Signature sound: Podcast scoring with Adobe Stock audio

In celebration of the podcast, Adobe Stock dedicated a section of our audio to Pod Tracks — a new segment of our 2021 creative trends outlook.

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Image source: Adobe Stock / Tatahnka.

These days, podcasts are everywhere. They are produced by a great range of people in as many capacities, from journalists to doctors, comedians to one’s own friends and neighbors. But, seventeen years ago, podcasts were — literally — unheard of, until British reporter Ben Hammersley posed the question of naming the then new form of audio journalism (“But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”). Hammersley saw the rich potential of the podcast and described it as “combining the intimacy of voice, the interactivity of a weblog, and the convenience and portability of an MP3 download.”

Now there are almost two million podcasts to choose from, on pretty much any topic (including dental hacks, alien abductions, and shipping forecasts in the UK).

In celebration of the podcast, and to help producers and editors get fast access to the sounds they need, Adobe Stock has dedicated a section of our audio offerings to what we are calling Pod Tracks — part of our first-ever audio trends, a new segment of our 2021 creative trends outlook.

With Pod Tracks, we aim to give podcast creators more options, faster options that fit their needs and offer finer control over the finished product.

The art of scoring podcasts

Scoring a podcast is a delicate art — not only must there be a careful balance of emotions, but the sound needs to match — and not overshadow — the storyline audio. Successfully juggling both of these tasks, plus determining when in the production process to start thinking about secondary sound, is critical. “The risk of… sounding cheesy is way higher — if it’s this afterthought,” composer Mark Phillips told The LA Times in 2017, in an article by journalist Tim Grieving. “Because it is so challenging to have music that really works in an audio-only story.”

David Slitzky, director of music development and special projects at Adobe Stock audio partner Epidemic Sound, agrees. “The big difference between using music in an audio-only format versus using music in a mixed medium format is, with an audio only format, you have one sense to work with,” he told Adobe Stock. “And so, you have one sense that’s trying to experience everything at the same time.”

Image source: Adobe Stock / Stuart Miles.

What makes a perfect podcasting audio track?

What differentiates a Pod Track from other types of scoring material (sync tracks for advertisements, for example, or orchestral compositions for feature films) lies in a signature set of elements that makes them ideal for podcasts.

First: Flexibility

One element is flexibility within a track or suite of tracks.

“You need to have options in your creative palette, that all makes sense together,” says Slitzky. “From the technical perspective, that means being able to strip down different elements of a track to suit different sections of a podcast. So, as an example, just having the drums of a track playing the background as a host might do an intro, and then having the option to add vocals, bass, and melody into a transition into a first segment.”

This kind of control over tracks can be a particularly important asset, especially during the editing stages of production. For powerhouse podcasts Serial and This American Life, as Tim Grieving explained in his article for The LA Times, “freelance composers write a bank of tracks — not for any specific moments, and sometimes not even knowing the subject matter. The producers then chop up and place those pieces at will, essentially co-scoring the show.” (To this point, a selection of Adobe Stock’s Pod Tracks can be downloaded in layers, offering superior control in mixing and composition.)

Image source: Adobe Stock / Ivan Gener/Stocksy.

Next: Structure

Structure is another integral factor to a good Pod Track.

“A piece of music should be around two minutes long, and it should have a clearly defined beginning and a clearly defined ending,” This American Life and Serial composer Matt McGinley said (also to The LA Times). “It should have at least one musical variation. It’s great if it can have a rise of some sort within the song. Other than that, you have a lot of freedom.”

Image source: Adobe Stock / Good Studio.

Fine tuning your audio elements

That freedom does come with a few caveats, most of which are dictated by structural considerations.

Daniel Hart, the musician who composed tracks for This American Life and Serial - produced podcast S-Town, explained the intricacies involved in a podcast score to Pitchfork journalist Jordan Kisner in 2017. “The formal demands of writing background music for podcasting are a bit rigid,” wrote Kisner. “Hart explains that the songs work best at between 90 seconds and two and a half minutes long, with a clear delineation between sections with different energy levels: an intro, a section that’s the full theme with all its instrumentation, a reprise of that theme with a sparer arrangement, and a satisfying final section. He says the music should have peaks and valleys ‘because that echoes the rhythm of the storytelling.’”

While a track can have the right feel and cadence, it needs to be evocative quickly.

“It really depends on how you use that in your podcast and the kind of mood you want to set,” says Cyrille Mailliard, head of music and artist services at Adobe Stock audio partner Jamendo. “But you have to set the mood in a few seconds or in a few notes.”

To explore Adobe Stock’s Pod Tracks, have a listen to our curated collection.