Using Music and Sound Effects in Your Podcast: A Few Tips and Resources

Whether teaching workshops or answering DMs on Twitter, I frequently get asked questions about music and sound effects in podcasts. Folks want to know what music the are allowed to use, what music they should use, where to find music, how to use that music, and those same questions over again for sound effects. I won’t write a comprehensive how-to here (couldn’t if I wanted to), but I will share a few brief answers to those big questions and some resources to help you use music and sound effects appropriately to enhance your podcast.

These are all just tips I’ve picked up or learned while making narrative podcasts, but if you find a better way to do things or want to do it the opposite way, go for it! The only real rule is that it should sound good and engage your listener.

Music

What music am I allowed to use?

First, I’m not a legal authority, so do not take anything I write as legal advice. Second, you cannot use anything that’s copyrighted unless you have bought the rights to use that music or received written permission from the copyright holder.

Ideally, you want music that is “royalty-free” (though you may have to pay to license it) or music that is in the public domain.

There is a small loophole for fair use of music, but it’s so small (and varies by country) that unless you are 150% sure you fall into that category, I would just assume the loophole does not apply to you.

A lot of people release music using a Creative Commons license. Each type of license specifies how you may use music and what conditions are associated with that. For example, some CC licenses may allow you to use a song freely as long as you give sufficient attribution to the creator.

Where can I find music that I am allowed to use?

The easiest way to get music for podcasts is to use a website/service that license songs for you. Some allow you to purchase one song at a time, while others offers subscriptions with fixed song allotments or even unlimited licensing.

I am a really big fan of Soundstripe. For a small monthly subscription (no long-term commitments), you can license unlimited songs from their library. The music is really high quality, and I love that you can search by mood, tempo, and genre. The mood search function is incredibly helpful in finding just the right track.

If you have a bigger budget, Pond5 has a large, easily searchable library with lots of tracks to choose from. I occasionally will buy a single track from them if I need something specific.

Of course, not everyone has the budget to buy music. Other options:

Free Music Archive is a wonderful resource. They have thousands and thousand of user-submitted tracks that are all royalty-free. The downside is that a lot of the music is bad. So you will have to spend a lot more time finding something you like. Also keep in mind that various types of CC licenses are in play. Some tracks may require attribution, etc.

How much music do I use and when (and how)?

These questions don’t have as straight forward of an answer as the more technical stuff, but I do have a few recommendations:

  1. Not too much! Less is more. Particularly if you are new to podcasting, err on the side of less music than you need.
  2. You don’t have to use music. Maybe you only want a few seconds of the same music at your intro and outro every episode. That’s fine!
  3. Your music should enhance your tape, never distract from it. The music is there to enhance the experience of listening to the voices you have recorded. So choose music that fits the mood of your tape and doesn’t distract the listener from the person speaking.

For more on using music, I really recommend listening to these two episodes of HowSound:

  1. Scoring Stories: Part 1
  2. Scoring Stories: Part 2

Sound Effects

Whether or not you use sound effects will depend very much on what you are trying to achieve with your show. A lot of podcasts never use sound effects, even ones that use a lot of music to underscore narrative. Of those that do, some use background sounds collected at the same time as their interview tape, some add sounds from libraries. Some use only two or three in an episode, while some shows like Camp Monsters soundscape entire episodes. Of course if you are creating fictional podcasts/audio dramas, you may end up using a lot more sounds than a nonfiction podcaster. If you want a great example of soundscaping in audio drama, give Girl in Space a listen.

The same rules of copyright apply to sound effects as music.

My favorite places to get sound effects are Soundly, which has a free library and a very affordable premium subscription library of great background noises and sound effects. I find Soundly most helpful for ambience and background, like a stream or city noises or wind.

Another great resource to bookmark is FreeSound. Sometimes it feels like there is no sound you can’t find on FreeSound. I’ve gotten Icelandic harbor noises, Baltimore street sounds, coffee cups being stirred, fake volcano rumbles, the sounds of Civil War era cannons, and so many other random things from this site. Everything is free, but pay attention to which CC license is being used and make sure to credit creators properly. There is an option to search for sounds in the public domain if you don’t want do any crediting.

For the how of using sound effects, check out this HowSound episode: Avoiding Cheesy Sound Design.

For even more info, you’ll find a few other articles and episodes about how to use music and sound effects on the Transom website.

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Thinking of starting a podcast? Grab a copy of my popular handbook, Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits.

Hannah Hethmon (Better Lemon Creative Audio)

Written by

I produce podcasts for museums, history organizations, and cultural nonprofits. My personal show is Museums in Strange Places. https://www.betterlemonaudio.com/

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