Speaker 0 00:00:01 Lately, I've noticed a running joke from audio producers on social media. It varies a bit from one joke to the next, but it's always in the vein of producers, having a hard time explaining to others what they do for a living. I've experienced my own version of that. And I think it's because producers tend to wear many different hats and that role can show change quite a bit from one project to another. It could be anything from coordinating guest interviews, editing audio, doing sound design research for different stories, setting up a website, really anything that needs to be done. Producers might not always get a ton of credit, but they're usually a big part of making a good podcast happen. Now you may be at a point in your journey where you're thinking of bringing on a producer, but you're not quite sure what they can bring to the table. On the flip side, maybe you're finding out that you're actually pretty good at this podcasting thing and wanna share your skills to help others and maybe make a bit of extra money either way. My conversation with Alex Lewis, a super talented audio producer and new position might prove to be useful.
Speaker 1 00:01:05 I'm often like I want to make the podcast world of this, or I wanna bring the world of, of what's happening here into this narrative project I'm working on because there's something about it that I think could be really, really useful, or that is a emoting. Something that I want to get at in this thing that is completely unrelated has no, you know, if I'm thinking of like, what is the world of this John Coltrain, bill Evans recording, and I'm working on something that just voices, uh, or something like that. I don't always know what that means, but just to your point, I think taking inspiration from other mediums and, and just things in the world is really, really important and helpful. <affirmative>
Speaker 0 00:01:43 Before we get into that, I wanna share something with you that we're pretty excited about at Casto through our app, you can create a subscription based podcast. Thanks to our partnership with Stripe using our new integrative tool. You can create a private podcast and accept payments directly from your listeners. No more clunky third party ad algorithms that don't actually generate income. Oh, and forget about a middleman taking a 30% cut. It's a direct payment from your audience to you. Simple, learn [email protected]
also linked in the show notes. So Alex Lewis got his start in public radio, working with NPR and the BBC he's also worked with magnificent noise. You know, the company that at Eric Newsom founded and has also collaborated with audible. Alex has received an Edward Amoro award and was nominated for a Peabody for his work. Now he runs row home productions, an audio production company based in Philadelphia. He and I spent a long time chatting about the importance of structure, narrative sound design, and ultimately why bringing an experienced audio producer onto a project can make a huge difference. Granted, we're both biased cause we're both producers, but still, I think it's worth the listen. We're gonna Vero in on the conversation, but I first wanna make the point that I'm really glad to have spoken with Alex because he comes from the world of radio and making music. So his experience aligns with my philosophy of borrowing from other mediums to make a podcast.
Speaker 2 00:03:16 I,
Speaker 1 00:03:17 I like to describe myself more as an audio storyteller, or I'd like to describe RO home's work as narrative audio productions, because there is this through line between all of these things, whether it's, and I think you're right, like podcasting to me is a, is a medium. And the radio is a medium and an audio tour is a medium or a sound installation is a medium through which a sound production con sound content flows through. And so, um, at a level you can go back to the same toolkit again and again. Yes. It's important to keep your medium in mind, just as an example, going from being a public radio producer, making the afternoon new show, which is on a very tight schedule, has a very specific format of it to going to a podcast format, uh, which, you know, potentially could be infinitely long if you want <laugh>, uh, and have note and have no format.
Speaker 1 00:04:12 Uh, I mean these, these are things to, to consider in what you're making, but for me, these things all start with it all starts with sound and how, and how to play with it and manipulate it and, uh, using microphones and using your da and, uh, and considering, yeah, I mean, all these things that just go into sound production, probably the thing that I offer that is most valuable is thinking through structure, both narrative structure, project structure, and that can kind of, I mean, I could easily dovetail this into a talk about sound design, where again, you could start talking about plugins and reverb and, uh, sound libraries, but I think the first thing you really need to think about is like, what is the macro concept of my, of my, uh, of the thing I'm trying to make. Uh, and can I describe it in words? Can I write it down on paper? And so, uh, before we dive into that, whether it's sound design or story slash narrative or your project in general, I think thinking through these macro level concepts and kind of having a good idea of, of what works and what your options are is probably what I'm good at.
