can be turned down in the music to aid in making both clear. When these vocal frequencies and the same frequencies in the music are added together the result is that both are difficult to hear, mostly getting in the way of the clarity of the voice. We can use the EQ to remedy this issue. Open your EQ plugin on the music track and set the points to lay just outside of the vocal range, from there you can lower the DB of those particular frequency ranges (see pictures 1 & 2*). You may have to experiment a bit with how much to lower the volume of those frequencies, but once you find the right balance you will find that the vocal tracks are much easier to hear without interfering with the overall perceived volume of the music.

                    

Figure 1) Example of EQ dip for higher register voice        Figure 2) Example of EQ dip for lower register voice

Another issue that can come up is bass masking and is also addressed using the EQ. This happens when there is a buildup of low frequencies, these frequencies along with their overtone series can cause “masking”, which will make the mix both sound muddy, and get in the way of the clarity of the vocal tracks. To fix this potential issue we again reach for the powerful tool of the EQ. The human hearing range is from 20 to 20k Hz. Most of the bass frequencies that can lead to masking lie in the 100 Hz and under range. Because we cannot hear the bass frequencies under 20 Hz we can lower their volume without changing our perception of the bass, while at the same time removing potential issues of masking. One might think that this removal of information would cause the music to sound less rich, but the truth is that when we convert our audio files to MP3 this frequency range tends to be removed anyway. One might think at this point that we could just let the MP3 compression take care of the removal of these frequencies, however this would leave the overtone series intact and still have potential issues.

Dealing with masking can be an easy process, simply open your EQ plugin and roll off the frequencies under 20 Hz (see picture 3*). This is also often called high-pass filtering, basically letting the high frequencies through while reducing the amplitude, or blocking all together, the low frequencies.

Figure 3) High-pass filtering

While these issues can get complicated, particularly the math involved, familiarizing yourself with the use of EQ and playing around with these simple tricks can greatly improve the audio quality of your podcast. By all means experiment and see what the powerful tool of EQ can do for your recordings, it is a simple tool to use and once you get the hang of it can go a long way in helping your podcast be listenable and clear.

* The EQ plugin shown for example is from Audacity (freeware mixing software), but these settings will work the same in any EQ plugin with any DAW.


How To Make a Fictional Podcast

I’ve been a long-time fan of radio dramas, serialized fiction, Star Wars audiobooks, and other fantastic types of audio media, so when podcasts Hulk-smashed their way onto the scene in the early 2000s, I was thrilled. I contacted an author and mentor of mine, Nicole Kimberling, and asked if she would be interested in making a podcast. After googling what a podcast was, she signed on. Two years ago I worked with Nicole to make the podcast “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” A few folks beat us to the chase with full cast recordings, but I think we caught the first wave of fiction podcasts.

I’m going to break down the steps you can take toward creating your own podcast, because if you have a story to tell, there’s someone out there who needs to hear it.

The approach that I would take to creating a serialized fiction podcast starts with breaking it into two parts: the story and the sound engineering.

Part 1: The Story

The story should be written as a script. They fall into the standard types meant to operate without the aid of visual explanations:

Classic Radio Play: A narrator explains the settings, scenes, and any other parts of the story not revealed through dialogue.

Serial Documentary Drama: A self-aware (which means the narrator is aware they’re recording a podcast) story in which the main character is recording a podcast. Normally, the characters investigate something and the plot involves their interviews, experiences, etc.

Theater of the Mind: A dialogue-based podcast without a narrator that relies entirely on soundscapes. Sound effects take the place of visuals. This can rely heavily on clear exposition (which can be corny).

Dear Diary: An audio diary in first person narration, because reasons. Maybe your character hates to write words, or maybe they are just one of those people who constantly take audio notes.

There are ways to merge these ideas. For example, the main character of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” was a podcaster who found the field recordings of a supernatural special agent. She then aired them as episodes of the podcast. So the podcast had to be self-aware, and have both narrative and audio diary elements. The self-aware podcast seems to be a popular choice, which might be because it can frequently be styled in a War of the Worlds way. The listener may experience a moment or two early on where they are not sure if the podcast is real or fiction.

