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Curating The K-Hole: Music Selection in the Apocalypse

Or, "How to Establish Atmosphere in 137 Easy Steps"

Fanbyte Podcast Czar merritt k and I recently wrapped Season 1 of our interview show, The K-Hole. These 30 episodes (canonically at least) include discussions, diatribes, and discourse with the very best and weirdest folk the internet has to offer, such as political commentator Felix Biederman, child actress and writer Mara Wilson, gore queen Sarah Squirm, and porn star Arabelle Raphael (you can Google those last two yourself). If you haven’t checked it out, there’s nothing in the rule book that says you can’t go do that whenever. No pressure. You do you.

Of the many labors required to construct the show, selecting music for each episode was the biggest creative challenge. We ended up using 137 songs for the first season, and I’d like to talk about how these choices were made, what I learned in the process, and why any of this matters. Click here (or use the embedded player below), and let’s get started.

Listening with purpose

At the risk of sounding corny, every episode of The K-Hole (or any podcast) is a journey that you’re taking the listener on, and like any journey, you have to know where you’re going and how you plan to get there. During each episode’s preliminary edit, I marked instances where the guest made a particularly profound observation or really drove home a point, as well as segments where the topic of conversation shifted. Of these moments I would then select a handful of the most impactful (generally three to five per episode, but sometimes as many as 11), and use these spots to inject a musical interlude, either to heighten the impact of whatever the guest was saying, or to give some emotional/thinking distance between two subjects.

This gave me a sense of the episode’s topography, to keep our travel analogy going. Once I had that, I could start mapping out how the listener would get from Point A to Point B (and then to Point C, to Point D, etc.).To know which route was most advantageous, I considered the following:

  • What is the emotional timbre of the discussion that we’re leaving?
  • What is the emotional timbre of the discussion that we’re joining?
  • How do we want to interact with these two emotional states?
  • What does the listener get out of all this?

As an example, let’s use a transition from Episode 9 with special guest Drew Fairweather, aka @drewtoothpaste, where Drew told an intense story about a snowman he saw while high on drugs. Drew became increasingly passionate as he spoke, relaying details about the snowman’s connection to existence and its lifecycle through various states of matter. My goal was to mirror that intensity, heighten that delivery, give room for the thought to breathe afterwards, and invoke the drug-induced nature of the story through the tone of my selection. I wanted the listener to feel like they’d had the same epiphany that Drew did, and then have time to sit with that before rejoining the conversation.

I found what I needed in Ambre Jaune’s “Not My Will,” a haunting and morose composition overflowing with texture and otherworldly intonations. The song builds from gentle ambience into a tense crescendo of strings that eventually collapses inward, giving way to a single, persistent tone, after which arrhythmic modulations resurrect the string quartet. The later half of the song was far too somber for what I needed, but those first two minutes, hot damn. You’d think I had it commissioned.

In this video I’ve slapped together, we hear Drew’s story without accompaniment, then with. Pay attention to how the build aligns with Drew’s emphatic storytelling; how the crescendo and Drew’s vehement final “man” play off each other. The messy, aggravating strings are then discarded, focusing the listener on that single, droning tone in a pantomime of Drew’s story about cutting through the clutter of existence. It accentuates, it heightens, it creates space, and it helps the listener feel the story instead of just hearing it.

This is just one example, and every K-Hole transition had its own unique set of needs and circumstances, so the lesson here isn’t, “Ah, I should always pick a song that closely mirrors the dramatic arc of what’s being said.” At times you may want to create a contrast between the emotional charge of a statement and the music underneath it. You may need to find something that eases the listener from a very serious discussion into a conversation that’s much more lighthearted, or vice-versa. The point is you have to think about it, and be purposeful in your selections. Just liking a song isn’t enough — the song has to do something.

So where did all this music come from?

Save for a couple of exceptions that I’ll address later, all of the music used in Season 1 came from Epidemic Sound, a royalty-free production library that we contract. The music on Epidemic is extremely high quality, as is evident from The K-Hole and the rest of our shows, but its search functionality and tagging system both leave a lot to be desired. Songs are categorized by genre and into a selection of semi-arbitrary “moods” that serve as shorthand for the general tone of a piece, but nothing more specific/less subjective than that is available. For example, if I think I want something with a flute for a certain transition, well, too bad. I have to dig through a pile of songs categorized as “Sentimental” or “Elegant” and hope to stumble on what I’m after.

