Today we are speaking with Jeremy S. Bloom, an Emmy-nominated sound designer from Brooklyn. His work focuses on crafting immersive story-driven soundscapes for podcasts, interactive installations, films, and theatrical productions internationally. Jeremy’s work includes originally commissioned immersive installations for The Statue of Liberty Museum, the Planet Word museum of linguistics, Manchester United, Spectrum Cable, AUDI, TBS, the Tenement Museum, as well as sound design for critically acclaimed documentaries Hail Satan? (Magnolia), FYRE (Netflix), The Great Hack (Netflix), Tiger (HBO), The Brink (Magnolia), Tigerland (Discovery), and more.
Jeremy is a staff sound designer for WNYC Studio’s critically acclaimed podcast Radiolab and previously contributed sound design and original music for the award-winning Queer podcast Nancy and comedy hit Two Dope Queens. Jeremy most recently worked on Audible’s Hot White Heist, an audio experience with the plot ambitions of a major heist film and featuring an all-Queer cast. In this interview, Jeremy explains his process as a sound designer and the unique challenges he encountered on Hot White Heist.
What series did you sound design?
I was the sound designer for Hot White Heist, a new audio-drama produced by Broadway Video and Club Cumming Productions for Audible! In this case, that means I oversaw the development of the show’s sonic aesthetic much like how a production designer might work with a director to develop and execute a film’s visual aesthetic.
Can you describe the series?
Where can I start? The series is a full heist film with action, intrigue, high-speed chases, and espionage… but depicted entirely through audio without any visuals. In it, a group of Queer folks (Played by Bowen Yang, Cynthia Nixon, Bianca Del Rio, and many more) plot to steal the sperm of former US presidents from a super-secret government facility under the Seattle Space Needle to fund their own Queer island utopia…
I’m pretty sure it’s fiction, but you never know… It’s curiously the second Queer story involving a separatist island utopia I’ve sound designed, the previous being a radio documentary for the podcast Nancy about The Gay Republic of the Coral Sea Islands which is very real. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.
Who was the director?
Alan Cumming directed the series, and what a good fit! Who else has both played a James Bond villain and owns a Queer nightclub in Manhattan?!
How early did you get involved in this series?
As a Sound Designer, I’m used to coming on to projects very late in the game. After all, sound editing and mixing are so often the final step of making a film. Hot White Heist was different. I had the privilege of joining the project very early before the script was even finalized. I was able to weigh in on the role sound design might play in the writers’ room, get to know the script, and prototype ideas with my heistly collaborator-in-crime Dan Timmons. Dan handled all the initial episode assemblies and far more.
The project really benefited from this early involvement and the main reason I feel the sound design is so well integrated is because of producer Mark Valdez’s foresight to call in a sound designer so early. It’s an idea that many of my favorite leaders in audio post like Randy Thom, Ren Klyce, and Skip Livsey evangelize. Involving sound design early, even in pre-production, can really elevate storytelling. I’ve heard it and have believed in its power, but now I’ve lived it!
How did you work with the director? What direction were you given for the sound design? How often was the director listening to your sound?
The project was incredibly collaborative in all the best ways. It reminded me of my favorite moments in theatre when everyone in the room had a voice in bringing ideas to the table and furthering our storytelling. The direction for the sound design really began on the page. Adam Goldman’s script offered the challenge of amazing classic heist moments like car chases, hacking scenes, action on a moving train, slow motion, laser fields, and more… but without the visual cues that would typically be afforded in a film. The script detailed the way in which these moments have to further the story, but also left great latitude for me to contribute my own artistic voice in realizing them.
(The following possibly in “slow motion,”)
SFX: Toby removing a sample from the ice bucket. Suddenly, the car is RAMMED from behind. Everyone in the car is shocked. The sound of the sample flying through the air, Judy trying to grab it, as it glances off the open window and… out of the car.
In terms of listening, the group had two opportunities for feedback with plenty of casual collaborative communications between. The first was focused on dialogue pacing and performance, the second focused primarily on sound design and music. We then had a final third remotely supervised session to review the mix and make any final changes. On an audio drama, timing of material is way more flexible than on a picture-locked film, so we found working on elements in the order of their impact was most efficient: Dialogue, followed in turn by music, hard SFX, foley, and finally backgrounds.
Can you describe the pace of the sound design?
