The cultural phenomenon Serial took the world by storm this fall and quickly became the most successful podcast in history. The podcast, produced by the creators of This American Life, explored the complicated case of Adnan Syed, a man who is currently serving a prison sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend. Did Syed actually commit the crime? The evidence, it turned out, wasn't as clear-cut as the jury was led to believe.
Behind the incredible story and investigative journalism lies impressive production with detailed audio mixing and original scoring for the entire series — highlighting the evolution podcasting and radio production is undergoing right now. I spoke recently with Mark Henry Phillips, who did all of the sound mixing and score throughout in addition to the music (including the now-iconic theme) written by Nick Thorburn. (Also read my interview with Thorburn.)
How did you get attached to Serial?
The most direct way was through Alex Blumberg. He was a former This American Life producer, then started Planet Money and recently left to start up a podcasting company called Gimlet Media. I had been helping him with the first podcast, called StartUp, which is a mini-series about him starting the podcasting company.
He had been speaking to Julie Snyder, the executive producer of Serial, and she had been saying "I think we need some help with the music and sound front" and he was like, "oh, you should work with Mark." One thing led to another.
Were you brought on board after Nick Thorburn had done his work?
Yes. He sent in a batch of songs before the season started.
Because he heard the first episode in a rough mix without music, right?
Yeah. They actually sent that to me at the same time. It was an early draft of the first episode. My understanding is he sent in a batch of songs, about 15 songs, and one of them they decided would be the theme song. And then they used those tracks to score the first two episodes they put together before the season's launch and then they hired me.
So, from there on out I basically wrote new music for each episode and we used a couple of Nick's tracks throughout the season, but mostly it was just the theme song and I wrote original pieces. It's really hard to score something that doesn't exist. So, his music was great and captured a sort of meta-feel, but when it came down to actual moments it was hard to use one of those songs so we just ended up writing new stuff and putting that in the show.
Yeah, it was about a day. They would usually send it at some point on Tuesday and then we would post it Wednesday night. They would send a rough assembly and I would go through — trying to listen to it as a listener before starting to do stuff. I would mark points where it needed stuff, chapter breaks, places to let listeners think about it. Then I would try to drop stuff in that I felt was a good first draft.
The mixing was really time-consuming. There was a lot of restoration with the old tape from the 90s. A lot of it was poorly recorded, obviously, with a tape recorder probably on a table. I really wanted that to sound good, so I treated it like I was mixing a movie because I mix a lot of films. Then, Wednesday afternoon I would send it to Julie Snyder, go through a few rounds of notes, and we'd post it. There wasn't a lot of time for reflection — we would just do it.
Do you think the speed of that helped the show as far as the experience goes?
Yeah, I think so. The story was so riveting and Sarah's writing was so great. That was all that really mattered. I listened to the episodes without music and without mixing and it was still an amazing show. So, if we'd had two weeks to do music and mix each episode we might have gotten too fancy and forgotten that it was Sarah's writing at the heart of it. The music and the mixing helps a lot — definitely makes it more listenable — but, yeah, keeping it that quick maybe prevented us from going too far and taking away from the story or getting in the way.
When you're writing music that quickly it can be really good because you're not thinking about the production. You're not thinking so much about how you can make the bass sound better, or searching for a specific sample for two hours. You're focusing on the melody and what captures the feeling. You're focusing on the bare bones of what you have to do. More like drawing a sketch than doing the full painting. You get the important lines. In a way it was liberating to be in that kind of time crunch.
I would rather have a day and half that is so focused on this one thing than have a week to stress about it. Wednesday was my Serial day for three months. Tuesday would be anticipation and Thursday would be recovery, but Wednesday I would be in a Serial hole.
Did you think much about Nick did as you started composing?
