Tevin Sudi from AfroQueer walks us through how he approaches audio editing and sound design | Podcasting | DW | 03.06.2024
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Tevin Sudi from AfroQueer walks us through how he approaches audio editing and sound design

Good podcasts have good audio, and producers need to prioritize making sure a show’s sound is sound. That includes positioning mics, matching music to content, and enhancing storytelling through creative audio design.

Tevin Sudi | Tontechniker

Sound editor Tevin Sudi

Tevin Sudi is the head sound editor at AfroQueer, a podcast about queer Africans living, loving, surviving and thriving on the African continent and in the diaspora. The 28-year-old Nairobi native also works on several other shows through his own media house, Claradon Studios. His other current projects include Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, which explores experiences of sex, sexualities and pleasure, as well as What the Denmark?, which attempts to explain Danish culture to outsiders and resolve cultural confusion for people who’ve moved there.

He's drawn to shows that address topics that aren't spoken about all that much in parts of Africa. He considers it a kind of activism because he sees the impact that these stories have and how they push the conversation forward. He tries to pick projects that feature interesting points of view and inspire social change.

Tevin started studying architecture in school but decided what he really wanted to do was make and perform music. He first studied sound engineering to produce his own songs and concerts. But when he took a course on audio postproduction, he discovered all the creative ways he could use sound to enhance storytelling. He was hooked. One of his advisors thought he might enjoy a new thing called podcasting. He got an internship at a podcast production house and has never looked back.

Tevin Sudi | Tontechniker

Tevin sets up a mic during a podcasting workshop at AQ Studios

DW Akademie: Tell us about AfroQueer and how you got involved with it.

Tevin Sudi: We are celebrating six years this year. Our executive director, Selly Thiam, is from Senegal but was raised in Chicago. She was really upset about how Black and African queer stories were being covered on the continent and in the diaspora. She moved back to the continent to record people's stories on her own. In around 2017, she decided to start a podcast and that’s where I came in. Because I’m part of the community I have an understanding of how to tell the stories we're trying to tell. Initially, our main goal was to just tell queer stories, and especially highlighting queer stories of joy. Because all that we were seeing around us, people were suffering, people were stoned somewhere, people were killed somewhere, sexuality was criminalized. But even through all that, there was a lot of joy and a lot of happiness and a lot of community, and a lot of sense of like we are fighting this thing together. That's what we wanted to highlight. As time has gone by, it has ended up being a tool of kind of social change and shifting the narrative around the public discourse on homosexuality, the LGBTQ community and what that means.

Let's move to audio engineering and sound design. What does your work as a sound engineer entail?

Sound engineering in the world of podcasting is like being the technical producer. You’re involved in the whole process from thinking about how we should record something to the actual production, then the editing and publishing. It’s all the technical bits of the podcasting.

It’s not as if people just hand you some raw audio files they’ve recorded and you get to work. You're involved with it from the beginning?

I prefer that approach, but I’ve done it both ways. I like being involved from the beginning so I understand the goals and vision of the podcast, understand what it needs. Is it trying to maintain consistent tone or is it wanting to maximize audience engagement? Or is the goal to enhancing the storytelling? If I'm involved from the outset, I'm able to really understand what we're trying to communicate to the audience. And then what techniques I'm going to use to achieve that.

Let’s break that down and look at enhancing storytelling. What would you think about and what kinds of elements and editing practices would you apply to really making the story come to life?

First and foremost, understanding the podcast content, and then with that you can think about what kind of structure to use. Then understanding the target audience and what would resonate the most with them. So if your target group is between 21 and 26, maybe you lean toward quick banter. Maybe you split the podcast up into different segments, put in a Q&A or a blooper reel and having something else pop up somewhere else. You find music that resonates with this group. All in all, you’re looking for audible ways to engage the target audience.

How would you approach be different if your target group were 35 and up?

