Welcome to the fourth interview of Sound Designs, monthly blog about audio fiction sound design by Brad Colbroock and Tal Minear. Today we sat down with C. S. W. of Incarnation Read to talk horror podcasts, foley creation, and more. We met him earlier this year at Podcast Movement and more or less immediately started interrogating him about his sound design, so it was nice to get a chance to do so a bit more formally. C. S. W. has mastered the art of sound design for horror, and uses amazing distortion of sound in his work. (Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
I think something that makes you really unique as a sound designer is that you do all your own foley. So I’m starting with a deceptively simple question: why?
In the beginning, it came from a few different reasons: For one thing, I didn’t want to have to pay for sound effect royalties etc., and at the time I had no idea what free sound effect databases were (true amateur status). I suppose I knew of the concept, but then there was the other reason: I didn’t want anything in Incarnation Read to sound recognizable, or familiar, or similar to the sound effects you’d find in other shows. I wanted it to be a purely organic, from-the-ground-up production, which was partially indebted to my preference of non-literal sound design. Almost all the sound effects in Incarnation Read I create to be more synesthetic than exact; to create what the event in question feels like, rather than sounds like. Not that I’m knocking the alternative; don’t get me wrong, there are shows that are best treated with literal sound design, but that’s not just how I like to do it.
I’m curious what your foley room looks like. Do you have a designated box of props, or do you just find stuff around the house that could make the right sound?
Hate to pull back the curtain, but no such room exists, actually. Mostly it is the latter: finding random objects that have the right weight, size, and timbre for whatever I’m doing. If it’s not exact, I’ll use a plugin or other effects to perfect the sound, which may seem like a cop-out, but to be honest I prefer my sounds to be strange, departed from the original sound, to create that synesthetic effect I mentioned. That’s how I made firework crackles out of a cat toy, and a roulette wheel out of scissors and a grill grate. The only props I keep in my home studio are an electric toothbrush (to create buzzy, fuzzy, distorted sound that are in a lot of episodes, most prominently in the pilot) and a Waterphone, which is an inharmonic stringed instrument that is designed to be dissonant. I used this more in Season 1 than later seasons, but it is used in the opening theme quite a bit.
A lot of the sound design in Incarnation Read depends on loud noises distorting as they clip — is there a particular reason you’ve chosen that as your signature style?
I just can’t resist it. I don’t have it in me to resist it. I like sound design that attacks, overwhelms, creates a sensation as chaotic and disorienting as real life is — and real fear is. In a way, clipping and distortion can be used to create this effect where, just as the speaker or headphones can’t handle the signal properly, nor can the narrator handle the emotional agony of a horror they are experiencing. I was very inspired early on by an experimental rap group called Clipping, who use noise and distortion to create a distinctly dark, violent, and visceral experience. Can I recommend this to a sound designer? Honestly, no; it can turn off listeners very easily and it’s damn hard to balance volume levels. Will I ever be able to kick the habit? Probably not. Don’t be like me, kids.
Another thing you really like to do which I think works great for horror is to use distorted transients at the beginning of lines. Sometimes it’s a delay, a pitch change, or reverb that only sticks around for a single word or two; how do you decide which lines get this? Do you decide during scripting or sound design?
I suppose I do that during the scripting process. To be honest, I wasn’t really conscious of doing this until you mentioned it. Any effect on my voice is meant to indicate an inhuman presence, whether it’s the narrator slowly giving into inhuman urges / inner darkness, or something horrific that was never human to begin with. So I suppose that’s where that tendency comes from.
Incarnation Read goes into a lot of weird places; what sort of plugins and sound design techniques do you like to use to achieve that otherworldly anxiety?
Strangely enough, I only had 2 plugins to my name up until Episode 25, and one of those plug-ins was TAL Reverb. The other was the Polyverse Manipulator, a very curious plug-in created by an Israeli rave music group called Infected Mushroom. While its interface and most of its presets make it clear that it is designed for hype dance music, its effects on the voice and on diegetic sound can go absolutely monstrous in a way that I just fell in love with. There has yet to be an episode of Incarnation Read that I haven’t used it in. Post-Episode 25, I am a big fan of the Unfiltered Sandman Pro, the Sound Particles Energy Panner, and Neutron Elements by iZotope. Anything that helps me create sounds that externalize the internal terror that I envision, and feel.
Note from Tal: No sponsorship here, but I feel obligated to link the TAL Software that C. S. W. mentioned. TAL Software please sponsor this Tal Sound Designer.
You work primarily in Ableton, a DAW that is geared more towards music than podcasts (but obviously can be used for both!). What do you find are the advantages working in this program? What keeps you coming back to it?
I get asked this quite a bit, and to be honest, the answer is pretty simple. All I really knew when starting Incarnation Read was that I wanted to create nuanced sound design, to create a podcast with the same level of sonic density as an album. So, in this mindset, I felt the most appropriate DAW was Ableton, since it was used so much for music, but you must remember: I am ABSOLUTELY untrained in sound design, and so any DAW would have been starting from square one anyway. And that’s my answer to the latter question as well: if I started using a new DAW, I’d have to re-learn quite a bit, and since I started being a sound designer at the same time as I started using Ableton, I have a very intimate relationship with it. It’s very detailed, very nuanced, and very, very versatile. It’s just not very intuitive, at all.
What advice do you have for sound designers who haven’t worked in the horror genre, but want to? Are there any tips or tricks for creating suspense and terror?
Horror sound design follows the same principle as good horror storytelling: It’s all about the unknown. If a listener knows what presence is haunting a character, they will cease to fear it, and the horror becomes redundant. Same with sound design: If a listener understands what they are hearing, they will not be afraid of it. On the same token, though, if they have absolutely no idea what they’re hearing, they might just check out and let their ears glaze over. So it’s all about balancing what they recognize about a sound against what they don’t know about it, a little thing we in the horror field call suggestion. As far as tips and tricks, there are a million other ways I could delve into horror philosophy, but the one that matters most is this: Create sounds that scare you. What would scare you if you heard it in your room at night? What would make your blood run like cold sludge in your arteries if you heard it right behind you? Whatever that is, emulate it in your sound design. It will scare people. As with all art, the best way to tell if something will speak to someone else, is to determine if it speaks to you.
I (Tal) will be seeing C. S. W. this week at yet another Podcast Movement, and I can’t wait to continue the tradition of interrogating him about sound design. He’s just got really good thoughts, okay!
If you enjoyed this interview, share it! If you’re an audio fiction sound designer who would like to be interviewed, let us know here! (This blog is on Tal’s Medium page, but it’s a dual effort between Tal and Brad).