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Flexible Engineering Helps ‘Story Pirates’ Sail to 20M Downloads

Unconventional recording and editing approaches have helped the ‘Story Pirates’ Podcast keep its ships aligned.

In non-COVID times, Story Pirates is recorded 'cartoon style,' with the cast in a circle using Warm Audio WA87 and WA14 microphones in front of each actor.
In non-COVID times, Story Pirates is recorded ‘cartoon style,’ with the cast in a circle using Warm Audio WA87 and WA14 microphones in front of each actor.

New York, NY (November 19, 2020)—There are complex podcast productions, and then there’s Story Pirates. For technical director Sam Bair, editing the acclaimed Gimlet podcast isn’t about simply picking the best content and shaping a narrative—it’s about finding the best takes from a half-dozen actors reading their lines from a script, and then filling the audio spectrum with sounds that advance the story and appeal to kids.

Story Pirates is known for having guest actors, including David Schwimmer (center, left) and SNL's Bowen Yang (center, right).
Story Pirates is known for its guest stars, including David Schwimmer (center, left) and SNL‘s Bowen Yang (center, right).

“It really is a true post-production compilation of recordings,” says Bair, whose role includes sound design, producing, and recording and mix engineer. “We’re recording all the takes and pulling specific lines from different takes. We’re also taking whole sections from different takes.”

Sam Bair
Sam Bair, technical director for Story Pirates

The Story Pirates podcast—named the 2020 Best Kids and Family Podcast by iHeartRadio and with more than 20 million downloads to its credit—is brought to life by a collective of comedians, musicians, writers and teachers who interpret original stories written by kids into sketches with original songs in each episode. Two cast members, Lee Overtree and Peter McNerney, pull double duty as executive producer and co-producer, respectively.

“Peter is the main producer during recordings of stories,” Bair explains. “He and I work together to pick the best takes of each scene and then fine tune the pacing. Then, over the course of mixing and sound designing, we are still, by the millisecond, really pacing it out to get what we think is the best comedic effect.”

Under conventional circumstances, Bair records the cast live in a studio, with the actors standing in a circle “cartoon-style” around a Neumann U67 with Warm Audio WA87 and WA14 microphones in front of each actor. Since COVID-19 hit, however, they have recorded the podcast over Zoom with live reads as before, and each cast member records locally through a WA87 or WA14 into a Zoom H6 recorder.

For the show’s frequent guest actors—they’ve had 40 since the pandemic hit—Bair gets in touch in advance of the recording session to help them prepare. Some have nice home studios, while others have a simple USB microphone.

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“I have a little document for all the actors, [saying], ‘Hey, here is the recommended mic setup for you. Here’s the recommended room setup for you,’” Bair says. “A lot of these actors have no technical experience whatsoever, so we have them send some sample recordings. I critique that and we work together over email to get the best possible quality out of their home systems.”

Despite their efforts to get clean audio, occasionally an anomaly or two will sneak through the iron-clad system Bair and McNerney have established. In a recent episode, the actor playing the lead character, who had 80 percent of the dialogue in the story, “sounded like she was in a tin can” with a distracting buzz through the entire recording, Bair says. “We were kind of up against the wall. What we’ve found works really fast, considering the circumstances, is [to give the actor] an assembled take of the entire story with sound design and everything in it. They put that into, say, GarageBand and give us two or three takes, and we’ll massage those new takes in.”

Story PiratesStory Pirates also employs a live band with guitar, bass, drums and keys to perform a new original song for each episode, which Bair tracks in the 800-square-foot live room at his Chelsea (NYC) studio, The Relic Room. Bair builds out the fictional world of each episode with audio from sound libraries as well as a live piano underscore.

“When we’re tracking in the studio with the cast, there’s a live piano player,” he says. “Now that we’re not in the studio, I send [the pianist] an assembled version of each section of the episode and he’ll underscore the whole thing. It really helps with the actors at home [because] that piano underscore helps mask various room tone differences.”

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