Speaker 0 00:05:25 I like that you mentioned structure structure for a podcast is very important. I, I use the analogy. Think about like your favorite book that you've ever read. All right. Imagine it's 500 pages long. Now imagine there's no page numbers, there's no chapter breaks. There's not even paragraphs, there's not a table of contents there, nothing. Now there's gonna be some really good information in that book, but you're not gonna be able to really process it as well versus, you know, if, you know, just imagine again, if like the author just kind of handed you like a manuscript without much structure, right? That's what publishers and editors do for an author. They package it up, they get a cool cover. They provide, you know, that author with the opportunity of like, here's how we're gonna present it to the public. And I think as podcast producers, we do the same thing on our own way.
Speaker 0 00:06:10 And you mentioned adding structure to shows and, and so music and sound design and is a big part of that structure. And there's a lot of ways you can think about it. Does music help you tell the story? Is it providing just chapters and segment breaks within the episode? And those are the kinds of decisions that producers and sound designers have to make that not everyone who's new to, podcasting's gonna have a great sense of, and you can't really, in my opinion, you really can't work back QUTs from that. You can't just listen to something like serial would be a good, a good example or, or any, you know, insert any narrative there and decide, Hey, I want it to sound like that. I think almost you have to make a lot of the podcasts and then a sound designer can go in and decide, all right, what do we need here? So I I'm, I'm sort of curious, um, I, I listen sort of in my research for this, I was listening to a housework. I, I know you mixed and, and produced that one. That's a, and that's a great podcast. And that if you could maybe describe like, you know, your approach to doing something like that, versus maybe something more immersive where music tells part of the story.
Speaker 1 00:07:10 That's a great example because I really was hired by magnificent noise to do sound design on, on the first reason of how's work. And most projects I do, I'm kind of brought in well before that stage where they're like help us conceptualize is help us make the whole thing from, from the start. And, and, uh, this was something where the, the show is already more or less laid out. They're like, we've done all these interviews. We've, we've actually already edited for the most part. These conversations, we have the pro tools sessions ready to go, but we there's no music, there's no rhythm, there's no flow yet. And we need help thinking through that. And this was the time when, uh, their company magnificent noise was a little bit smaller too, and didn't have as much capacities. So that was a reason why, um, they reached out to me.
Speaker 1 00:07:59 And so I basically got, um, sent a number of these episodes, uh, again, that were edited for content like the raw content had been edited. You know, the conversation Esther was having with the guests, um, and her voiceovers were also recorded already, but there was nothing else to them. You know, there were more or less unmixed, uh, no music. And what I really appreciated is that Jesse Baker, their executive producer was very open. She just like, I, you know, based on your past work, I trust that you can come up with something that will work for this, um, and very quickly. Uh, and this is partly based on my experience, also listening to, uh, where should we begin? Um, as most popular show, I was like the, probably as you, as you hit the nail in the head, I'm like, this probably only requires a really light touch because the conversations are so powerful.
Speaker 1 00:08:50 Her voice is so unique. Um, her writing is actually really, really good too. And so there's like, there's already this really strong structure to it. There's already something and, and it's already so immersive almost without music, but the role of sound design here, um, again, as you mentioned, is the lightly sign post, uh, a few things, one just on a, on a kind of a pragmatic basis sign posting when, when transitions are gonna happen. And I, and I think this can be subconscious, uh, or hopefully it becomes a little bit, it's not so, so noticeable, but kind of signaling like this is, we're reaching the end of this opening monologue, this opening voiceover, and we're, we're about to get into, um, into the space of, of the, of the conver of the therapy conversation. And then similarly towards the end of each of those segments, you know, from back from the therapy session, into the VO, from the therapy session to the end, uh, and kind of giving that sign post.
