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Inventive Scoring Informs ‘Revisionist History’

The long-running hit podcast, 'Revisionist History,' treats original musical scoring as an integral part of the show, bringing listeners into the moment when sound effects can't.

Revisionist History creator and host Malcolm Gladwell.
Revisionist History creator and host Malcolm Gladwell. Pushkin Industries

New York, NY (August 6, 2020)—The art of gathering scene tape that captures the intangibles of a story—the reverberating scuff of a shoe on linoleum in an empty hallway, or the wash of sound from an ocean wave breaking on shore—is second nature to podcasters as a way to bring listeners on a journey.

Some podcasts, though, report on events so far in the past, or so removed from public memory, that no scene exists to record. It’s a scenario the podcast Revisionist History runs into often, says executive producer Mia Lobel. She and the Pushkin Industries team instead rely on original musical scores to give scenes depth and realism.

“Scoring is the thing that really sets Revisionist History apart from so many other shows,” says Lobel, who has produced the podcast since its inception in 2016. “That’s really become, I think, a huge part of the character of the show.”

Mia Lobel has produced Revisionist History since its inception in 2016.
Mia Lobel has produced Revisionist History since its inception in 2016. Tatiana Flowers

That much is clear in the recent four-part series on U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, nicknamed “Bombs Away LeMay” for his strategic bombing campaigns against Japan in World War II. Underneath archival audio of LeMay speaking, a light organ line builds intrigue as militaristic rhythms fill in the background. The original music created by composer Luis Guerra is a valuable tool in Lobel’s arsenal.

“Early on, we had a discussion where we wanted the scoring to be on traditional instruments to get that sense of history, but done in a modern style so it feels of the present,” she says. “We talked about having a string quartet be the heart of our sonic palette with really modern rhythms.”

Each episode of Revisionist History turns back the clock to overlooked or misunderstood events, people and ideas in history and reexamines their story. Creator and host Malcolm Gladwell, the New York Times-bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, drives the vision of the podcast. He spends months researching and doing preliminary work on the episodes before bringing his ideas to the production team, often using a Zoom recorder to interview subjects on his own. Sometimes the staff will send mics to interview sources or arrange a tape syncer to meet them.

“I pride myself on being able to find a tape syncer anywhere in the world,” laughs Lobel, “but it’s not safe right now. So, we’re just looking for other creative solutions to get as good quality as we can.”

Lobel says the podcast is leaning more heavily on scoring in the COVID-19 era, now that Gladwell and members of the staff are no longer able to visit sources or gather scene tape. “Luckily most of the reporting [for season five] had already been done, so there were only a handful of interviews that we had to conduct over Zoom and other remote recording platforms,” she notes.

These days, Gladwell tracks his voiceover from home with a Roland R-26 recorder and a Rode NTG-1 shotgun mic in a “beduoin-style tent” fashioned out of bed sheets. Lobel and the team conference with him on Zoom while he records so they’re able to produce and get the best performances recorded. In addition to fixing fumbled phrases on the fly, they’re also able to execute rewrites quickly when something doesn’t quite fit.

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“We’re not able to monitor the actual recordings, so we’re just trusting that that the recording is going okay,” she says. “Occasionally, if you listen really closely, you’ll hear some bird song on his narrative tracks, because he leaves his window open. But for the most part, I think it sounds pretty good.”

The production team goes through several edits in Pro Tools, layering in the voiceover, archival audio, interviews and score before committing to a completed episode. Going from the first draft to the finished product, with the team working on the entire season at once, takes about six months.

Lobel works creatively to produce high-quality audio for the podcast in the current less-than-ideal circumstances, but like many others in her position, she’s forgiving of some audio quirks she might otherwise consider flaws.

Revisionist History episodes are so evergreen and people reference back to them many years later,” she says, “so we want it to be as high quality as we can possibly get. But we’re not wedded to that at the expense of the safety of our staff and our guests.”