How Foley Can Enrich Your Podcast’s Soundscape

Photo Courtesy of Ele Matelan
Photo Courtesy of Ele Matelan

This old-school radio and stage craft adds unmatched dimension to the audio experience.

If you’ve ever listened to a podcast and wondered how they made a scene feel so immersive, you might think about the dialogue, the editing, and, if it’s fiction, the acting. You might also notice the sound effects, which is likely to inspire even more questions about how they nailed it so perfectly. Here’s the secret: It’s less likely that some of the best podcast creators found the perfect sound in an online library and more likely that they made it with some stuff in their garage. That’s the magic of Foley.

Foley—named for Jack Foley, the early-20th-century innovator of the technique—is the practice of creating sound effects using common physical items. Sometimes, those recordings happen in a clear translation: If you need the sound of the blinker from a 1998 Toyota Corolla, you could just record the blinker of a 1998 Toyota Corolla. But what happens when you need to record the sound of an alien language—and what if you need to create that alien language in a live show for your podcast?

Making it all the more real

Ele Matelan of Hartlife NFP (Unwell, Our Fair City) and Dan Powell of Archive 81 and The New York Times' The Daily are both veterans of Foley. Matelan has been a guest lecturer on Foley for Northwestern University’s School of Sound Arts, and for Harvard University’s School of Music. Her focus is in using practical effects for live performances. Powell was a featured guest at podcast convention PodCon 2, where he held a hands-on workshop on Foley. His focus is on using everyday items to make sounds of the otherworldly soundscape for Archive 81.

The next time you take in a show or a podcast, make an effort to listen past the dialogue and focus on all the other sounds in the scenes. If a character opens a door, walks from one side of the room to another, puts a cup down on a table, or grabs their keys, you’re not actually hearing the actor do those things—you’re hearing the work of Foley artists. “Most folks outside of the entertainment industry don’t realize Foley is a thing,” Matelan explains. “The first films featuring sound were called talkies for a reason! Dialogue was always the top priority, and mic’ing to capture other on-set sounds would likely have been both expensive and invasive.”

Foley has been relied upon to add sounds to films since the inception of talkies, and these days its usefulness is surging alongside the popularity of podcasting. You can hear instances of foley work in plenty of fiction podcasts, but also in nonfiction works like Radiolab or 99% Invisible. It’s a great way to help immerse your listener in the story you’re telling, no matter which genre you’re working in. If you haven't already, think about how it can enrich your work, whatever style of podcast you're creating. For instance, if you interview a guest who talks about something happening while they were making a cup of tea, record your kettle the next time you put water on to boil and lay that underneath the interview. You’re likely to draw listeners more deeply into the scene.

Ele Matelan Photo by Evan Hanover
Ele Matelan Photo by Evan Hanover

You're the best resource

Of course, you could always search through online sound libraries for a kettle whistling, but Powell emphasizes the power of creating your own sound library. “As a creator, you know the characters better than a commercial sound library does, and that will translate to how you perform Foley art for any given scene, whether it’s an intimate, quiet moment or something more dramatic, like a fight or chase," he says. "On a more practical level, you have more control over the range and style of sounds when you’re making them yourself from scratch. You might find a great library of footsteps you could buy, but they might miss some of the nuances [that] the scene calls for. Creating sounds yourself lets you have absolute control over how they fit into the context of the narrative.”

If you’re working with sounds that are hard to record—especially sounds that don’t exist in the real world—it can be a challenge to know where to start in making your Foley. Both Matelan and Powell suggested a common credo in creative spaces: Engage in media like a creator. Just as writers are taught to read like writers in creative-writing programs, Matelan and Powell suggest listening like a Foley artist.

“Listening exercises aren’t just for relaxation,” says Matelan. “Take stock of your environment throughout the day, and try to break down what sounds you hear and what they mean.” Powell suggests diving right into sound archival. “Record everything! Start recording interesting sounds you hear in your day-to-day life and build up a library of raw material," he says. "If you’re just starting out, don’t panic about gear or quality—just use the best equipment you have available and start learning. The more you record and listen critically, the more you’ll have a sense of how certain sounds translate to recording and how to use them in the context of a production.”

And most importantly, don’t be afraid to get creative and experimental. Matelan’s best Foley story comes from having to design the sound of someone’s head exploding and bugs crawling out. In a live performance, she came onstage in an apron and smashed a pumpkin with a sledgehammer for the skull while her partner wrung out a sponge for the brains and shook a rainstick for the bugs.

Powell, likewise, finds inspiration for his sci-fi creations in the mundane. “Creating the sound of an alien creature’s vocalizations using the squeak of a vermouth bottle cork was one of the most fun sound design challenges I’ve had," he says. "Don’t underestimate squeaky glass—you can get the full spectrum of human (and inhuman) emotions out of it with the right techniques and patience!”

Think of foley not as a frustrating demand, but another exciting way to flex your creative muscles while also keeping listeners engaged. With some simple experimentation using household items, you’ll be shocked at how you can get listeners to hear your work differently--and how you might start hearing the world differently, too.

—Wil Williams