Tonebenders was founded by René Coronado and Tim Muirhead in 2012, which makes it one of the earliest and longest-running podcasts about sound design. In 2017, René and Tim invited Teresa Morrow on board, and together the three have accrued a breadth of stories from revered sound designers such as Ann Kroeber, Mark Mangini, Ai Ling-Lee, Dave Whitehead and many others. To celebrate this milestone, let’s hear from the hosts about their favorite topics and what they've learned over the years.
Written by Adriane Kuzminski. Images courtesy of Timothy Muirhead, Teresa Morrow, and René Coronado.
Listening back, I realized many of my off-the-cuff questions have already been answered, such as who your favorite guests are (covered in episode 65) and your thoughts about the future of the show (discussed with Peter Albrechtsen in episode 102). So I need to take a different approach… How is 85T4X these days? Has she been hanging out with Alexa and Siri since her debut as host of the 5th anniversary episode?
Tim: Ha! 85T4X observed me watching 2001: Space Odyssey recently. Now she has a major crush on HAL. I actually made up that gag as a complete last-minute salvage. Our 5th anniversary episode was a walk down memory lane with clips from some of our favourite interviews we had done to the point. René was in a major crunch at his day job so I was putting it together myself (this is before Teresa joined up full time). I wanted the episode to be a little different than the regular episodes so I concocted a Tonebender‘s “robot” with a superiority complex. We got a lot of great feedback from it, so maybe I should wing it a bit more often.
I thought it was very clever! So, most fans of the show are aware that Tim and Teresa live in Toronto while René lives 1,400 miles south in Dallas, and that you (Tim and René) have never met in person. I’m not sure if I missed the explanation for this, but since you live so far apart, how did the show first come to be? And who came up with the name Tonebenders?
René: At the time I had been just devouring a podcast by Jon Tidey and Ryan Canestro called The Home Recording Show. They were doing gear shootouts and modifications, interviews and workflow postmortems. They were just jamming and having fun and I loved that. I wanted to do that but with sound design instead of music. I had been blogging intermittently, but I was really finding that it would be more fun to just produce some audio instead of doing all of this typing.
So way back in August of 2012 I put this tweet out asking if anyone knew of a good sound design podcast. Tim was the only response I got. Tonebenders 001 with our origin stories launched at the end of September (so 6 weeks after that initial post) and the rest is history.
Tim: There was a loose community of recordists that started up blogs about field recording & sound design all around the same time in 2007-10. I had been doing a blog as I was learning about recording sound effects, and René’s blog always struck me as really well written. He was a little ahead of me in terms of how advanced his recording sessions were. We had interacted on Twitter a bit but didn’t really have any connections at all. I didn’t really like the format of a blog because I am not a strong writer, so I was toying with the idea of a podcast myself but wasn’t bold enough to try it on my own. So when I saw René’s tweet I reacted immediately. Luckily he accepted me and our general aspirations matched pretty closely.
What fears did you overcome while recording your first episodes? Is there any situation that would still make you nervous, such as a guest who has particularly inspired you or who works in a mysterious field, or a technically challenging session with multiple guests calling in?
René: My expectation for the show was for it to just be a little playground to try some gear reviews and share some techniques. I never really started getting scared until Tim started booking big guests. :)
Tim: I hated our first episode. We had decided to use episode 1 as a way of introducing ourselves and telling listeners where we each have come from. I am not good at talking about myself, so the idea of doing a whole episode with our “origin stories” was a bit of a hurdle for me. But once we got past that, I was in pretty good shape. It took a while for us to find a format, or at least be comfortable with a lack of a consistent format, but eventually we hit our stride.
Teresa: I’m always nervous and I think that’s as it should be, so that you go in over-prepared, for safety. That said, I think one key to interviewing people is to be able to set aside your own intentions so you can really listen. Also, I’m not afraid to say, “I don’t understand, can you explain what you mean by that?” That is so often the moment when you really get somewhere good in a conversation. Through the magic of editing I can take out all my rambling and stumbling — it really helps to have a dialogue editor built-in.
