Scoring Magic – Season 2, Episode 4: “Sound Design with Wil”


In this episode of Scoring Magic, Wil goes into their sound design process step by step and shares how they learned this finicky, complicated, detailed aspect of making an audio drama.

Mentioned in the Episode:


  • Written, recorded, and sound designed by Wil Williams
  • Produced by Anne Baird
  • Transcribed by Katie Youmans


[[Warm synthy guitar intro music fades quickly into . . . ]]

WIL: It’s 2022, gotta do what you gotta do! And that means buckling down and getting shit done. We’re gonna talk sound design in this episode of Scoring Magic, because I have learned A LOT. But first, a nontraditional bit of housekeeping. I want to give you something between a production update and a life update, because as it turns out, the way my life is going kind of dictates the way production is going. This one gets . . . a little weepy! And I do talk about a pretty rough situation I’ve been going through, though no specific details are given. So if you straight up do not care or want to avoid that conversation, check the timestamp in the show notes for when the housekeeping section ends—it’s just about 12 minutes long.

WIL: Okay, so other than, like, the conversations you hear interspersed between Scoring Magic, most of our stuff is scripted. But I have a lot to talk about today. And it’s all really weird for me to talk about, but I think it’s really important for me to talk about, so I’m just kind of gonna go for it.

It’s so funny. I think that listeners, people who listen to VALENCE, audience members who engage with VALENCE, whether it’s listening or transcripts, or anything else — I think you all know me better than most other people because of how personal VALENCE is. So, it’s weird to suddenly feel shy. [laugh] Or, like I am saying too much, or like, I have to have boundaries about what I’m saying. But I should! I should have boundaries. Boundaries are good.

The more you know.

Okay, so all of this is to say, we’re finishing VALENCE. We are in the middle of writing the third season. We’ve been in the middle of writing the third season for a while now. But 2021, even more, for me, than 2020, was a really hard year. And it included two of the biggest shifts in my life. They’re both really positive! They’re both really, really, really positive, but one of them was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

So, let’s talk about the easy one. Well! [wild laughter]

Let’s talk about the comparatively easier one first. Um, after a lot of questioning and wondering and pondering and stressing and a lot of encouragement from my wonderful husband, I started trying out non-monogamy. And I found someone who I really quickly just fell head over heels for. And they’re wonderful. And they’re now living with me and Zach. We are like, fully for real doing the poly thing.

To be clear, this isn’t really anybody’s business, but just, I don’t know, just to be clear, this person, Jon, they’re my partner. They’re not Zach’s, so, we’re in a little V. And it’s really wonderful. It kind of feels like the last thing in my like queer radicalization that I needed to unlock about myself. Because once you step outside of assuming or thinking that monogamy is the only way a relationship can happen, or that — the only way that it can happen for you, even, it just really opens up your eyes to so much.

I don’t want to, like, I don’t want to like sit at a podium and give a spiel on why polyamory is great, because I do believe that it’s, like, an orientation. I think that it’s part of who you are. And I am poly, polyamorous, and that’s exciting and wonderful, and has made all of my relationships better and has made me, I think, just like a better person. For a lot of reasons.

Again, I really don’t want to be preaching about polyamory. I’m just really proud of myself. This is — it’s one of the parts of me that I think is still really stigmatized, even in a lot of queer spaces. People get really weird about polyamory. So this has been a huge, huge step. I mean, I went from having one husband to now I have a husband and a live-in partner and it’s just completely changed my life. So that was — that was big and it was a lot and I’m not gonna lie. It was really, really, really rough sometimes, but not as rough as the other life change.

So this one, I’m not going to go into details as much. It’s really personal in a way that . . . It’s foundational, it’s hard to explain. So essentially, I have very purposefully and with a lot of consideration and a lot of help from all of my big, beautiful support network, and also my therapist — I have walked away from a very toxic, unhealthy, abusive situation, that until, like, half — more than halfway through 2021, I had no idea. I just — I hadn’t realized the extent of how bad and wrong and abnormal my situation was. It had gone on for so long and was, again, so foundational that it just felt really normal. And I thought that everything about it that felt off to me, was me overreacting, I was basically in a constant state of gaslighting myself.

I think I’m actually getting a little too in depth now. So I’m going to pull back. I do want to say that, like, getting away from the situation is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, which is saying a lot [stressed chuckle] because I haven’t had a great — a great go of existing overall.