The pace is carefully designed with as many long periods of quiet as there are dense action packed sections. When I teach sound design, I challenge my students to think about varying sonic qualities in many ways beyond just volume or musical pitch. The work of Mark Mangini, Doug Hempbill, Ron Bartlett, and the team on Blade Runner 2049 is proof that there’s so much more that can go into an amazingly dramatic mix than volume alone. Density and pacing are some of the more powerful qualities we can utilize, and an audio-only medium offers an amazing level of flexibility on this front. That’s to say we can place music and effects around the dialogue as one might in a film, but on an audio-only project we also have the ability to intricately shift the dialogue to make way for music or sound effects without impacting sync. Ultimately, this means creating a complex and intertwined collage of music, dialogue, and sound effects without the constraints of synced moving picture.
Since I was able to join the project so early, we were able to map out the more complex scenes on paper moment by moment and plan these complex scenes using notation not dissimilar from what a mixer might use on Broadway to mark up a live script.
The project also totally changed my relationship with temp music. So often a hastily cut temp score can cause so many creative issues down the line. That temp music may set an aesthetic tone, but doesn’t lay out the way a score can precisely punctuate or respond to the story. In my work at Radiolab, I’ve learned from our host Jad Abumrad and head sound designer Dylan Keefe the importance of those punctuations: How music should support dialogue, but also how dialogue can be edited to also support music.
On Hot White Heist, by giving our temporary score far more editorial attention than is typical, I learned the real power it can have as a shorthand to communicate those punctuations and prototype the interplay between dialogue and music.
With the help of my friend and fellow sound designer Chelsea Daniel, we collected an audio library of dozens of classic heist and noir references ranging from classic production music cues from APM’s vintage collections to all the classic James Bond themes. I spliced these vintage tracks within early drafts of the episodes in an elaborately polished and through-composed mash-up. Think Girltalk, but with vintage heist music timed line-by-line to the dialogue to punctuate jokes, highlight action, build tension, release it, etc.. It was a level of detail that couldn’t be captured in text and allowed us to workshop ideas and efficiently communicate with our composer Charlie Rosen. He could then build upon that detailed structure in his own musical voice and the overall relationship between spoken and musical storytelling was guaranteed to sing without much further adjustment on either end.
Was there a particular scene or scenes that were most challenging? If so, why? And how did you overcome that challenge?
Building the sound of a drag club during COVID was a particular challenge and it was important to me as a Queer sound designer to depict these spaces in an authentic way. You’d think that creating action or chase sequences would require the most effort and attention to detail, but ultimately the act of sonically constructing a drag club is equally demanding. These clubs are challenging to record in the real world since there’s almost always loud music playing that we need to discard for practical production purposes. Stock crowd sounds available on the internet are far too often exclusively voiced by thirty-something yearold white folks, lack femme voices, might be sports-oriented, or at best are simply aspecific. Typically, we’d address this issue by recording a “loop group” of actors who improvise more specific crowd voices, but getting a large group of actors together in a studio wasn’t realistic for us during COVID.
Ultimately we ended up surgically reconstructing an entire drag club environment from the ground up by asking our amazing Queer cast to improvise relatable conversations they themselves might have in an exclusively Queer space. Gossip, call-outs to the performers, laughs, reactions, and more. Our incredible editor Dan Timmons and I sifted through hours of material and found ways to place these sounds in conversation with one another. Most importantly, we found ways to build them in reaction to the drag performer’s banter. Foley genius, Joanna Fang, put on her sharpest stilettos and performed the sound of the queens marching across a hollow wooden stage. We processed the music and performers as if you’re hearing them through a terrible PA system. When all was said and done, Alan, a bar owner himself, said “Damn that’s a place I want to hang out in!” and I knew we succeeded!
Did you do more than sound design on this series?
I suppose it depends on how you think of sound design. There are some who see it as the creation of raw original sound effects. They aren’t wrong. Creating the original sounds of a secret bunker, laser fields, car chases, cold storage units, helicopter landings and more were certainly a large part of my role, but I also see sound design as that plus so much more.
For me, sound design is also all about facilitating artistic conversations, supporting my collaborators to make their best informed choices, translating conversations about emotion and character into craft, helping people do their best work, and more. The thing I take the most pride in is when clients end a process with an increased understanding of just how powerful sound can be, and how fun the process of crafting it is. I think it’s those priorities that have helped me find work designing sound not only for podcasts and films, but also for immersive exhibits and interactive projects. Some of the technical specifics may differ medium-to-medium, some aesthetic expectations may differ genre-to-genre, but the root principles of storytelling with sound are universal be it a Queer heist audio drama, UI sound design for Google, immersive exhibits at The Statue of Liberty, doc films like, Hail Satan? and beyond!
Was the sound design done during the pandemic? If so, how did that affect the workflow?