Speaker 1 00:09:46 So, um, there's that feeling like we're moving along, but then also to sign post, you know, using music and, and silence and, and, and the rhythm of the mix to emphasize aspects of the conversation points that are being made, that you really want someone to pay attention to. Most people listen to podcasts while they're doing something else in a way that's the beauty of the, of the medium, um, you know, cooking, driving, walking around, et cetera. And, and while, you know, especi at Esther Perel, you're probably paying pretty close attention. I think sometimes these things can kind of wash over you. <laugh>, uh, in, in a way where you're like at the end of the end of listening, you could, you can feel like I got it. Like I, and I could tell you what it was about, but using sound design, to sign post things that are really important, or, or just parts of the episode that you really want someone to, to pay special attention to. I think that's a really important, that's really important and a, and a way to kind of transcend just that washing over of the lulling of your podcast feed, uh, and, and, and kind of bring listeners someplace else.
Speaker 0 00:10:55 I think that's why the order of operations matter a lot. Um, I think again, you know, you talk about people have this kind of finished product in their mind, and, and I think on some level you do wanna have, I think, some sort of north star of where you wanna get. I, I, I don't think that's wrong, but I, but I, but I like that you said, you know, you were able to go in and listen to these already curated conversations. And then from there to decide, all right, this is important. Here's where transition is. And then we're gonna use music to tee that up. I think that's the importance of when you confuse these two, the, the, these, these two formats together, uh, like people chatting and, and narrative, I think it's, it's not a B you know, it's not a binary of it's one or the other, you can use the best of both.
Speaker 0 00:11:36 I mean, narrative podcasts are to make, you've made a lot of them. It's I think in my opinion, the hardest thing in podcasting to do the Q and a is a little bit easy because you're leaning on, you know, the conversation really to, to make your, to, to make your final, your, your final presentation. Um, but the way, the way Esther fus those together. And, and, and I love that where you can, again, that's where, like your skills as a radio producer come in, because you can decide, and the people, you know, who helped out with that show and curated those and edited those conversations decided we don't need all of this. We don't need, it's not a direct to tape type show, but again, going back after the conversation has happened and adding music that lets you decide, all right, here's the part of the conversation we want to be able to focus on. We want to use music to cue up an important idea for the listener
Speaker 1 00:12:26 You're right, that there's not a total binary between we'll call it chat shows and, and narrative shows the example that I often give. Uh, so my, my business partner at ROHO John, uh, Myers, he worked at fresh air, uh, with Terry Gross for many, many years, and ostensibly it's Terry talking to one person. Uh, but if you listen to the credits of the show, there's usually at least a dozen producers names following her name and every interview, the, they do goes through an intense editing process where they, um, take the interviews, uh, the raw interviews, which they've heavily prepared for. And, and as a group, usually one or two people I think are in charge of the initial edit, but then the whole team kind of gives feedback on where to move things around to make that conversation flow as seamlessly and as meaningfully as possible. Uh, and I'm not saying that everyone's show needs 10 producers, but I think that just shows you, you know, to make a show, uh, in a chat show that that is at that level, um, takes a high level of, of thought, and you kind of end up using these narrative structural storytelling skills, whether it's a chat show or a narrative documentary.
Speaker 0 00:13:38 Yeah. And I think it's, it's that Terry Gross is a great example. I mean, I think, I mean, I mean, if you were to make a, a list of the best interviewers ever, she's on the short list of them. No doubt. And, and I'm glad you brought that point up because I think he also mentioned like mark Marinn earlier. I mean, what feels like an off the cuff conversation, what feels like intimate conversation unfolding is, is still I think, and I don't mean this pejoratively. He's still pretty contrived, you know, he's working Brenda, McDonald's one of the best, I think producers in, in the industry and the, the work is stuff you don't see a lot of times, whether it's just, whether it's mark, just like reading, uh, you know, like a book that the guest read, uh, wrote, whether it's, it's watching their films, whether it's pulling from a dynamic that already exists, whether it's his decades of experience as a standup comedian that allow him to just kind of, you know, pivot during conversations that take unexpected turns. Um, those are the types of things maybe that, that aren't always very evident to a listener, but it's, it's work you're pulling from. So it's sometimes it's it's years, years of work and experience and knowledge that the result is maybe a 20 minute conversation sometimes.
