Last year, Anna Laymon, Executive Director of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, approached PRX to produce two podcasts — one for adults and one for tweens — celebrating this month’s centennial of women securing the right to vote.
Our charge was to tell a more complete story than the ones we had learned in school. We would do this by not only introducing listeners to suffragists of diverse backgrounds but by explaining why they were left out of the original narrative.
Then the pandemic hit and with it many questions about how to continue. We had access to women historians all over the country, but zero access to recording studios (because no one can get near each other during a pandemic, of course). And the crux of making a great podcast — besides the writing, hosts, and historians — is having great sound, and that’s much harder to achieve outside of a controlled environment. But, if the suffragists could fight for the vote during the 1918 flu pandemic — we had to believe we could pull off making a podcast.
“And Nothing Less” Producer & Audio Engineer Samantha Gattsek, and Writer & Producer Robin Linn, share their advice on how to make an audio production when you can’t get near anyone at all.
Did the pandemic change the format of the show at all?
Robin Linn: We always knew we were going to do seven episodes with a host or hosts narrating historian conversations. That did not change. What did change was the amount of live, reported sound we were able to plan for, and how we were able to shape the narrative. The ideas are no less ambitious, but the production elements did have to become less ambitious. There was a point in March when we weren’t even sure when people would be comfortable speaking on mic again!
Samantha Gattsek: I agree with Robin, the basic format and idea of the show didn’t change, but we had to be more flexible with other aspects. Overall, the team was really happy with how true we were able to stay to our original vision.
What was your main production concern/consideration for recording hosts and historians virtually?
SG: We had two audio kits for our guest historians so we could ship them both at once and get more interviews done quickly. Each had a mic, a sound shield, and some fancy headphones that became more well-traveled than any of us these days, from South Carolina to NY to LA. My biggest concern was making sure that they could figure out how to set these up in their homes, use the microphone, and have a reliable internet connection to meet us on Squadcast for the interviews. Some of our experts had their own mics and were very tech-savvy, while others needed more coaching.
We gave everyone a multi-page document with photos on how to set up their mics and sound shields, the best rooms in their house to record, and so on. There was a lot of thought that went into these things before we ever started recording, and I think it helped us in the long run.
Then there was the challenge of getting studio-quality audio of our hosts.
My worst nightmare is losing audio/having audio that is corrupt and unusable, especially when it came to Retta and Rosario, who we had limited time with. My biggest piece of insurance against this was having them record locally in QuickTime, while I recorded in Squadcast. I also really spent a lot of time figuring out how we could get the best sound quality from Retta and Rosario without making things too complicated for them. Ultimately, I decided that using a USB mic was best — we opted for the Apogee MiC Plus, which I was really impressed with. Luckily they both have beautiful closets that worked really well to dampen a lot of the reflections and provided us with a great sound.
RL: My two main concerns were sonic diversity and audio fidelity. I did not want this podcast to have a sound that was limited to people talking on a zoom. This was a challenge both because of the pandemic but also because the history we were tackling did not lend itself to much archival sound. We’re really grateful for the moments of field sound we have sprinkled in each episode (especially episodes three and four), recorded outside with interviewees on the other end of six-foot mic cords. And of course, music is a gift: our original score composed by Erica Huang.
Did working remotely make the production process any easier or harder? How so?
SG: Robin, Genevieve (Executive Producer), and myself live in different cities and have been working from home already, so in that sense, it was no different than other freelance projects I’ve worked on where everyone is remote. The key to any successful remote work situation is good communication and regular check-ins.
The one time where I really missed being in a studio was when we were recording pickups. I realized, no matter what program or website you use, what you hear on Squadcast is not what the audio actually sounds like. So it was really challenging to match Rosario and Retta to recordings that they had already done; I had to use a combination of EQ, and other tools in Izotope RX 7 to smooth it out.
RL: Initially, it, of course, made it harder because we had never worked through any similar constraints. We had to be considerate of the comfort level of the guests and hosts. We had to allow for everything to take much longer. And we had to figure out entirely new setups. But once that was figured out, you could argue that pandemic recording is pretty convenient. No studio booking, no travel, no commuting. Heck — no professional clothes from the waist down!
How were you able to get the show to sound cohesive despite everyone having to record themselves? Any resources or tips you can share in that regard?
SG: It was mid-April when we started interviewing people for “And Nothing Less,” and some people were really worried about getting packages sent to their homes. We had to be really flexible about where and when everyone felt comfortable recording. We had the two kits that contained the same equipment and mic disinfectant, and by sending those out to our guests, we were able to control all the variables we could. I definitely used a lot of Izotope’s RX plugins to reduce the room tone and reverb that we did get.
Has the pandemic affected the rollout of the podcast?
RL: We did need to push the release a bit, but we still wanted to be able to honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment in August. So our drop dates were not that flexible. Everyone on the team, including our hosts, were really dedicated to making this happen on time.