What’s in My Buds? With Jeff Emtman of ‘Here Be Monsters’

Jeff Emtman is a master of sound design, the host and creator of Here Be Monsters, a podcast about the unknown, and an instructor at the PRX Podcast Garage.

“The proximity to a group of people that are usually a bit hard to track down is incredibly valuable, especially to new producers,” Jeff said of his experiences at the Podcast Garage. “I regularly run into new podcast producers who feel adrift. Before I lived in Boston, I’d just have to say, ‘Well, listen to a lot of shows, go online, read articles, email folk.’ And I think that’s all still applicable. But now, the first thing I tell people is, ‘Hey, see what events are at the Podcast Garage, see what speaks to you and sign up for an event.’ ”

It’s safe to say that Jeff has his finger on the pulse of the audio world. That’s why we went to him to get his take on the audio landscape and find out what he’s been listening to lately.

What’s your go-to podcast, and why?

My favorite shows are actually the ones I listen to the least. It’s because I like to save them for special moments when I feel more open to new ideas.

An HBM fan turned me on to my latest go-to podcast: Ross Sutherland’s Imaginary Advice. It’s one of those impossible-to-describe shows. The episodes are poignant, funny and sad, but something about Ross’s writing gives me this strange afterglow of lucidity that sticks with me for a day or two after each episode. I love this show.

If you’re not listening to a podcast, what do you put on to listen to?

I listen to the Bandcamp Weekly a lot. It’s a curated look at what’s new on Bandcamp that’s got all the elements of a really good college radio show. It’s heavy on the electronic, jazz and hip hop, and mercifully light on the “dreary American shoegaze” that can drive me up the wall. It’s how I found out about this incredibly good Milo track.

We know you’re big into found sound, so — what’s your favorite piece of found sound, and have you used it in your sound design for ‘Here Be Monsters’?

In college, I went through a bit of a climbing phase. I thought it was a good idea to see how many buildings I could get on top of. I once wound up on the roof of a very tall building that was part of a factory that had been vacant for so long that the dirt deposited by the wind left enough topsoil up there for a small field of yellow, dryish, tall grass to grow.

As I stood up there, maybe 10 stories up, seagulls flew around me, calling. And so I ran my foot through the grass and recorded the sound of it, and the wind, and the birds.
A screenshot of “foot through grass.wav” on Jeff’s computer.

I really like the sound, but I also just liked where I was when I recorded that — it felt beautiful and apocalyptic. So, when I want to invoke that feeling on HBM, sometimes I just sprinkle in the sound I recorded that day: “foot through grass.wav”

If you were to start a new show, what would it be?

I spend a lot of time fantasizing about a show I’ll probably never make. Each episode would have a central question like, “Why is electromagnetic force stronger than gravity?” and, “How do we most effectively solve malaria?” Two guests would take turns at using layman’s knowledge and reductive reasoning to try to convince the audience that their theory is right. It’d be a thinly veiled satire of the talking heads who can speak nonsense eloquently. I’d call it Occam’s Razor Burn.

What do you think the future of the podcasting industry looks like?

It’s bright. Though currently, I think much of American podcasting is in a trend of over-reliance on narrative. I’m eager to see this trend ebb, and I’m convinced it will. While narrative is a great tool for conveying ideas, it’s not the only one.

Jeff Emtman leads a workshop on sound design at the PRX Podcast Garage — but he hopes to be learning from his students, someday.

Media that have had more time to develop (film, music, literature, etc.), figured the strengths and weaknesses of narrative, and hence not every book on the shelves reads like The Epic of Gilgamesh. I really don’t think narrative is bad, just overused — sometimes at the expense of subtlety, sometimes at the expense of truth, and most often at the expense of character study, poetry, truthful ambiguity, uncomfortable silence …

I have really high hopes for the future of podcasting. Those who laid the groundwork did a really good job, and I’m unendingly grateful.

The next generation will likely push the medium above what we can even imagine today. I’ve met some incredibly talented folk who are newer to the medium that think about it very differently than me, and I’m looking forward to learning from them.

You can follow Jeff’s show, Here Be Monsters, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you listen.