Jeff Schmidt has also worked on podcast series like Wondrey’s Dirty John, Inside Psycho, and Tides of History — and here, his goose-bump inducing soundscapes paint vivid mental pictures to accompany the story behind the making of The Exorcist film. The demonic vocals he crafted can make your hair stand on end.
Here's how he created the sound for the series, covering everything from creating sinister drones, clever sound design and recording approaches, to crafting those demonic voices and much more:
Interview by Jennifer Walden
Through sound, Jeff Schmidt brings to life the possession and exorcism of a 14-year old boy named Robbie — the inspiration for writer William Peter Blatty’s book The Exorcist, and director William Friedkin’s experience of bringing that story to the big screen. Side-stories of satanic experiences throughout history — like that a small town in England whose snow covered landscape was stamped with cloven footprints, and bible stories of demonic encounters are also richly detailed with sound.
Schmidt, audio director and proprietor of Jeff Schmidt Productions, worked on the series from his studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. He creates soundscapes for other podcasts as well, including Wondrey’s Dirty John, Inside Psycho, and Tides of History. Here, Schmidt goes inside the sound of Inside The Exorcist.
How did you get involved with Inside The Exorcist?
Jeff Schmidt (JS): Series creator Mark Ramsey and I know each other from years in radio. In 2016, Mark wrote and narrated a 5-minute teaser for a podcast concept called Inside Psycho. I produced the teaser with sound design and music and he shopped it as a 6-episode series. Los Angeles-based podcast network Wondery picked it up and published it in March 2017. They asked us for an encore, so here we are with the story behind the making of The Exorcist!
What are your responsibilities in terms of sound on the series?
JS: I handle everything except VO recording. Mark recorded his own narration in San Diego, Stephanie Drake (from Mad Men) who plays Linda Blair recorded her parts at the Wondery studios in Los Angeles. It was up to me to design the sonic vision for the series and bring it to life.
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Did Mark Ramsey have specific ideas for sound, or did he let you do your thing and chime in at the end?
JS: Mark wanted the sound to be an upfront character. He left it up to me to make that happen. To prevent the sound from feeling tacked-on or redundant to the narration, Mark took a lot of scene setting descriptions out of the narrator’s role and condensed it into simple “scene notes” for me to design with sound. An example from the script:
EVENING, OUTDOORS, CAMPFIRE. SOUND OF APPROACHING BEAST
Like a screenplay, there’s just enough information to get the idea of what should be happening but not so descriptive as to be restrictive.
The series revolves around The Exorcist film. How much did the original film influence your approach to the sound on the podcast series?
JS: More than I anticipated. I paid homage to the film in the sounds of the exorcisms and demons. But the largest inspiration I took from the film was the minimalist music score. There was a documentary-style realism to the film that allowed sound to really punch through. The scene where they’re running medical tests on Regan MacNeal is a great example. It’s just room tone, the menacing MRI machine, and no score. It’s very effective.
I wanted it to unnerve listeners from its raw, clinical coldness.
There’s a sequence in the podcast that tells the story about director William Friedkin witnessing a live electric chair execution. I wanted to approach the design of that scene like the MRI scene from the film. I wanted it to unnerve listeners from its raw, clinical coldness. I researched what happened during electric chair executions in the early 1960s and used what I learned to inform my design, keeping in mind we’re making a “docu-drama” not a documentary.
The minimal score that was used in the film is 20th Century classical works from Penderecki and others. I wanted to bring that sound to the podcast. I packed up my portable recording rig and drove down to meet one of my favorite musical collaborators, Steve Uccello in Monterey, CA. We recorded about 25GB of crazy violin, viola, cello, and contrabass sounds in this huge meeting room with strange acoustics.
Jeff Schmidt’s soundtrack for the series
Where do you typically start on an episode? How long do you have to work on one?
JS: Episode production starts with the narration and the turn-around time depends on the series. Before I receive the first narration track for a series I like to do pre-production. Mark sent the script in June 2017 but for business reasons wasn’t able to record the narration until mid-August. We planned on a September launch.