I think I would employ a narrative nonfiction structure, and have it really well researched and well produced, like a documentary providing information and points of view from different angles. Really focus on the story. Here it’s not about the bits and bobs that keep you engaged, it's the story that you're telling that is going to keep them listening. It’s not about using sound effects to keep people’s attention but using them to kind of create an immersive soundscape that supports the story.

Tevin Sudi | Tontechniker

Tevin Sudi at work

Let's talk about music. How do you see its role and how to you approach putting it in podcast?

I think music is very important. It elicits emotions while we're listening and can punctuate scenes. I like to have the entire script of the episode in front of me and as I’m reading through it. While I’m reading through it, I think about what I’m feeling. Maybe I'll make notes. I'll say this part felt restless, there was some kind of suspense here, or there was something very specific to a certain geographical area, or things like that. With that, I'll either go to the music libraries, and kind of comb through a bunch of things until I find what I feel fits.

What skills are important to have for your sound design and editing work?

You really need to be a good listener first and decipher what producers have in mind for their stories. So you should be able to hear and decipher what they mean. You need a lot of patience to be able to listen to like a section or a sequence many times and not get fatigued. Meticulousness is important, especially during editing, to make the vision you have in your head reality.

Regarding filler words, the ums and ahs, do you take them all out or leave a few in?

If it's someone just trying to remember something and saying, "um, what's that word?" then I’ll take it out. But sometimes a filler word is also a kind of communication in its own right. If it serves the narrative, if it has some emotion to it, if someone takes a pause because they’re reflecting on what they've just gone through and what they're about to tell you, then I leave that in. But really, it’s a hotly contested debate.

What are the biggest mistakes you see beginners make?

The first one I see is levels, just having a good balance of everything for the final mix. Sometimes the vocal or the voiceover is fighting with music or the sound effects. Then the other one is a fear of sound effects and music. You can go very extreme and add too many or you can go to the other extreme and have very few or nothing at all, or have them very low. It doesn't do anything for the story if no one can hear it.

Symbolbild I Medienberichterstattung

Tevin Sudi things all podcasts can benefit from better sound editing

Can you give us an example of how you made a sound design decision to enhance a story?

There's a story for AfroQueer that we did called "Our Husband, The King." It's about Kabaka Mwanga, from the Buganda kingdom, and how he assassinated almost 45 young Christian men, because he was accused of being a homosexual. There were parts where we were explaining the narrative, and we had to explain that these people were murdered and how they were murdered. It would be very easy to add eerie music that goes with what the narrator was saying. But I don't think that would paint a picture for the listener of what was actually going on. Maybe even silence with just the narrator’s voice would be more effective than adding music in this case. In the end, I decided to create a soundscape that was similar to what was going on at the time. You hear footsteps of them working towards the lake, you can hear the lake as they're approaching it, you can hear people in the background chanting. Before they're burnt alive, you can hear the firewood being collected. It’s about listening and deciding what best works to communicate the feeling of the story.

Let’s say a podcast producer starting out doesn’t have formal training, how should they approach sound design?

The first thing is, don't be afraid of all of it. People look at like the software and equipment and everything and think, how am I going to learn all this? But practice is the best teacher, so just go out and do it. So let's say you want to record audio in the field. A few days before the actual recording, go to where you're going to record. Turn on the recorder you're using, put on your headphones and listen. How does the environment sound? What if I change a few settings? Will it sound different? Just try things out and don't be afraid of all the jargon.

What do you think about these AI tools that are now coming on the market?

I don't think we have reached the level where you can fully depend on an AI program to make a full edit and have it sound authentic or real. But there are ways to integrate AI into your workflow to make everything a bit faster, a bit easier, a bit smoother. For example, removing all the filler words. But up to now, that’s all I’ve used it for. I think that's because I feel like all the decisions that you make as an editor are really anchored in the kind of point of view you bring to the story. After all, someone comes to me with a project because they want to know what kind of input I can give.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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