[audibly emotional] And, I mean, admittedly, I think this was a big reason why, and it’s really good that I am away from it, and that I get to be myself now. And that I get to feel free for the first time in my life. And like, I am not being monitored, or watched or constantly judged, or like, I’m not good enough, I am just happy. I just get to live my life.

And I’ve never known that before. I didn’t know that I could take literally any action without feeling guilty for it. Without . . . being cruel to myself for doing it, for doing literally anything.

So, with all that said, like, clearly, for a long time, I was just not. I was just not able — I wasn’t able to do anything. And any, any anything. I literally would wake up, feel nothing. Do what I needed to do for deadlines for my job that helps pay my bills, and helps pay Hug House’s bills. And then I would be hit with an onslaught of memories about the situation. And I would have to face them for what they actually were instead of writing them off as normal, which was grueling.

It was a grueling experience. And it’s admittedly something I’m still dealing with this. This still happens though. Less frequently. Memories after a while run out, you know? It doesn’t go infinitely backwards.

But I think I had to get through this to write VALENCE. I don’t think I don’t think that VALENCE would be honest with me staying in that situation.

And that’s not why I left. I left for me, but I’m really proud that VALENCE gets to be what I’ve always wanted it to be. It’s been really healing for me. It’s been really illuminating for me, and being able to work on something like this with the people I care about so much has been life changing and beautiful.

And in case you ever wonder, like, do we — do we actually read reviews? Do we actually read emails that we get? We do. We read all of them. We share all of the ones that are positive and sweet. And we also read the ones that are a little bit negative or have constructive criticism, because that’s important.

But to every one of you who has said that, like, you feel seen or understood or represented by VALENCE, I can’t say how much that means to me. I talk a big talk. And I like to, you know, give advice and perspectives when it comes to trauma and mental health because I — because I’ve been there. But I’m not always great at listening to myself. And even though I know I’m not, I struggled to not feel alone in these things. So, hearing any of you talk about how the story has touched you just means everything to me.

So, thank you for being patient, as we get through season three. I think, with all of this behind me, I think it’s going to be really great. And I’m really proud of what we’ve been writing so far. And I can’t wait to bring it to you.

So be on the lookout because we’re getting there. And before you know it, we’re going to have a trailer. We’re going to have our IndieGoGo and we’re gonna have our final season of VALENCE to you.

And I’m just so grateful for everything the show has given me and I’m grateful to all of you who have stuck through everything with us. I really, really am. It’s corny and it’s cheesy, but I really am.

WIL: Alright. I now have a script, instead of being able to roam free with my terrible hell mouth. Let’s talk about sound design.

Sound design has always been one of my biggest loves in audio. I actually started doing sound design back in my undergrad at Northern Arizona University. Our communications department was weirdly nice, and we had a full radio station where I’d do DJ shifts and other radio shows. I was even on a radio D&D show way before actual play was really a “thing.” No, you cannot hear this audio ever.

In my last year of college radio work, I started a show called Essay Fodder with some friends. We’d take some popular literature and analyze it like classic literature. When it came to important excerpts from the book, we wanted to liven them up instead of just reading them on air. I decided to tackle this by casting other friends as the narrators and characters and giving the passages the full audio drama treatment. There were sound effects and music that, uh . . . I absolutely did not have the licenses for. Which is why I will not be playing any of those passages here. But you might be able to find them up on YouTube somewhere. (Psst: the Candle Cove one was my favorite.)

Doing Essay Fodder is what ultimately led me to my career in podcast critique and analysis. In doing sound design myself, I had a new reverence for the sound designers behind podcasts like The Bright Sessions and Wolf 359, but I only saw their fanbases talking about the actors, and I just needed to see more conversation about the soundscapes being created in every episode.

When it came to doing the sound design in season 2 of VALENCE, my first step was to amass as many free sound libraries as I could. I knew I was going to need chimes and whistles for magic, city streets and crowds for scenes in New Candler, and a ton of incidental sounds like cloth shuffling or a phone buzzing to keep things feeling real and lived-in. Here are some of the main sources I used:

