Imagine a professional recording studio. What do you see?
Perhaps a band rocking in an acoustically treated room, or a singer singing softly into an expensive microphone. Artists and engineers will spend thousands of dollars building or using studios that provide the acoustics and consistency they need to do their job. But in recent years, another type of recording studio has emerged: the podcast studio.
Let’s take the case of Spin, a podcast network known for its high production values, acquired by Spotify for $230 million earlier this year. Within a few years, Gimlet grew from a humble studio to building a 28,000 square foot custom production facility in Brooklyn. In doing so, he hired the Walters-Storyk Design Grouprenowned acoustic architecture firm, to participate in the creation of 12 rooms dedicated to podcasting.
You may not have heard of WSDG, but you’ve probably heard some of the music he helped create. John Storyk, who founded WSDG with his wife Beth Walters, has been responsible for thousands of studios around the world. His first major project was electric lady studios for Jimi Hendrix in New York, and he has since directed projects for myriad clients, including Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Jay Z.
After touring Gimlet’s new recording facilities earlier this year, I had the chance to speak with Storyk about the challenges of designing a recording studio specifically for podcasting.
By now, some of you are probably wondering why one would hire an entire acoustics company just to create podcast rooms. After all, aren’t podcasts just a person or two raving about a topic for an hour? Indeed, most podcasters start with something like this. “Podcasting could be as simple as a Mac computer in a bedroom, or as simple as that phone call,” Storyk acknowledges.
But despite the low barrier to entry — or perhaps because of it — podcasts are exploding. There’s something for everyone, and sometimes you can listen to a podcast when reading an article or watching a video wouldn’t be practical.
According to a March 2019 survey by Edison Research and Triton Digital, about a third of Americans over the age of 12 had listened to a podcast in the past month — and about 40% if you only include people under 54. That number was only around 30% in the 2018 survey. More tellingly, around 22% of Americans over the age of 12 – about 62 million – listen to podcasts each week.
So while it doesn’t cost a lot to start a podcast or build a small following, “at the end of the day, there’s only so much bandwidth for this whole podcast,” Storyk explains. That means creators have to up their game to catch your ear. “The production levels on podcasts have become much more complicated…requiring much more sophisticated production techniques.”
Podcasters vying for your attention can produce hour-long shows over multiple days, involving multiple interviews, original music, and extensive post-production. Once you go beyond the simple interview or uncut chat, consistency and efficiency are key. You need “stable equipment and stable parts”.
This is where one of the biggest challenges faced by WSDG when designing rooms for Gimlet lies. When you’re recording music, it’s practically all in one room. But at Gimlet, podcasters tend to work on long-term projects and can use almost any of the twelve rooms, which vary greatly in size and shape. Some have more windows than others, some have been designed to accommodate a pair of people, while others are made for large groups.
According to Storyk, WSDG needed to find a way to make these rooms sound “basically exactly the same” to ensure consistency within and across podcasts. If the recording sounded different from one segment of a podcast to another, it would stick out like a sore thumb. That’s not a problem with music, in which the albums are usually saved in the same space, and there’s more to hide the differences anyway.
To complicate matters further, podcast studios are mostly small adjoining rooms. Although the decibel level is usually not as high as in music rooms and you don’t have to deal with as much low frequency, WSDG had to provide significant isolation between a dozen rooms mostly lined up against each other . You don’t want to ruin a recording session if the podcast next door turns into screams.
On top of that, the rooms still need to let in sunlight and actually, you know, they look good. The architectural challenge is as much visual as acoustic, and WSDG must respect both budgetary and aesthetic constraints.
That said, podcast studios sometimes serve double duty as music studios. Licensing music to use in an intro or provide background for your narration is expensive, which is why more and more podcasters are turning to creating their own music. And not all podcasts are about crime, history, or food. Others, like Gimlet The Two Princes are the modern version of the radio drama. These are original stories with original soundtracks. For these purposes, Gimlet and WSDG built a 375 square foot concert hall that behaves more like a traditional music studio.
It’s a matter of efficiency. Despite the freedom offered by the podcasting format, our attention is still a limited resource, and podcasting networks will be competing for it. “These companies are competing for the best talent. They would all love to have 30 minutes with Taylor Swift, or with a politician, a self-help guru or a famous athlete,” remarks Storyk. The equipment has to work perfectly and operations have to go smoothly because “high-level talent, they’ll only be there for 30 minutes. They’re not going to last four hours because “oops, we made a mistake, we have to start over”.
The fact that podcasts are even able to get such exclusive guests is a testament to the growing influence of the format. Like audiobooks, podcasts give us the power to reclaim time for ourselves from the hubbub of modern life. Of course, Gimlet Back home podcast may have become an Amazon Prime series, but you can’t exactly watch TV while driving or walking the dog.
But no one wants the bedroom podcaster to go. Accessibility is part of the appeal of a podcast; all you need is a laptop and a good idea. But when your hobby starts to become your livelihood, the stakes change. In the same way YouTube channels may transition from webcam operations to television-scale productions, professional podcasters are increasingly looking for ways to stand out and produce content more reliably and efficiently.
“As the level of production improves and becomes more sophisticated because the competition becomes more intense…the need to have very precise sounding rooms and very stable and precise equipment systems becomes more important,” explains Storyk. “When that happens, we get a call.”
I suspect Storyk will get a lot more calls in the years to come.