Today we’re joined by Jeremy S. Bloom, an Emmy-nominated sound designer whose work spans across podcasts, film, television, interactive installations, immersive experiences, and user interfaces. Jeremy is a staff sound designer for WNYC Studio’s critically acclaimed podcast Radiolab and previously contributed sound design and original music for the award-winning Queer podcast Nancy and comedy hit Two Dope Queens. An upcoming project includes an immersive soundscape in the lobby of the headquarters for Spectrum Cable with 80 ft tall LED screens in collaboration with ESI. We spoke to Jeremy about his latest project, the Audible series Hot White Heist, which was released on June 17th. The series has the plot ambitions of a major heist film, features an all-Queer cast, and was released in correspondence with Pride Month. We hope you enjoy this interview!
Hi Jeremy! How have you been?
Hi! I’ve been good considering the circumstances of the last year! I’ve been spending my time upping my wok skills, field-recording buoys in NYC harbor, and of course working on a whole bunch of exciting projects including Hot White Heist! It’s been such a delight to work on something so uplifting and hilarious during COVID.
What is it like working with a collaborator as successful as Alan Cumming? Tell us more about your working relationship and short hand with them.
Working with Alan was a total delight. Alan has a reputation not only for being a wonderful storyteller and artist, but also for building artistic and Queer community wherever he is. That could be through anything from his bar Club Cumming to his generous leadership on a project like this one. He lived up to that reputation and I could feel his warmth and support even through Zoom!
He wasn’t alone in exemplifying the collaborative professionalism and brilliance of the entire team responsible for bringing this story to life. Alan, our writer Adam Goldman, and everyone else on the team all have an incredible ear for sound and all the creative ways it can be used to tell a story.
In terms of shorthand, I’m always working to find new ways to communicate about sound and music on a project and set it up for success. Musical rhythm and tone are difficult to communicate on paper. One of my main jobs as a collaborator is to facilitate these clear conversations about sound. In film, the rhythm of the picture edit and placement of dialog can help dictate scoring choices, but on an audio-only project we also have the ability to intricately shift the dialog to make way for music or sound effects. Ultimately this means creating a complexly intertwined collage of music, dialog, and sound effects without the constraints or visual cues of a synced moving picture. Early on in the process, our team realized how important the score would be in reinforcing the overall structure and aesthetic of the show.
It’s common for editors to quickly and casually use place-holder temp music before a score is written to rough out music. This is often done in a way that may set an aesthetic tone, but doesn’t detail the way the score can precisely punctuate the story and the inherent musicality of spoken word. In my work at Radiolab I’ve learned from host Jad Abumrad and head sound designer Dylan Keefe the importance of those punctuations and the way music should support dialog and dialog should support music.
On Hot White Heist, by giving our temporary score far more editorial attention than is typical, I learned the real power it can have as a shorthand to communicate those punctuations and prototype interplay between dialog and music in a very useful way.
With the help of my friend and fellow sound designer Chelsea Daniel, we collected an audio library of hundreds of classic heist and noir references ranging from classic production music cues from APM’s vintage collections to all the classic James Bond themes. The team and I spliced these vintage tracks within early drafts of the episodes in an elaborately polished and through-composed mash-up. Think Girltalk but with vintage heist music timed line-by-line to the dialog to punctuate jokes, highlight action, build tension, release it, etc.. It was a level of detail that couldn’t be captured in text and allowed us to workshop structural ideas with multi-instrumentalist composer Charlie Rosen. He could then build upon that detailed structure in his own musical voice. There were essentially no revisions required to his work, thanks most of all to his exceptional talent, but also to the degree to which we were able to map out intentions early in the process so the entire crew could work clearly towards one common goal.
You brought a unique approach to Hot White Heist. Can you take us behind one or two of your favorite scenes or episodes? Tell us more about your process and how you decide the right way to approach the sound design.
There’s so much to say and having a hand in crafting this show was such a delight. I’ve been a Bowen Yang fan for a long time, especially after I had a chance to record his interview on the hit Queer WNYC podcast “Nancy” and witness not only his humor and talent, but also his endless kindness in the studio. In a way one of my very favorite scenes to design was the very opening of the show in which Cynthia Nixon (Kate) describes the bunker which Bowen’s character Judy and the team will need to rob… and all the security capabilities they’ll need to thwart. There are Laser fields, Swat teams, an airlock, a secure high-speed elevator, cryo vaults, and more which all reappear in greater detail later in the show.
Back before I started my sound design career I was a carpenter in college. I learned far more doing that job than in any course! One particular lesson I learned was the value of a team knowing the big picture goal that their work contributes to. A brick-layer can lay mortar, a master glazier can piece together stained glass, a carpenter can build a roof…. But they’ll all thrive and succeed most if they know they’re building a beautiful cathedral and understand how the work contributes to that bigger effort.
In Hot White Heist, before even the first line of the series was recorded, we mapped out every moment sentence by sentence of this sequence and many others so we could work towards beautifully intertwined sound from the get go. Together we envisioned when dialog, sound effects would carry the story moment by moment and worked on our individual pieces with the confidence of knowing exactly how it’ll all fit together.
