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True Crime Sound Design on “Anatomy of Murder”

The audio team behind “Anatomy of Murder” shows why there’s room for more than tense and ominous sounds when it comes to true crime sound design

Anatomy of Murder, podcasts,True-crime podcasts, by the nature of the stories they tell, tend to be underscored with tense and ominous sounds. While each episode of the “Anatomy of Murder” podcast, produced by Indianapolis, Ind.-based Audiochuck, deals with dark themes and details, there is also plenty of room for light, says executive producer Sumit David.

“If you look at the color palettes of a “Star Wars” movie, they always [begin] white and bright, and as the movie progresses, it gets darker,” says David. “[We were] like, ‘That’s how we should approach the sound design of this. Let’s start not-so-true crime. Let’s not start very heavy. Let’s ease our audience into it.’”

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Dayton Cole, who handles all the post-production work on “Anatomy of Murder” at podcast editing service Resonate Recordings in Louisville, Ky., likens the process to building a house, with the brooding sounds serving as the basement. Once they establish that baseline, Cole attends to the “brighter, sentimental moments,” which are his favorite to highlight. “More natural sounds, strings and piano — those kind of natural elements—rather than the synthetic, electronic pulsing and droning,” he says.

Anatomy of Murder, podcasts, Dayton Cole
Dayton Cole, handles all the post-production work on “Anatomy of Murder” using a variety of tools, including Avid Pro Tools, a Universal Audio Apollo Twin X interface, plug-ins on an adjacent screen like Waves’ WLM loudness meter, and a pair of Audeze LCD-2 open-back over-ear headphones. Photo: Leaf & Pine Photography

David’s background as an editor on reality television programs prepared him for his role on “Anatomy of Murder,” which is also unscripted. Hosts Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, a New York City homicide prosecutor, and Scott Weinberger, an investigative journalist, research the cases and keep a loose set of talking points for each episode, but otherwise the interviews and case discussions are fluid. The pair record on Blue Yeti USB microphones, while guests record locally on their own computers during video conferences with the hosts.

Before the audio files make it to Cole as an .OMF (Open Media Framework Interchange), an open-source format that allows him to import David’s Adobe Premiere files into Pro Tools, David edits the interviews and compiles related archival audio collected from law enforcement sources.

“I try and make it so that the story is all laid out, that all the bites, whether they be from Scott, Anna-Sigga, from the guests, or from archival material, are all put together in one big sequence, divided up into the four acts,” says David. “From there, it’s handed off to Dayton so he can do his magic of adding the sound design, pacing [and] music.”

Anatomy of Murder, podcasts, Sumit David
Anatomy of Murder executive producer Sumit David

David provides some creative direction, but after working together on dozens of episodes of the podcast, the pair have a largely unspoken workflow. Cole approaches each episode as a listener would, forming an outsider’s perspective on the structure and recordings David sends him. “I create blank tracks — little ‘slugs’ I call them — so I can just say, ‘This is kind of the emotion I want in this section,’” says Cole.

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Many of the sounds Cole weaves into the podcast’s aural environment come from sound libraries, although he often manipulates the stems through processors like iZotope Rx to meet his needs. The main concern is to keep the music from distracting listeners away from the dialogue, so it is impactful but not overpowering. On an episode where he didn’t have access to stem tracks, he improvised to keep the bass and kick drums from overpowering the other instruments.

Anatomy of Murder, podcasts, Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, Scott Weinberger
Anatomy of Murder’s hosts Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, an NYC homicide prosecutor, and Scott Weinberger, an investigative journalist.

“I liked what all the other elements were doing,” so “I used the Elysia Alpha Compressor to be able to help the mids come back, and then open up the sides,” he says. “And, I was able to kind of blend that underneath so it wasn’t hitting you in the face so much.”

Transparency is key at the end of the day. Cole prefers to remain in the background and work without being detected. “My job is, don’t be noticed, but be impactful,” he says. “If people are in the story and they’re digging it and they don’t notice all the sound changes, that’s when I know I’ve done my job.”