Speaker 1 00:14:44 Yeah. I think when you can't feel or hear or see the seams of something, it, it, it means that a lot of thought and experience and work has gone into it and kind of combining some of these ideas together. Like if you're listening to a podcast and, and you're really noticing the music, <laugh>, uh, there's kind of something that probably should change with it, or if you're really think, or if it really feels like, you know, conversation has not been edited or thought about at all. It probably, it probably hasn't been, but I think mark, Maron's a really good example and I, I don't, I have listened to some of their shows where they talk about their process, but I, I think you're totally right. Like he's coming into it with his own set of ideas about how it should go. I mean, I do think, and this is an aside in a way let's sometimes when he doesn't have as much of a plan, he does have a go-to format that he reverts to that seems to work and that guests buy into. Um, and then Brendan probably edits down into, into something very, very listenable, but, um, kind of coming full circle just to this idea of like coming into your show with a strong I, and a strong sense of like the structure and the format, et cetera, will is ultimately is what makes it. And I think that's what mark Marin does.
Speaker 0 00:15:59 Is there something you've produced where the sound is more immersive? Because, I mean, I think sounds can be used. I mean, like I said, I don't think you want it to be overbearing. I don't think you want it to take away, but there are times where sound design can help tell a story. I think, again, it just, it, it really hinges on, you know, the format of your, of your show. What you're trying to do. Good example would be, you know, audio dramas. I think, I think they, they, they really leverage music and sound effects. I think far more than like a narrative podcast would because, and, and, and it's obvious why, because, you know, when you, when you watch something on, when you watch a movie, you know, they're, they're leveraging their medium through, you know, the use of visuals stage actors tend to be very, you know, very animated with their gestures. Uh, if you're making an audio drama, all, all you have is a person's ears, that's it? I mean, and so you've gotta create a world and, you know, you've gotta create theater of the mind. So they're, they're really leveraging, uh, sound effects. I don't believe you've done any non-fiction or I'm sorry, any, uh, audio fiction, but have, are there any projects that, that you've done where you, you made the decision? All right. We really need more here than just little like segment breaks and music beds,
Speaker 1 00:17:07 Uh, short answer. Yes. I do wanna say though, I take a lot of inspiration from audio fiction per projects, you know, uh, listening to a show like the truth, which is one of the first audio fiction shows I had really ever heard. Uh, and that's made by Jonathan Mitchell, you know, public, you know, that is public radio adjacent podcast, um, or, you know, a few years ago, listening to home the, the first season of homecoming and, and really, again, just feeling really inspired by how immersive the sound design is, and then listening to kind of the, the making of after in, in those episodes and, um, hearing how they recorded with, uh, Oscar, Isaac and Catherine keener in these different locations. And, um, and then trying to take lessons from these other shows, which are, um, frankly much, much more complex than anything I've made, but finding, but finding lessons in them.
Speaker 1 00:17:57 Regardless, a couple years ago, I made, I worked on this radio documentary with NPR music and w XPN, uh, about the Haitian influence, uh, on the coal sort of music of new Orleans. And it's a, uh, it's basically a two hour documentary that is mostly it's hosted by this musicians, woman, Layla Macala. And it's mostly just her, her voice narrating voiceover, and includes many, many voices from people from new Orleans and Haiti and, and elsewhere Haitian diaspora in the us. Um, and, and while the main, the main sound design in that is mostly just the sounds of the voices, the sounds of scenes, uh, I'll call it like the digetic sounds, the sounds that are happening, uh, actually where the voices are. And, and with music, there are a couple moments in there that where I <laugh>, I feel like I finally have the opportunity to bring into this like very non-fiction historical audio documentary, um, format, um, some, some more conceptual sound design, but I think one thing I would I'd wanna say is, and, and take one step back kind of coming into, into those parts of that particular project.
Speaker 1 00:19:13 Um, and I'd say it's in general, for any project, you kind of wanna come up with a big picture macro concept of what is the sound design identity of this thing I'm working on, you know, is this radio lab, does it, is there like a million things happening? Is, is it, are there really quick cuts? Is there, am I using lots of reverb and reversing or, or whatever am I, am I, is this gonna be something that's really, it's like ear candy in this one way? Or is this a more subtle, does this thing require more subtle sound design? Is it mostly voice forward? Um, what is the identity of the music? I mean, music is, is obviously an essential part of sound design. Is the music mostly acoustic instruments? Is it electric, electronic instruments? How does the host of my show, um, what kind of TAs work with their voice and the energy and the vibe and the content of my show, I can kind of go on and on with these questions, but I think this is such an essential question.
