Behind the Sound Design: Interview with Free Jambalaya’s Matt Treacy

Matt Treacy is a producer, and sound designer working on the  Horror and Weird Fiction Anthology podcast, Phantom Limb at Free Jambalaya, his production studio located in Ashland, Virginia, USA.

Phantom Limb pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the podcast format with every episode, and here, Matt talks us through the creation process, which is deeply focused on immersive soundscapes, intricate sound effects and original music composition.

‘Krotos has been a big part of Phantom Limb since the beginning. We actually first bought that sound design bundle because of the podcast. And for three seasons, it’s been very reliable’ – Matt Treacy

Matt Treacy, Sound Designer for Phantom Limb

Hey Matt! How did you get started in sound design?

I started as a touring musician, then throughout my career, I focused more on the studio side of things and eventually I came to sound design. Now, I compose, engineer and produce for a few podcasts, theatrical productions and short films, mainly in Virginia where I’m based.

What was your first sound design role?

Sound design was kind of a trademark I was known for when I was a hip-hop producer. I’d produce songs for bands and artists who focused on narratives in their music, so I would incorporate sound design and effects for their projects.

Sound Design is so important to audio formats. With literature and film, the story is represented through text, but sound and music have to be interpreted by the audience.

That’s so true, and I think that sound design and music can be considered as characters themselves as a result.

I really look up to great composers like John Williams, because they insert themselves into the story, as a character. When you hear their music, all of a sudden you know that something is changing.

Working with directors, and even costume designers, you have to make sure that the sound isn’t hiding something in the story that the costume designer wants to be heard, like spurs on somebody’s boots for example. There are so many collaborative opportunities to be explored.

Could you talk about Phantom Limb, the Podcast you produce?

Sure! I run a studio called Free Jambalaya which focuses mainly on audio-video production. We do analogue recordings as much as we can, then use digital solutions such as Krotos to fill in the gaps. The studio is currently focusing on a podcast called Phantom Limb, a sci-fi anthology. We have a number of tremendous writers creating scripts, and then my colleague Ben and I produce all the audio: everything from music and sound effects to dialogue recording and editing. We make a draft of the episode and send it off to the director, then we incorporate the director’s notes before we release it.

Phantom Limb Artwork

Talk us through the process of creating an episode

It’s like making an episode of South Park. We know the due date and It’s a mad rush to make it, but it’s beautiful chaos. We do 10 episodes in a season, then have a two-month hiatus before the beginning of the next season. I love the challenge of trying to fit it all into that time frame that we already know is there. I’ve had to do so many sound design experiments that I never thought I would do!

Can you share any sound design ideas from the podcast?

In one episode, we only scored music for this one alien character. When he talks, the music is playing, but as soon as he stops talking, there is silence. It was so creative and hilarious. I started the scoring, then I quickly realised that it was going to take a long time!

It took three weeks to score every little phrase that this character said, But in the end, we had a really interesting episode. Sometimes you get completely lost in the sound design while you’re creating it, and it’s only when you finish an episode that you can reflect on what you created. It keeps things fresh every time.

Phantom Limb is an anthology podcast, so is the sound design for each episode completely new, or are there recurring themes to keep things unified as a series?

Honestly, every episode is completely standalone. I’m really fortunate to work with my audio partner Ben Patterson because, without two people, it would be too much to create everything new each time. We’re recording new foley material and everything for each episode, it is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding.

Are there any standout moments in Phantom Limb that have been really challenging to create?

We did an unscripted episode called Harrison Polytropos, where we let the sound design decide the story.

I put together a few minutes of environmental sound design using Reformer Pro, then passed it to Ben who created the next few minutes to continue the story, and we did this back and forth.

Then we got an amazing actress, Taylor Dawson, and I placed three microphones on her so that we had left, centre, and right channels. We set a rule that she couldn’t say any words, she could only react to the scene. It was an incredible episode because there was not a single word spoken by her. The entire story unfolds through sound design.

How do you use the Krotos plugins in your sound design for Phantom Limb?

So I initially edit the sounds meticulously and methodically, following the script. I arrange the dialogue and make sure that it flows appropriately before even thinking about sound design and cool fun things. Once we’ve put the script together, I then break out the Krotos plug-ins and start to experiment! 

With Dehumaniser 2, we use it live, because it’s an awesome tool for taking a signal and processing the crap out of it! But there are so many opportunities to use it. I’d say at least three or four times per season there’s an episode with a monster or a beast, and Dehumaniser is always where I go first.

When the actor puts the headphones on and monitors themselves, it changes their delivery completely. At that moment, they really become the monster. As long as the performance of the creature is accurate, then Krotos just does this awesome job of turning it into whatever you need, whether it’s huge beasts in the jungle or tiny little aliens. Most recently. We did an episode where this man is impregnated by an alien and gives birth. I used Dehumaniser 2 for the alien baby when it’s born! That’s the best result that I’ve gotten with that one.

With Weaponiser I find different sounds that I like and record them into the DAW with a MIDI keyboard. For podcasts, the script is so specific, so it will say where certain sounds are needed, so I’ll go into the UI sounds for example, layer one or two things, then just click the “Fire” button and just record things straight into the DAW.

Reformer Pro is my favourite. In one episode, I had somebody walk through the woods and I was having trouble lining up all of their footsteps in the DAW. Every time their foot hit the ground, there had to be sticks crunching and leaves crunching and there had to be this whole soundscape of them walking slowly through the woods.

What I ultimately did was run some walk recordings to a bus which had Reformer Pro on it, then every time a foot hit the ground I could make Reformer Pro react with the sounds I needed without having to line up every footstep meticulously. I’ve used the same method in Reformer for a bunch of different uses