That Question At Conferences And A Better Answer

When I was in my mid-20s, I spent money I didn’t have to go to New York and attend the AES conference.  AES is basically the trade group of audio engineers, and they have a conference or two every year.  Lots of producers, lots of new gear, it’s a glorious place for someone who works with audio on a technical level.

I was still young in my career, and it may surprise you to know that I didn’t go to school for this (really, James, you’re kidding, they said sarcastically).  This was partly a cool vacation on my own, which I had never taken before, and a learning experience.  I wanted to come away with something I could use in my career.

At the end of a panel I attended with some music producers (who it was I can not remember), they opened the floor to Q&A.  I asked what one tool they used that would help someone like me the most.

“Your ears.”

Needless to say, I was embarrassed.  And I was mad.  No one pays that much money to go to a conference (money I really REALLY could have used at the time) to be told to use their ears.  Come on!

Everyone who works in audio uses their ears.  It is our number one tool.  Actually, it’s our first tool, but I’m not convinced it’s our most important.  I’ll talk about that in a later post.

That was not what I wanted to know.  And that wasn’t really the question I was asking.

Last year, I remember hearing a similar question asked at the Third Coast Festival conference.  It got a similar response.  Again, that wasn’t the answer they wanted, and it wasn’t really the question they had asked.

If you were to phrase the question in a way that was more honest, it would go something like this:

“I am not quite to the level of (editor, engineer, producer, etc) that I want to be.  What are a few tools I can use or pieces of advice you can give me that can help me to become better at what I do?”

You will note that “your ears” would be a fairly ridiculous response to this.  Even if someone wanted to say this, there are better ways to phrase it that would be more helpful.

After more than 15 years since that AES conference, here is the advice and tools I wish I would have been given:

  • Pay attention to what you are listening to.  Think about why something should sound the way it does.
  • Make space for the elements of a mix.
  • Learn how to really use a compressor.  EQ is the most obvious thing to learn.  Compressors will be the next thing you use the most.  And they don’t all sound the same, so really play around with them.
  • Microphone placement is critical.  It matters more than you think it should.
  • Take a break and relax your ears.  Go for a walk.  Get away from the mix.  Then go back and listen again.
  • Learn more aspects of the audio world.  If you know recording, learn live mixing.  If you know live, learn how synthesizers and midi work.  If you know those things, learn about broadcasting.  The ability to work with other people and with other fields will further your career as much as your ability to work with sound.

Those six things would have been the perfect next steps to learn as someone who knew a bit more than the basics and really cared about what they were doing.  There are many more pieces of advice and tools that can help, but these are the ones I could have really used at the time.

Got any you want to offer?  Comments are open.

Designing Your Show: More Thought

A few days ago, I posted about putting some real thought into your show.

Then I got into a frustrating twitter conversation with someone who basically said, sure, think about your show, but curiosity and serendipity have their place too.  Yes, they do.  I never said they didn’t.  It seemed like a real sticking point, as though I was advocating for never doing anything that wasn’t planned to the last detail.

So allow me to exorcise this demon and clarify.

Curiosity is great.  It can lead to new and interesting paths.  Using what you have can be a great guide, especially in interviews.  I’ve even talked about just pressing record and seeing what happens.  When all else fails, hitting record is a great way to start.

But you have to start from somewhere, and you should have a purpose.  If you don’t have a purpose, then press stop.  Recording a few scratch episodes that no one hears is a good way to see if this is right for you, or if you need to do more thinking on what you are creating.  There are thousands of podcasts out there that have little to no purpose.  Do everyone a favor and don’t make yours another.

Go back to the first season of Radiolab.  Radiolab then versus Radiolab now are the same shows (wait for it), and if you listened to a show from the first season and one from the current season, you could recognize them as such.  But Radiolab has evolved along the way.  They have refined their sound, they have moved their topics away from purely science to more broad areas and sometimes they drill down on subjects they wouldn’t have touched before.  They do live shows that have turned into full productions.

This is an evolution of Radiolab, and it had to start from somewhere.  That started with the choices they made that became Radiolab.  They made decisions about what and who they were (production, music, etc) and what and who they weren’t.  They aren’t an NPR newscast.  They aren’t Fresh Air.  If Radiolab suddenly starting doing long form interviews with authors of children’s books, you would wonder what the heck they were doing.  You would say, this isn’t Radiolab, and you would be right.

