S11 E9: Steps To An Audio Style Guide

An audio style guide, the blueprint for your podcast’s audio identity, is an oft neglected part of your podcast setup. This guide defines how your voice, music (if you use any) and sound effects combine to create a unique soundscape that represents your service. But crafting it can feel daunting. Here’s how to develop your audio style guide, step-by-step and unlock the full potential of your audio storytelling.

Begin with the Big Picture:

Target Audience: Who are you trying to reach? Understanding your audience is crucial. Do they crave gritty realism or a polished feel or a conversational tone? Upbeat energy or soothing calmness? What tone will connect with your niche? Take your time, think about this, it will lay the foundation of your Style Guide. 

Podcast Personality: Is your voice warm and conversational or crisp and informative? Identifying your natural style helps guide your audio choices.This fits with the target audience you’re aiming at. Your guide cannot be at odds with you. If you’re a “speak quietly, build a rational argument” type of person, designing a style guide that demands a hyped up flim-flam approach will simply reek of inauthenticity. Nothing turns listeners away like inauthenticity.

Content Genre: Defining your genre and researching successful examples and applying similar methodologies is a good starting point but do not plagiarise. The idea is to find inspiration and put your personal stamp on the audio not to ape anyone else.

Desired Emotion: What feeling do you want to evoke? Joy, intrigue, nostalgia, enlightenment? Define your emotional goals to guide your tone. Your tone is another level of expression, adding to your overall audio feel. Layers upon layers consistently applied will develop your audio signature but let’s get a little granular on those layers.

Deconstructing the Layers:

Intro & Outro: Craft signature elements that instantly identify your podcast. Consider music, voiceovers, sound effects and even a tagline. This can, in my opinion, be greatly overdone. Long intros, repeated every episode become tiresome. Anything over 3-7 seconds is excessive. Get to the content, you’re publishing a podcast, not running an AM radio talkback show that’s about you more than the listeners unless that’s the vibe you’re looking for.

Podcast Footnote:

When it comes to music, make sure it’s podsafe. This means you cannot, ever, not even once, use anyone else’s music without written permission. Even if you purchased the download, you do not own the music. You own the right to play it in private, for your own enjoyment. You do not have the right to re-distribute that music in, say, a podcast intro or outro. There are no “fair use” exceptions to this. The only music you may legitimately use is music you have created or that has been specifically available under something like a creative commons licence. Youtube has a collection of clips for use in their creator studio that are podsafe. You can purchase music or have it commissioned but make sure you have the rights to use it in your show in writing. Even before AI web scraping techniques there were armies of copyright lawyers trawling through the rss feeds of this world looking for opportunities to commence legal action. If you’re not sure, don’t use it! Podcast hosts receive paperwork to take down shows that breach copyright and will remove your show.

The other question to ask yourself is: Do I actually need any music?

End Podcast Footnote. 

Voice Acting: Your voice is your instrument. Hone your delivery, consider microphone quality and explore processing techniques to enhance clarity and warmth. This is a skill that comes with time. The first few episodes you’ll be more concerned with the tech and seeing the apparently magical process of publishing an episode to your host and seeing it pop up in your favourite podcast app.

Music & Sound Effects: Remember the podcast footnote, it applies as equally to sound effects as music. Music and sound effects are powerful tools, they can set the mood and guide your narrative. Their use can be problematic if not handled sensitively. Choose royalty-free libraries or original compositions, ensuring high quality and emotional alignment but go slowly and with care. Less is very definitely more.

Editing & Mixing: You have a first choice with regards to the volume of your episodes. Apple suggests -14 LUF (Loudness Units Relative to Full Volume) and Spotify prefers -16 LUF. Your editing software and some processing software will allow you to set this level when you convert your audio from .wav to .mp3 for publication. Deciding how high or low any background soundtrack sits within your audio should align with your overall soundscape design.

Consistency is Key: Once you have decided on all these things, be consistent. Do not let anyone vary from the standards without a very good reason. 99% of the time, stick to your chosen standards. And for the other 1% of the time, stick to your chosen standards.