I love the theme song and obviously it's the music that people remember. The scoring is different. The old adage is that a good film score you don't notice. You walk away from a movie and think there was no music in it because you are focusing on the story and the characters. So, hopefully people didn't even notice the scoring and there actually was quite a bit. I think about a quarter of every episode was scored. The theme song is definitely what people walk away from remembering, and during the production of the show it sort of felt like a sign post for the show's beginning and ending. So anything that felt too close to that I felt like it might be giving that cue that the show might be ending, so I didn't want anything to be too close to that.
Since they had reached out to me before Nick sent in his work I started a few pieces on my own. So those were my starting points: the template for what I did. [Nick] used a lot of guitar, which I stayed away from. Something about guitar didn't work for me, so I tried to stick with more synthesizers and drones. Some stringed instruments and of course piano. But I love those tracks he sent, and they were sort of a guide for me.
As the show progressed, did you feel like you had to keep developing new music or did you try to reuse pieces from previous episodes?
I wrote new pieces for every episode. I think three pieces on average for every episode. But because of the time crunch, I tried to use what was already written. My session would have all my instruments set up so I could write a new piece on an instrument that was used in an older piece so I was able to create a palette for the show. I could know a sound worked for the show and create with that in mind.
I did try to start using more percussion near the end because the one struggle we kept having was just to make the music emotionally neutral. It was really hard because if the music colored the narrative at all it would do a disservice to the show. Music always has some emotional content to it, so if you play something slow it feels like it could be sad; and if it's too fast it might be ominous or [suggest that] something crazy happened. So, no matter what you do you are infusing it with something.
This American Life uses a lot of music that is neutral, but their palette wouldn't work with this story. So, what I tried to focus on was Sarah's apprehension. She was the stand-in for the listener, so if I could connect with her ups and downs then it would be appropriate. Towards the end I started to use more percussion and drums because I felt like they helped keep things neutral.
Have you seen a nice response to your album of music from the show?
It's hard to tell. I was getting a lot of e-mails asking for the music. I felt a little weird putting it out since I didn't write the music to be put out on its own, but people were asking for it so I decided to go ahead with it. People seem to like it, and Saturday Night Live used six of the tracks for a parody. So, it's cool that people want to listen to it. I'm thrilled.
I really appreciated how organic the entire production felt.
Thanks. That's exactly what I was going for. I told them ahead of time that we should do it like a TV series where music just creeps in and disappears without you really knowing. It gave some real freedom to sound a little different from other podcasts: make it sound more polished and complete as a product. The series nature of it allowed music to be developed over a few episodes. It was the most fun I've had on any project.
You established a foundation for your listeners to stand on.
The mixing process really helped the [podcast's] reception too. I spent a lot of time cleaning up material and trying to have everything sound as good as it could rather than just having the bar set at intelligibility. I would spend hours making certain interviews sound better because if it sounded better, I thought people would take in the information more readily. It was fun treating it like a film rather than a typical podcast. If you make it sound good, the story might [more easily] work its way into people.
Sarah's writing and the story itself was so perfect that I was just trying to put the cherry on top, but the one thing I thought was really transformative was dealing with some of that tape. People like Jay are never heard from in the current day, so all we have is the tape from interrogation and trial. In the initial records there was so much noise he was barely audible, but when I was done with it you could hear when he quivered before speaking or you could hear some of the ambience of the police room from outside.
It did more than just allow you to understand what he said. You could try and judge it because you could hear particular details of voice rather than just the obscure tape defects. I don't think I transformed the show with the music. But, that particular work made a difference — being able to hear not just what they are saying, but the way they are saying it.
Did you go back through the original tape or were you just sent material with each assemblage?
It was sent in the assemblage. So I could pull the audio out and restore. I didn't go restore all the original tape because that would have been thousands of hours of tape and would have been unnecessary.
Are you attached to the second season?
The second season is so far off no one even knows. I'm not involved in the show like the rest of the staff, but my understanding is they haven't even decided what the second season will be. I hope I get to work on it, but I don't know when.
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