The Art of Scoring a Podcast: An Interview with Matthew Boll

Field Notes Interview: Matthew Boll, Lead Audio Engineer for Gimlet Media 

In the past few years, the popularity of podcasts has exploded, providing listeners with endless opportunities to explore the world outside their own and learn something new. Without a visual aspect to inform the audience, music plays an integral part in telling the story. In fact, there’s a whole set of nuances involved in scoring a podcast. To delve into the relationship between music and podcasts, we spoke with Matthew Boll -- Marmoset artist, Ultraviolet and Lead Audio Engineer for the award-winning narrative podcast company, Gimlet Media -- about his experience with composing in the podcast industry.  

M: To start off, what's your musical background and how did you get involved in podcasts?

Matthew Boll: I started playing at 16, and then I went to school for music and audio engineering, and then after college moved to Chicago and just played. I was a musician and played in bands for 8-9 years.

Did the whole thing, made records, toured, you know. All the things that you do in a band. We weren't just into making normal rock and roll records -- we were making weird audio art pieces with a radio producer who ended up working for Radiolab. We would do strange pairings of music and voice together, and we'd use people's voices to write songs, and then we'd put them in the stories that he was producing and it would be like a hybrid of the two things we were doing. Then we would perform them live either on tour or we would put shows together.

I kind of got into radio and podcasting because of that. Then a year ago, Gimlet was hiring for a lead engineer and I just applied. Now I do podcasts full time.

Do you think choosing music for a podcast is more challenging than if you had a visual?

Yeah, I find you have to have a much more subtle touch. You don't have a visual to support a really emotionally hefty thing. Things can get overwrought really quickly, and you can miss the mark a lot quicker, I think. So the emotion of the scene... you just have to be much more specific about it. It can't be very broad. If it's broad, it's too sappy or it's just too much.

The other thing that's strange is that, because it's just audio, the relationship of the timbre of people's voice to the music is really important. It's almost like you're making a song. It's very similar to when I've made records in the past. The way you put stuff together and the way that things relate to each other and the trajectory of a story -- starting in one place and going to another place, and the way you use music -- is very much like writing music and putting together a song. You just have to be very aware of how someone's voice sounds with this piece of music, not just what the piece of music is telling you.

Is there  a science to deciding when to use the music within a podcast? Obviously you have an intro and an outro, but how do you approach weaving it throughout?

I've only been making podcasts professionally for a year, and there are some rules that people have told me about what makes music effective in a podcast and why to use it. A lot of those rules are very functional. It's like if you want someone to remember this line, put a piece of music right after it, or if you want someone to remember this line, end the piece of music and have that line without any music over it. Then of course the intro and outro.

Those things have been really useful, but for me, I've tried to approach it much more as an integrated part of the story. It's part of telling the story. Part of the editorial process is using music to get to those places. Maybe you don't write something there, maybe you just use a piece of music used to do that thing. Or, like I said before, when we do original composition sometimes we try to do something where we actually use the voice that's part of the music. Where we use sound effects as part of the music and the key and the timbre and all that, so that it feels almost like... it's part of the building the story you're telling.

Are there certain instances when you know that you'll probably be composing a piece as opposed to licensing it?

I think that there's always the drive to write something original to the story that you're making, but I've been really surprised about finding music and then just fitting it into the story.

A lot of times I'll pick out themes in the show, or the producer of the show will pick out a theme that seems like, "Oh, we should try to write something to this." It seems kind of primed for it's own original thing. Other times it's not, it's just, "Let's do a music search and maybe we'll find something that we can use here" and then we're surprised by the results. It can be both, I think.

You touched on this a little bit already, but how do you think music contributes to a podcast as opposed to in a film?

I've scored one documentary, so I'm a little less versed in how music is used in film. Other than just being a student of how music is used in film, I think the main's just the subtlety with which you use it. It has to be just so much more surgical. It's hard to paint these broad brush strokes of emotion with music in podcasting because it doesn't work all the time.

Especially because a lot of what we do is journalism and you're trying to get the truth out of it, so when you lead the emotion or give away the emotion before it're trying to make people feel something that maybe they're not supposed to. Or maybe you need to let them feel it and not you tell them how to feel it, you know? There's a lot more room for that in podcasting. I don't want the music to just be secondary with the story. I want to hold hands with the story as best I can.

How have you used Marmoset to aid in your process of deciding on the right music?

It's the easiest way that we've been able to license. All other music that we license... of course, we have to either find the publisher, or the management, or the artist and make a deal and sign the contract and blah blah blah. It takes so long and I have to keep track of it all, you know. Marmoset's great, I don't have to do any of that. If the song is great, I buy it right there, I put it in, and it's good to go. I love that you guys did the mp3 to audition without a watermark in it. Super helpful, oh my gosh, I love that.

What type of mood were you trying to establish with your project, Crimetown?

We were trying to get the weight of the story without being too heavy-handed. There's a lot of percussive tracks in that too, it just moves things along really well and it also has an added urgency to it.

Then we swiveled a lot with if we want to go more electronic or more organic. I think we kind of struck a nice balance with that and eventually kind of melded the two. I think there's a darkness to the story that we were trying to hit on, but we also didn't want to hit it too heavy. The voices in the story do most of the work in telling you what's happening, so once again we wanted to hold hands with that and try to help tell that story.

Although you've only been at Gimlet one year, you've been doing music for broadcast and radio and stories told in that way for a bit. Do you have any pieces of advice for someone who is either composing for radio or a podcast, or trying to find music for their podcast?

Yeah, I think the best thing that I learned to do is get out your first four shitty ideas, you know? Just keep trying, it takes a really long time -- at least it took me a really long time to find the thing that works. You're gonna do two, three, four, five really bad ideas first, and they kind of have to be bad.

You have to find a way to get those out first. You have to be okay with just throwing it out and trying again, throwing it out and trying again. Maybe you go back to something you did, who knows, but typically the first try is never the thing that's worked. So, I would say keep trying, and then my advice would be find musicians who are willing to go down a weird rabbit hole, because I think music and podcasting and scoring in this world, we're still really [in the] wild West era.

A lot of it is experimentation and there's a lot of new things happening, so if you can find musicians who are willing to do strange things and use people's voices in cool ways and explore that, I think that's a big thing.

Posted on December 13, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.