Radiolab, because of those decisions, doesn’t have to redefine Radiolab every time they do a new show.  They made the choices that made their show years ago.  Then they evolved from there.  For some listeners, it looked like a major change.  But looking at their work as a whole, it evolved out of where they started.

You can do the same for This American Life.  Look at the first season.  Then the fifth.  Look at them now.  It’s still the same show, but it has certainly evolved.  They wouldn’t be who they are without deciding who they were at the time.

I mentioned interviews above as well.  There is great value in throwing out your questions (such as Craig Ferguson and tearing up the notecards) and letting the subject take you on a journey though conversation.  But you still have to do research and have a few questions to jump off from.  You don’t get to just sit down and start asking a complete stranger questions (unless it’s a man on the street, etc, come on, you know).  Even then, you have to be coming from somewhere.  What is that somewhere?  What is your reason?

In an interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye (recorded several years ago), Bob Edwards was asked if they would use swearing on the Bob Edwards Show on satellite radio.  Edwards, without hesitation says yes.  He says it was a “no brainer.” (you can hear the interview here, and while what I’m referencing starts around 44:20, you should listen to the whole thing, because it is solid stuff)

Even if it’s a ‘no brainer’ for Edwards, there was the question at some point, and there was the decision.  It may have been quick and easy decision, but it was made at some point.  After it was made, there was no need to ask every time the situation came up.  Sure, it could be revisited, but why go back though the question every time there was swearing?  There is no need.

These are the things you should be thinking about.  They are the nuts and bolts of your show, the who, what, why, etc.  They will guide you when you are stuck and design your show for you when you use them.  They will be the foundation of your work.  They should center around your purpose.

How much should you do?  I leave that up to you, but maybe do a little more than you think you should.  Ask a few harder questions than you think you should.  Delve into what is considered appropriate and inappropriate before it becomes a matter of putting it in your show.

Start with thinking and deciding, evolve from there.  Change if you need to.  But start somewhere concrete.

As Lewis Carrol said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

Think About It

NPR launched a new show, Invisibilia, which they say “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”  I listened to the first episode and liked it quite a bit.

The AV Club’s Podmass had this to say about the show:

Invisibilia emulates NPR favorites This American Life and Radiolab, but an overproduced style and overdramatic tone make this debut episode feel a bit manipulative.

To say the show has an overproduced style when in comparison to Radiolab?  That’s saying something, even though I don’t necessarily agree.  I understand what they are getting at, although I don’t agree with they conclusion they draw.  I think it’s simply a matter of practice.  I feel like their conversations sound a little stilted, but as they make more shows, it will flow better.  As they make more shows, they will get used to it.  Radiolab, TAL, and any number of shows didn’t nail it in their first episode.

I have very high confidence they will get better at it for one main reason.  They thought very hard about what they are making and they style they are creating for the show.

At the Third Coast conference, co-host Alix Spiegel gave a talk on three styles for three different shows, and how the choices these shows made affected the sounds of their shows.  Those three shows were the NPR news magazine (Morning Edition or All Things Considered), This American Life, and Radiolab.

Third Coast has yet to post the audio for the talk (UPDATE: they posted it, and you can listen here), but she wrote a manifesto about it at  You should really read it.

From reading her piece, you will see the path Invisibilia goes down.  The conversational style (and digressions) of Radiolab are there, as well as the more intimate position of the reporter / host of This American Life.  It sounds like NPR’s answer to both shows, but not quite either.  They have a plan for the sound of the show.  They gave it a lot of thought.

Which is what I’m here to advocate.  Really thinking about what you are making.  Making real design choices when it comes to your show.

I like to tell people who ask what their show should sound like (quality, technique, length, etc) that they should make the show they hear in their head.  If that’s simply a few people bantering around a few mics, great.  If that means going out “into the field” and getting tape, do it.  If you want to add sound design elements and lots of production, more power to you.

Make thoughtful choices about what you create.  Don’t wait for inspiration to strike.  Don’t just go with the flow and see what happens.  There are plenty of shows like that out there.  Talk it over with your co-hosts.  Sit down with a piece of paper and write it out.

  • Decide what your show is, and what it isn’t.
  • Decide what your show sounds like.
  • Create standards that uphold those decisions.
  • If you make something that varies from those decisions, have a good reason to do it.  Break your rules for a reason.

