A visit to Maximum Fun headquarters

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Earlier this week I went to Jesse Thorn's in-home Los Angeles studio, where he does his interviews for The Sound of Young America, the most consistently interesting interview program on the planet.

I like the fact that Jesse keeps his costs down by producing the show in a spare bedroom. That means every dollar he gets in donations goes as far as possible. I've been doing a lot of interviews for my book over the past month at plush public radio stations, and I'm sure the rent, equipment costs, and staff salaries to keep them running are enormous. Jesse's costs are a tiny fraction of a public radio station's, yet the sound quality of his shows are just fine. Jesse, you are the future.

UPDATE: I asked Jesse to describe his set-up, which he kindly did. Here's what he said about it:

I use Shure SM7 microphones. These are famous for being the mics that Michael Jackson used to record his vocals for Thriller, but they're really a great all-purpose microphone. They're also tough and cheap - at least compared to other studio vocal microphones. They cost about three hundred bucks, and the next step up is several thousand. They work great for my purposes because their pickup pattern really emphasizes the guest and de-emphasizes the guy outside my window with the leaf blower. Very forgiving.

My mixer is a Mackie Onyx 1620, with the optional built-in firewire audio interface. I record in multi-track these days, but before I did that, I used a Mackie 1402-VLZ Pro, which is now in our road kit. The SM7s need a lot of gain (signal boost) and Mackie has a reputation for having the cleanest microphone pre-amps. For phone interviews I have a Telos One. We actually don't do phone interviews anymore, but I do do "tape syncs," which are the poor man's way to link up two studios - no ISDN here, so I just put a remote guest in a studio, call them up, record on both ends, and match them up later. My CD player is the cheapest rack-mounted CD player I could find. Same story with my headphones and headphone amp. I listen back on B- headphones, because I figure that's how most people will listen anyway. The radio on my desk (which is also my monitor) is a Tivoli Audio Model Three, which is a wonderful machine that I recommend highly - especially if you get it for $14.99 on clearance at Target, which I did. I record on a PC in Adobe Audition 3. I started with Audition's predecessor, Cool Edit, which was $19.99, and Audition is like three hundred bucks, but that's the cost of being "professional." I do my backup recording with a Zoom H4 flash recorder, and store my many huge files on a Drobo with four terabyte drives in it. My shows are hosted with the very good folks at Libsyn, who I also recommend.

Generally I find that you can make a listenable podcast by simply having a microphone for each person, a working mixer, and decent mic skills. Using a mic is pretty easy, and if you stay on-mic, even a $10 microphone will sound good enough. Too many people try and record with one mic shared between multiple people, or with an onboard or headset mic. That won't fly. My friends at Never Not Funny recorded their whole first season with mics that their producer Matt bought 3-for-$10, and it sounded fine. I just recorded an episode of the amazing Superego comedy podcast , and they had the most motley assortment of mics I've ever seen - and theirs is maybe the best-produced podcast I've listened to. I also think Audacity, which is free, multi-platform and open-source, is plenty good for most podcast applications. If you're thinking about putting together a podcast, check out This American Life's comic book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, which you can get from their website. It's from before the podcast era, but it has a lot of great information on technique in pretty much every area of podcast production.

By the way, if you ever visit Jesse's place, do not get into a staring contest with Coco. You will lose.

The Sound of Young America


  1. Thank goodness, I somehow thought Jesse would be perpetually dressed in a tweed jacket with a pocket square! Why who knows? he may even occasionally wear flip-flops!

  2. Usually I am wearing a pocket square – though not always tweed! It’s hot in LA! And I do wear flip-flops – at the beach.

    1. I know the wood cabinet radio on far end of desk is a Tivoli Model One, much like the one I often listen to the SOYA on.

        1. I’m extremely envious. If I’d seen Model 3’s for $15 at Target I would’ve bought every one they had in stock!

  3. And Jesse’s sister program, “Jordan, Jesse, Go!” is one of the most consistently hilarious podcasts on the planet. Highly recommended!

    1. Seconding Anon’s comment! JJGo is one of the best things in podcast comedy, up there with esteemed company like You Look Nice Today.

      As a Happy Mutant, I can safely say that the BoingBoing crowd will be right at home with JJGo and TSOYA :)

  4. Let us be clear. Jesse is still completely within his “essential clothing” repertoire. A gray crew neck sweatshirt is still in good form.

    Well executed, sir.

    Coco, still looking very dapper also.


  5. Damn it all! I’ve gone to some moderate effort to keep Jordan and Jesse’s faces unknown, preserving the mystery, if you will. Even the cartoon profiles on the JJGO shirts at TopatoCo were TMI! Now it’s just weird.

  6. Is that the same sweatshirt recently featured on putthison.com from the gap? Looks good, I expected it to be bulkier.

  7. I’m only familiar with JJGO from their crash and burn interview with the penny arcade creators. It’s a level of audio discomfort that could elicit confessions from people simply to make it stop.