  • First, every podcaster’s best friend and worst enemy, Free Sound dot org. This site crumbles all the way to hell 90 times a day, but it’s one of the most comprehensive sound libraries I’ve found. You can filter by license, which is really nice, and you can upload your own sounds as well. The downsides here are the quality differences in the mics used—be careful, and make sure you’re not using a sound that will stick out due to its background noise or any peaking.
  • Next, I used A Sound Effect, both for its sales and its newsletters. A Sound Effect has tons of assets for both music and sound design, and while most of them cost money, they do annual sales on massive bundles that are hard to beat. This is where I pull most of my crowd noises from, including for restaurants and cafes; they’re professionally recorded, so they’re easy to work with and they sound really nice and clean. The newsletter is a great resource for free sound effects, though. Each week, the newsletter gives subscribers free sounds. They’re not always going to be applicable, but when it comes to sound assets, I’d literally always have more than not enough—especially since you never know how you can repurpose one sound for an unintended use when you get more practice.
  • The third, and maybe most important, resource I used is the Sonniss Game Audio Archive. This fucker is massive, and it’s all royalty free. Each year, dating back to 2015, they just release thousands of sound effects. That’s it. They just give them to you. They’re just there and you can take them and use them. It’s wild. The downside here is that there’s obviously a lot of bulk, and a lot of different folders to sort through. The naming conventions can be really inconsistent, so you’ll have to do a lot of listening—and if you’re more organized than I am, I recommend renaming and refiling the sounds you plan on using. Or I guess all of them, if you wanna be a big showoff about it.

These three resources are going to be linked in the show notes and the transcripts so you can use them too!

My next step in learning sound design was to listen to the advice of those who came before me. Back in 20… 2017? Jesus, okay. Back in 2017, I attended PodCon, a now-dead podcast convention put on by still-alive Green Brothers, McElroy Brothers, and Welcome to Night Vale co-conspirators. There, I was able to see a live sound design demonstration by Dan Powell of Archive 81, which is now a Netflix series! I’m so proud of them. At this workshop, Powell had the audience do a close listening activity that I recommend to everyone getting into sound design. All you need is a scene from a movie. Here’s how the activity goes:

  1. Step 1: Watch a scene from a movie. I recommend, you know, one you think is pretty neat—but not one that has a ton of big effects going on. Go for a small, realistic scene. The one Powell played for us was a simple walk-and-talk in a parking garage that ended with a character getting into a car and driving away. Simple.
  2. Step 2: Remind yourself that every single noise other than dialogue is added in post. The footsteps. The car door. The car driving away. The clothes rustling. Characters taking sips. The hum of the lights. Every sound is added in post. Every single one.
  3. Step 3: Turn on the scene again, but this time, close your eyes. Pay attention to all of the sounds you hear. Pay attention to how loud they are, or how they intersect with each other. Pay attention to the specifics of each sound—what kind of footsteps do you hear? What kind of shoes make that sound when they step? And what surface are they stepping on? Don’t base this on the visuals—base it on the sounds alone.

And that’s it! This exercise may seem silly, but it completely shaped the way I go about sound design. It made me attentive to just how many noises most scenes need, and the types of noises I’d have to look out for to make our episodes sound realistic. It also made me better at appreciating subtle sound design in film—except for nature documentaries. I can no longer watch those and take them seriously knowing that all of the sounds were made by a foley designer crunching on some twigs somewhere. It’s too goofy.

So! With my sound asset library out of the way, and with an ear practiced for sound design, I started working on episodes of VALENCE. In Adobe Audition, I first take the dialogue and stitch it together. Let’s take this section of season 2, episode 1, for instance. This takes place just after Liam and Nico have had a fight the night before. Hey remember that time we made those two break up and then Nico was just gone for a while? [Evil laugh]. Anyway here’s the scene with just the dialogue:

NICO: [distorted memory] And as someone who hates talking about himself, you never shut up–

LIAM’S OTHER INNER VOICE: Don’t think about it. Just don’t think about it. You’re just going to beat yourself up about it.

LIAM’S INNER VOICE: And now he’s probably off getting killed in Germany or wherever and the last thing you’ll have said to him is some monstrous nonsense because you don’t know how to regulate emotions like a regular human being. Because you’re not! You’ve always known you’re a monster, so clearly this is is just—

FLYNN: Morning, Liam!

LIAM: Shit, sorry, you—

FLYNN: Oh, fuck— not my Fantasia mug!

WIL: First things first: I always have a bus track with the effects for Liam’s thoughts and inner voice. A bus track is a sort of sound effect paint brush; every time you link an audio track up to it, it applies the same effect. For Liam’s inner world, we have some big reverb and echo going on. I put Nico’s dialogue on the bus track to make it clear it’s a memory playing in Liam’s mind, not something happening in the scene itself.

But otherwise, I’m sure you noticed that the scene is lacking. By itself, that scene doesn’t really make sense. Where are they? What is going on? When did Flynn get here? What is Liam doing? Time to add some sound effects.

