Brooklyn, NY—A report by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment noted that the city’s top podcast networks increased their workforces by 33 percent between 2015 and early 2017. (Report: "New York City, The Podcasting Capital.")
One major contributor to that growth is Gimlet Media, which opened a new production facility in Brooklyn in August 2018 that was designed by Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG), with integration by Chicago-based Sound, Production & Lighting (SPL) in coordination with Gimlet’s technical director, Austin Thompson.
“When I started at Gimlet, we were 35 people,” says Thompson, who was hired in May 2016, having previously worked as a freelancer in Chicago, including with SPL. “By the time we moved into this facility, we were 120.”
Gimlet Media was founded in Brooklyn in mid-2014 by Matt Lieber and Alex Blumberg, the latter’s name familiar to NPR listeners as the producer of This American Life and other shows. Driven by the popularity of the company’s podcasts, including StartUp, Reply All and Homecoming, Gimlet soon outgrew its old facility and relocated to downtown Brooklyn, allocating roughly 15 percent of the usable space—about 3,000 square feet—to new production facilities.
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“It was challenging putting the programming into the square footage,” says Romina Larregina, partner, director of production, WSDG. “We didn’t have as much room as we thought for everything they wanted to put in there—12 podcast studios, a recording studio, a conference room, a lounge—but we did it, and without compromising the isolation between studios, the shape of the rooms or the size required to meet the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] code.”
Blumberg and Lieber have both stated that they want Gimlet to become “the HBO of audio.” Thompson elaborates, “We’re trying to build this catalog of high-quality content that people can connect with. You need high audio quality, so listeners aren’t distracted by noises or bad edits, and great music.”
To that end, the 12 podcast studios, variously accommodating one to six people, and the music recording facility, with a 375-square-foot live room and separate control room, are outfitted with high-end equipment such as Avid Pro Tools; Neumann BCM 705 microphones; Neumann KH 80, 120 and 310 monitors; Focusrite RedNet mic preamps; and Genelec 8010 speakers. Yet operational controls are kept to a minimum, an approach driven by economics and expediency.
“The podcast workflow is just different enough from broadcast,” says Thompson. “We don’t have to deal with live-to-air and we don’t have a program mix; everything is edited after the fact and mixed by a team of audio engineers, so the most advantageous thing for us is not to burden payroll with an engineer in every room, sitting and watching levels. We thought, if we could make a system that is intuitive to a radio producer who graduated from journalism school two months ago, then they can come in and do what they’re good at, which is interviewing people.”
The facility is on a QSC Q-SYS backbone, an unusual choice for this type of venue, but one based on Thompson’s research and trials performed at Gimlet’s previous location. “I’m not frustrated by menus and trying to get devices to talk to each other,” he says.
Q-SYS works intuitively, he continues. “There’s a visual element to it. I can EQ the way I’m used to, with a graphic interface, instead of drop-down menus and typing in numbers.”
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Almost all audio transport is over AES67. “I’ve got devices from 20 manufacturers hooked up [via AES67] and they are all working just fine,” he reports, including 15 Focusrite RedNet MP8R eight-channel mic pre and A/D converters in the 13 studios. Q-SYS outputs a Dante stream back to the iMac hosting Pro Tools in each room.
Local headphone distribution, ensuring low latency, is via QSC Q-SYS converters, with a handful of Focusrite RedNet AM2 stereo units enabling anyone on the floor to patch into the network where necessary. Studio A, the music recording facility, uses analog Redco Little Red Cue Boxes on a single stereo monitor feed.
The graphic interface running each studio has been stripped back for ease of operation, says Thompson. “You have the number of inputs in the room with no ancillary knobs or buttons. There are microphones, a couple of remote sources and two phone lines in each room. Then they have a couple of faders for listening back after the interview.”
The phone lines interface directly with Q-SYS via SIP: “There’s a button on the iPad for phones; you dial out and it’s instantly hooked in.”
Nearly every room has an outside window. “I was adamant about having daylight in the studios,” says Thompson.
“All the studios have a secondary skin and a secondary window,” says Larregina. “We installed an acoustic lid in all of these smaller studios and they have double-wall construction. But the recording studio, where we knew the studio and the control room would have subs and drum sets, is fully isolated.” The wall separating Studio A’s live room and control room is triple-walled, she says, enabling them to be used simultaneously for tracking and podcast recording.
“You can plug a laptop into a network jack, pull up Dante Controller, route some microphones into your laptop and track yourself,” says Thompson.
“Several of our audio engineers are musicians and composers, so we saw an opportunity to differentiate ourselves by writing custom music,” he continues, hence the recording facilities. Finding and licensing appropriate production music is a chore, he says, so now about 60 percent, and sometimes more, of the music on any show is created in-house.
Gimlet Media also maintains a facility in San Francisco and is planning a small room in Minneapolis, Thompson reports. “We’re now designing small- and medium-scale isolated installs that we can put in,” using QSC’s smaller Q-SYS Core units and its newer LAN streaming capabilities.
“We’re trying to do what radio stations have done for years with point-to-point connections,” he says of using the public internet instead of expensive or complex broadcast gear. “Because we’re not live-to-air, we can deal with an issue every now and then.”
Walters-Storyk Design Group, www.wsdg.com