Sound Designs: Interview with Wil Williams of VALENCE (and more)

Welcome to the first interview of Sound Designs, monthly blog about audio fiction sound design. Today we’re talking with Wil Williams, sound designer of VALENCE and Scoring Magic, CEO of Hug House, and head of communications and community for Apollo!

Wil has been part of the indie audio drama scene for years now as a critic and creator, covering (and making!) both fiction and nonfiction podcasts. Their support has been integral to my journey as someone who creates and writes about audio drama, so I was excited to learn more about their sound design process. Let’s jump into it! (Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Do you approach sound design for scripts written by you differently than scripts you haven’t written? And conversely, when you’re writing something you know you’ll be sound designing, what do you do differently?

By the time I get to start sound design, I’ve already forgotten like 90% of what I wrote, so my approach to my episodes/scenes versus Katie’s is pretty similar and consistent: read what’s written, translate that into a final sound in my head, and then break that sound down in my head into possible constituent parts, then smash it all together. For me, these differences come down to writing more than sound design. In scripts, I’ll know exactly how much direction to give Future Me, so my SFX notes will usually be much shorter than Katie’s. This also means that sometimes I leave little apologetic notes to Future Me if I’m asking for an especially annoying thing to sound design, like hugs. Actual SFX note in a script from Katie: “SFX: One quick, sharp knock on the door and then it opens — no waiting for a response — and a man in expensive leather shoes walks into the room like he owns it.” Actual SFX note in a script from me: “SFX: Nico magic, but quiet-making. Sorry future Wil. Ilu bby. Your tits look good in that shirt. Stay strong.”

VALENCE started as a novel and was adapted into audio drama, and I’d love to know how you took something that wasn’t initially written for sound and turned it into a script. What was lost and what was gained in this process? When you’re doing the sound design for VALENCE, do you ever pull from what you wrote before it was a script when creating the soundscapes?

The biggest loss, hands down, was not being able to describe the color of everyone’s magic. We got around this a little with Halo Inc. using hex codes for code names, and I was able to use that to carry over a lot of the color imagery I incorporated into the novels — but only if you really hunt for it.

For translating the novel into a script and for pulling from the novel for soundscapes, what really helped is that this story exists in my head in a sort of format-agnostic way. Big scenes live in my head like I’m in them, so it’s all about how I communicate that out and how I fit that scene’s sensory experiences into my target medium. A good example for this is the barcade scene from Season 2, Episode 9, “Tonic.” That scene has existed in my head pretty clearly since before I wrote the novel, even. When I wrote the novel, that scene focused on the bright lights in the dark bar; when I wrote that scene in the script, I focused on the loud music leading to Liam and Zoe not really being able to hear each other. Both conveyed the sense of disorientation and off-kilter communication, followed by urgency, followed by breaking out into a quieter space alone — making it work in both forms was just about how best to put the audience right into the feeling of being there.

VALENCE S2E9: Tonic

How did you decide what the magic should sound like in VALENCE? Something I really love about the show is how distinct each type of magic sounds, and how it feels like magic.

For our magic sounds, we worked really closely with our original sound designer, Julia Schifini. We have an episode of Scoring Magic that covers this and our process, but it all started with a playlist of music that sounds like how I imagine VALENCE’s magic to sound. I wanted it to be really textural and layered, using sounds that correlate to the magic’s focus but in new ways. For magic to sound like magic to me, it has to be actually made like alchemy — taking things that should be familiar, like a coin spinning, and bending its elements in a new way, like the sound of something accelerating. I wanted it to feel organic and real and tangible, so most of our magic sounds come from everyday sources.

WIl’s What Does Magic Sound Like? Spotify Playlist

What is the silliest thing you’ve sound designed just because you could?

So when I was the assistant editor at Radio Drama Revival, each week David — who hosted back then — would give me a little goofy sound design challenge. I was still learning sound design, so every other week I’d have a new tiny sound design assignment to puzzle out. But this is David Rheinstrom we’re talking about — I think the most normal one I got was like, a cold winter morning and a fox playing in the snow. But the silliest one I ever got is also the one I had the most fun with: goblins stealing the moon. It’s in our feature episode for Timestorm, right before the end credits.

Radio Drama Revival Timestorm Feature Episode

As an audio drama critic, you’ve listened to near countless hours of fiction podcasts. What makes sound design stand out to you as a listener? What bothers you as a listener?

Something I had to work through early in my career is that when sound design is done right, you often won’t notice it at all. That’s what makes it successful: you forget you’re listening to a bunch of recordings with each sound individually plucked and placed, and instead, your brain just sinks into the scene happening and the sounds following suit. I got into audio crit because I was so frustrated nobody was talking about how good the sound design was on shows like ars PARADOXICA and The Amelia Project, so I had to really key into moments that stood out. Moments in sound design that excite me are ones in which I’ve never heard something in real life, but I know what I’m hearing is exactly what it would sound like. I’m also a big fan of little jokes in sound design, which I think are super under-used — things like people stumbling as they walk if someone says something wild, for instance. Mostly, though, what makes sound design work for me is when it feels genuine and lived-in.

For things that always bother me in sound design, recording quality is pretty high up there. If I hear a scene that all sounds good but then a door sound effect that sounds more lo-fi, I’m immediately taken out of this. If you want a good example, the anime My Next Life as a Villainess is one of the best shows I’ve seen in recent memory, but the sound design is consistently absolute dogshit. Any time a door opens or closes my soul full on dessicates. I also get really annoyed by sound effects used too frequently, almost like punctuation. I feel like this is especially common in sci-fi audio drama, given there’s so many fun bleep bloops to play with.

You’ve talked before about having sound-to-flavor synesthesia and using it for your sound design. Does it affect how you pick and layer SFX? When you’re building a scene, do you try to create a specific taste or pallet?

Yes! My synesthesia plays a HUGE part in how I sound design. Magic is very tactile for me: when I think about how I want it to sound, I also think of how I want it to feel. This happens with texture/feel for me more than flavor. I know, for instance, that I want Nico’s magic to feel like carbonation, but not sound like carbonation. I know I want Majora’s magic to feel like cracking your knuckles but not sound like cracking your knuckles. For my soundscapes, they all have to taste and feel right together. Some sounds taste like food flavors, but some sounds taste like rain water or a burnt match or metal or wood chips, so it’s all about finding something harmonious and cohesive than aiming for a specific flavor palette. I figure if it feels and tastes cohesive for me, it’ll hopefully sound cohesive for the audience. Hopefully.

I loved Wil’s insights! I think that Personally, I am super inspired by the idea of soundscapes tasting and feeling right together. I may also start writing lovely notes to myself alongside challenging SFX descriptions…

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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Tal is a SoCal based podcaster who cannot be stopped from making things and will occasionally write about audio fiction.

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Tal Minear

Tal Minear

Tal is a SoCal based podcaster who cannot be stopped from making things and will occasionally write about audio fiction.

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