Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: James Milsom

James Milsom is a lawyer, producer and composer from Melbourne. He worked as a criminal lawyer for the best part of a decade and came to audio production through performing in various musical guises while lawyering by day. He makes The Rule Book, a podcast about the law, and the rules we make … and sometimes break.

We spoke to James about how music influences his editing style and sound-rich approach to podcasting.

James Milsom (Photo: supplied)

What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener, as an audio maker or both?

Music has had such a huge impact on me as both a listener and an audio maker, having come to podcasts and radio stories pretty late in life. Car trips on family holidays to regional Victoria were rich with Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King and … you get the idea. I discovered hip hop pretty early too, as well as folk music. And these were all just amazing ways to tell stories. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out that that’s what was going on, but they all shaped the way I think about audio and how powerful it can be.

Where did the idea for The Rule Book come from?

I’ve worked as a lawyer for a while now, mostly in crime. As a lawyer, a big part of the job is telling stories for clients. The problem, though, is that judges don’t have the time (or, let’s face it, the inclination) to hear an artfully told, suspenseful and engaging narrative. You don’t get to bring a synthesiser to Court to set the mood. And so on. But more to the point, there are all of these constraints in the law that mean that while you can be creative to a certain extent, you’re limited pretty substantially. And so – I decided to tell some stories in audio form, because I love audio, and the stories drive me to tell them.

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What’s your favourite part of making The Rule Book?

There’s something weird that happens in brains – I think it’s creativity – where a few edits, a musical note or chord and just the right amount of silence just … works. It’s those moments in the studio that I love the most. The feeling that I’m making something that I’m proud of making, and that someone might hear it. There’s validation in getting great feedback from listeners and friends, but the feeling I love most happens well before the episodes even go out into the world. The lonely yet satisfying silent fist pump.

What’s the hardest part?

I often wish I was producing a podcast with a couple of speakers talking live in the studio, then clicking upload. The hardest part of producing The Rule Book is that I didn’t choose to do that. Conducting interviews is great fun, and really exciting. Making music and finding atmospheric sound and effects is just a privilege. But finding the half-hour story among the hours of recorded sound is extraordinarily challenging. Cutting and pasting and re-listening and researching takes a really, really long time, and while it’s still work that I love, it’s also really, bloody hard. Sometimes I feel like a Lego man, walking among a jumble of lego blocks in different shapes and colours, with no idea how to even begin to construct a city around me.

Sometimes I feel like a Lego man, walking among a jumble of lego blocks in different shapes and colours, with no idea how to even begin to construct a city around me.

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

With headphones on, sound feels like it’s delivered directly into your brain, with no distractions. It doesn’t matter if you glance away from a TV screen to your dog scratching at the back door, or if you feverishly shift between browser tabs. Sound is present somewhere deeper than just seeing. That’s how it feels to me, anyway.

Even in mono, there’s a story being told just to you, and no one else on the train knows where you are or what you’re feeling. In stereo, buses zoom past you, a narrator can whisper secrets in your right ear while the diners in the fictional restaurant you sit in maintain their chatter. Sound can be omnipresent within you, no matter where you are, or who else knows it.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about podcasting?

‘Keep the content coming’ – both best and worst.

First – it’s a bit horrible talking about ‘content’. The creative and intellectual energy poured into podcast episodes seems like it might deserve a more generous, or at least accurate, description. And then the idea of creating regular content is, while extremely important, somewhat heartbreaking.

My love of making podcasts is effected by the competing priorities of a busy life, and I think that’s shared by all podcasters –including those who do it for a living. Listeners love hearing more and more episodes, and feeling certainty as to when they’ll materialise in their podcast apps; and I feel the same way. But the commitment it takes to keep that up is extraordinary, so it’s important to do, but not that easy.

My love of making podcasts is effected by the competing priorities of a busy life, and I think that’s shared by all podcasters –including those who do it for a living.

What has been your biggest lesson as a producer so far?

Shut up. Walk away, then wait. I’ve got a tendency toward overloading my work – dramatic string arrangements, sombre piano, atmos and effects fit for some sort of VR audio experience … And I’ve discovered that throwing it all in, then walking away and getting space from the work is an absolute must.

Coming back with fresh ears gives me the chance to ask myself what on earth I was thinking. Especially for times when I’ve got limited access to others for feedback – the self-conversation works way better when my future self has a bit of time and space from the first go.

Do you interact with your audience, or receive feedback or criticism about your work?

I invite feedback and interaction, critical or otherwise, from my audience frequently. It’s great to know that people are eager to engage on the subject matter and to let me know what they think. It’s definitely tough taking criticism at times, but I think it’s also important. It’s easy to create work in a bubble without wondering how it translates into other people’s brains. And to a certain extent, I like the idea that I’m making stuff for me, but the reality is that I’m also uploading my work to a podcast stream and sending it out into the world, so without trying to find out what people think, I’m only left wondering. And wondering has its downsides.

If you could go out to dinner with any audio maker, who would it be – and what would you talk about?

Jad Abumrad and I would be sitting there opposite one another drinking jasmine tea and I’d confess: I love Radiolab and I decided to make my own Radiolab, but about the law. Then I’d become emotional as I recalled that, just a few episodes into The Rule Book’s run, he aired his legal show More Perfect, one of the most beautiful, dynamic, engaging and deep reaching podcast series on earth.

If I could keep it together, I might remember to ask him about his production style. Including why his episodes invariably start with an intentional mistake.

What are you listening to at the moment?

At the moment I’m only listening to music, because I’m in the middle of a few pretty involved pieces of work that are occupying my brain whether I’m in the studio or not. I find that ideas bounce around while I’m not trying to get them, so when I’m in the middle of something complex or confusing I tend only to listen to film scores – noone singing or talking to me. So at the moment – the scores/soundtracks from The Social Network, The Theory of Everything and a couple of others are on loop.

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

My go to Aussie podcast is really a radio show – the separate stories podcast from Late Night Live. I’ve long been a fan of Phillip Adams and am always eagerly learning from his interviewing technique and the simple, understandable yet sophisticated way he communicates. Oh – and the stories he tells through his many ridiculously interesting guests are pretty great, too.

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

I think Australian audio is unique in its originality. I think it’s also true of our literature and film, but especially with audio, I think Australians are fearless in their creativity. It’s so easy in any medium to just follow the lead of the geographic origin of the most popular content – with podcasts, the USA. Australian podcasts don’t do that. While they might take cues here and there from those that inspired them, they largely beat their own path.

I think it’s also true of our literature and film, but especially with audio, I think Australians are fearless in their creativity.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I want to make lots and lots of stuff. I’m always adding to my Trello board of ideas, which is heavily weighted on the ‘to do’ side. I’m planning a few audio features in a documentary or narrative style which will hopefully hit the airwaves somewhere in the world. I’m also working on an album of original music (my third) and putting out an album of music from The Rule Book episode scores.

The Rule Book is the main thing for me and I’m excited to keep honing my craft, tightening my production skills and making stories that make people feel something.