Speaker 1 00:20:11 And for anyone to ask and, and to, and to really get down on paper, like, uh, you know, you should be, I think you should be able to write like a, a short essay about this is the sound design identity of what I want to do, because then from there, uh, it becomes much easier to make decisions, uh, going forward. And I think, uh, I can't give any examples and maybe wouldn't anyway <laugh>, but sometimes you can, you can listen to a, uh, a podcast episode or a show, and it's seemingly, you know, it moves through so many different identities, like, like one, five minute chunk will be, will sound really wild <laugh> and have lots of stuff going on, but then you'll hear just like one voice for, for a long time. And, and you kind of, it can kind of bring you out of it as a listener, cuz you're like, I don't really understand the identity of what this is trying to be.
Speaker 1 00:21:01 And so a specific example at the beginning of, of, so the document about Haiti and, and new Orleans is called carnival Haitian rhythms in the music of new Orleans. At the very beginning of the documentary, we have Layla, uh, the host introduce herself and it's kind of a dual just trying, we're trying to do two things at the beginning, having the, have the listener buy into why you should go along the journey with her and her connection, the story, and just introducing the, the idea of the documentary itself. Uh, and so in collaboration with her, um, we kind of wrote this opening scene, uh, where she sees these connections between her now home city of new Orleans and where her family is from and in Haiti. And we kind of, but she kind of mentions the, the sites and the architecture and food. And, and so we bring in kind of subtle examples of those that kind of with long music and some field recordings and, um, and her voice and her writing kind of come together to create, uh, what I consider very beautiful opening scene.
Speaker 0 00:22:09 All right. So show versus tell, right. Let's take a listen to that opening sequence from the audio documentary Conal presented by w XPN in Philadelphia,
Speaker 3 00:22:19 You're listening to Conal Haitian rhythms and the music of new Orleans I'm Lela Macall, I'll never forget going to kapa for the first time. It's a beautiful coastal city in the north of Haiti where colorful facades feature, arch doors and overhanging balconies. I remember thinking this looks like the French quarter, or wait a minute. Does the French quarter look like kapa As a Haitian American who lives in new Orleans? I often sense these moments of recognition, the sound of a drum or horn The aroma from a kitchen, The look of the food.
Speaker 1 00:23:20 I think this is reinforcing this point that, um, yes, there's like given that there are infinite choices, a there are no right ways to, to do this and, and you have so many options. Um, but also just to say, you know, you just need to try different things out and that kind of will lead you to the answer of like, what, what you feel the identity should be of your project.
Speaker 0 00:23:41 I, I'm just kinda curious, you know, your, your background as a musician. I mean, that in and of itself is for some people, a lifelong pursuit, you've managed to be a musician, a reporter, a producer, an editor, a writer, a founder of a company. Um, so where, where, I mean, obviously we've talked about how, how music, uh, like fits into all that, but I, I'm just sort of curious about your, your personal background with music. How'd you get interested in it when you start, what instruments do you play?
Speaker 1 00:24:05 My parents started me on Suzuki violin when I was two years old. Um, I didn't like it. Uh, and, uh, you know, how mu how you know, who knows. Uh, and then when I was five, my parents were like, okay, you don't have to play the violin anymore, but you have to choose an instrument. And I chose the guitar. Uh, you know, I think my favorite band was the Beatles when I was five. Maybe they still are today. I don't know. Um, especially after watching get back side, everyone wants to talk about that with me. And I basically played guitar ever since then. I grew up studying classical guitar, started playing in bands in middle school and high school and kind, this kind of quickly leads into how I got into radio. I, I got accepted to go to Northwestern, to study classical guitar actually, and, uh, just be in their conservatory.