Simply putting the thought into what you are doing and why you are doing it, making decisions of what to create, can make your podcast sound so much better.  It can provide guiding principles, ideas on what to make, or simply the answer to questions that can crop up later in production.

I won’t say you have to spend as much time as Alix Spiegel or Lulu Miller spent on how Invisibilia should sound, but their work led directly to the sound of their show.  You can be certain that Serial went though the same process.  If Alix Spiegel’s manifesto is any indication, so did This American Life and Radiolab.

Sounds and qualities can evolve from a show, but not without having somewhere to evolve from.  That place comes from thinking about what you want to make in the first place.

Third Coast Post – The Wrap-up

DSC_6517_TCAFThis week, I attended the Third Coast Audio Conference in Chicago, IL.  Some of you were there, some of you were not.  I wanted to do a quick wrap-up of what it was like for me.

If you don’t know what the TCAF is, this is how they describe it:

We also organize a bi-annual conference where audio makers from around the world gather to share skills, experiences, and philosophies, and to build new collaborations. And to dance.

I’d say it’s a collection of public radio and podcast producers, editors, and creators, as well as some of us a bit on the fringes.

If you want to hear what some of it is like, past conferences were archived here.

I wanted to meet other people who are making podcasts, and start feeling out what I wanted to do next with podcasting, and maybe lend some help to people who had audio and technical needs.  I also wanted to see some of the sessions they were hosting.

First, I’ll talk about the sessions and what I thought, then on to some of the people and other experiences.

Journalism and Storytelling: Frenemies? – This was somewhat of an ethics panel with Roman Mars, Brooke Gladstone, and Andrea Silenzi.  Boring, right?  No, and they even noted how boring these kinds of panels could be.  They mentioned a question that came up in a previous talk, about whether or not it was right to use sheep sounds that weren’t recorded at the time, and unfortunately, they got into that with another piece (gunshots were the new sheep).  Other than that, it was a good and interesting talk.

Making News Stories Good Stories – One of my issues was that the conference didn’t always have something I was interested in, but has several topics at the same time I wanted to see.  This is not a fault of the conference, but I wound up missing out on a few talks I wanted to see.  This one was outside my core, and not something I would have gone to had there been something else I wanted to see.  I am glad I went, as I got a lot out of this talk.  Much of it was about how to approach your work with ways to make it more interesting and fun than straight interviews and reporting.  Due to hunger and how hot it was in the room, I had to leave early, but I wish I had seen it all.  I was surprised in a good way with this talk.

Sound Design 101 – This one was about the philosophies two audio-rich shows have about making their shows.  Public radio has an ongoing argument about if the use of “sound” (music, effects, foley) is acceptable or not, or to what degree.  It was interesting to hear what the creators of The Heart and Love + Radio thought.  Mostly, I took it as permission to create what you heard, to the degree you wanted, and that combining multiple sounds could get you something more rich than using the first thing you come to.  Also (and this came up later), experiment.

Getting to Yes: The Art of the Pitch – This was interesting to me, in part because it is so outside my world of operating.  I have never pitched a story (although I have pitched a podcast, and that went well) to a show, and my current plan doesn’t involve pitching.  But to see other people pitch and hear the criticisms and thoughts from a panel of professional producers (Bob Carlson of Unfictional, Leda Hartman of Latino USA, and Jamie York from Radiolab) was interesting.  I felt like I got some insight out of it.   I got to chat with Jamie a little afterwards, and that was interesting.  I mostly wanted to see how the themes of their shows and how audio-centric (or maybe the audio potential) a piece was affected their pitch consideration (does this sound like an audio rich story? What can you bring to the table in terms of sounds?).  Also, he said that enthusiasm could overcome other factors in a pitch.  After I heard that, I wanted to test him on it.

Building Worlds of Sound – I knew I was going to be interested in this one, but I didn’t realize how much.  Patrick Balthrop (@gameaudioguy) is a sound designer that works for video games.  Big video games.  He talked about his techniques and how he gathered sound, as well as his philosophical ideas on what he did.  I wanted to talk to him more after the session, but we never crossed paths.  He mentioned some software he used (Kyma was one, Reaktor got name-checked), but said that this might have been too nerdy for the audience.  As far as I was concerned, he could have gotten nerdier.  I loved this talk.

