Pascal Wyse on Music and Sound Design for Podcasts

By 16th August 2022 Blog

Pascal Wyse on Music and Sound Design for Podcasts

With a background in journalism  at the Guardian, and as one half of the popular comic strip duo ‘Berger & Wyse’, Pascal is remarkable for his creative versatility. 

Recently, he has composed music and designed sound for a number of successful podcasts, including ‘Hot Money: Who Rules Porn?’ (Financial Times), ‘Cautionary Tales’ (Pushkin), and ‘Bad Women’ (Pushkin). He also composed music for the radio drama ‘SteelHeads’ (BBC/Goldhawk) and ‘Ukraine: Life Under Attack’ (Channel 4). 

We spoke to Pascal about his involvement in podcasts – a popular and expanding form of storytelling. 

Can you tell us about how you first got into the world of podcasts? 

Well, it was so long ago that the word ‘podcast’ was Martian to most people. I was working as a sub-editor on the Arts desk of the Guardian newspaper, but I was also involved with music and sound outside the Guardian, performing in a band and creating music and sound for Berger & Wyse animations. This was the early days of the Guardian’s internet presence – I think it was called ‘Guardian Unlimited’ in those days – and an opportunity came up for me to switch over and work in audio. Somewhere, in a remote corner of the old Guardian offices in Farringdon Road, London, a few squares of foam were glued to the wall, a mic was installed, and ‘Guardian Audio’ was born. 

At that point it was partly about using the internet to accompany and elaborate on the journalism in the paper, and it was refreshingly free of conventions and rules. As well as more traditional audio projects that borrowed from radio in some ways, I worked on all kinds of things, such as ‘audio slideshows’, an April Fool ‘new’ Coldplay song and a column called ‘We’re Jamming’, where I interviewed musicians and wrote that up, but also recorded a jam with them, with me on trombone. You could download an mp3 of the jam alongside reading the piece. It was an eclectic mix: Buzzcocks, Matmos, Coldcut, Chas’n’Dave, Jamie Cullum, Roots Manuva – to name a few.

Funnily enough, I think the word ‘podcast’ first appeared in the Guardian, coined by journalist Ben Hammersley in 2004.

How do you think the medium has changed over the years? 

We are a long way from people saying to me, with a look of awkward confusion, ‘Hang on, how can a newspaper make sound?’ Podcasting feels like a comfortable concept now. All the technological pipework that delivers this sound to us has become more seamless. You don’t need to be a plumber any more! That helps the audience grow.

I’ve found myself in heated debates about the crucial differences between, say, radio and podcasts, where for some the ultimate putdown for a podcast was to say it was ‘a bit Radio 4’. As someone inspired by the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, especially ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, I’ve always seen podcasts as a new part of the spectrum of audio entertainment. Some new colours, if you like. As with music, technology was a central player in making it possible for all kinds of people to share their ideas using sound, and they could do that with no need to follow the conventions or editorial rulings of broadcast radio, with its predetermined slots. You got immediacy and intimacy, and sometimes a production roughness that felt quite refreshing. Conventions need a shakeup now and again. 

What I feel has happened over the years, though, is that podcasting, as well as influencing, and encouraging a loosening of those chains, has learned from and borrowed useful aspects of those audio conventions. There’s a certain roughness of production that makes the listener feel very connected to the material – a sense of the fourth wall being taken down – and there’s a roughness that just sounds tiresome and makes people switch off! Podcasts have embraced wider and more advanced production techniques and have grown in scope, ambition and quality. 

With the ‘big players’ all getting involved, the landscape changes – there is more money flowing around, brands are automatically considering podcasts as part of their output, and film and TV increasingly hunt on the podcast reservation. So the range of content grows, and with it the conversation and arguments also develop, especially around how unusual and independent material can find its audience. The old signal/noise problem again! All that said, it is nice to be working in what feels like a burgeoning area.

How do you define ‘sound design’ – and what role does it play in shaping a story?

I’ve always liked the story that Walter Murch just made up the job title of ‘Sound Designer’ on the hoof when he quickly needed another role to put down on a working visa application for the ‘Apocalypse Now’ shoot. Somehow that captures how it can be both simple and complex. It could just refer to the addition and shaping of sound material that isn’t – at least traditionally – the dialogue or music. It’s obvious where that becomes ‘design’, in one sense, when we enter fictional worlds in sci-fi or fantasy, because the job becomes about creating something that might not have been heard before. 

Design, though, reaches further than that. Sounds transmit so much information to us and access our emotions in a very direct way. They evoke and take us back in to our memory. The quality of sound, where it is placed in the imagined world and when we hear it can tell us a lot about the environment, and that in turn can influence our emotions. Disguising sounds to create uncertainty, playing with a sense of perspective or adding an element that isn’t scripted – perhaps a very muffled argument in a room next door – all assists in generating a place, and that’s where immersion happens. In podcasting there is no picture, and the stories are sometimes narrated and described, so you have a lot of freedom as to what to illustrate or highlight. Those choices help shape the story, and I think when it is done well you play alongside the listener’s imagination rather than overrun it. Silence is sometimes the best way!

