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How ‘Real Narcos’ Makes Rough Audio Work

The ‘Real Narcos’ team uses sound design tricks, careful editing and dramatic music to work around the limitations of rough—but crucial—audio.

Tom Pink, sound designer and mix/mastering engineer on Real Narcos, works in Adobe Audition for the show. Other gear put to use includes Focal Shape studio monitors; a Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKIII mic preamp; Audient iD22 10in | 14out audio interface; Audio-Technica ATH-R70x headphones; and plug-ins on an adjacent screen like Waves’ WLM Loudness Meter.

Bristol, UK (March 11, 2021)—In the pursuit of a compelling story, podcasters sometimes have to sacrifice some audio fidelity in order to capture the emotion of the moment. It can be a fine line to walk, but in the shady world of the Noiser podcast Real Narcos, it’s the only path to follow.

Real Narcos“It’s this choice of, ‘Yes, I would love the pristine sound quality [of] everything recorded in a treated room through a beautiful preamp and some compression and ready to mix,’” says Tom Pink, sound designer and mix/mastering engineer on Real Narcos and its sister podcast, Real Dictators. “But you’ve got to weigh that up against actually how good the material is you’re getting from the contributors.”

When recording the recollections of DEA agent Joe Toft—who served in Colombia at the height of the 1980s and ’90s narco wars and who was featured in season one of Real Narcos—intermittent background noise interfered with his moving account of devastating narco-related violence. Pink had to find a suitable middle ground between realism and clarity. “I could have spent weeks trying to clear it up,” he says, “but I did what I had to do to get to the point where I felt like I had the story and he didn’t sound like a robot. It was a real balancing act.”

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Audio producers know that momentary noises in a recording are much harder to remove with filters than a constant hum or a high noise floor. Pink takes into consideration how much the noise will impact the listener’s ability to process the information when mixing Real Narcos. Some noises can add to the realism of the story, and in those situations, Pink notes, the human ear can adjust and allow the listener to process the dialogue despite the noise.

But Oliver Baines, who edits and composes music for Real Narcos, solves many of those issues through the subtle use of original music beds. “If it’s a Zoom recording of a voice, it’s not as sonically enjoyable to listen to,” he says. “If there’s well-recorded music underneath, at least that’s sitting on a bit of something that is pleasant to listen to.” Baines composed an original score for the podcast’s theme as well as signature audio motifs for the characters who float in and out of the story; when a recurring character reappears, he works in sonic elements unique to that character.

Oliver Baines composing for Real Narcos
Oliver Baines, composer for Real Narcos, solves numerous interview audio issues through the subtle use of original music beds.

Pink has other ways to sweeten interview recordings up his sleeve, too, through the use of EQ and processing tools like iZotope RX and Neutron 3. “I find if I really closely examine the midrange of people’s voices and the various harmonic levels of their voice, I can start to get what feels like to me a more natural and easy-to-listen to sound, rather than just being bombarded by this midrange, which is often the result of the room.”

When Pink gets to the final mixing and mastering stage with an episode of Real Narcos, now in its second season, he allows for more creative choices to influence his work.

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“I feel like I’m getting a bit braver in my mixing choices of trying to weave all the sound and music and voiceovers together,” says Pink. “So, [that means] bringing up the music in quite a dramatic way when it needs to be, which is a tightrope because if you draw attention to what you’re trying to do in the mixing, you could take the listener out of it. But we’ve been making bold choices with that and I think it’s really paying off.”

Real Narcos •