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When you put your headphones on to listen to your favorite podcast, it might be the voices of the hosts you hear, but there’s usually a whole team of audio extraordinaires working behind the scenes to bring that show to life.
Our Behind the Podcast series pulls back the curtain on podcast production from around the Acast Creator Network, sharing stories from the diverse mix of people and roles working within podcasting. We’ll hear from the sound designers creating immersive sonic experiences, script writers who’ve mastered words to build intricate worlds, and the producers who pull all the strings to bring you brilliant episodes week after week.
British ‘slow news’ newsroom Tortoise Media topped the podcast charts in 2021 with its gripping live investigative podcast Sweet Bobby. Throughout the six-part series, host Alexi Mostrous takes listeners on a wild ride to hear the almost unbelievably true story of how 29-year-old radio presenter Kirat Assai fell victim to what has to be the world’s most prolific catfisher.
From the first minute of the sounds of Sweet Bobby, listeners are pulled into an intricate and perplexing world of intoxication, deceit, anxiety and betrayal. And one of the foremost people in constructing this world is the show’s sound designer, Karla Patella.
Karla has been working in audio in one form or another for 20 years. “I got into deejaying when I was a teenager and started collecting records at that stage,” she explains. “Then , when I went to university, I worked on some student films, doing sound design, location, sound recording. Then I was introduced to Pro Tools. After that, I worked as an intern in a post-production studio and eventually graduated to engineering sessions. Later on I worked at the BBC as a studio engineer for almost a decade.”
In 2020, Karla moved into the world of podcasts, helping launch Stories of our times, the daily news podcast from The Times newspaper.
For Behind the Podcast, Acast caught up with Karla at her home just outside of Florence, Italy, to get the lowdown on how she wielded music, sound design, and her intuition to bring the mesmerizing story of Sweet Bobby to life.
Karla’s subtle and often unsettling score for Sweet Bobby perfectly underpins the anxious energy present throughout the series. But, as she points out, sometimes the notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do. “A few years back, I read an article that said that you should use music when you start to see pictures in your head,” she explains. “I really do follow that rule to a broad extent, with one caveat: if the audio that I'm sound designing is very, very strong on its own, I think it's really important to know when to get out of the way and not to use music.”
One example where this is evident is in Episode Six, where Kirat’s dad is reading the letter from the catfisher for the first time. “When I heard the raw audio for the first time, I was completely breathless on the edge of my seat,” said Karla. “I just knew that that was something that didn't actually need any help from me whatsoever, and that the listener was just going to be absolutely enthralled by it — so I left that scene completely as it was.”
She explains that, when deciding what music to use for the show, she often used a “less is more” approach. “A lot of times music is helping you solve a problem, and I would say that 80% of the time I'm looking for something neutral, unobtrusive — something that can just sit in the background and really just carry the listener from A to B through a lengthy piece of script.”
“It's important when you're using music to ask yourself why you're using it and whether the music is actually enhancing what's happening, or if it's just getting in the way. And if it's getting in the way, I would say take it out of there. Don't be afraid of silence.”
The esoteric art of sound designing a podcast can take years to master. Adding too many sound effects can distract the listener, while not adding enough can make the story feel flat. “Much like music, deciding when to add sound design to enhance the audio in any way is a subjective thing,” Karla explains. “I tend to go on instinct. Sometimes a word or a phrase will set off an idea in my head that makes me want to add something. Sometimes it’s just a word beneath the surface that might make me think of water, so I might just add a little shimmer — something quite subtle that might not even be noticeable, but it enhances the feeling and ties into the theme in some way.
“It's a bit like you're painting, where the music is the broad strokes and then you're going back and adding little details, extra touches.”
When thinking of sound design, it’s common for a novice to take an extremely literal approach — for example, adding the sound of a car driving by when the storyteller mentions a car. However, a seasoned sound designer like Karla will avoid these tropes in an effort to elicit a deeper emotional response from the listener’s subconscious.
“I try to avoid being too literal with sound design,” she notes. “One way that I tried to do that is when I'm thinking about this particular scene and how I want it to sound, I start with a feeling rather than an actual sound effect. In Episode One of Sweet Bobby, I really wanted to have an impactful opening. I wanted to set the scene and I was creating a bit of a soundscape. And I was just thinking to myself, ‘What is the overall feeling for me of the story and how would I feel if this happened to me?’, and the overriding feeling I got was one of vulnerability.
“That led me to the sound of a baby crying, which obviously was completely random. And I decided to pitch it down a bit and layer some other sounds over it. In the final mix, it kind of sounds more like a woman crying, but because it was originally a baby, it has an extra kind of rawness and vulnerability.
“That's one way of approaching things creatively in a less direct way.”
When sourcing sounds and music for a show, the most important thing, as Karla notes, is ensuring you have the rights to whatever it is you’re using. She achieves this by subscribing to a range of audio libraries with sounds and music in the creative commons.
“On Sweet Bobby, for example, we used a music library called Audio Network,” Karla explains. “I took a long time choosing the right music. I tried to find something that I thought would kind of capture the weirdness of the story, but also the romance aspect as well as the darkness.”
Sometimes, however, the right sound doesn’t exist in these libraries. That’s when Karla’s skill as a music producer comes into play. “If I can't find the right thing, I might create something in Logic myself. I'm using soft synths, and sometimes all you want is a drone or a texture. That's something I can create myself if I have the time, or what I sometimes do is take one note from a piece of music and pitch shift it, stretch it, layer it, put it through some reverb until I get the sound that I'm really looking for.”
As far as sound effects go, “it's really just experimentation,” she explains. “I would rely a lot on a couple of libraries that I use on a regular basis like Soundly and Sound Snap. They just have thousands and thousands of effects available. But again, it's rare that I would put a sound effect in without messing around with it first, whether that's just rolling off some of the high end or sometimes the sound could be very, very close in your ears and you can use EQ to make it sit more into the mix.
“Sometimes you need to play around with stuff until you get exactly what you're looking for.”
Sweet Bobby is part of the Acast Creator Network, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.
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