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Creative Audio Mixing Powers ‘Switched On Pop’ Podcast

Exploring the construction and meaning of popular music, the 'Switched On Pop' podcast is an audio mixing challenge.

Switched On Pop co-hosts Nate Sloan (left) and Charlie Harding.
Switched On Pop co-hosts Nate Sloan (left) and Charlie Harding.

New York, NY (February 4 2021)—The Switched On Pop podcast lives by the motto “show, don’t tell” in its dissection of popular music and how the production team relates complex stories and concepts to listeners through audio.

“We wanted to have deeper conversations about music that could dive into some of the actual musical insights—things that are harder to write about on paper,” says Charlie Harding, who started the podcast with co-host Nate Sloan. “We knew that audio gave us the opportunity to evidence some of the deeper, more intriguing elements of music.”

Switched On Pop, which recently joined forces with New York magazine’s music outlet Vulture, goes deep into the making and meaning of popular music, juggling a mix of formats to reach entertaining and informative insights about anthems like Smash Mouth’s omnipresent hit “All Star,” artists Keith Urban and Carly Rae Jepsen, and the trends that drive the industry.

In the recent episode “D.O.C. (Death of the Chorus),” Harding and Sloan discuss how contemporary popular music has shifted away from the soaring choruses of songs like Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” towards a structure of continuous hooks without the sweeping buildup and release of a verse-chorus composition. Editor and engineer Brandon McFarland cues up clips of Franklin, Billie Holiday and Beyoncé like a DJ to illustrate their points.

Editor and engineer Brandon McFarland
Editor and engineer Brandon McFarland

“Nate starts telling us about A-A-B-A form, and he grabs an example of ‘Blue Moon’ with Billie Holiday singing it,” says Harding. “Immediately [when] he says, ‘A-section,’ the filter opens up [and] the highs in the music come in, along with the volume.” The A section crossfades into the B section, with a touch of plate reverb added to give the sound separation from Sloan’s speaking voice. “We really try to have a clear sense of 3D perspective of the music versus the voice.”

The production team is cognizant of maintaining fluidity within an episode, so transitions between clips fall naturally and in time, like beats of the same measure. “Nate and I are musicians and Brandon is a musician, so we make sure that you’re always going in on a beat, going out on a downbeat, or going out on the last beat of the measure, and that the clips themselves feel musical,” says Harding.

For their four-part miniseries on Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Switched On Pop recorded the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing the iconic composition and presented particular sections in a similar manner. To eliminate dead air between sections they talk about, McFarland “creatively fade[s] those two sections together in a way that it’s fading underneath Nate talking. You don’t even notice we’ve cut out a piece of music, then the flutes come in. [McFarland] did a really good job of finding that perfect-zero crossing point in the music, cutting it, getting a nice little reverb tail, and making it sound natural.”

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When playing actual clips of popular songs doesn’t drive home the points Harding and Sloan make, their own backgrounds as musicians come into play.

“We have music executives, producers [and] all kinds of people listen to our show, but I want us to be accessible to a general audience,” he says, “and that means I’m always trying to find a way to make it as clear as possible what we’re talking about. I can’t assume that people can, in their ear, isolate the bass guitar from the main guitar, so if I don’t have the stems of a track, it’s often easier for me to recreate something to demonstrate what we’re talking about.”Switched On Pop Podcast

Harding’s comment points to a larger challenge he and the podcast team wrestle with every episode: how to draw listeners into the story and deliver information and clips without creating fatigue or disinterest.

“Our goal is to have the show sound as genuine as possible, but not meandering,” he says. “[It’s about] threading that needle of how we can take you on a journey where something is changing every 90 seconds.”

Switched On Pop