Our producer, Bobby Roberts, is fucking awesome. Long ago, when we first moved to Portland, he was half of the only local DJ team we have ever not only voluntarily listened to but actively sought out. These days, Bobby is the warm, beating heart of local geek culture, and somehow manages to be both the coolest and the nicest person we know.
You know that Bobby is awesome, because you’ve been complimenting his work for months now. He’s the man behind the curtain: the guy who takes the podcast from a couple jerks rambling about funnybooks to a pretty tight, professional-sounding show.
Since week one, you’ve been asking us for more info about the production-and-editing end of things, so this week, Rachel sat down with Bobby to learn his dark eldritch secrets. Read on for production tips, mic talk, favorite X-Men, and more; then go binge-listen to Welcome to That Whole Thing, which is, frankly, way better than what we do here.
Rachel Edidin: It’s kind of weird to be interviewing you—you’re so much the Ubiquitous Cool Dude of the Portland geek scene that I tend to forget that there are people who don’t already know you! For those folks, would you mind giving a brief intro to who you are and what you do?
Bobby Roberts: My twitter bio puts it as succinctly as I possibly can, really: I make podcasts, I write words, and I break beats. The podcast part of it is pretty self-explanatory for anyone reading this on RachelAndMiles.com; the writing part of it comes from working at the Portland Mercury, as well as having done some writing for Cracked and showing up from time to time on sites like Aint it Cool News and Topless Robot; the breaking beats part comes from having made Geek: Remixed, a trilogy of nerdly mash-up albums spanning 1997-2010, with a few one-shots here and there as the mood strikes. My familiarity with cutting audio together and having loud opinions on things comes in pretty handy when putting shows together.
Rachel: Your background is in actual radio. How hard was it to make the transition to podcasting—and now that you have, how do they compare?
Bobby: It was easy, honestly. In fact, the radio show [Cort Weber and I] were doing was getting more listeners (and better listeners) online for years before we finally got pushed out the door 2009. I started with the station in 2004, and in late 2005 I started recording our off air bullshit sessions when we weren’t playing songs/commercials, and then editing them together with our on-air segments, putting that Frankenstein of a show online, and telling our radio listeners during the talk breaks that they were only getting 1/3rd of the “real” show and they needed to go to our site to hear us without the hours of Metallica and AC/DC shoved into our discussions about pop-culture news and such. Basically, the last 2-3 years on the radio, we were essentially letting CBS subsidize our podcast and provide us airtime to advertise our website.
So far as comparison goes now? In 2014? There is none. Radio is a time-killer in your car, and that’s only if you don’t have a jack for your phone or iPod. Podcasts are something you actively seek out and choose to listen to.
The only thing radio has over podcasts is the paycheck. Granted, that’s a pretty big thing.
Rachel: I remember when we were first getting started, you warned us in pretty dire terms about that last bit. Is it something you see changing, as the creative and popular landscape shifts in favor of podcasts?
Bobby: Nah, not really. Podcasts are a lot more well-known than they were back in 2006, yeah, but the market (such as it is) is reeeaaallly glutted, and it’s exponentially harder to grow a listener base now. I’ve been doing podcasting panels at conventions for the last three or four years and my answer to “how do you start a successful podcast” is almost always “be famous first, or come up with a definition of ‘successful’ that doesn’t pertain solely to raw numbers” So I think if you’re going to start a podcast, as you guys did, it’s gotta be because you just like the idea of getting on the microphone and sharing your mind with whoever might be listening, whether that’s 10 people or a thousand people.
In fact, what I remember telling you guys as you were asking me about starting your podcast is, “Well, unless your real names are Rachel Nerdist and Miles Smodcast, do not go into this expecting tens of thousands of fans you can charge $30 a pop for live shows and t-shirts.” And you guys immediately responded “We expect 75 people at most, and we don’t care if we even get to that number. We just want to talk about the X-Men.” And that’s when I agreed to produce your show, because that’s when I knew you guys had your heads on straight.
Rachel: I think our official threshold for wild success was “50 listeners who aren’t Rachel’s mom.”
