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Rethinking Podcast Sound Design with APM’s Byers

“We're only scratching the surface” of podcast sound design, says Rob Byers, director of broadcast and media operations at American Public Media.

Rob Byers on location in Aspen, CO.
Rob Byers on location in Aspen, CO. Suzanne Schaffer

St. Paul, MN (May 7, 2020)—As podcasting continues to grow at a blistering pace, its production needs are likewise maturing. For audio pros like Rob Byers, American Public Media’s director of broadcast and media operations, the medium represents not only a technical challenge, but a creative one as well, providing a venue where podcast sound design and audio technologies like ambisonic and binaural sound can be used as exciting tools for storytelling.

After graduating the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University with a Master’s in recording arts, Byers began working at NPR, eventually joining the NPR Training team, training reporters about audio production. Now at American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio, his team provides the production platform for podcasts like Marketplace, Make Me Smart and In the Dark. He also works separately as an audio mixer on podcasts like the long-running hit Criminal and Fiasco.

Byers, whose work has contributed to a Peabody and Pulitzer, talked with Podcast Pro about how his efforts in both radio and podcasting inform each other, and the importance of sound design in the future of podcasting.

You work with both broadcast radio and podcasts disciplines. How are they alike and different in your experience?

Broadcasting has brought me a real appreciation for systems [and] workflows. In broadcasting, you’re always keeping an eye on the clock. You only have X amount of time to tell your story. All of those things provide this nice framework for telling the story that doesn’t exist in podcasting. I think that leads to a real efficient way of working, and the boundaries that sets can be really helpful for creativity.

What’s really unique about podcasting is that the audience is there to listen to your story, and that’s it. They are making a conscious choice to listen to that thing at that time, whereas the radio you can put on in the background. Knowing your audience is there, they are a captive audience, they might even be listening on headphones—that opens up some really interesting possibilities in terms of podcast sound design, mix and the way you tell your story.

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What does that mean for the audio production side?

You know what the end user is getting. I think this is one of the untapped opportunities of podcasting. I know the file that I export from my production system is pretty much the same file that you’re going to listen to. I know you’re going to hear the panning, and the way that I use the panning. I know you’re going to hear the levels, and the way that I use the levels. If I want to start experimenting with other technologies, like ambisonic or binaural, I know it’s going to make its way to the end user. I’m super excited to see where podcasting goes from here. I have a feeling we’re only scratching the surface.

Rob Byers, American Public Media’s director of broadcast and media operations.
Rob Byers, American Public Media’s director of broadcast and media operations. Bria Granville

Do you see the opportunity as akin to something like the adventurous growth seen in the early days of multi-track recording?

I think I do see it like that. The barrier to entry is really low, and that allows for a lot of experimentation. [But] in order for podcasting to fully realize its potential, especially on the sound design front, the budgets have to be there. There are many great examples of low-budget, well-sound-designed content, but those productions, in my mind, don’t tend to last. Maybe they’re not bringing in the money, maybe it’s too much work, [or] it was a passion project. But I’m hoping those who are making audio content are going to be more willing to budget money into sound design.

You’re been very vocal about loudness in radio. How does that relate to podcasters?

Loudness, loudness tools and loudness meters are so helpful for one reason: consistency. Consistency of level, consistency from episode to episode, consistency between one voice and another voice in the podcast.

There are different opinions right now about what levels should your podcast episode target. The AES, a couple years ago, made some recommendations, and they’re pretty spot on. It’s a range, but they tend to gravitate toward -18 LUFS for podcast episodes. [Byers was an author on the report. —Ed.] One of the nice things loudness allows you to do [is] mix at a lower level, so you can use the -24 LUFS broadcast target to do your mix of your podcast. That provides quite a bit of headroom for the spoken word, and it’s much easier to mix without having to know about compressors.  Then, when your show is mixed and it sounds good to your ear, use a loudness normalization tool to bump it up to -18.

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You’ve trained audio journalists whose technical experience varies. What are the most common questions they ask?

I think the single-most-asked question is some variation of, “What gear should I get?” I really wish the question were more focused towards, “What should I record? What should I be pointing my microphone at?” Something that will help tell the story, that will put the listener in the space, that they need to be in to hear the story.

You put more emphasis on the sound needed to tell the story rather than the tools you use to get there?

100%. If all you’ve got on you is your smartphone, you’re going to have technical challenges, no doubt. But you can still come back with a recording that will help you tell a story, that will help you put a listener in someone’s living room or someone’s kitchen or the side of the street. And depending on the kind of storytelling you’re doing, that may be the most important thing. I could give you a $3,000 Schoeps CMIT 5U. That’s a beautiful mic and I’ve recorded opera with that. It’s glorious. But it doesn’t mean you’re going to tell a great story if I put it in your hands, right?

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