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