Three Shows/Three Techniques – This one broke down the sound and story structure of three very different and popular shows, This American Life, Radiolab and the NPR news magazine (like Morning Edition or All Things Considered).  The presenter was late to start this one, and I had an UNconference to get to at the lunch break (more on this in a bit), but what I saw and heard was really interesting.  She described how the small changes in style (she described them as small, but they seemed pretty big) affected the sound of the show.  The biggest takeaway from this was “Process is destiny in radio.”  What she meant by that was the way you make your show will inform how the show sounds.  A looser process of recording in studio or the WAY you gather tape (instead of just what tape you gather) will directly affect the sound of your show.  She said to understand all three models, then play around with them.  In the end, she showed how she combined all three models, and what the outcome was.  I didn’t get to stay for that part, unfortunately.

The Amazing Radio Vertikalisator – This one was weird, but good.  The host, Rikke Houd, had drawn a radio time machine, that was designed to make decisions on how your story is told.  I can’t do the talk justice, but the concept of where to place the author, scenes, narrator, interviews and more in various planes (distant, medium, close) in terms of style could be played with, and the “machine” would help with that.  After the talk, no one had questions for a bit.  What I realized shortly after was that I had questions for myself about the style of what I wanted to make, and this talk had given me some tools to answer those questions, ones I didn’t even know existed yet.  After, I went back and told Rikke that.

Looking back on all the sessions, I got more out of them than I thought I would initially.  As I’m not (yet) a storytelling driven podcaster, I didn’t think I would have much use for some of the topics.  I was pleasantly wrong about that.

The last session was Nancy Updike giving the keynote address.  She gave examples of “bad” in radio and storytelling that were interesting and good (well done and funny, much of the time).  It was interesting, but I was a little burned out on sitting in sessions all day, and ready to be done.  I did ask about the This American Life “This Week” podcast they had talked about, but she couldn’t give me an answer.  At least I finally got to ask the question.

Another question was asked by Luis from, but is was more challenging.  He wanted to know how independent producers were supposed to get their work heard if they weren’t getting picked up by the This American Lifes, Radiolabs, NPRs of the public radio world.  You could sense his frustration, and I really wanted to talk to him afterwards (hopefully, I’m doing justice here what he had to say).

I got my chance after most everyone had gone to dinner, when he sat down at a table next to me to charge his phone.  We had a fascinating conversation.  It was friendly but bold.  Intense  He had interesting things to say, and I had some interesting things for him.  At the end, it was the best thing to happen to me at the conference.  Luis was inspiring with his ideas and passion, and I think he has a few big things coming.  I don’t want to talk about everything we talked about – I leave that up to him if he wants to share –  but some of it was pretty awesome.  I can’t wait to see what comes of it.

A few other things:

