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Bootstrapping Audio Production for ‘Out Alive’

Sharing heart-stopping tales of survival means that "Backpacker" magazine’s "Out Alive" podcast moves quickly and travels light.

Backpacker's Out Alive podcastLike any self-respecting survivalists, the writers and editors at Backpacker magazine know how to accomplish the impossible with minimal resources. So when staffer Louisa Albanese envisioned a podcast that would explore stories of wilderness survival, she simply bootstrapped the challenge and created Out Alive.

“We approach [recording audio] from a pragmatic standpoint,” said Albanese, senior photo editor at Backpacker and executive producer of the Out Alive podcast.

Albanese had no experience with audio production when she and a small team of storytellers added podcasting to their résumés. Through Out Alive, they give survivors the chance to tell their stories of near-tragedies in the wild, from surviving rockslides, rattlesnake bites, quicksand, and bear-infested backcountry to a 200-foot free fall in the Alaska Range. And that’s just in season 2.

Executive producer Louisa Albanese
Executive producer Louisa Albanese ALBANESE

“When something that traumatic happens to you, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Albanese. “It’s happening to all the people around you as well. Podcasting is a way to tell these multidimensional stories and involve all these different people who had a part in your story.”

Every episode begins with narration by Albanese, who uses a variety of devices to interview her subjects. She quickly acquainted herself with the tools of the trade, relying on Blue Yeti microphones to capture primary audio through the Zencastr VoIP platform. She typically sends a Yeti to the survivor of the story, while opting for lesser recording methods for the other voices.

There’s a method to this technology choice: “I feel like having a couple of people in the episode who have that old-school sound of being on the phone adds a different texture to the story,” she said. “It allows you to be like, ‘Oh, now we’re back to this person,’ without having to introduce [them]. Recording in all these different ways is a really compelling way to tell a story without having to constantly reintroduce people.”

For supplemental voices, she asks interviewees to record a voice memo on a mobile phone if they don’t have access to a good microphone. If neither option is available, she uses the TapeACall app to record the phone conversation

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The audio files then go to sound designer and story editor Andrew Mairs, who loads them into Adobe Premiere Pro, a video editing program that he also uses for audio. “It’s been very liberating coming from a video perspective because it’s so much easier to be able to move things around without having to worry about the video losing sync,” he said.

At the same time, transcriptions of the interview usually go to assistant skills editor Zoe Gates for a paper edit. After another pass, they edit the audio in Premiere Pro to mirror the script. Mairs goes to work on sound design as well as structure edits, then it moves to another producer for final cleanup. The entire editing lifecycle of an episode usually lasts one week.

Sound designer and story editor Andrew Mairs edits the podcast in Adobe Premiere Pro.
Sound designer and story editor Andrew Mairs edits the podcast in Adobe Premiere Pro.

Just like in the wild, though, there are no guarantees that plans will work out exactly the way Mairs and Albanese envision. In the two-part episode “Tragedy on the Appalachian Trail,” for example, one source had to be interviewed in two separate sessions for logistics reasons—and one call sounded markedly better than the other.

“It was almost like you didn’t quite catch that it was the same person in the interview,” Mairs says. “Because the sound quality was so varied, our solution was to make the one that sounds better sound worse to match the other one! In the end, I don’t think you would ever notice that they were two separate sources.”

The role of sound design on Out Alive is primarily to add texture, Albanese said. Mairs keeps the sound effects light, using them to subtly underscore the rollercoaster of storytelling tension and release, with music and sound effects licensed from APM Music.

“I feel like the music is the lifeblood of the story,” Mairs said. “Even if it’s just an ambient drone, I’m a big proponent of giving it that tone so we’re bringing the story to life.”

Although the stories told on Out Alive are high drama, the endgame is to leave listeners with a healthy fear of situations that can put them in danger outdoors, and an understanding of potential ways to conquer them.

Said Albanese, “By weaving in the voices of other people affected by an incident and providing education to our audience, they might be better prepared should they ever find themselves in a similar scenario.”