Building a sound library was key to creating a cohesive sonic identity for the Mental Floss and iHeartMedia podcast The Quest for the North Pole, says producer and editor Dylan Fagan. In the early stages of production, his job was to figure out how to interpret host Kat Long’s vision and what she was hearing in her mind. That mix of sounds and music would become key to the podcast’s ability to recount both how and why explorers like Sir John Franklin, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary and Matthew Henson made the first, sometimes fatal, expeditions to the Arctic.
“[Kat] gave me some notes and their scripts, and I just ran with that,” he says, taking her suggestions for “chilly” sounds and audio to represent sled dogs and other sounds that could be considered common for the Arctic.
While Fagan occasionally taps into licensed music to find the 40 to 50 tracks he’ll use in a typical season, most of the show’s audio comes from iHeartMedia’s deep in-house library. “I went through there and tried to find some ambient tracks that I thought fit the mood, and built a library out of that on my computer … to represent different moods and different shifts in storytelling.”
But instead of curating clips for the podcast’s theme, he created original music for the intro and outro clips. “I thought that was a nice way to differentiate it from using stock music for a theme song,” he says. “There’s a lot of great stock music out there, but I’ve run across podcasts that I think unknowingly end up using the same theme song [as another podcast] because they both licensed the same theme. I try to not do that on shows that I work on.”
Each episode begins with the narration, which Long records in a closet with the HVAC turned off, speaking into a Shure SM7B microphone that is tethered to a Zoom H6 recorder. For interviews, Long connects her smart phone to the Zoom and uses the standard phone call feature to connect. Although not an ideal audio situation, Fagan puts in the editing work to make it gel.
“I usually just try to take out any unnecessary frequencies—since they’re phone calls, [that means] any of the low or the highs, just to see if I can get rid of any hiss,” he says. “I might run a de-clicker on it and some noise reduction [from iZotope Rx], but for the most part, I just make sure that it’s matching the levels of the voiceover so that nothing sounds too jarring or too much of a dip.”
From there, Fagan creates a fully soundscaped rough cut for Long to review to make sure the editing is moving in the right direction. A given episode usually goes through a few edits before it’s finalized and prepped for publishing to various podcasting platforms.
“I always send out everything to where I think it’s as close as it can be to what I think it would sound like in the end,” he says, “and then the rest of [the edits come from] input. By the time I send out the third version, it’s good to go—and I’d say that if I start an edit on Monday, send it out on Tuesday, we usually have it wrapped up by Friday.”
Working with eight different phone calls of guest audio for the inaugural season, each one lasting from an hour to an hour and a half, Fagan says keeping everything organized can be a challenge. To break down silos and keep everyone working from the same script, so to speak, they use the cloud.
“We have a master Dropbox, an enterprise account, that has folders that sync up our shows, and so when Kat records her voiceover, she can upload it directly to that folder,” he says. “I have all the recordings in that folder, as well as the transcripts and my folder for music and sound effects, so everything’s there. I always know where everything is, and Kat knows where to go for anything.”