When visuals are out of the equation and all you have is audio to tell your story, top-notch sound design is a must. So on International Podcast Day, the Audio Design Desk team got to thinking about which podcasts best harness the power of sound to elevate their medium. Here are six podcasts with kick-ass sound design.
Homecoming (Gimlet Media)
Gimlet’s psychological thriller Homecoming is one of the most organic-sounding and engaging scripted narrative podcasts out there. By never breaking the illusion with bad sound design or over-the-top acting, Homecoming is able to pull you into the story of a woman uncovering the secrets of a transitional support program for returning U.S. soldiers. The series takes listeners through a variety of sonic settings, but it’s just as exhilarating in simple moments involving (highly realistic) staticky phone calls or voicemails between its characters.
With magnetic voice performances from Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, David Cross, Amy Sedaris, Michael Cera, Mercedes Ruehl, Alia Shawkat, Chris Gethard, and Spike Jonze, this show is so engrossing you’ll have to binge it… It’s no wonder Amazon Prime picked it up as a web series starring Julia Roberts.
(We haven’t listened to Motherhacker—another well-received narrative fiction podcast from Gimlet—but with a cast that includes Carrie Coon, Pedro Pascal, Alan Cumming, and Lucas Hedges, it’s more than promising!)
The Truth (Radiotopia)
Don’t have time to invest in a serialized podcast? Check out The Truth, which takes an anthological approach to radio theatre. Each standalone episode tells a unique story, and the show spans all genres. While the writing can be hit-or-miss (but when it’s good, it’s really good), The Truth’s innovative sound design never misses the mark—whether the episode takes place in a shopping mall, an underground labyrinth, or even outer space.
Some of our favorite episodes of The Truth include “Brain Chemistry,” “Game Night,” “The Co-Op,” “The Hilly Earth Society,” “The Jesse Eisenberg Effect,” “Wonderworld, U.S.A.,” “The Unremarkables,” “Meet Cute,” and “The Cavern.”
Steal the Stars (Tor Labs)
Sci-fi thriller/romance Steal the Stars tells the story of two government agents at a secret compound, tasked with guarding and facilitating the study of an extraterrestrial being. But as their relationship evolves and their interest in the alien grows, they begin to question everything.
Steal the Stars is able to blend so many genres—noir, science fiction, drama, thriller, romance, heist, mystery—effectively through its use of sound. One of the show’s most memorable recurring soundscapes is that of the UFO, which the compound’s scientists can only enter to study the alien for a limited period each time. The sound designers sculpt a transcendent atmosphere when the characters are in the spaceship with the extraterrestrial, and then create a sense of urgency as the timer ticks down. And while there are also plenty of subtler, more dramatic moments in the romantic plotline, action scenes abound as well. Listening to Steal the Stars can make you feel like you’re in Roswell, haunted by the mysteries of life—here and beyond.
Welcome to Night Vale (Night Vale Presents)
One of the most famously successful examples of fictional radio storytelling in recent years, Welcome to Night Vale has earned its cult following and literary spin-offs. A haunting portrait of the titular eerie Southwestern town slowly unfolds through a series of radio announcements and ads, all taking place on a show hosted by protagonist Cecil Gershwin Palmer.
The show uses its clever sound design to craft Night Vale’s bizarre commercials and desert soundscape filled with dark “Hooded Figures” and other mysterious entities, as well as to chronicle the journey of its fictional host. Often just as funny as it is unsettling, Welcome to Night Vale is an enigmatic work of gradual character-building and world-building.
Sandra (Gimlet Media)
What would happen if Siri wasn’t powered by artificial intelligence but by regular people, sitting in cubicles, feeding your device what it should say?
Another star-studded Gimlet drama, Sandra follows a young woman named Helen (Alia Shawkat) who lands a job at a prestigious A.I. company. Under her overbearing boss (Ethan Hawke), Helen works behind the curtain of virtual assistant Sandra (Kristen Wiig), who talks to its users through an Alexa-esque machine. The show’s sound design whips us between Helen’s world, the worlds of people she’s talking to, and the technology that connects them.
Haunted Places (Parcast)
We're wrapping up our podcast picks with Parcast's Haunted Places. Follow narrator Greg Polcyn as he gives you an audio tour of some the most haunted places in the world. Through the use of ambience, music, narration, and sound effects, Haunted Places lures you in with the paranormal, but keeps you coming back for this unique take on the tradition of sharing ghost stories. The sound design for Haunted Places immerses the listener into some truly frightening stories. If you scare easily, be careful listening at night!
What’s missing from our list—and what topic should we tackle for our next one? Tag us or comment on our socials, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!