I used that extra time for pre-production. In order to get in touch with the current state of horror sound I read the fantastic Film, TV, and Video Game horror sound interviews here on A Sound Effect and listened to current horror films, shows, and games. I also made sure to listen to them without picture to hear what worked and didn’t work in that context.
Listening to horror films also inspired me to avoid using metallic sounds in my sound design. That sound is very prevalent in the genre and I wanted to impose a creative restriction on myself to avoid using it.
That exercise inspired me to use more hard-cut transitions between scenes and changes in perspective. The first example is in the trailer where the “camera” is outside as the car rolls up. It then hard-cuts to the interior of the car. Neither Mark nor I had heard that in a podcast before. It is a bit disorienting. As the audio designer I loved it and I wanted to keep experimenting with it for the series. Thankfully, Mark agreed. Listening to horror films also inspired me to avoid using metallic sounds in my sound design. That sound is very prevalent in the genre and I wanted to impose a creative restriction on myself to avoid using it.
I had several other projects going on at the same time so the average turn-around time was about nine days per episode for Inside The Exorcist. That pace was only possible because I took advantage of the extended pre-production time and had a lot of sound ready to go.
Each episode of the podcast series features a rich tapestry of sound, from ambiences/backgrounds, to specific effects, to sound design elements. Often, the sounds come together to paint a vivid mental picture, like the dust storm and the pigs at the start of “Jesus Weeps Blood,” or in “Tomb of the Demon” where the farmer in England steps outside into the snow and sees the footprints of cloven-hooves everywhere. What are some of your favorite moments for sound in the series? What was the mental picture you wanted to paint there through sound?
JS: I give credit to Mark Ramsey for writing so many great moments like those and leaving room in the script for the sound to deliver on its potential. The first sequence about writer Bill Brinkley’s suicide in Episode 1 was an early favorite of mine because it had all the elements I wanted to feature in the series — minimal score, textural atmosphere, realistic hard FX mixed with surrealism. The pills bursting in his stomach, the walls bending and swaying and how that building surrealism is broken and we’re snapped back to “reality” by an opening door. Then it all comes back when the door closes and we’re introduced to the possession sounds.
I love scenes that can move between the real and the surreal like that. I want to give the listener just enough sound they will recognize and can easily picture and then use that familiarity to take liberties and encourage them to paint their own interpretations onto the more abstract and surreal elements.
What were some of your sources for sound elements on the show? Any libraries that were particularly helpful? Did you capture any recordings specifically for the show?
I recorded these vibrations and rumbles from different spots inside my house, essentially “worldizing” the rumbles. I’d mix those with contact mic recordings of the same sounds.
JS: The benefit of the extended pre-production phase was that I was able do a lot of my own recording. Most of the prop- based sounds I recorded myself. The room shaking, banging and vibration sounds for the exorcism sequences were made by putting speakers and a subwoofer in the overhead crawl space in my house and then sending sounds to them. I loaded up a Reaper (DAW) session with all kinds of sounds like animal roars, earthquakes and experimented with its vari-speed playback to get material to move slowly and emphasize the low end. I recorded these vibrations and rumbles from different spots inside my house, essentially “worldizing” the rumbles. I’d mix those with contact mic recordings of the same sounds. I also used an IBEAM transducer, which is designed to go inside theater and attraction seats to vibrate along with the LFE channel. I held it against doors, wood cabinets, and other resonant wood fixtures to get different vibrating wood textures.
I recorded shaking and knocking on every wooden thing in my house, throwing things around my garage, breaking stuff, scraping stuff, vehicle sounds, my fire pit, footsteps, body falls made by throwing an old rug on dirt, mulch and pavement, running up and down my stairs, and flailing around in the bed. There’s a reverberant building in San Francisco where I camped out and recorded hallway ambiences that I used as the mental hospital background. I gathered a neat collection of wooden boxes and crates, which were handy for the scratching sounds, the chair spinning sound, and wood movement sounds.