Bobby: Hey, I think “my mom likes it” is a decent threshold to aim for. Better than “Mom thinks my podcast is shitty,” most definitely.
And to be completely selfish about it, I agreed to record/produce the show simply because I like the X-Men, but not enough to pour as much Chris Claremont into my skull as you guys have. The biggest reason I do all these podcasts is because it’s a great excuse to just hang out with really interesting people. It’s why I record Leia Weathington’s show, it’s why I produced Chronicles of the Nerds and Nerdfight, for example. So why the hell would I pass up the opportunity to have what is sure to be the best X-Men podcast out there happening live in my studio? Other people have to wait until you upload it and tweet about it. I’m there as you’re making it. It’s pretty damned fun.
Rachel: But we’re your favorite, right?
Bobby: “You are all my favorites, and I love you all equally.”
Rachel: So, speaking of our show: What goes into producing it? Beyond the parts of the setup and process that I interact with directly—that is, a mic and a pair of headphones—and the fact that there are fewer tiny knobs than I imagined might be involved, the whole production end is pretty mysterious to me.
Bobby: A lot of people assume there’s a lot of knob-turning and slider-pushing when it comes to recording ANYTHING. But usually with podcasts, the knobs on the microphone compressor and the mixing board are put in their proper places before you even show up, to make sure the voices coming through it sound natural. I try to give you guys some extra headroom when recording so if you get really excited (which happens every time) and the volume goes up, you’re not blowing the microphones out. That gives me more room to play when I take the raw file into postproduction.
Rachel: We’ve had a couple folks ask about your setup—what kind of equipment and software you use, any tips, &c. Would you be cool going into that in some detail? Or does it fall under the “don’t ask a magician to reveal his tricks” clause?
Bobby: Like the X-Men before Giant Size #1, there’s no Magik here. I’ll lay out exactly what we’re using, with the caveat that this is by no means what NEEDS to be used. There are a litany of much more accomplished podcasts using less equipment than this, while some use even more. Some spend a ton on equipment, some basically jack a USB mic into their laptop and they’re off and running.
- Microphones: 2 Sterling Audio ST-51s as the main host mics, 2 Behringer XM8500s as the guest mics.
- Mixer: Yamaha MG 166cx 16 channel with onboard EQ & mic compressors
- Headphone Amp: Behringer Pro 8.
- Headphones: 4 Sony MDR-7506
- Recording Software: Adobe Audition
The Compressors and EQ are a big part of the reason those two different mics sound roughly the same, and why you guys sound like you do on the podcast.
Normally, in music, you absolutely DO NOT want to minimize dynamic range, because it takes away a lot of the complexities and tones the musicians are imbuing their music with. But voices? Those you DO wanna compress, especially for a talk program. It makes it way easier to hear you, and doesn’t detract from inflections and modulations in your speech. That way, you don’t lose any of your intent, and the voices sound warmer and fuller, which is good, considering they’re going to be inside the listener’s head, and you want it to be as comfy as possible in there: not so quiet that they have to strain to hear you and then get their eardrums BAMF’d when you start suddenly yelling.
I further compress & EQ your audio (sweeten it up a little, basically) in Audition, and once I have your levels where I want ’em, that’s when I start pulling out any egregious stutters, slip-ups, and verbal cul-de-sacs you accidentally ran into, as well as any time-outs and regroups you called for during the recording. This usually takes 2 or 2 1/2 hours, and can involve me zooming into a specific part of the sound file to the point where Audition is measuring time in milliseconds, and trying to shave random sibilants and plosives down so there’s no audible jumps, clicks & pops. Or at least, not many. Some of the more bat-eared listeners have probably caught one or two of them as they’ve slipped by from show to show.
By the time I’ve done that editing pass, usually around 10-15 minutes of the raw recording has come out, and what’s left is the show, sans whatever extra reverb or sound effects I’m asked to insert for effect.
Rachel: What are our worst habits—the stuff you have to compensate for and work around the most?