Since the first episode in 2012, several new sound design-focused podcasts have started, like The Mastering Show, Twenty Thousand Hertz and Beards, Cats and Indie Game Audio. Do you find inspiration in other podcasts, to include ones that aren’t focused on the audio industry?
René: Absolutely. We actually did an episode with the creators of some of my fav podcasts but I have SO many in my podcaster that I’m always going through.
Lately I’ve been really drawn to the highly-produced but story-based podcasts, so I’m still always listening to the standards like This American Life, Song Exploder and Radiolab obviously, but I also really like the smaller indies like Here Be Monsters, Love and Radio, Rumblestrip, Criminal, This Is Love, Flash Forward, Heavyweight and Gastropod. I also really love the short-run stories like what Serial does, but also there’s one called Conviction on Gimlet Media that’s just amazing, as is Shittown. Every pod on that list is just top shelf in terms of structure and production quality, and it gives me a really good bar of what the medium can really be.
When I’m trying to focus on getting better in my work, I listen to BCAIGA, the Location Sound Podcast, Working Class Audio, Sound Matters, and on the bizdev side the a16z Podcast and Without Fail on Gimlet.
Tim: I was a really early adopter to podcasts. I commute via subway and podcasts are an easy way to pass the time while traveling underground. I listen to a very wide array of podcasts and genres. Sports, politics, comedy, drama, music history and many more are in my podcast app. I listen to and enjoy all the other sound-focused podcasts, but I think for Tonebenders I draw the most influence from completely unrelated content. I like interviews that don’t feel like interviews, so I try to create that feeling on our show. We want it to feel more like people sitting around at lunch talking shop than formal interviews.
Teresa: I also live and breathe podcasts – I listen less for professional development than I probably should, but it’s my ‘off the clock’ activity. That said, I can’t ever take my sound editor hat off, so I am always paying attention to the way voices and sounds are put together and filing that information away. Ear Hustle is one that hits all the bases. It’s a show that is meaningful, deals with important issues, is totally original and entertaining, the sound design is thoughtful and cool – and the audio production has always been flawless. When you consider that it’s a show produced inside a state penitentiary, it’s pretty inspiring on all levels. I am also a long-time WNYC devotee; they are my benchmark for radio journalism, so most of their podcasts are on my list, and I’m an admirer of RTÉ radio documentary work: it was the beautiful, sometimes kinda dreamlike RTÉ series, Sound Stories, that introduced me to Chris Watson probably 12 years ago. Were they even called podcasts then?
I think they were still transitioning from their “audioblog” moniker at that time – and those are all great recommendations! I am also a huge fan of This American Life, Radiolab, S-Town and especially Ear Hustle (I was so happy when Earlonne Woods was released).
Teresa, as a long-time listener of podcasts, what was it like to guest host and eventually become a full-time host on Tonebenders?
Teresa: I’ve been friends with Tim for many many years. He is a social connector and someone who likes to start projects, whereas I’m comfortable helping out in the background; so when he invited me to come to New York to do a bunch of Tonebenders interviews a few years back, my intention was to handle recording duties and carry the gear. But Tim said: “I think you should do this one interview” which was with the re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman. I was in a real panic. But Tim didn’t let me back out and it went pretty well. We were floating down 6th Ave afterwards. I’m grateful for that push. As an editor and mixer I’m used to polishing other people’s creations but with Tonebenders we are the makers and that provides a different kind of satisfaction.
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With 106 episodes in the bag, what are some of your favorite topics to discuss, ones that could easily make you lose track of time?
René: I can personally get lost in mixing and workflow talk, just because mixing is so difficult for me, but so rewarding when things turn out well. I also love to talk about working with actors. I find what good actors are able to do to be really fascinating.