I used several commercial libraries, too. A few from A Sound Effect including Thomas Rex Beverly’s ‘Ambiences’ — which are gorgeous, ‘Polarity’ — which is probably the most viscerally interesting collection I’ve heard, ‘Daily Room Tones’, ‘7 RFX Room Tones’ (I can never have too many rooms tones), ‘Sounds Of Istanbul’, ‘Jordan’, ‘Atmos of Kurdistan’, ‘Religious Ambiences’, ‘Construction & Demolition’, ‘Mountain Cottage’ and ‘Castle’.
The vocal processing on the show is incredible. Can you share some examples of your vocal processing chains for different vocal sounds? Like, some of the different demon vocals?
JS: Thanks! That was one area where Mark had a strong opinion — “no deep voiced demon.” I knew what he was talking about. I jokingly refer to it as the “Eventide Demon” from the classic H3000 preset.
The first demon voice we hear is on the tape recording and that’s me. It’s processed the same way I processed Mark’s voice for the demon lines he speaks.
I created a chain in Blue Cat’s PatchWork (a virtual patchbay for plug-ins). First is Ircam Trax v3 by Flux::, which is a formant processor that helps change gender and age characteristics of voices. I used it to impart older female characteristics onto Mark’s voice. Next is Zynaptiq’s Wormhole for more formant shifting. The idea was to create a voice that sounds mysterious, old, and androgynous (although leaning female).
I’d print the vocal effects as new files to lay underneath the dry narration. I put one copy on a stereo track where I’d use GRM Tools Delays or Audiority’s GrainSpace to weave in reverse reverb effects. Another version of the print would go on a stereo track dedicated to Panorama Spatializer by Wave Arts, so I could have a layer of the voice move around in faux 3-D space. This is not a set it and forget it set-up. The settings react differently to different voices and phrases so some tweaking per phrase was needed.
The other demon sounds are all created from my vocalizations. I recorded about 20 minutes of vocalizations and wheezing. I broke them up into groups: longs, shorts, moans, yells, agony, throaty, and breathy. I created Kontakt instruments of them to perform with. I’d mix them with animal sounds, throat singers, baritone male choir, and adhans (the Islamic call to worship). I created about an hour of content from improvising with those sources.
Every time I needed demon sounds I would go to this material and find the gems. I’d layer them up and design sequences as needed.
I like mixing vari-speed and normal speed versions of the same samples in Kontakt, especially vocals. It creates long, lower frequency drones based on the wheezes and vocalization while the more recognizable wheezing/voice is layered on top. I add a low-pass filter tied to the mod-wheel to perform with. I’d put parts of the design on the Panorama plug-in track or send it to Audio Ease’s Altiverb and it would sound like this thing is in the room with you.
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I love all the detail that went into the reverbs — from the footsteps to the sound of the Tubular Bells record that plays in the background of Part 6. What was your approach to adding reverb? What were your go-to reverb(s) on the show?
JS: Yes, thanks! I used reverb mostly to create space and realism. The Tubular Bells scene is the dramatization of William Friedkin dropping the needle on the record for first time. The music morphs from being diegetic from his record player in the room into non-diegetic score. It’s a common technique in visual media that I wanted to bring to the podcast. Audio Ease’s Speakerphone was the tool for that.
I used Altiverb the most for the indoor sounds and for processing music that needed to sound diegetic — like the party and bar scenes. I used Speakerphone for the obvious speaker emulations, but also as a straight up convolution reverb that has unique coloration options. I used Avid’s Space mostly for its outdoor and forest reflections. I have outdoor IRs based on pistol shots that deliver a more realistic response to my ears than the forest verbs in other convos. PhoenixVerb and D-Verb were used for speeches and hard effects in large spaces and for the surreal elements.
Any other audio tools that were helpful on this series? Can you share specific examples of how you used them?
JS: I keep a few Instrument tracks at the top of my Pro Tools sessions because I am scoring and designing at the same time. Those tracks typically house Native Instruments Kontakt, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and U-He Zebra2. Structure, by AIR Music Technology, also makes an appearance. It was the first sampler I used for sound design years ago because the original version let you to drag clips directly from the Pro Tools timeline to create patches. It no longer supports that so I moved onto Kontakt but I developed a little bag of tricks with it, so I still use Structure for certain effects. The walls bending and swaying sounds in the opening sequence were done with Structure.
