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Sound Tracking the Podcast ‘Deep Cover: The Drug Wars’

Journalist and author Jake Halpern began pursuing the story of former FBI agent Ned Timmons before he even had a home for the project. The effort eventually became the Pushkin Industries podcast 'Deep Cover: The Drug Wars,' whose sound design is inspired by 1980s music and the real songs of narcotraffickers.

"Deep Cover: The Drug Wars" podcast creator and narrator Jake Halpern records interviews for the show with a Zoom H5 and Røde NTG2 shotgun microphone.
“Deep Cover: The Drug Wars” podcast creator and narrator Jake Halpern records interviews for the show with a Zoom H5 and Røde NTG2 shotgun microphone. Heather Holt

Podcast producer Jacob Smith committed to the retro sounds of the 1980s early in the development of the Pushkin Industries podcast Deep Cover: The Drug Wars. Taking inspiration from the Netflix series Narcos, the Cartel trilogy of novels by Don Winslow and even Coen brothers films, Smith provided composer Luis Guerra with classics of the “Just Say No” era.

“A big thing was setting it in the ’80s,” said Smith, who serves as lead producer on the nine-episode podcast series. “[Guerra] got super into the idea of doing that, and we settled on this neo-noir sound. I sent him Robocop [1987] as a reference soundtrack and also the Uncut Gems [2019] soundtrack, which was done by Oneohtrix Point Never.”

Deep Cover: The Drug Wars tells the true story of an FBI agent whose undercover infiltration of an outlaw motorcycle gang in Detroit, MI, inadvertently leads to the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. As absurd as the premise seems, its soundtrack gets even wilder when country singer Toby Anderson—a player in the Detroit gang—steps to the mic to sing “Snitches and Rip Offs Must Die,” a sort of Midwest-American narcocorrido that lays out the consequences of double-crossing in the drug game. It was destined to become part of the sound bed.

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“It’s such a different thing to craft the sound of a nine-episode series where themes run throughout with characters or emotions or settings,” as opposed to one-off podcast episodes, Smith said. “Luis actually took the melody and arrangement of [“Snitches”] and made these warped synth versions, [like] chopped and screwed, that I try to bring in every time someone flips or snitches. After you hear it in the first episode, then you hear this creepy, slowed-down version of it later on.”

Podcast creator and narrator Jake Halpern, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author, began pursuing the story of former FBI agent Ned Timmons before the podcast even had a home. Smith advised him about gear and techniques for recording his interviews, setting him up with a Zoom H5 and Røde NTG2 shotgun microphone.

“He and I would have FaceTime calls before he would go on reporting trips to make sure his Zoom H5 was set up correctly,” said Smith. “He was off doing this on his own dime, because he knew this was a great story—he just had to find a home for it. It’s always nice to have a host who’s like, ‘I want to make sure that this sounds good.’”

Flawn Williams
Deep Cover podcast engineer Flawn Williams

Once the interviews were compiled and sound design elements composed, Halpern and Smith worked with editor Karen Shakerge and fact checker Amy Gaines daily, talking through the script line by line. Halpern then tracked the narration from his home on a Sennheiser MK4 studio condenser with an isolation filter directly into his Zoom H5. Despite efforts to control the environment, engineer Flawn Williams spent a lot of time fine-tuning the tracks before Smith laid them into the mix.

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“It’s a bit of a battle to get enough suppression without having the audio sound over-processed,” said Williams, a Georgetown University professor and an audio engineer with nearly three decades of experience at NPR.

“The moments that were most likely to trigger a ‘still too much reverb’ comment came when Jake’s voice went higher up into his pitch range to emphasize a point and hit the room’s resonant frequency,” he said. “Those little spots needed a bit more aggressive removal than the others.”

Although the podcast’s name triggers scenes of wired informants and intrigue, there were no clandestine recordings made during the research and production for Deep Cover: The Drug Wars. All the participants and witnesses were willing, and Halpern’s interactions were mostly positive. Still, flashes of those sketchy old days surfaced in a few tense moments.

Another Pushkin Industries podcast is Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell’s “journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood.”

“There was one time during an interview where the guy gets suspicious of Jake,” Smith said. “And he’s like, ‘What are you going to do with all this? Back in the day,’ he was like, ‘you would have ended up in the trunk of a car and we would have dumped you out in the field somewhere in the middle of nowhere and beat the sh*t out of you.’

“But I don’t think there was ever any true danger,” he added. “These guys are very much retired at this point. Their criminal lives are behind them.”

Pushkin Industries •

Deep Cover: The Drug