Tim: I really like to talk to other professionals about how they can use sound design and effects to add emotion and tension. Using unexpected sounds, jumping rhythms, creating space for silence, and a thousand other tricks we have discussed all fill me with inspiration. I love the idea of messing with a viewer in a way that they are almost completely unaware of. I am always interested in digging deep into what other sound specialty pros are doing. I don’t edit dialog much anymore so the Dialog editing round table we did was super interesting to me. Same with episodes when we dive into talking about foley, I think everyone loves to dream of being a foley artist full time.
Teresa: Like René, I like to listen to other people explain the nitty-gritty step-by-step of how they accomplish their work, and that’s a brain-picking exercise. I like talking to people about the olden days of sound technology; that’s always fun and illuminating.
Since you’ve spoken to guests with many different roles in film, television and games, what areas are you looking to cover in future episodes?
René: We discussed this a bit in our episode with Peter, but we’re looking to actively diversify our interview list more, and to also talk more to the folks that we collaborate with. I also personally want to do more gear reviews and shootouts and workflow deep dives, because I find those things interesting.
Tim: I want the podcast to be something that I personally find interesting. I mainly use that as a barometer. As my interests evolve and my professional roles change, the podcast will somewhat reflect that. I want to know a whole lot more about ATMOS, so I am sure that will be making a few appearances over the next year. I am fascinated by project schedules. I would love to delve into different types of projects that have accelerated timelines, like Reality TV.
I think we’re also interested in talking about sound design outside of the TV/Film context, so we’ll see where that takes us.
Want to learn more about the Tonebenders podcast? Check out this special episode where sound designer Peter Albrechtsen interviews the Tonebenders team:
You spoke about this a bit with Peter Albrechtsen, too, but with the increased availability of sound design resources and changes in your own experiences, how have your reasons for recording the podcast transformed over the years? Have changes in the industry or audio communities affected the show?
René: One thing that’s been really key has been the affiliate links and the ability to take donations. That pays all of the hosting bill and allows us to roll our show the way we want with zero strings attached to sponsors. The tools of the trade itself are always changing, so there’s always plenty to explore and talk about.
The other things that can continue to evolve and affect the way we do what we do have a lot to do with collaboration. Skype quality has gone up quite a bit since we started 7 years ago, and I anticipate that it or something else gets to lossless streaming in the next few years, which could affect workflow since we currently ask the people that we’re interviewing to set up a mic and record themselves.
Pie in the sky futurology would be that instant translation and voice synthesis would advance to the point that we could interview people that don’t speak our languages in real time and get podcastable audio out of that.
I also think that things like auto-transcription and indexing based on those transcriptions will eventually allow someone to just Google search “Watson Wu vehicles” and get a link to a time-indexed stream of our vehicle recording roundtable where Watson is discussing his vehicle setup.
Tim: One major change is that sound people are much more willing to talk to us now than in 2012. Obviously a major part of that is we have an established track record now but I also think it is just more common for sound people to want to step into the spotlight a little bit. People want to talk to us now whereas before they were thinking that their work should be invisible and shouldn’t be spoken of.
In the ’90s when I was in film school and getting my first audio jobs, the re-recording mixers were the gods of Audio Post Production. Everyone wanted to work their way up to that position. I feel like there is a lot more emphasis now on the Sound Editors and Sound Designers. I wonder if that is because those workflows are easier to talk about in media like our podcast? A story about recording flame throwers in the desert is inherently more dramatic then discussing a compressor chain on the mix stage. I am not sure if that makes the heightened media coverage of audio post a good thing in the long run. I like to think we try to give both sides equal coverage.
In addition to changes in the industry there have been major changes in our personal lives since we started Tonebenders. Both René and I have started families since. Having kids drastically changes your priorities and the amount and ways you spend your free time. It took some time to find the right balance. Teresa’s arrival was essential to keeping Tonebenders going.