  • I posted an UNconference topic (basically, want something to talk about over lunch? post the topic and a table will be given) about Audio for Podcasting.  One or two people asked what it as about, but then moved on.  Right when I was able to give up, Meradith sat down with questions about what gear to get.  I was really fun to help someone in this way.  I was grateful to be able to provide some help and ideas on what to get.
  • The first day had a vegetarian lunch called the Namaste lunch.  I couldn’t think of a more public radio lunch than that.
  • I signed up for AIR (the Association of Independents in Media).  I was on the fence before.  I almost did it after I attended the live HowSound in Boston, but I wasn’t quite convinced it was right for me.  After meeting more people associated with AIR, and talking to all the people at the conference, I knew I wanted to be a part of what was going on in a more direct way.  The decision was easy after that.  I hope I get to meet more people making cool things, and have the opportunity to help them, and for them to help me.
  • Race was a big topic at the conference, with a diversity meetup, several diversity UNconverences, and and two sessions of Audio Code Switching: Tackling Race on the Radio.  It’s a touchy subject, and I steered clear of the sessions, partially because there were other things I wanted to attend, and partly because I didn’t want to get into that heavy of a discussion.  I don’t think I was prepared for it.  I heard after that they were very good sessions, and some of the tweets I saw after talked about how good it was.  I will certainly listen to the archives when they are posted.
  • Friday, the first day of the conference, was a rough one for me.  I was late getting there, missed the panels, knew almost nobody, and wound up roaming the crowd but not meeting anyone.  Part of the problem was how I was dressed.  I was wearing what most men at the conference were wearing, but not what I usually wear.  I changed that for Saturday and Sunday (and beat traffic with plenty of time), and everything changed.  I had my swagger back, and felt more comfortable.  Mind you, NO ONE dressed like me, and I wonder how out of place I looked (and really, not that I care).
  • Yes, I was the guy in the hockey jersey.  Hello.
  • Hey, it’s Rob Byers, the loudness guru.  It was great to finally meet him.
  • I didn’t take as many photos as I wanted, but that wasn’t the point of the conference.  I did learn that not all screens are easy to accurately photograph.  Although they are interesting, I didn’t get good shots of what was being shown at the Three Shows /Three Techniques session.  Good thing I took notes.
    DSC_6511_TCAF DSC_6507_TCAF
  • Meeting people at these kinds of things is always a little hard at first.  But one easy way to do it is (and was) simply to walk up to a table and ask if they were interested in meeting new people.  I never was told no.  Also, if someone was using a piece of gear, I asked how they liked it.  That was a simple way to start a conversation.  I even helped a few people out this way.  If someone asked an equipment-related question in a session, I would try to catch them immediately after and see what their gear needs were.  Sometimes, I could make a helpful suggestion, sometimes it was illuminating in what a person’s needs really were, rather than what I thought their needs would be.
  • Another thing I did when I wanted to say hi to people who’s work I liked was to simply say, “Hi, I really enjoy your work.”  If they wanted to talk, they could.  If they didn’t, or weren’t available, I wasn’t taking them away from something or they could easily beg off.  90% of the time, I got in a conversation with the person I had approached.  Avery Truffelman was one that comes to mind here.  I chatted briefly with her about a question she had asked in a session, but started simply with “I enjoy the work you guys do.”  I like to give that complement.  It’s simple and straightforward, honest and nice.  If you find yourself in a situation where you want to say something to someone you admire, who is famous, who has “fans,” give it a shot.  “I enjoy your work” just feels right.
  • I got my hug from Roman Mars for donating to the Radiotopia Kickstarter.  He hugged a guy in a hockey jersey. I hope it was at least a little bit awkward for him.
  • There were people I wanted to talk to that I missed.  I wanted to talk to Brendan Baker of Love + Radio and Kaitlin Prest of The Heart about combining audio clips in sound design.  I wanted to ask a few questions of Alix Spiegel about the ways she sees play in the process of creating a show.  I wanted to ask Brooke Gladstone a few things about the ethics panel topics. I wanted to talk a bit more to the woman from Planet Money who’s name I did not get more about the sound of the show and the way it’s changed.  Some of the reason was time, some was how busy everyone was at the conference.  But I feel like I could get in contact with them at any time, since at the conference, everyone was very open.
  • Looking over the list of attendees we got, I see that Zoe Chase of Planet Money was there.  I thought I heard her ask a question in one of the sessions.  I would have told her I love her voice (it came up on an episode of Tape), because I do.  She always sounds really passionate.

I could probably go on, but this would become really unwieldy, which it probably is already.  I might have more to say about it later.

Final thoughts, I don’t think I’m done thinking about this conference, or the people I met.  Much like good radio, it will roll around in my head for a while.  There were a lot of people who made the conference for me.  I hope I helped make it a better conference for a few people.  I’m really excited to see what happens next.

What’s Good In Podcastland: Articles from Other Places

I wanted to point you to a few outlets that are keeping tabs on what’s good in the world of podcasting.

The Onion’s A.V. Club has a column dedicated to what they liked this week.  Podmass tends to repeat itself with a few shows they love deeply (the last four articles mention 99% Invisible), but they do listen to quality stuff.

Gawker put out a list called “Listening to the Radio Is Cool Again: 8 Smart Podcasts You Should Hear.”  Again, a solid listing from a place that doesn’t talk about podcasts often.  We see a few things that tend to slip under the radar (like the excellent but more adult Love + Radio and Audio Smut), and a few things that you have hopefully have listened to before.

What you consistently see on lists like these are shows either directly produced or supported by public radio.  Public radio is doing some of the best storytelling in the audio space, and shows outside the public media spectrum that tell great stories tend to get a lot of attention paid to them by public radio.  Aside from resources, public radio shows also tend to lend some credibility to their shows that the average podcaster doesn’t have.

It’s interesting to see what other media outlets like.  Whether you like or respect those outlets or not, it puts a perspective on what we are doing.  Shows like these are what tend to get a lot of attention.