One trick I used in the supernatural sequences was to lay down two tracks of sub frequencies oscillating at different rates from Serum. … It creates a weird, general unease.
One trick I used in the supernatural sequences was to lay down two tracks of sub frequencies oscillating at different rates from Serum. Xfer Records Serum has the cleanest oscillators I’ve heard in a softsynth particularly in the sub frequencies. It creates a weird, general unease. It’s mixed fairly low and you won’t hear it on white earbuds. But for anyone listening on a decent pair of headphones or monitors it creates an interesting effect. Not in your face, but it’s there. Look at an episode’s spectrogram and you’ll see all the demonic sequences!
I used a Yamaha 4-track cassette deck to create the tape recording effects and to process various atmospheres. Ableton Live is another tool I use extensively for performance based sound design. I load it up with clips and improvise the sounds going through all kinds of effects. I print the results and use the magic moments in larger designs. McDSP Futzbox was used for all the phone calls.
The eurorack modular gear I used was Make Noise Phonogene and Echophon, and Mutable Instruments Clouds modulated via Maths, Wogglebug and Malekko Oscillator 2 as an LFO. I ran our live string recordings from Monterey through that system as well as vocal sounds. I captured about 3 hours of material which was used as layers to create over 100 drones and textures you hear in the series.
I also experimented with binaural recording. The rig I used is a pro-sumer grade set-up with rubber ears so it’s not good enough for anything but “spice.” Some of the wood scraping sounds and demon sounds have elements of binaural mixed in. The very end is the most obvious and upfront use of binaural recording in the series.
What was the biggest challenge in doing the sound on the series?
JS: Getting it all to work and not having anyone else to blame when it doesn’t! Kidding. This series challenged me in all the right ways. It was energizing trying to figure out how to create this world from the ground up using sound.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Inside The Exorcist?
JS: There are many scenes where I may have done something creative, clever or technically interesting, but when I zoom out it’s the series as a whole I am most proud, to have been a part of bringing it to life. We took risks and tried unconventional things in the audio design and storytelling. That’s the kind of project I most enjoy.
You work on another popular podcast series, Dirty John. How does working on that show compare to Inside The Exorcist?
JS: Dirty John depends on a lot of interview audio. None of it was gathered by anyone with recording experience. So a lot of my time was spent doing repair in iZotope RX. The issues were so extensive I had to settle for minimizing the distraction it caused as much as possible.
On Inside The Exorcist, I worked from locked narration tracks. Dirty John was much more fluid. There were constant editorial changes that accelerated leading up to the release date. That meant a lot of deleting, adding and moving sections around. New audio, adding music, dropping music, and revision requests came from multiple people.
There was ambiguity about how much sound design there should be. Early-on there was buy-in for supportive, realistic design that didn’t misrepresent the facts. So I created sound design like that across the six episodes. Then days before publishing, I got the order to pull it out.
Creatively, my focus was music supervision. I wanted to find a song with lyrical content that worked as a theme for the series, and find different songs to punctuate each episode. I listened to hundreds of tracks in pre-production and found about 12 candidates I thought could work.
During this period, Wondery needed a trailer for the show. The trailer I produced is the one published and it’s the closest representation of my vision for the sound of the series. I hadn’t told anyone my music plan. I decided to surprise them with the trailer by including “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend” by Tracy Bonham. The song ended up becoming the theme for the entire series.
Since the trailer was a hit, I took that as a green light to keep going in that sonic direction. But there was a lot of push back about music, tone and texture. I was going for a more Fincher-esque vibe in the vein of the film Gone Girl. The notes coming back requested the sound be more like This American Life and S-Town. As my wife Valerie is fond of saying in her business, “They’re the client, so they get to say.” So that’s what we did.
A big thanks to Jeff Schmidt for giving a look at the unnerving soundscapes in Inside the Exorcist – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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