Los Angeles, CA (September 24, 2020)—Improvisational comedy moves fast, and the audio pros entrusted to capture the magic don’t always have many opportunities to fix flubbed words or phrases. But over the course of recording the mostly improvised podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, producer Matt Gourley has found creative ways to get it done.
Case in point: When a recent guest hiccupped over the word “about” while recording a key segment, Gourley used a trick he learned while working on another improvised podcast, Superego. He analyzed all the audio tracks from the interview to find every other instance of the guest saying the word in search of a substitute.
“As I was editing, I was keeping mental notes,” says Gourley. “I think there were six or seven times he said ‘about,’ and only one of them fit. It has to feel like a natural human, not artificial intelligence taking speech from the internet and pasting it all together. Luckily, one of them really worked.”
Creativity also comes into play in other ways, he says, such as the introduction and theme music. Longtime O’Brien associate Jimmy Vivino composes and performs most of the original music used on the podcast, with one notable exception: a clip from The White Stripes’ song “We’re Going to Be Friends” featured in the intro. Gourley transitions from a Vivino-composed segment with a simple kick drum pattern that links the two clips.
“[He] did the music for it to be a complement, even down to the same beats per minute,” he says. “I was able to take the separate stems of the music and take out the music after the introduction, hoping to make it seem like one seamless piece. It’s a little hard to tell, but that’s kind of the point.”
The team normally records at the same Warner Brothers studios where O’Brien tapes his television show, Conan, in a dressing room they converted to a fully functioning podcast studio with a glassed-in green room. There, the typical setup is four Shure SM7B mics on Heil PL-2T overhead broadcast booms and Shure SRH840 headphones for monitoring, all with room to expand, but these days O’Brien and sidekick-assistant Sona Movsesian record at Earwolf Studios, using SM7Bs and Sennheiser HD 280 PRO closed-back headphones, while Warner is still shut down. They both record locally to QuickTime on their computers while videoconferencing with Gourley and the day’s guest via Zoom.
“Conan himself is an admitted Luddite,” he says. “He doesn’t really know anything about computers, so to send him a mic and a USB interface [wouldn’t work].” Gourley, who prefers to use a Sennheiser super-cardioid mic on the podcast, downloads their files and assembles them in Pro Tools, lining up the tracks to a hand-clap sync.
“We record on Zoom as a backup in case we need it, especially for the guests,” he says. “It’s different every time. [I] get on Zoom with the guests a little before the recording and have them try to set up a [local] recording on their own so that we can get some decent quality. It’s hit and miss—sometimes guests just don’t have that functionality, so we end up going with their Zoom recording.”
Once Gourley completes a rough edit, he gets to work on the signal using plug-ins like the industry-standard iZotope RX to remove “room noise, plosives and mouth clicks.” O’Brien isn’t a heavy editor, though. If he has any concerns, he usually notes them right after taping. Gourley puts the episodes together mostly on his own.
Producing a podcast that thrives on interaction and nonverbal communication can be a challenge, Gourley says, but one the team at Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend has adapted to well.
“Timing is everything and you’re always on a delay [with Zoom],” he says. “It’s like trying to be funny on a cell phone connection. But like anything, you start to learn the rhythms, and Conan’s a master of that. It isn’t long usually before the guests get in the rhythm, too.”
Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend • https://www.earwolf.com/show/conan-obrien/