Sound Designs: Interview with Caroline Mincks of Seen and Not Heard (and more)

Welcome to the second interview of Sound Designs, monthly blog about audio fiction sound design. Today we’re talking with Caroline Mincks of Seen and Not Heard, SHIFTS, Silly Old Bear, Light Hearts, Surreal Love, and more. Yeah, there’s more. Caro is an unstoppable force in audio fiction. They’re a writer, voice actor, sound designer, and all around wonderful person. We (Tal and Brad) have collaborated with Caro on a bunch of different projects, and were very excited to sit down and as them a handful of questions about their process! (Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

How did you get started doing sound design? What advice would you give your past self who was just starting out?

I got started out of necessity, really — I wanted to learn how to podcast, and I didn’t want to chicken out of doing something new the way I had done in the past with certain projects, so I simply announced that I was going to make a show and then I did. In the span of three weeks I taught myself how to use Audacity, how to find sound effects, how different parts of sound design worked, and everything in between, and then boom. Show launched. I do not recommend this method, but it’s hard to deny it’s effective.

The advice I would give my past self is: don’t overthink it. I spent a lot of time agonizing over details that, in the end, no one noticed. If I were to go back to that show today and give it a listen, I truly doubt I would even remember which parts gave me trouble. Trust that the audience will fill in the gaps — their imagination is the tool we sometimes forget we always have on hand!

What is a favorite scene you’ve sound designed?

I do the sound design for Hughes and Mincks: Ghost Detectives, which means I get to do a lot of zany things with each episode. In general, I have a handful of sound effects that I always use — it’s half a gag, half an excuse to be lazy — but for the episode “A Dance With Death”, I shook it up a bit. That episode lovingly parodied film noir, so I took the opportunity to find new SFX and new ways to design the episode that would make it sound more like an old-fashioned radio show than anything else. I had a really good time playing with that and finding the balance between doing something new and keeping our signature energy.

What is it like working with a sound designer vs. doing your own sound design? What are the pros and cons?

Working with a sound designer is a huge load off my shoulders. Though I enjoy sound design, it isn’t necessarily my forte or the area of podcasting I like best. I tend to decide whether to do it myself or whether to hire someone else based on how specific or realistic the sound design needs to be. For instance, with Seen and Not Heard, it was going to require natural, everyday sound that operated within a strict set of rules in order to achieve what we were attempting — to convey the deaf experience in an audio medium. That was over my head and not something I felt that I could do better than you could.

When I’m DIYing it, I prefer to work where I can be more stylized, even cartoonish. I love a good, realistic, immersive experience as much as the next person, but when I can get a little silly with it? That’s where my strength lies.

Something I’ve noticed a lot in your scripts and your work is sound design that conveys emotion. I think this comes across most prominently in Surreal Love (which you wrote but didn’t sound design) and SHIFTS (which you wrote and sound designed). How do you use sound to fill the space of what is unsaid?

I do tend to write in a lot of things that are really for the one reading the script — actions that characters do that we can’t hear, like raising an eyebrow or shaking their head, still inform the actors and give them something to go on, and that’s the same for sound design.It’s a bit like building a set on a stage — the audience may not notice every single detail or know all the research and intention that went into it, but a good set will immediately give the audience a sense of place all the same. Sound design is like that, so I like to give emotional notes along with SFX notes.

For instance, compare this:

MARY: How could you?

Wind.

JOHN: How could I what?

MARY: Tell her what we did.

Thunder. Pause.

To this:

MARY: How could you?

The wind builds, a crescendo under her anger.

JOHN: How could I what?

MARY: Tell her what we did.

Thunder provides the punctuation, making the silence that follows even more painful.

The first one is perfectly fine — it tells you what’s happening and when. But the second tells you how it feels, which helps designers and actors and audience alike truly get the sense of what’s going on. A lifetime in the theatre has taught me that your playing space is as much a character as it is a set — in podcasting, our playing space is sound. I want to give it the same care and intention as I would acting notes.

(Another bonus of writing more emotional sound design notes is that it will help greatly when it comes time to finalize your transcripts!)

One of the things I love about Silly Old Bear is your really specific application of sounds. Instead of creating a fully immersive soundscape with every small detail, you pick a handful of sounds that complement the narration and the scene as a whole — and it always works perfectly for the scene. In your opinion, what makes a sound important? How do you pick the SFX that go into the episode?

For Silly Old Bear, I approached the sound design the same way I approach reading a book to my son, Ethan. When I read with Ethan I’ll make sound effects at certain points, to emphasize parts that are especially funny or important. I wanted each episode to sound like a parent reading to their child and to evoke that feeling — the feeling when we’d turn to our parents when we were little and say “do the voices! Make the sounds!” and they’d oblige. I let the question “Could I reasonably imitate this sound if I were to read this script aloud to someone?” guide me as I chose how to design each episode. I wanted it to complement the story but not overwhelm it, and I wanted it to be specific enough that it would be memorable.

Combining simpler sound design with narration really helped to craft that feeling I was hoping to achieve — the show really does feel like a bedtime story, and I’m so happy with the way it has turned out!

The sound design of Seen and Not Heard had a very specific purpose in a few scenes: allowing the listener to experience sound as Bet hears them. How did you go about creating the experience of deafness? What were the most important aspects of it, and how was that experience used in the narrative of the show?

Working with you on Seen and Not Heard really showed me the potential of audio. When I wrote the scripts, I knew I wanted moments where we get Bet’s experience — not as a gimmick, but going back to what I was saying earlier, as part of building her world. It’s part of the set.

I knew that it was going to be tricky, because, well…I’m deaf, and I was explaining to a hearing person what deafness sounds like so that we could create a soundscape of deafness for a largely hearing audience. Not the easiest task. It took a lot of research and a lot of trial and error to find exactly what we were looking for. Deafness isn’t just about decreased volume, it’s also about decreased clarity, decreased direction. Finding that sweet spot was a challenge, but as soon as we did, I stood there on a sidewalk with my headphones on, listening to it in tears.

I remember being concerned that we could potentially fall into the trap of “giving abled people a firsthand experience of being disabled as the only way to get them on the empathy train” that many very well-intentioned people do, but I think the end result landed where we needed it to. The moments of hearing Bet’s deafness aren’t just set dressing — they’re the beams holding the whole thing up.

What advice would you give to deaf & hard of hearing people who want to get into sound design (or create an audio drama as a whole)? What would you tell hearing people who are surprised to learn about your field of work?

To deaf and hard of hearing people who are interested in this field: you can do it. It may take more collaboration, improvisation, and experimentation to find what works for you, but you would be shocked by just how possible it is. I do so much of my dialogue editing and fixing of levels and timing of SFX just by sight, before I’ve even really listened to it all together! And working with hearing people who are willing to check my work and give feedback helps immensely. As for advice, the thing that is both hardest and most important to do is to be ready to advocate for yourself. Know what accommodations you’ll need and ask for them up front, and if those needs should change, be prepared to address that. The right people to work with will be the ones who will give you what you need without making you feel like a burden — don’t settle for less than that. The bar is on the floor, make people step over it.

For hearing people, I would ask that you challenge your assumptions. I think a lot of the surprise people feel when they learn about what I do comes from a misconception that deafness is always a total lack of hearing, rather than something that exists on a wide spectrum of experience. I would encourage you to learn about hearing loss — it is much more common than you may think, and more likely than not will affect you personally as you age. We’re a big part of the population!

I (Tal) adore what Caroline had to say about the experience of sound. I’m going to be thinking about sound as a stage-play set and emotional character for a long time now. I also really want to echo their statement about challenging your assumptions about who can be a sound designer!

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!

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