The entire project was done during the pandemic. Our producers Mark Valdez and Gaby Mezzacapa at Broadway Video were absolutely incredible in coordinating our entire production to record safely on SAG-AFTRA approved ADR stages so we could focus our time on creative choices instead of cleaning up rough DIY recordings. As a result, nearly every scene was recorded in sides, often with scene partners in separate sessions. To speed things up, our editor Dan and I created a custom live-logging Google sheet for our script supervisor to note takes on. Every day we’d ingest the recordings from the studio and developed an automated process to quickly embed the session notes directly into the audio files as metadata. The takes became instantly searchable in our database program Soundminer according to every possible field be it character, line number, scene, episode or more. It even automatically highlighted files in green that were called out as a favorite take in the session.
That database, and our project as a whole, lived on Dropbox to allow for instantly synced sessions that either of us could dive into at any moment as we were constantly trading files. Unsupervised revisions were collected on Frame.io and we ran supervised sessions over Zoom with audio streaming in full quality over an Audiomovers link. Overall it ran very smoothly, although I did miss the opportunity to cook for my collaborators and bond over shared meals in the studio.
What system did you use and why?
The series was cut on Protools and our custom dialogue and sound effects database was built in Soundminer. Programs like Reaper may offer a more modern customizable workflow, but ultimately Protools serves as an efficient lingua-franca that can be shared between all our dialogue studios like Soundtrack and Soundlounge, Dan and my own independent studios, and Alchemy’s foley stage. I used a Makenoise 0-Coast semi-modular synth to create lasers, electronic interfaces, and more. The acoustics of our various environments were built with a combination of Audioease’s Altiverb and Indoor as well as Cargo Cult’s “Slapper” delay. We also used some more esoteric plugins like GRM Tools, Goodhertz Lossy, Megaphone, and more for some of the more niché design work.
Is there a tool within that system that most people might not know about that you use?
External to Protools, Dan and I are both fans of pushing macro scripting with Keyboard Maestro to its limits to make up for any features Protools may be missing. Any set of repetitive tasks, or complex keystrokes adds time that compounds significantly when you have to repeat those tasks hundreds of times in a day. This takes away from time I can spend outside on my bike (with mics on the handlebars of course!) listening to the world and dreaming up the best creative ideas and design solutions. I challenge myself to automate the boring stuff so I can focus on the creative stuff!
How did you manage your time?
In audio-editing we have a concept called checkerboarding where you alternate audio between tracks so when one track isn’t playing, a second one is. I like applying that same concept to managing a team on an extended series by thinking about how idle time on one episode is an opportunity to work ahead on the next. With a big Gantt chart, I was able to map everyone’s dependencies including time our directorial team might need to listen, time our composer might need to build the score, time for the executives at Audible to listen, mixing, foley, and so forth. At any given moment, Dan may be building an assembly for one episode, our producers may be gathering their feedback on a previous one, and I may be spotting foley for a third to keep us always moving forward.
How do you manage producer’s expectations with reality/what can really be done?
This was really a dream project in that I can’t think of a single moment in which there were any misaligned expectations. I was brought on so early and had a chance to craft a unique production workflow and schedule with our producers that suited the needs of the project, so everything ran smoothly. On the production end of things, Broadway Video and Club Cumming Productions worked to record at some of the best studios in the country. That means there really weren’t many issues to clean up. That was a great gift because it meant Dan and I could focus on the creative aspects of the project instead of fixing problems.
How do you take criticism? Do you find yourself defensive or accepting of others’ ideas (good and bad)?
I think there may be some designers who see their job as to aggressively pitch a director on their own creative concept or vision. When I teach, I call this, “The Used Car Salesman Approach,” and I learned early on that’s really not what good collaboration is all about. Viewing feedback as a confrontational battle with a winner and a loser leads to bad work that isn’t fun to make. I prefer to treat a design process as a kind of safari. As collaborators, we’re all in the Jeep together driving into the Savannah. We may have ideas about the general direction we want to head, the things we’re hoping to find, but often the most exciting discoveries are when someone can feel comfortable saying, “Oooh, what’s that over there? Let’s check it out!” We head off-road. Sometimes it’s a false-alarm and we have to turn back to the original course, but sometimes we find the most beautiful place we would have never otherwise known. Those amazing discoveries depend on an openness to try ideas I might not have myself, so I always welcome others’ ideas.
There are times when I suspect a direction won’t work due to practical purposes or scheduling limitations. I’ll still do my best to try it because often my instinct is wrong. If it’s not, hearing that idea sketched out with all its flaws can still be an important step on the way to getting to our ultimate creative destination. In circumstances where time is too tight for this approach, I try to facilitate a conversation about the broader ambitions of a given idea. Then I’ll suggest some other viable solutions that may still satisfy those ambitions.