Bobby: I don’t know about “worst habits,” but usually what requires the most precise surgery are the times where a joke or an aside will occur to you, but it occurs just a SPLIIIIIT SECOND too late, and it goes firing off while in the middle of the other speaking or making their own salient point, and then that causes a minor derailing where the joke leads to a different bit of discussion, and you will both start feeling your way through a completely off the cuff metaphor or train of thought that introduces a fair bit of ums and uhs and stop/starts as the thought is fully constructed in real time. Usually those derails end up being funny (and informative), but I do have to go in and carve all the knobbly, brambly bits off, just like any writer would have to shave down their rough draft into something a little more palatable.
But what’s funny—and this is why I’m not really calling it a bad habit—is that you guys have been fixing this yourselves without me drawing attention to it. As the shows go on, you’ll often be looking at each other out of the corner of your eye, and using a set of hand signals to alert the other of either an incoming joke, a piece of research you’re about to reference, or an upcoming segue you’re going to make to the next bullet point on the outline. So not only are you discussing the show while making the outline, not only are you writing in transitions and key points ON that outline, but you’ve sort of organically developed a literal shorthand to communicate non-verbally while in the midst of communicating verbally in a performance-setting.
It’s kind of a mutant power, really.
Rachel: Got any advice for folks who want to start podcasting? People keep asking us, but since our go-to solution is to ask you, we figured it’d make the most sense to take this one to the source.
Bobby: Essentially, podcasting is just turning your thoughts into something creative. It’s absolutely a creative endeavor, the skill to turn something like basic conversation into something listenable and engaging in and of itself.
You’ve gotta want to do that, first and foremost. You’re probably going to start worrying about audience numbers at some point, that’s unavoidable. You want to know you’re reaching people, you want to know that message is being recieved, you want there to be some interaction, eventually. But if you’re looking to start, here in the right now? You’ve gotta be committed to the idea that podcasting is fun in and of itself, and you’ve gotta be committed to getting good at it for your own satisfaction, and then you can start worrying about the audience.
Rachel: If we were to change the structure of the podcast so that instead of following continuity, it followed your whims, what would we be X-plaining next week?
Bobby: I guess I’d just have you jump straight into Astonishing X-Men by Whedon and Cassady. In my experience, it’s one of the bigger gateways into the world of X-Men comics that I’ve seen in a long time, so looking at how it played out, the positives (and negatives, there’s a couple), the characterizations, the doorways it left propped open for readers to go backwards to either more comics or even the movies.
But I really enjoy the fact you’re going through chronologically. There’s a lot of that early stuff that I simply can’t get through. But you guys make it sound not only entertaining, but really interesting. That’s probably my favorite part of the show—when you two make the comics sound less like comics, and more like you’re discussing high school friends that are getting up to some serious nonsense on Facebook.
Rachel: Who’s your favorite X-Men character, and why?
Bobby: It’s Nightcrawler. He’s just cool, and not in the cliche sort of ways people are “cool.” I mean, yeah, being able to just BAMF in and out of places is awesome (and a practice I try to employ at most social gatherings – that’s right, I ghost) but he’s just always a decent guy who gives a shit, no matter what. He just can’t NOT give a shit. That’s admirable, I think. He’s had it rougher than most, but his faith in people’s innate goodness hasn’t gone away. You want that in a superhero, right? That’s kinda what the whole point of them is—to remind you that there IS good in people, and you just have to tap into it in order to overcome all manner of garbage.
Rachel: We opened this up to listener questions on Twitter, so I’m gonna close with one of those.
Graeme McMillan asks:
Which X-Man would make the best producer? If he had a Claremontian catchphrase, what would it be?
Bobby: Multiple Man would be THE best producer. Someone getting too close to the mic? Jamie is there to gently pull it away without breaking concentration. Headphones are too loud? Madrox is on it before Miles can even signal the Jamie running the boards. Rachel needs a detail immediately? Jamie’s already got it pulled up on his laptop, passing a note to the Jamie standing behind them, making sure the air-conditioning in the room is just right, while the Jamie upstairs is ensuring nobody disturbs the recording session on the other side of the studio door.
I don’t know if it’s a Claremont-ian catchphrase, but it’s definitely apt: “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it in post.”