We also are blown away by the feedback we get from listeners who feel a connection with our guests. We regularly get messages from women saying how great it is to hear other women talking about their sound work on our podcast. The same can be said for geography too, people love to hear about successes outside the Hollywood system in different cities around the world. Whether it’s the crew that did Arrival in Montreal, or Abby Savage in NYC, Peter Albrechtsen in Denmark, George Vlad recording in South Africa, or Dave Whitehead in New Zealand – we always get great responses from people getting inspiration to find success in their home country or city. We can’t all work at Skywalker Ranch after all (although I am available if needed…).
Teresa: I can’t speak to how the motivation has changed over the years as I’m still new to the club, but producing a podcast while holding down a full-time job and having a family, etc. is a real personal challenge! Maybe we are motivated, as Tim says, by the fact that we have a growing audience and we hear all the time that they appreciate that we continue to do this. Every episode we put out adds to the body of knowledge around sound design and sound work, and I think it’s actually needed information.
The podcast was one of my first exposures to the “social” side of sound design, and it definitely helped seal in my mind that the audio industry is full of people I want to work with. But as you said, hosting a show is no easy task, and you all do it on a respectfully consistent schedule. What’s the recipe for running a successful podcast?
René: One of the keys for us has been the ability to divide and conquer the work. We all have the ability and access to produce and post an episode 100% independently – which means that at any point we each have some parts and pieces of various episodes in the works. What that means in practice is that there are no real bottlenecks at any points in the process – in other words Tim and Teresa are never really having to wait on me to do a task like post an edited episode up to the feed or anything like that. When an episode gets recorded, we just kind of decide then and there who has enough bandwidth to get the edit and mix done and then that person takes responsibility for getting it across the finish line.
We have a Trello board where we can see what ideas are percolating, who’s in line to get interviewed, and what’s up and in progress. We only update that one occasionally though.
The other thing we do is group text and email a lot. I think we actually just had our first show meeting last week where we all jumped on Skype and (gasp) didn’t record anything – we just discussed what’s coming up next.
Tim: Throw your ego out the window. For every guest that comes on Tonebenders, there are many more that we could not get. You also have to have a lot of ideas because only 2 out of 10 will actually work out to be a finished episode. The on-line audio community is an amazing and supportive group, that really helps. Getting messages from listeners telling us that our little podcast has really made an impact on their lives is a really great motivator to keep us going and keep your quality control high. Also it’s good to find someone amazing like Teresa to add new ideas and enthusiasm about 6 years in.
The most recent episode of the Tonebenders podcast, in which the team interviews Dallas Taylor of the (also outstanding) Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast
That’s all great advice: reduce bottlenecks, be resilient, and don’t be afraid to bring on new people. Speaking of people you’ve collaborated with, I’ve always been curious – who have been your announcers? (And by the way, I love the new theme by Marc Straight.)
René: For the first 24, we had Adele Young who was a friend of Dustin, one of our original co-hosts. From 25-99, it was Stacy DuPass, and our current voiceover was done by my good friend Jennifer Green.
Jennifer is funny because I did her voiceover demo 10 years ago when she was just starting out, and she got so much work she was afraid to update it until this past year when her agent made her do it. For some reason she figured it was the demo and not her skillset that was nabbing all those clients. :)
Jennifer, Adele and Stacy both have great voices for the intros, very memorable. I’ve always appreciated how polished and “branded” the intros are, too.
So, for your 10th anniversary, will you two finally meet in person??
René: Tim and I will never be witnessed in the same place at the same time. That’s the only way people will still believe that we’re actually two different people.
Tim: When we are 80 we will meet up on a beach in some tropic paradise. Then set up microphones to record the water rolling in while arguing over who has the better mic placement to capture the essence of each cresting wave. I will, of course, be correct, but René will never admit it.
A big thanks to Teresa Morrow, Timothy Muirhead, and René Coronado for sharing stories about the Tonebenders podcast – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!
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