Experimentation and Exploration:

The world is your audio playground!

Listen Actively: Immerse yourself in podcasts, the ones you love and the ones that grate. Think about why? Is it the audioscape or the content or the presenter? Podcasting is such an intimate medium that a disconnection in any of these areas will turn people off.  One purpose of a podcast is to attract your tribe, those who resonate with you. It is also to disconnect from those who will only be offended or annoyed by your content. Dive deeply.  Analyse sound design, music choices and overall ambience. What emotions are evoked? How is sound used to enhance storytelling?

Software Exploration: I would look for software designed specifically for the spoken word. Much software used by podcasters is lifted directly from the music industry. It is much bloated with options unnecessary for the spoken word. You can still use GarageBand, Audacity and The Adobe Suite but realise you’ll be carrying digital bloat you really don’t need. Once you’ve chosen a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), your editing software, stick with it to learn the best workflows. This takes time and I spend at least half an hour a week checking Youtube for info and shortcuts on Hindenburg, my DAW of choice. I receive no compensation from Hindenburg, for full disclosure, I just really like the product.

Think Outside the Box: Don’t be afraid to experiment! Unique sound effects, original music compositions or even silence can become your signature elements. Do hasten slowly in these areas. Nothing destroys an audience like inconsistency exemplified by rapid changes in audio style.

Refining and Polishing:

Start Simple: Don’t overwhelm yourself with complex sound design initially. Focus on mastering the basics: clear audio. Once you have clear audio you’re well into the game.

Less is More: Avoid cluttering your soundscape. Use sound judiciously, ensuring each element serves a clear purpose and enhances the listening experience. Remember, clear audio is the name of the game. There’s a show I listen to regularly with an annoying soundtrack. And the same music increases in volume at the end of each episode, whilst the host is still speaking. It is frustratingly annoying but the rest of the show is full of great material so I put up with it. Do not have your listeners “putting up” with ego stroking soundscapes. Only add to the voice for a good reason.

Focus on Storytelling: Remember, sound is a storytelling tool. Use it to guide your listener’s journey, evoke emotions and create impactful moments. Podcasting is the modern version of the wandering storytellers of the Bronze Age, some are still extant in some contemporary cultures. With podcasting you are able to tell your story, be it as epic as the Iliad or short as a morality parable in the same way as these ancient wandering bards. With our technology we don’t need everyone in the village to sit in the great hall to hear us but it is as if they were. We speak directly into people’s ears, to the many, one at a time, all at once. This is a powerful medium.

Beyond the Podcast:

The benefits of an audio style guide extend far beyond your microphone:

Personal Branding: Your audio signature becomes your audio footprint, setting you apart from the masses. In a business setting, having an audio style guide ensures consistency across all corporate communication. A tight ship is a well led ship and this is reflected in consistent audio across podcasts, videos, public speaking events and networking opportunities.

Storytelling Proficiency: Mastering sound design enhances your overall storytelling skills, making you a more effective communicator in all domains.

Creative Confidence: Experimenting with sound fosters your creative confidence, empowering you to express yourself more authentically and explore new audio territories.This is an area oft neglected. I have a separate show for such experimentation. I don’t publish regularly just when the muses are upon me and I have something I think is interesting. The show is called: “Sound Collages” and there’s a link in the show notes.

Transferable Skills: The audio editing and storytelling skills you learn are valuable across creative endeavours, like video editing or public speaking. The greatest transferable skill from audio mastery is confidence. You cannot overestimate the value of self confidence. 

Ready to Craft Your Audio Masterpiece?

I’ve knocked up an .pdf outline of what an Audio Style Guide could look like. It’ll drop into this in the next half hour or so. Have a squiz if you’re interested and drop me a line if you have any thoughts on the format and how it can be improved.

And this concluded season 11. I’ll be back in a week or two with season 12 which is about the benefits of learning to podcast in a group setting.

If you could share this show with one other person, that’d be great. Thanks for listening!

In Show Links: 

Sound Collages: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/sound-collages-audio-adventures/id1142057579