From there, we went on to establish a precise sonic vocabulary for the many reoccurring environments or technologies depicted in the show. I’ve been a life-long heist movie fan, and while I normally seek to avoid tropes, they serve as an excellent fuel for context and comedy in a satirical context like Hot White Heist. Since so many classic heist stories, including this one, involve planning scenes where the big heist is imagined before it takes place, we had a chance to establish these sounds in the ear of the listener. Then when the actual heist takes place, the sounds are familiar and can be reused without too much explanation since the listener already knows what they represent.
- Shannon Woodward happens to be a former gymnast so her stellar vocalizations paired with an analog 0-Coast synthesizer made for an audio-only laserfield dance up to Ocean’s 12 standards thanks to some Foley trickery from Joanna Fang at Alchemy Post. Joanna put an amazing amount of care into curating shoes for every character on the show including a particularly clacky set of high heels for our hero, Judy, who often struggles to run in them at inopportune moments.
- I greeted the sound for sperm cold-storage units from a tactical flashlight inserted into a tall shot glass after much experimentation and broken glass on the floor of my studio.
- I recorded alarm sounds during a 2 hour frigid expedition to Brooklyn’s shipping port during a blizzard this winter and low flying NYPD helicopters training at Floyd Bennett Field I happened by on my bike. Conveniently I keep high quality microphones mounted to my handlebars for moments just like that!
Was it more difficult to approach sound to Hot White Heist because it’s completely sound based?
It is far more difficult, but with amazing payoff for our audience. I think audio can evoke scenes within a listener’s imagination that would otherwise be dictated by visual depictions in a film. That’s to say in a film the visuals are the creation of someone else and presented to the audience. In audio, every listener can imagine visuals of their very own creation.
When the folks at Broadway Video first contacted me and I read even just one episode of script, my jaw dropped. This was no typical radio drama with the occasional door opening here, doorbell there, and coconut-shell horse clomping by. Adam wrote a full feature heist film… with no picture. And he understands the power inherent in exclusively using audio to access an audience’s imagination. I Immediately saw what a deep respect he has for sound and his willingness to use sound design and music to support a story almost as much as dialog itself. I knew I had to take part in the project and was so excited to tackle the challenges in the script like depicting car chases, train-roof action, air locks, drag clubs, computer hacking, and more without visual aides.
What were some of the other challenges you encountered with Hot White Heist? How did you overcome them?
Building the sonic environment of a drag club during COVID was a particular challenge and it was important to me as a Queer sound designer to depict these spaces in an authentic way. You’d think that creating action or chase sequences would require the most effort and attention to detail, but ultimately the act of sonically constructing a drag club is equally demanding. These clubs are challenging to record in the real world since there’s almost always loud music playing that we need to discard for practical production purposes. Stock crowd sounds available on the internet are far too often exclusively voiced by 30something white folks, lack femme voices, might be sports-oriented, or at best are simply aspecific. Typically we’d address this issue by recording a “loop group” of actors who improvise more specific crowd voices, but getting a large group of actors together in a studio wasn’t realistic for us during COVID.
Ultimately we ended up surgically reconstructing an entire drag club environment from the ground up by asking our amazing queer cast to improvise relatable conversations they themselves might have in an exclusively Queer space. Gossip, call-outs to the performers, laughs, reactions, and more. Our incredible editor Dan Timmons and I sifted through hours of material and found ways to place these sounds in conversation with one another. Most importantly, we found ways to build them in reaction to the drag performer’s banter. Foley genius Joanna Fang put on her sharpest stilettos and performed the sound of the queens marching across a hollow wooden stage. We processed the music and performers as if you’re hearing them through a terrible PA system. When all was said and done, Alan, a bar owner himself, said “Damn that’s a place I want to hang out in!” and I knew we succeeded!
What are some of your other favorite past projects?
There are so many! I worked on one other Queer podcast for a few years called Nancy. In a lot of ways that was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on. Our small team really valued each other’s contributions and wellbeing, and most of all, the show’s audience was the most engaged and committed audience community of any project I’ve been involved with. Unlike in theatre, on a podcast it’s rare you have a chance to interact with your audience. On Nancy we heard so many amazing ways our work was impacting the community and truly changing people’s lives. Folks met their partners via our show, gained the courage to come out to their families, found support systems in rural communities, and so much more!
2 years ago I also had the opportunity to craft 4 permanently installed immersive soundscapes at the Statue of Liberty. It was such a privilege to be involved in telling the story of such an important site recognized around the world, seen by my ancestors as they arrived to this country. I love working in a variety of mediums like documentary film, podcasts\audio drama, and immersive exhibits. That said, I especially love projects that combine mediums and use the power of sound design in innovative ways whether it be the interactive experiences I recently sound designed at the Planet Word Museum, giant architectural projection mappings, UI design for Google, and more!
What else is happening next in your world?
We have some exciting projects and collaborators in the pipeline at WNYC’s Radiolab that I’m quite looking forward to. I’m also doing some sound design for an upcoming music documentary that is absolutely brilliant. I can’t say much just yet, but look forward to sharing when I can! I try to be good about posting about new projects on twitter (@Jeremy_s_Bloom) or my website www.jeremyb.com
I’ve also been recording a comprehensive sound library of all of New York City’s many waterways. Our city is an archipelago, but our 6th borough is often overlooked: The harbor! I’m really psyched to share these sounds with the broader audio community and have had some fantastic maritime adventures while recording it.