The second season of our celebrated podcast is here to carry you away from all the troublesome sounds of Thanksgiving squabbles. And if you’d like to know how something so excruciatingly exquisite gets made, read on for a behind-the-scenes interview with executive producer John DeLore. He is a senior editor and tenured audio engineer at Stitcher’s NYC studio. In addition to The Paris Review Podcast, he has worked on Stranglers, Beautiful/Anonymous, The Longest Shortest Time, Couric, Clear + Vivid with Alan Alda, Fake the Nation, The Sporkful, and Household Name. He answered some questions from our engagement editor, Rhian Sasseen, about his preferred microphones, the differences between Season 1 and Season 2, and how to respect both the language and the listener.
In the spirit of the many times “pencil versus pen?” has been asked in The Paris Review’s Writers at Work interviews, what’s your preferred setup for recording?
Most of the process is not a solitary craft. And while a lot of recording happens in our studio where we’ve got our preferred tools and our studio vibe, a lot of it is happening out in the world, or “in the field,” as they say.
And for me, I’m sort of always “in the field.” I’ve had the same silver Zoom H2 portable recorder for almost ten years, and I carry it just about everywhere I go. And these days I’ve been using the iPhone VoiceMemo app. It’s like a butterfly net. I hear something in the world, like a train on an elevated track, or a nice bird, or a thunderstorm, and I capture it. I label it and throw it in this massive folder of random sounds.
Is there a particular type of, say, microphone you gravitate toward over all others—or are only writers this superstitious about the tools they use?
When I will be more intentionally hunting down sounds, in those cases I’ve got a more proper setup. My Sennheiser shotgun mic with a pistol grip and a big wind cover, plugged into a more robust recorder. And then there are other situations, where I’m lugging around a suitcase of gear, like the time Jamaica Kincaid invited me into her home to record her reading and discussing her work. I packed extra mics, cables, an extra recorder, an excessive amount of AA batteries. Those are the situations where you’ve got one shot to capture that moment in time, and in those cases it’s less about “superstition” and more about discipline and preparation.
If someone reading this is not interested in specific technical details, then jump to the next question. For the rest of you, here’s a little bit of detail.
In the studio we use Shure Sm7B microphones. I’ve always liked the way they sound. They don’t add any color to the sound, and it’s a very straightforward and clean-sounding mic. In the field I like a Sennheiser MKE #600 shotgun paired with a Zoom H5. The H5 lets you simultaneously record a stereo image with the built-in microphones while also recording the shotgun mic onto a third track. The stereo image can go a long way in terms of making the listener feel they’re surrounded by a place.
The shotgun mic is designed with a “throw” so you can capture good direct sounds without being right next to the source. These are used in movie shoots. They’re the mics that boom operators are holding above the actors’ heads, just outside the camera frame. In the first season, when you hear Jamaica Kincaid talking about the birds in her backyard, I think I was about six feet away from her using the shotgun mic.
That “throw” also makes the shotgun very useful in the field because you can put it on a coffee table or a desk a few feet from a speaker and still get a full-sounding recording. That smaller desktop mic stand is also much more portable. But if I’ve got a car, or a budget to expense a taxi, I’ll sometimes bring a Neumann KMS #105, which is a really great sounding microphone. But that mic requires more proximity to the speaker’s mouth to get the full-spectrum sound, so it requires bringing a bigger mic stand. So sometimes a technical decision is made based on the fact that I’m riding the subway and I don’t want to carry all the extra stuff. Okay. Nerd alert over. Next question.
Do you have any favorite moments from recording or editing Season 2?
For this season, I was there for the Alex Dimitrov in-studio session. It was actually the very first thing we recorded for this season. His poem “Impermanence” is really beautiful. It’s one of those poems where the personal aspect gradually moves into this bigger, more abstract and more indefinable space.
I remember reading it, and it’s one of those poems where you read it, then you reread it, and when it’s on the page you can linger on different stanzas or lines for as long as you like. But when it’s put into a podcast, all that subjective patience disappears. Everyone is now locked to the same timeline. So when we recorded that poem, and all the other works, we spent a little time trying to find the right pacing for a few choice moments, to create a listening experience that gives folks room to digest and enjoy the progress of the poem.
Of course, we also try to get a little bit of ephemeral interview tape from our readers, and Alex gave this really beautiful answer to Emily Nemens’s question, “Why do you write poetry?” His poem and his answer are in the first episode, so if you’re curious to hear his answer, by all means, subscribe to the podcast right now!
The relationship between writing, editing, and reading is clearly a source of continued fascination and relevance within the pages of The Paris Review. Did you approach editing Season 2 differently from Season 1?
For us, editing often means taking all the raw tape and editing the best takes together. Sometimes we have a reader try a line a half dozen times, just to have options. After we have the audio all edited together, we start adding sound design and scoring. Those decisions will often alter the pacing of the read a bit. For example, if there’s a particularly emotional section in the middle of a story, we’ll let the music post for a solid moment, maybe as long as ten to fifteen seconds. In the audio version, we create pockets of space to leave room for listeners to process and digest an idea or an emotion. Sometimes it’s just a second or two, but other times it’s a longer moment of scoring.
I think that in both seasons we’re abiding by the same general principle of respecting both the language and the listener. We’re presenting a lot of really beautiful language—as well as some really complicated language—so we need to create a space where the listener has room to process in real time, and where the language is supported by the vocal performance, the pacing we create around the read, and the scoring and sound-design choices we make to underline the read. To me, Season 2 feels a bit more like the pieces are in conversation with one another. Less themes, more echoes.
Read more behind the scenes interviews. Producer Helena de Groot delves into the art of interviewing, executive producer Brendan Francis Newnam discusses the finer points of recording and producing, and composers David Cieri and Emily Wells talk about scoring Seasons 1 and 2.