It’s important to make the presentation style clear early on, as it will determine how much of the story is told in dialogue and how much of the story is told with audio.

An audio script, like any script, can be made simply with your computer, your typewriter, or some pen and paper. Like any good story, you’ll want a beginning, an inciting incident, a climax, maybe even a twist, and of course an ending. I personally gravitate toward cliff hangers in serial fiction episodes, so fans have something to wonder about

Now that we’ve covered some basic story elements and your imagination can start putting together a story you’d like to tell, let’s cover some of the technical basics and the steps to take if you want your podcast on Apple—‘the people’s platform’—or paid subscription networks like Stitcher.

Audio Recording Gear Land:

Microphones: How many mics you’ll need depends on how many characters will be speaking to each other in a single scene. I started with three mics and got to a point later on when we needed eight—for one scene. I’m not gonna lie: Mics can be expensive, depending on the sound quality you need. However, you can certainly start with cheap microphones, even gaming microphones that come with a desktop PC. You can also occasionally find microphones at secondhand stores. A classic mic that gives you a lot of bang for your buck is the MXL 990. The standard stage mic, SM58, will work too, as well as the standard stage instrument mic, the SM57.

USB interface: This is a little box into which you can plug a fancy microphone and then the box plugs with a USB cable to the computer USB driver. There’s a large variety, but here are some I’ve used: focus rite, m-audio usb, and audiobox.

Software: There’s a lot of audio programs out there. Your computer may already have one, like GarageBand. There’s also free audio editing software, like Audacity. I’ve also heard good things about Reason, and Ableton Lite. Your audio software will be where you record your story and track over track, and sound edit your story. You’ll record your dialogue using the power of acting, and the friends you can convince to act with you. Take your time to experiment with settings and be open to feedback. Eventually, you will become familiar with your software and be able to produce content very quickly.

There are a few workarounds for the creative person working with a very small budget. There are a series of apps for smartphones that are decent for recording and sound-mixing. If you want to start small, nothing is stopping you. You have the power to write, record, and mix on the device you are likely reading this article on.

Sounds & Music

Theme Songs: All good podcasts have a theme song. It can sometimes include clips of the dialogue cut out and edited like a movie commercial or be an original theme. Theme songs are a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with another like-minded creative. Find a musician friend and offer to use their music or ask them to write some. It’s hard to be vulnerable during the beginning of a creative process, but having a musician that you like on your team is really going to be worth it as you move forward in producing.

There are many opportunities to play music in a fictional podcast. There’s music that plays in cafes, music that denotes the passage of time, music from a car radio, music that sets a location. As much of this as you can get originally created, the better. But also there are a ton of resources online for both music and sound effects. I use www.freesound.org for sound effects and small bits of royalty-free music.

There will inevitably be times where you need a sound effect that isn’t on the internet. I’ve had to create sound effects by recording myself running up and down stairs while knocking things over, dropping plates, scraping a razor against a bowl, hitting an iron railroad nail tied to a fishing string, etc. Be creative. You already can record. Ask yourself what’s in the room around you that makes a sound that could enhance your story.

Hosting: Once you have recorded several episodes and are committed to a release date, you’ll need to acquire a site on the internet. It can be a simple free Wix site or Squarespace. The only real requirement you need is for the site to be able to hold an RSS feed, which is where you will drag the mp3s of your project. Then you’ll either pay a third-party site like Podbean, or hop over to Apple podcast and submit your podcast for review. If it passes muster with the strange robots that review things, then bang! You’re live. It’s time to hit that share button and plead for likes on your social media.

The best advice I can give anyone about to make a fictional podcast is start small, pick a release schedule, and meet that release schedule every week. That means being prepared and not waiting until the last minute to do anything. Enjoy yourself! You’re about to embark on the fairly unexplored medium of fictional storytelling, a genre that is still being formed. I’m excited to hear what you make.