Speaker 1 00:24:49 Um, but very, very early on at college is when I discovered the college radio station. And I was like, I actually think I like this more than doing, doing guitar stuff or classic guitar in particular. But yeah, it, it's actually funny getting asked about this. Cause I don't get asked about, uh, specif my music background very much, but I've basically, you know, I, I play guitar every day. I play in a couple bands here in Philadelphia. I've been lucky enough to play in, uh, in other people's groups and ensembles and go on tour. And, uh, it feels, it, it, it feels like it's in this hobby. It it's like in hobby slash like semi-professional part of my life, but it's a really, really important part of who I am is, um, being a guitar player and I can relate it to being a radio producer in 2012.
Speaker 1 00:25:36 I did the transom story workshop, uh, rest in peace just ended, um, forever. So I, I, I applied to this workshop to basically get better at audio storytelling and I got there and, and I certainly had a lot to learn, but one thing I, I kind of quickly realized is that I had a, I had, I had my own kind of sense of pacing in an edit of a, of a story through being through my background in music. So just making the, kind of maybe, maybe the obvious point that I do think being a musician can really help in your podcast, radio making, um, uh, I mean sort of pragmatically, cuz you might already know how to use an audio editing program, uh, and have some ideas about how different sounds and things fit together. But I think for me, most importantly kind was kind of realizing how that sense of rhythm and pacing could be used in, in this, in this kind of other work.
Speaker 0 00:26:37 So things like sound design and I guess more broadly producing in general can be kind of tricky. It's not like there's a one size fits all for every single podcast. And sometimes for podcasters who are working really, really hard to make their shows, having an objective pair of eyes or ears on their work can be very helpful,
Speaker 1 00:26:57 Hire a sound designer to help you figure that out. If you don't know how to, if you don't feel a hundred percent confident doing that yourself. Um, but just having those conversations, writing them down on pieces of paper, trying different things out, recording your voice, a sample of what you're doing and just putting music under it and being like, Nope, that's not it. Yes, that is, it is a really good place to start, but I highly recommend ha being able to articulate that big picture macro level identity of what you wanna do before you jump into to, uh, really doing your mix and sound design because it's a lot of work <laugh>, uh, and you'll feel paralyzed by the decisions. Um, uh, and yeah, I mean there, there's just so many metaphors you can bring to that, to this too. And we've talked about some of them, like what is the density sparseness of sound in your show, thinking about the tone, as we've talked about thinking about the rhythm of your show.
Speaker 1 00:27:54 Um, and I always give radio obvious as the example because there's obviously lots of things moving, moving you forward a lot of the time. Uh, but maybe that's not your kind of, maybe your show is something that moves at a slower, the use of TAs, you know, the sounds of the instruments, the sounds of just the, just the general tone, the use of digetic versus non-GE sounds, you know, trying to, particularly if you're working on an audio documentary or audio fiction, et cetera, and you decide, I want this to sound, I wanna really bring people to these scenes, to these places. Um, if that's an I part of the sound design identity of your show, you should make sure you're recording sounds <laugh> in those places when you're talking, you know, gathering extra, if you're interviewing someone at the zoo, make sure you're also bringing back with you, not just that interview at the zoo, but sounds of that space so you can incorporate them into your mix later.
Speaker 1 00:28:48 And the last thing I just have written down is if, uh, you're familiar with video or photography, you know, thinking in about close middle and kind of background or distant, uh, perspective in your, in your sound design at the most complex, uh, of sound designer mixes, I've done, you know, there can be 20 or more tracks all feeling those different perspectives to give the listener the most immersive view of, of, of, of a scene. Um, and I think sometimes thinking in those kind of like photography, uh, video can be really, really helpful to be like, you know, am I, am I seeing, am I getting the full picture of, of, of this? Or am I trying, am I trying to bring the listener really, really close to something like, should I put, should I, should this sound like our P our heads are next together next to each other on, on, on a bed?
Speaker 1 00:29:46 Or is this like, I'm shouting to you across the room? Uh, and so just thinking about perspective. So those are kind of my, all those are all the sound design thoughts. I, I, I have to an, without getting into the details. Um, I just wanted to make sure you had them here. Uh, but otherwise I, I think an answer your question. If, if anyone needs help with sound design or thinking through their podcast ideas or radio documentary ideas, uh, and don't already have someone they're working with, please feel free to reach out to us at, uh, RO home productions here in Philadelphia.
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