The cinematic quality of podcasts and the importance of sound effects

Sound effect image

Last week, we reviewed the first few seasons of We’re Alive – a very prominent audio drama following survivors after a zombie outbreak. Initially, I really disliked this podcast and actually put off listening to it for months before my fellow reviewer, AK, convinced me otherwise.

(It’s no secret that he loved We’re Alive. You can hear our differing opinions on our podcast review below.)

Aside from some acting critiques and issues with the pacing, my biggest problem with We’re Alive was the sound effects – specifically the gunshots and running effects. (Yes, I said the running effects made me think of people running like Naruto. If you don’t get that, lucky you.)

To me, these effects were low quality and didn’t sound “cinematic” enough. Until I learned a very valuable lesson from the creator of We’re Alive himself, KC Wayland.

He and I spoke briefly about the development of We’re Alive, where he enlightened me about the source of the effects for the show: They were all made using real guns, on real military bases and recorded specifically for the show.

Needless to say, this gave me a newfound respect for their creative process, and actually increased my enjoyment of the show.

At least now, I knew why I disliked the sound effects.

Sorry to be crass – I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

In fact, this discussion gave me the idea for the point of this article: The importance of cinematic quality in audio drama podcasts.

Bear with me: Over the evolution of audio drama, we’ve seen an incredible increase in quality – something I always compare to indie filmmaking versus Hollywood. Now, we’re seeing audio dramas created by some big names in the entertainment media space, which has, understandably, created a new level of quality for “cinematic” style audio dramas.

Now, this is obviously not to say we should expect incredible quality from indie podcasts – the budget simply isn’t there. However, it does highlight an important issue in my opinion: Cinematic versus “real” effects.

We recorded in actual hummers on a real army base for the Foley in one to get the exact fiberglass feel of the hummers, and foleyed all the actions the same way. In many ways we don’t do the opposite which is the fake ones that are used in films, but rather real samples.

Wayland Productions, Reddit

This was something that Mr. Wayland had said during our conversation – He was going for a “real” feel for the show, and thus decided to use real sounds. However, my counterpoint was that if you’re creating an entertainment piece for mass-consumption, you should use the cinematic-style effects, even if they’re fake, simply because they’re already familiar to the audience.

Sometimes real sound effects just don’t convey correctly to the audio-only format, like running, or clothing wrinkles (and there are tricks you can use to make a sound you’re looking for, without using the actual object).

To me, using a cinematic quality effect to convey action might be more important than sticking to true effects. I would rather hear the fake gunshot sounds I’m used to in war movies. Or the fake sword clashing sounds from Game of Thrones. Because when using audio only to convey an action, it helps to have an easily-recognizable sound. And whether it’s sad or not, mainstream media has made many people, myself included, accustomed to the fake sounds of certain effects in movies.

Yes, audio dramas are not movies. I know. I’ve been told. But they’re becoming more and more like “TV for your ears,” to quote another prominent player in the audio drama space. And I stand by my belief that we should use the easiest-to-recognize sounds to get as close to the idea we’re trying to convey.

We’re Alive is a great show, and it’s not the only show to use real effects over the usual fake Hollywood versions – it’s just a good example for discussion. Personally, I don’t care what an M16 actually sounds like, as long as I can say “that sounds like a machine gun” in a show and not have to question what I’m hearing or ruin the experience.

Anyway, rant over. What do you think? Should more shows stick to real foley, or lean toward the Hollywood-style sounds? Let us know here, on Reddit or on Twitter @AudiOhmMedia.

Audiohm Media is a nimble crew of podcast-loving creative who decided to join in the creation of their favorite medium. With a background in narrative storytelling, we tell amazing stories in an audio format.

We create and host multiple original podcasts and audio dramas.

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