First, I add city noise—and then I cut out the highs and lows to make it sound like it’s coming from outside the room. I make it quieter to make sure it sounds even more distant—I want it to sound like it’s the city outside the apartment—and so that it isn’t distracting.

Next, I look to the script for what’s physically going on in the scene. Here, Liam is making coffee, so I add in some water, some kitchen tool noises, and a coffee pot. Then, Flynn enters the room and startles Liam, who drops his cup of coffee—so I add a shatter and a splash. The last big sound design moment in this passage is Liam fixing the mug he just broke. To achieve this effect, I add Liam’s base magic noise and lay it under the sound of the glass smashing, but now in reverse. Most audio software has a reverse function that’s super easy to use, and Audition’s works great. I rely on it pretty heavily, especially for Nico’s magic, which always includes something he’s said played in normal and reversed. Here’s an example:


My last step is footsteps, because I’m unnecessarily meticulous about them. For every character in a scene, I add in footsteps using UVI Walker. This plugin lets me choose the shoes and clothes a character is wearing, what they’re walking on, and how much they scuff their feet or trip. Every single character gets full configuration for every single scene. Flynn and Sarah always wear trainers; Liam always wears dress shoes; Noel usually wears heels. I also account for how fast or slow everyone walks, and whether they take any pauses. I literally listen to the dialogue as it plays and add everyone’s walking, character by character, step by step. Is this worth it? Probably not. Is it rewarding? It’s rewarding enough for me to continue!

I also do this if anyone is typing in a scene, which is almost always Sarah. Sarah’s keyboard is my keyboard, and when you hear her typing, I’m actually typing stuff up while listening to the dialogue. I am not as smart as Sarah, so I usually type things like, “yes I am Sarah doing the smart cool thing. I am looking up how to do something and I am doing it so good. Wow I am hacking into your whole bank account and now your money belongs to the people. ACAB.” Like with footsteps, if I think she would pause, I pause.

My very last step is music. We use Airtable to organize our music library, and most of our music other than our themes is pulled from Free Music Archive, another janky site that fails more often than it works. In Airtable, we have all our music categorized by what instruments it uses, what moods it gives off, and if we’ve used it in any scenes before. We also have tracks that are used as specific motifs for characters or situations. If this piece makes you feel things—


—that’s why. I make sure the dialogue is nice and clear over the sound effects and music, normalize and compress the audio so nothing peaks and everything is around the same volume, match the loudness to -16 LUFS (please google this I don’t know how to explain it), and then send it off to Anne and Katie for review.

Now, let’s hear the scene again, but with all of the sound design.

NICO: [distorted memory] And as someone who hates talking about himself, you never shut up–

LIAM’S OTHER INNER VOICE: Don’t think about it. Just don’t think about it. You’re just going to beat yourself up about it.

LIAM’S INNER VOICE: And now he’s probably off getting killed in Germany or wherever and the last thing you’ll have said to him is some monstrous nonsense because you don’t know how to regulate emotions like a regular human being. Because you’re not! You’ve always known you’re a monster, so clearly this is is just—

FLYNN: Morning, Liam!

LIAM: Shit, sorry, you—

FLYNN: Oh, fuck— not my Fantasia mug!

And when I’m working on a scene that I’m not sure how to accomplish? I reach out to others. I ask for thoughts and guidance from the other folks in sound design I know. I go through that activity again to find inspiration from movies, TV shows, and video games. I work within my limits when I write scripts, too—I try not to write anything I know I’m not going to be able to design . . . though sometimes, Katie gives me some real challenges that I’ve loved stepping up to. That’s another side of sound design you have to embrace: trying new, weird things for situations you wouldn’t expect and don’t know how to manage. This is when those spare sound assets really come in handy. Need the sounds of walking through a haunted house, for instance? Get yourself some spooky music, some chains, some bubbling, some dripping, some screeching cats, a chainsaw, some creaking wood, and you’ve got yourself a haunted house. Be sure to check out our Pumpkin Spice episode of HEXADEC if you want to hear how it turned out. And Katie? Never again.

CREDITS: This episode was written, recorded, and sound designed by me, Wil Williams. It was produced by Anne Baird, and transcribed by Katie Youmans
You can follow Scoring Magic at @ScoringMagic on Twitter, and find all of the updates for VALENCE as they happen at @ValencePod. You can also find full transcripts for all of our shows at hug house dot productions. and links to all these things in the show notes. Take care of yourselves out there, and listen close. You can genuinely find inspiration everywhere.

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