I’ve been editing audio since we cut tape on reel to reel machines. I remember feeling sad when we moved from tape to computers, like the craft was being lost.
Now I’m comfortable moving between programs: from Audacity to Audition; from Protools to WaveLab; Netia to Garage Band (some are more comfortable than others of course).
And I know that whatever the program, sculpting a podcast is still a craft. Particularly narrative non-fiction podcasts like my award winning series Still Jill.
In fact, editing an audio story is much like building a house (and yes, I have done some house building too).
You need a frame first, to hold the story together; then you place the walls and floor and roof around that frame, to fill in the gaps; and finally you make the house your own with furnishings.
And like a house is designed to suit its owners, the podcast episode you’re building should be designed to suit the needs and style of your audience.
This is my process.
Much like building a house, editing narrative audio gets complicated. You can easily lose perspective and become confused with your story.
To avoid this, you need to build your frame first.
The story’s frame is what will carry the audience through. It is the structure. The beginning, the middle and the end. The story arc.
It’s easier if the frame is one interview, your main talent, whose story drives the episode, but it doesn’t have to be. This structure can be made up of a number of voices and components if necessary.
To keep my head as clear as possible, the first thing I do is put these interviews into my edit and trawl through them to get rid of everything I know I don’t need — the boring anecdotes, and the great anecdotes that don’t add to this story. This creates the space for me to think more clearly. It’s important to be brutal.
Then I write each of the story points on a piece of paper, and look at them for a while until I find the story arc, the clear framework of this story. Then on this piece of paper, I literally number them to create what will be the order of my story.
This part of the process is a puzzle, and it is satisfying when I realise what needs to open and close and build my story.
And while my structure often lands in a similar flow to the plan I had formed when I developed my podcast idea, sometimes it doesn’t. People change, and their stories change with them. So if you’re sitting looking at your piece of paper and you realise your story has changed a bit, that’s ok.
My notes are incredibly simple.
Now you know the order of your story, your structure.
Go back into your edit and save it as a new version. Now, in your new version, move all the audio into the order you have drafted on your page.
It’s important to keep saving new versions, so you can revert to older versions if you change your mind about something and want to go back to a previous edit.
Once your frame is in place, your story makes some sense, but there will be some repetition.
Go through and clean up your building site. Delete anything you don’t need. Again, be brutal. Get rid of repetition and boring bits, and anything that doesn’t add to your story. This can be tough.
Now your frame is clean and clear.
Your walls and roof
Next, listen through to the audio again and work out where the story doesn’t make sense, where it has gaps.
Write your script to fill in these gaps, and make the story flow.
As you write your script make sure you’re working with the audience’s needs and meeting the role they want from you. Do they want you to be their friend? Do they want you to be an expert?
Audio is an intimate medium, and podcasts even more so because of the way people can choose where and when they want to listen. You need to know what people want from you and meet them there.
Now it’s time to make your house beautiful. You need to paint it, to find the carpets and the window dressings. You need to find comfortable furniture so the audience can relax.
This is your music, and your sound effects.
In this part of the process, you are using sound to help define the emotions and support the story structure.
Sometimes the audience needs a moment to contemplate a strong emotion, they might need a beat of time with no sound at all, or a few seconds of contemplative music.
Sometimes they will want to hear the place you are in with some sound effects.
Sometimes you will need to speed up the mood, or to slow it down to give them time to absorb the story or to move to the next chapter.
Take your time. Think about what you use.
You often need less sound than you think. Don’t just fill the house with so many furnishings you can’t appreciate the light and shade.
Give the story time to breathe.
Once you have put all the components in the mix, walk away from the computer. If you can take a few days, that’s fantastic. If you can’t, at least take a few hours away. Do something else.
I swim laps, or walk on the beach, or hang out with my kids for a while.
Then when I go back and listen to the episode with fresh ears, any issues or glitches will be clear. I can hear where the music is wrong, or where I need a bit of space for the story to breathe. I can hear where something is out of place.
You may need to move things around quite a bit at this point, you may realise your order on your piece of paper was all wrong. Be prepared to change your mind, and then change it back again. Take your time. And save new versions of everything you do so you can move back and forth if you need to.
Then, you’re ready to have someone else listen. Find someone you trust and ask for their opinion.
Listen to their feedback, and again, take time to work out what you want to take on, and what you don’t. Trust yourself and your relationship to this story and this audience.
You are the architect and the carpenter after all. You know it well.
Now turn up the sound, put on some good headphones or plug in your best speakers and go through the sound with a fine tooth comb.
Listen for double breaths, or breaths that cut off short. Make sure your music is fading up and down at the right spots, that your sound effects aren’t too loud or soft.
Hit release. Then breathe. It can be hard to share this with the world, but it deserves to be heard. You’ve worked hard. So let the story go off and live its life in the ears of your audience.