In the first episode of our audio drama podcast “The Adventures of Captain Radio,” our heroes step into a noisy bar, exchange ray gun blasts with a couple of disgruntled aliens, and witness the opening of a time portal. If we were making a movie, we’d have to scout locations, build sets, populate these scenes with actors and extras, and invest in costly special effects to do all of that—but in the world of audio storytelling, we instead have to make you believe all of these things are happening using only sound. Here’s how we did it.
Foley Art for Fiction Podcasts
Filmmaking has a long history of using foley artists to add texture and nuance to movies and TV shows through the clever use of sound. Most of the little sounds (rustling leaves, jingling car keys, background chatter in a coffee shop) are not captured on set, but added later, lending realism to the world onscreen.
Sound effects play the same role in a fiction podcast, but they have to carry all the worldbuilding, not just part of it. Sound effects have to do all the work to establish and immerse the listener in the world of the story. Dialogue and music may be the most obvious elements of an audio drama, but it’s the effects and environmental sound design that draw you in. Sounds like footsteps and doors swinging open suggest that our characters are interacting with a larger world and not just floating in a vacuum—they’re an essential tool for audio drama creators.
Anatomy of a Sound Effect
So, let’s break down a couple of the sound effects you hear in “The Adventures of Captain Radio.” As a science fiction show with heavy speculative elements, the design of our soundscapes fall mainly into one of two camps: something familiar and something strange.
For the familiar, the trick is creating a sound your audiences will recognize and can use to anchor the setting. For a scene that required our characters to trudge through a blizzard on an ice moon, I recorded myself making whistling wind noises and looping it so it felt continuous. I tried some classic techniques for mimicking the sound of footsteps in snow, including pressing on a plastic bag full of cornstarch, but it was difficult to make it sound believable. Thankfully, a real life snowstorm came to the rescue and my neighbors got to watch me stomp around in the fresh snow with my recorder. Easy enough.
But getting the background chatter in the bar on Alpha Centauri was a lot more work. To create a realistic environment, I recorded twenty separate tracks of myself mumbling dialogue, shuffling chairs around my dining room, and pouring water into various bottles and glasses. The end result was tedious to assemble, but it made the space our heroes were in feel like a real place. And hopefully, it didn’t call attention to itself, but rather served the needs of the story by fading into the background of the scene.
For sounds in the second camp, the strange and unusual noises like crashing spaceships, howling space whales, and whirling extra-dimensional portals, the task was to find familiar sounds and make them unrecognizable. This is where the tools within my audio editing software, Audacity, came into play. There, I could take recordings of the clothes dryer and a slamming file cabinet drawer and make them sound like a spacecraft hitting a mountain by adding distortions, reverberation, and extra bass to imply something far larger than the real life source. The same process helped transform my puppy’s growls and play barks into the pained vocalizations of a massive interstellar beast.
When it came to making sounds with no analog in the real world, like the portal to the Eleventh Dimension, I had to build it up piece by piece with help from GarageBand instruments (shout-out to church organs and French horns) and many layers of effects, like playing sounds in reverse and adding distortion until it sounded appropriately spacey.
Worldbuilding with Audio
Sound is a powerful storytelling tool. When used correctly and with restraint, it can suggest an entire universe of possibilities and conjure incredible images in the mind of the listener. Our imaginations are so much richer than anything a Hollywood special effects budget could produce.
With nothing more than a microphone and a struck wineglass, I can make you imagine the bells of a hidden monastery. Loose change can become a broken robot. A wet sponge can plunge you into the digestive tract of the mighty leviathan.
So, the next time you put on your headphones to enjoy a fiction podcast, I hope you’ll take a moment to thank the foley artist who brought that world to life — and then I hope you forget all about what’s happening behind the curtain and allow yourself to be swept up by the story.
– Jonny Eberle, writer and co-producer of “The Adventures of Captain Radio.” New episodes coming early 2023.