What is your view on the relationship between music and sound design?  

I’m probably going to mangle this anecdote, but I heard that Alfred Hitchcock, during the filming of ‘Lifeboat’, wanted to scrap the score in a scene, and complained to his composer: ‘Where are you going to get an orchestra from in the middle of the ocean?’ The composer’s response was: ‘You tell me where you got your cameras from and I’ll show you where the orchestra came from.’ It’s a nice reminder of the distinction between sound the characters themselves would hear – a car horn horn as they step onto the street, or a shower they are standing under – and sound that adds a layer only for the audience – most commonly the score. Diagetic or non-diagetic, to give it the textbook term. I enjoy how sound design can build a bridge between those worlds, sometimes working on both sides: was that a roar of the trombone or the sound of a motorbike? The wind briefly shrieking through a crack in a sliding door as it opens, or a scream from the basement? 

It interests me to take musical sounds and push them towards sound ‘effect’, just as I like to take sound effects and use them musically. Not much new in that, if you listen to musique concrète of the 1950s, but historically, in collaborative multimedia, they have practically often been separate departments. New technology and changing tastes have made the crossover stronger. It is convenient to define music as emotionally potent – which it surely is – and sound as somehow working on a more practical, shallow level, but I think that overlooks the deep evocative power of sound to not only help define the place we are in, but also to access our emotions towards it in a way that needs no translation. In that way, ‘design’ may be little more than choosing the perfect field recording for a particular moment, knowing that is has a quality that adds to the story being told. Then of course music can perform other kinds of unique magic, suggesting whole other realities that might be running under what we are being told at face value. 

This one could run and run … Have I almost started to answer the question yet?!

How has your experience in other forms (such as writing and cartooning) informed your approach to music and sound? 

Although there are other ways of learning this lesson, journalism and a weekly cartoon deadline taught me a lot about procrastination, and the relationship between getting it right and getting it written. It taught me really that I’m better at finding ideas once I’m on the move and in the middle of things. I love that joke about the sculptor being asked how he made such a lifelike elephant out of marble, and replying: ‘I just chipped away all the bits that didn’t look like elephant.’ My ideas come when I have something to chip away at. 

A four panel comic strip Joe Berger and I did for years, called ‘The Pitchers’, was on the surface about a couple of really bad but enthusiastic screenwriters trying to make it in our cartoon version of Hollywood. Really, though, it was all about the problems of trying to make stuff up, the very problems we were facing, so we consumed a truckload of self-help material on how to write scripts etc by way of inspiration – and wrote scripts ourselves. 

If you write music and create sound for other people’s stories it clearly helps to understand something of how stories are told. I’m glad to have had some experience of writing in other forms. That also helps with another key aspect of this job, which is acting as a translator. I guess a lot of terminology that is specific to a profession is baffling to outsiders, but musicians really do speak an odd language, and we need to know how to have a useful exchange about music with people who don’t speak that lingo. 

What makes a good (podcast) theme song?

If only I knew! In podcasting this is one of the few moments, as a composer, that you get the stage to yourself, and even then it may be only for a few seconds. You can tie yourself in knots setting out to write something ‘iconic’ or catchy, but that can’t be judged on initial listening. It happens through many repetitions, as slowly the combined memories of (hopefully) enjoying the show attach themselves to the theme, like emotional baggage. The music is, if you like, showing people to their seats and getting them in the mood, so it is great if the theme can embody the spirit of the show, or the most important recurring elements. 

The theme to the first season of ‘Bad Women’ was very Marmite – it really divided people. The words were taken from a Victorian music hall number, and they felt like a good précis of the awful situation the Ripper’s ‘canonical five’ victims found themselves in. But perhaps it didn’t reflect some of the other aspects of the show, which weren’t always so dramatically downbeat. There was an element of it that slightly disturbed some people, a feeling of having their grave walked over. I still have no idea what generated that! 

You wrote the music and the designed the sound for both series of Pushkin Industries’ podcast ‘Cautionary Tales’, which explores what we can learn from other people’s mistakes. Do you have any cautionary tales of your own?

Well, not a cautionary tale as such, but a story I’ve always found inspiring – and timely, given that we have just finished three episodes of ‘Cautionary Tales’ relating to Scott and Amundsen’s race to the pole. I had the good fortune to visit the Antarctic some years ago, on board a vessel with around 90 other passengers. Everyone was well equipped with cameras of all kinds, but I was the only one with a recorder and microphones. I got some fairly quizzical looks, poking around with this fluffy thing on the end of a pole, or dropping hydrophones into the icy waters. One of the scientists asked everyone for their best three photographs. The idea was to have a ‘show and tell’ session on the long sail home, and create a DVD of shared images that everyone could take away with them. He asked me if I would contribute some sounds. After gathering and sharing all the media, one of the passengers came up to me and said, ‘I saw you recording out there, but I didn’t really understand what you were doing. Now that I’ve heard the sounds I really get it. The photos reminded me of where we have just been. But the sounds actually took me back there.’