Brendan Baker on the Potential of Sound Design

Brendan Baker
Brendan Baker

The Wolverine director says there's still plenty of room for innovation in the audio engineering of podcasts.

Brendan Baker is one of podcasting’s biggest sound geeks. He's the type of sound geek who brings his own 3D microphone to an interview where he’ll be talking about his career as one of the medium’s most ambitious producers and sound designers. “How about we have it as a backup?” he asks. “This is the Zoom Ambisonic. This is like a cheap version of the same type of mic we use for Wolverine.”

Baker’s past work on podcasts like Love + Radio and Invisibilia established him as one of the industry’s most ambitious producers and sound designers, but he met fresh challenges when he took on the role of director for Marvel’s Wolverine. One of the biggest was figuring out ways to inject experimentation into a production process involving things like cast and crew. “There are all these things that need to happen before you even get to that thing that I find magical—which is having all the sound in my session and starting to cut it together,” he says. We caught up with him to talk about his creative process and what he thinks podcast audio fiction should experiment with next.

Spotify for Podcasters: What have been your goals with sound design and technology in your recent work?

Brendan Baker: All the projects that I've tried to take on over the last several years have been intentionally trying to be kind of on the edge of things. To kind of figure out how to use technology in ways that are not gimmicky, but are editorially really shaping the sound of the show.

Were there unique challenges to directing and producing the Wolverine podcast?

It was my first time directing—[though] I had directed voice sessions in a radio context and I'd done a lot of interviewing and editing—so [it] came with a whole bunch of other challenges. One of the things that I think comforted me as a first-time director was realizing that all the skills that I've been practicing in radio in journalism and being a producer and reporter, I'm doing a similar kind of thing as the director. I'm sitting with a person and trying to understand their story and I'm trying to get inside it. Sometimes that's at the script level, sometimes that's working with the actor. But the kinds of questions that you'd ask as an interviewer, those are the kinds of questions you need to ask as a director, too. You’re trying to understand the reality of the story. It's just that it happens to be a fictional story.

There’s lots of momentum around audio fiction right now. You’re known to experiment and try things out, but what’s something you wish you’d see more in audio fiction?

I have this feeling that there’s a type of audio fiction that hasn't really been made yet, which is going to be playing with the language of radio more. Like right now a lot of audio fiction is radio drama. It's set up as a stage, a theater. And that’s cool. But think about the difference between theater and film and all the things that film does. I feel like that's something that I can be doing that would be different, like playing with montage production techniques … and that's why I try to keep abreast of what's happening in sound technology.

Film perspectives and editing are cornerstones in your sound-design work. How does that type of thinking help you think about sound design?

I'm excited to see more people treat sound like film and to experiment with the texture of sound in the way that people, like, experiment with film stock, camera angle, or all these things that other people have figured out how to do. You're really making something inside someone else's mind. We have our own vocabulary and language that’s worth developing, and there's something really special about what audio does. Audio is the sort of thing in between, where you're getting some of the stuff passively and the other part of it is this co-creation between what the author is saying or what you're conveying via sound. And that’s going to be audio’s superpower: exploiting the fact that it’s a hybrid medium where part of it is something the listener creates for themselves, part of it is shaped by the director and sound designer. That’s where the art is—figuring out how to shape just enough.

What's something unique you do that helps you with your sound design?

Honestly, meditation has been a huge part of my practice. I think that there are things that I discover by taking a step away. Lately I've been thinking a lot about sound meditations, being super-present in listening to all the sounds in a space, which is something that your brain is trying not to do. This is sort of a different type of meditation. It's like a game, almost like thinking about how many things can be restored to make yourself aware of the present moment via sound.

—Todd Whitney