  8. 1) Jesse Thorn is one of three radio/podcast hosts who look exactly like I expected him to look.

    2) Um… did you take that photo of Coco using a camera designed to look like a cupcake? He/She has the cupcake dog look in his eyes.

  9. Loving this.
    I’m not particularly interested in audio recording and have never heard this particular podcast (apparently I’m missing out), but I’m a sucker for people geeking out over their equipment.

  10. I love the way the Sound of Young America sounds, and as soon as my own podcast budget allows I may move to the Shure mic. I’ve seen a few I like for cheaper, but after an incident involving lawnmowers and uncontrollable laughter of my co-hosts, I think the money might be well spent.

    One thing though…may I recommend some cable organization? There are SO many varieties to be had, and I daresay it would look even more professional without the cords to trip over! Container Store is a good place to look, but I’m sure Target or Walmart has something as well.

  11. The idea that public radio is somehow lavish is pretty idiotic. Sure there’s a place for Jesse-types in the future, but you need more of an organization, a structure to get to the larger scale truth. God help us if radio becomes just guys in bedrooms with equipment.

  12. @alternativeguy No, Dawkins bless us if radio becomes guys in bedrooms with equipment. It already is, and it’s become 100 times more awesome in the last 5 years, as long as you lump in podcasts with radio.

    I haven’t listened to over-the-air radio in years. An iPhone full of podcasts, ranging from the BBC and NPR to 1UP and a bunch of “guys in bedrooms” suits me just fine.

    1. I agree that a range of podcasts is good, but if there were no BBC or NPR, just guys in bedrooms, as the comment seemed to imply, God help us all. You need large scale structure to produce stuff at the high end. And that’s expensive. Most home-made podcasts I’ve listened to could use a hell of a lot of (expensive) editing and editors… they waste your time never getting to the point. The concision that comes with NPR and the BBC comes at a price. As Mark Twain once wrote (paraphrasing): “Sorry this letter is so long. It would have been shorter if I had more time.”

      1. Jesse has an editor (now full time) and his show sounds fantastic. It is also on terrestrial radio, btw. His show does not have large scale structure yet it is definitely high end. “Guy in his bedroom” is a sliding scale.

  13. Podcasts from independents are going to destroy public radio. It’s the old ‘time / money / talent’ triangle, with time and talent being augmented by the sheer number of individuals working on their own projects.

    This recent article in our old friend the Grauniad tolls the death knell for radio drama following the recent misguided axing of R4’s drama slot, for example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/jun/20/radio-drama

    It then goes on to link to a bunch of indie podcasters whose output dwarfs that of R4.

    Want zombies? http://www.zombiepodcast.com/

    Like your comedy sci fi multimedia? (Broadcast to a schedule, though – how quaint.) http://www.earth101.net/

    General drama? http://www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk/

    There is a whole bunch of others linked from the article and in the comments.

    It’s not all about straight talk-radio style podcasts, although that seems to be in the majority because it’s easier to produce.

  14. A comment on the SM7B – it’s got a decent metal shield underneath the foam windscreen, and so is a good selection if you’re working in close quarters with a ton of, say, monitors, that can otherwise introduce a noisy electromagnetic hum in your signal.

  15. Without a doubt Jesse is one of the best interviewers alive. Always brings insightful, thoughtful questions. Keep it up Maximumfun.org family!

  16. Jesse’s studio looks amazing for a home studio. He looks so happy in that picture. It is very inspiring to me and helps me to visualize my future studio.

  17. You forgot to mention pop filters. Please spread the word about pop filters! They’re cheap and obvious but I’ve heard too many PPPPodcasts where PPPPPop filters are not PPPPPart of the setup and the audio is PPPPainful to listen to!

  18. Another excellent mic that is fairly cheap and very forgiving is the Electro-voice RE-20. A lot of “professional” radio stations use them, as well as recording studios, etc. (nice on a kick drum).

  19. The SM7 is a great mic, as is the RE-20 and the Sennheiser 421. The SM7 has less of an issue with proximity effect and popping naturally because of the huge grill under the foam. The Mackie VLZ preamps are most definitely NOT know for their clean sound at all, or high gain. Once you get the preamp past about 12 o’clock it gets pretty hairy. You need to step up to the next level for anything resembling that kind of reputation. Mackies are known for being cheap and pretty reliable when you take care of them. The ONYX is a good board though.

  20. Cocoa is a mutt. We think she’s part chihuahua and part terrier – probably at least some schnauzer. She was a street dog in Tijuana before she was rescued. Now she’s our best pal!

  21. Great post.

    I was just wondering the other day how the quality sound of Jesse’s crossover episode with Stop Podcasting Youself was conceived.

    I assumed ISDN was pretty expensive and even if Jesse had one, Dave and Graham probably didn’t.

    Mystery solved, “tape sync” it is.

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