Because of this, I learned an important lesson early in the show’s lifetime: Don’t get married to any one idea. Sometimes the first thing you come up with just isn’t going to work, either because it’s not available or because it simply wasn’t as good of an idea as you thought it was, and trying to force it will only waste your time. I may have known in my heart of hearts that a Lord of the Rings-style pan flute interlude was perfect for a given transition, but wasting three hours looking for it on Epidemic — only to concede that the thing I wanted simply didn’t exist on the service — didn’t help me or the show. You have to be agile in your ability to accept solutions for a problem as they are presented to you, even if they’re not the exact solution that you had been looking for.

That being said, remember to trust your gut when something just doesn’t feel right. A song can fit all the technical requirements for what you need it to do in a given moment (right tempo for the discussion, fits well with host’s cadence, etc.), but if your instincts still say “this isn’t right,” listen to them. It might take another hour of digging to find the song that is right, but it’s usually worth the added effort.

These might seem like contradictory ideas. How can it be both? How is it possible to stick to your guns while also remaining nimble in your decision making? The answer lies in two basic rules of thumb:

  • Trust what the mix is telling you, and
  • Be confident, not stubborn

If a song seems great in a vacuum but just doesn’t work once you’ve got it in the mix, trust that. If it’s perfect as soon as you plug it in, trust that too. The mix doesn’t lie. Sometimes you’ll know that a song is wrong before you even download it, but you won’t know why it’s wrong until you hear it in context, and from there you can return to your search with a better handle on what you need. This is the process through which the correct song is selected, and why the second half of this is so important — the correct song may not even have a pan flute.

Making exceptions

Listeners of The K-Hole may recall Episode 17, “Remembering Helen,” as the only significant departure from our primary formula. This episode was built in memory of a dear friend and featured eulogies from the people that knew her, both read aloud by merritt and sent in by those comfortable doing so. This was a tremendously important thing to be entrusted with, and I knew from the outset that I had to be careful, deliberate, and respectful — but otherwise, I had no idea what I was doing.

The conventional approach felt wrong almost immediately. I didn’t know Helen personally; what if I picked a song that she would have hated? What if I felt a song was okay, but the person in the recording thought it sounded like elevator music? How do you find music that acknowledges grief without sounding cheesy or disrespectful, or even more importantly, without pressing the bruise? Suddenly these decisions that were normally subjective, low-stake affairs were unbelievably consequential. And even if I royally boned a traditional episode of The K-Hole, there was always the next one to make up for it. With this, I only had one chance.

As is often the case, a solution presented itself. A recording of static was included in the files from Helen’s loved ones, and at first I thought someone had exported a file incorrectly or experienced some kind of technical issue. merritt informed me that this was actually a picture of Helen that one of her friends had converted into an audio file using special software, and around the same time, merritt also sent me a link to this song, written by one of Helen’s friends, and asked for it to be used in the episode.

This gave me enough of a starting point to realize that what I actually needed to do was to get out of the way and let these people grieve. I decided that I would avoid the problem of music selection entirely by only using the song that merritt had provided, and only at the very end of the episode after everyone had a chance to speak. This left me needing a way to bridge the gap between speakers, and after trying a lot of very inelegant solutions, I realized that the .wav of static did the job perfectly. Not only this, but replacing the show’s trademark musical interludes with an absence instead of an alternative helped reflect the loss that everyone was expressing. The static was literally Helen, woven through the episode as she had been through these people’s lives. The final step was to remove the show’s intro music, leaving only the subway ambience in place. This served as an immediate signal to the listener that this episode was different, that something had happened, and that they needed to pay attention.

The point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to do something different when the situation calls for it. It’s important to have a structure and a process, but there will be times when the success of the entire operation hinges on your ability to throw all that out the window. Episode 17 would have been a disaster and a disservice had I stuck to the normal K-Hole formula, and had it not been for the assistance of merritt and her friends, I probably would have made a bad time even worse.

And maybe that’s the final idea that we should end on: Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. That goes for everything, not just curating music for a podcast about horse tranquillizers and internet forums.

About the Author

Jordan Mallory

Jordan is a frog that lives in Texas and loves Girls Generation. He's also Senior Podcast Producer! Before that he wrote video game news for almost ten years at a lot of websites you've heard of, including this one.