Brooklyn, NY (September 3, 2020)—The audio production of the Slate podcast Decoder Ring isn’t exactly minimalist, but “reduction” is one of the secrets behind producer Benjamin Frisch’s sound design. Using sound libraries like Epidemic almost as a DJ might, Frisch manipulates canned music beds and deconstructs them to create his own mixes.
“Production music generally, I think, is just overproduced,” says Frisch. “But oftentimes, if you shave off one stem—if you use just the drums and the instrumental and the bass, that’s suddenly a really cool rhythm track, whereas the melody on top of that could be really cheesy or get in the way.”
Decoder Ring cracks open cultural mysteries in a similar way. In each episode, host Willa Paskin confronts a cultural question, object or habit in order to figure out what it means and why it matters. Alongside that curiosity, though, is a healthy dose of irreverence. Recent episodes have explored the rise and fall of the laugh track in sitcom television shows, the emergence of the “Karen” personality and the origin of the mullet hairstyle.
The soundtrack to the “Mystery of the Mullet” episode illustrates a technique Frisch often uses in the creative process. Once he found a composition he thought could fit the tone of the story, he downloaded the stems and slowly brought them into the mix.
“I’ll bring them in one at a time in a way that isn’t in the actual mix of the song, to give a little bit more of a progression or feel to it,” he says. “It’s really fun because it feels like you’re scoring a movie.”
Whether researching, interviewing or editing, Frisch says the quirks he and Paskin add as they wind through the wormholes are a way to have fun with their subjects. For the episode “Clown Panic,” which dives into the history of clowning and what has made clowns terrifying to some people, Frisch naturally began to dig through upbeat circus music. But in addition to being “too obvious,” he also found it repetitious and annoying—in other words, not fun. He went with a more subtle waltz, which evoked the idea of clowns without being hokey.
When it comes to recording narration and interviews, Frisch typically tracks Paskin on an Electro-Voice RE20 in the Slate studio. When a guest is a major focal point of an episode, like when Rebecca Black came in to discuss her 2011 viral hit song “Friday,” he prefers to record them at HQ or over an ISDN connection.
Pre-COVID lockdown, the show also used tape syncs often, but when the podcast lost access to the studio, Frisch gave Paskin a Rode NTG-2 and a Zoom H5 recorder so she could track from home. Guest audio is another story, though; he’s content with using VoIP audio from video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype for ancillary sources.
“I have never been nearly as obsessed with the sound quality of guest audio as some people are,” he says. “It’s only the two of us, and the way we work, it would not even be feasible for us to tape sync every person we want to talk to, just for cost and time reasons.”
There are also benefits to having audio tracks with tones and textures that listeners can easily distinguish from each other, he says. “What I like about having a lot of different sources of audio is it allows you to shift the focus. It separates the two scenes from one another, which I think is actually a really valuable thing.”
Unlike podcasts that work forward from a script, Decoder Ring goes in the opposite direction, starting with the idea. The real story only reveals itself through research and interviews, when they’re able to peel back the layers. Frisch develops audio as the story itself develops, shaping it to reflect the emerging narrative, and scripting is usually one of the last things completed before they record an episode.
“What we get in those interviews is what really dictates what the episode is about in some ways,” he says. “Sometimes we come in with a stronger idea about the big philosophical question of the episode, but a lot of the times, it’s really a process of discovery.”
Decoder Ring • https://slate.com/podcasts/decoder-ring