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Behind the Tiny Desk: NPR Radio’s intimate online concerts

Audio engineer Josh Rogosin lets us in on how he captures studio quality sound for NPR Radio's renowned online Tiny Desk Concerts

A 15 minute soundcheck for a gig played to a dozen or so people might not seem like that big of a deal, but what if the session was uploaded to YouTube and streamed millions of times? Tara Lepore speaks to audio engineer Josh Rogosin about how he captures studio quality sound for NPR Radio’s renowned online Tiny Desk Concerts…

Imagine your favourite band playing live in your office on your lunch break. Now imagine that happening three times a week. That’s the reality for NPR Radio’s audio engineer Josh Rogosin, who is responsible for recording sound for the station’s popular Tiny Desk YouTube sessions, welcoming some of the biggest names in music to its Washington DC office each week. Explaining the set up, he tells PSNEurope: “It’s broad daylight. There’s no stage lighting, there are no monitors. The audience aren’t people who paid to get in, they’re just a bunch of people who work here.” 

Since its inception in 2008, NPR’s intimate Tiny Desk concerts have featured a myriad of musicians performing to an online audience of music lovers all over the world. Time and time again, the comments underneath the videos praise the audio quality. 

According to one fan, “I think the audio on the TDCs [Tiny Desk concerts] is better than any other performances I have heard… even better than some studio albums.” 

The idea to record musicians in a confined office space came from a particularly bad gig experience at SXSW Festival in Texas, where NPR’s Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson couldn’t hear folk artist Laura Gibson over a particularly noisy crowd. After the show, Thompson joked with Gibson that when she was next in DC she should come and play a session at Boilen’s “tiny desk”. Weeks later, Gibson turned up at the NPR offices to film the first Tiny Desk concert – the online music session being a relatively new format at the time that would change how we experience ‘live’ music forever. More than a decade on, around a whopping 800 Tiny Desk sessions have been viewed more than 600 million times on YouTube alone. 

A global audience tuned in on a wide range of audio systems poses a potentially challenging task for an audio engineer, but it’s one that Rogosin is well qualified for. As a teenager, he’d record his own songs on his fourtrack Tascam 424 Portastudio cassette recorder. This formative love for live recording transpires to today’s Tiny Desk sessions: “I always tell artists when they come to the Tiny Desk to imagine they’re in a hotel room, after a gig, working through a new song together. There’s no monitors, there’s no PA, you’re playing dynamically enough to hear each other. In a sense, you’re self-mixing. When our artists ask me, ‘How are we going to do the session without monitors?’, I tell them it’s about what it was like to play music when you’re 15, in your bedroom. It’s getting back to the roots of it.” 

Rogosin’s first audio job was in the theatre. After graduating college, where he “basically took every audio related course in the entire university”, Rogosin worked as an assistant audio producer at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC. He says: “I used to walk past NPR every day on my way to mixing shows at the theatre. One day I thought, ‘I wonder if they need any sound people?’ I popped in and asked for a tour – they didn’t have any on that day. So instead, I asked if they had any job postings.” A few months later Rogosin was regularly freelancing at the station. “I sort of fell into NPR that way; I guess these things happen serendipitously.” 

In Rogosin’s initial years at the station, he mostly worked on NPR’s news section, using field recording techniques when out on assignments. He says this is where he learned how to tell stories through sound, which “completely informed how I record Tiny Desk”. 

“Most of the time we used shotgun mics in the field so we could really focus the sound without necessarily having to get super close to the subjects,” he says. “The ‘Tiny Desk’ you see on YouTube is literally Bob Boilen’s desk, in the middle of the cubicles in the office. There’s no control room. So the approach was, how do we make it like a field recording? As journalists at NPR, we’re always trying to be a fly on the wall. How do you capture something in its natural environment? Really, the DNA of Tiny Desk comes from NPR and the [journalistic] style of recording that we do here.” 

The idea to use shotgun mics for the sessions came from Kevin Wait, the engineer responsible for Tiny Desk in its early days (Rogosin took over in 2015). Wait opted for the Sennheiser 418S, which Rogosin continues to use to this day. “He loved the idea of setting it up and having bands position themselves around it and adjust their volumes so that we hear each instrument come through, as if [the audience] is eavesdropping,” Rogosin says. There are visual benefits too, as the slimline shotgun mic “gets the mic out of the way of the performer’s emoting face, which is rare to see up close”. 

He adds: “I like things to look super minimal. I’ll make sure all my cables are super clean out of the way, I want it to be like the tech completely disappears.” Sometimes, Rogosin will tape a mic to the underside of a vocalist’s baseball cap, a trick stolen from his theatre days. “But, of course there are exceptions,” he admits. “I don’t feel bad about having a shotgun in the frame when I need it there to sound good.” 

Tiny Desk is recorded in a working office environment, meaning Rogosin uses IZotope plugins to remove the sound of the air conditioning. I ask him why he doesn’t just turn off the unit for the duration of the session. “Well, it gets really hot in here,” he says. “Also, I’m not as precious about sterile recording environments as some people might be. This is live, who cares?” 

He reveals that, ironically, there is a multimillion dollar recording studio at the station that is actually rarely used. “But we do have a mic closet at NPR that I can steal from,” he says. “I started using Ear Trumpet Lab’s Delphina mic on vocals for a Weezer session we just did, which sounds really nice. I’ve also started using a Heil PR40 on the kick drum, it’s a nice, dynamic mic that’s designed for podcasting. We use a pair of Sennheiser MKH40s behind our pianos and I love Coles ribbon mics for brass. 

“As the artists aren’t hearing themselves, they’re not reacting to the mics, so I need to do that work for them. It’s labour intensive to go through and chisel out all the parts the way I like, so I’m listening to the whole session very carefully. If a bass player does a cool lick, I’ll go in and punch that up [in post] so it pops out. The result is somehow that it sounds totally natural, when in reality, it’s not. It’s me as an audio engineer making the decision to feature it.” 

With a 15 minute soundcheck and typically filming in one take, Rogosin humbly shrugs off the YouTube comments that claim Tiny Desk Concerts sound better than studio albums. “Maybe it’s the spontaneity that helps with that,” he says. “But ironically, for a lot of these artists, this could be the most watched thing that they ever produce. Some artists are concerned about not having all the luxuries that you have in a recording studio, but we’re not trying to recreate the album, we’re trying to capture a moment, what makes it special.”