We’re 90 minutes into a two-hour recording session and I’m guessing I only have about 30 seconds of usable material.
I’m glancing back and forth from the clients to my phone, pretending to read along with the script, but I’m really just checking the clock. I’m not sure if it’s the grey weather, my choice of cookies over pretzels for snacks, or the way I’m folding my arms, but I can’t seem to find the right strategy to get the tape I need from them. I’ve re-written the script, used up all of my best dad jokes, and even held an impromptu jumping jacks session, but it’s all been for naught.
I need two minutes of solid, natural conversation between two clients about the history of an upcoming holiday, and we have 30 minutes to nail it before our allotted studio time is up. Simple, right?
Your decisions in these moments are what make or break you as an audio producer. It feels like you’re between a rock and The Rock (Dwayne Johnson 2020, I guess?) – you could tell your clients exactly what to do to get the tape you need, or stay the course, risk not getting anything usable, and try to get your clients to discover for themselves what strategies will work.
Whether you’re an independent podcast producer, part of an audio team inside a larger company (like me!), or a senior producer overseeing a podcast network, one of the most foundational production skills you can hone is empathy – how to understand, and coax to greatness, different kinds of people (we’ll call them clients for simplicity’s sake), each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and ideas about what sounds good.
Like a phoenix rising from a giant pile of garbage tape, through my failures, I’m here to share some foolproof strategies that will make it possible to keep projects on schedule and deliver great final results.
The power of playback
My number one go-to move if a client and I are struggling to communicate is to hit the playback button and ask, “What do you think about that?” It’s a simple, open-end question that leaves room for them to divulge how they hear, what they’re looking for, and how you can tailor your feedback approach specifically to them. It goes something like this:
“What did you think about that?” I say, after playing back what we just recorded.
“I don’t know. It’s sounds okay. Maybe a little rushed?”
Great. I can work with that, I think to myself.
“Mm, I’m hearing that you’re not happy with the pacing, and I think I agree. Could we try adjusting with your breathing a bit? I think that might help.”
Even for seasoned professionals, hearing their performance while they perform it is near-impossible. If your nerves are running wild or you didn’t get enough sleep the previous night, what may feel like you’re speaking normally can sound rushed, clipped, or lack energy, none of which will translate into a pleasurable listening experience down the line. And those exact conditions just happen to be the same ones that lead to frayed nerves, frustration, yelling matches, and – oops! – now your expensive, brand-spanking-new preamp is in pieces on the floor.
Let your client tell you what they already know, and use the tape to guide them there. Give them your trust and the space to identify problem spots and solutions for themselves. Your gear budget will thank you.
Give praise early and often
Being in the studio is an intensely intimate experience, especially if you’re working on a piece that’s someone’s passion project. The last thing they want is someone they barely know correcting the way they say their B’s. The more you can show your clients that you’re on their side, the better.
Not only will this bolster spirits and encourage clients, it will also make you part of the process instead of a third-party documentarian. Clients will take critique and suggestions better if they see you actively excited and enthusiastic about the project. Sometimes it’s as simple as hanging out at happy hour beforehand or introducing them to your pup: honest, genuine human connections that make people feel welcome.
Look for that perfectly phrased sentence, that intensely emotive revelation, or that highly engaging intro and make sure your clients know how much it affected you with a loud cheer or an overly-enthusiastic fist bump.
Always ask, never instruct
Frustrations can be as much of a studio staple as an SM7B – you’ve been recording for a few hours but nothing is gelling and you’re banging your head against the wall. You feel it, your clients are feeling it, but no one wants to say it.
You can’t let ‘em see you sweat – never let a terse tone or an ill-conceived word slip through. Instead, try to help them to figure it out for themselves by asking guiding questions like, “How do you envision this passage sounding?” or, “Does this intro grab you?” or even, “How are you feeling right now?”
Give your clients space to express their feelings without worrying about breaking some imagined professional code of conduct. This process can be slow, but it works (and gets easier with practice).
You’re on their side. Make sure they know it.
‘No’: The dirtiest word
I don’t care how many Peabody awards you have, that you have Ira Glass on speed dial, or what famous people are discussing the finer points of story construction in your hot tub right now – you are never the most important person in the studio. Your role is to polish your clients’ pearl, not to make it into a sapphire.
There’s nothing more vibe-killing than letting a ‘no’ slip into your session, especially when it comes from the person behind all the fancy gear. It’s always better to let your clients discover for themselves whether an idea is a good one through experimentation. You can always fix tape. You can’t fix the erosion of trust in Pro Tools.
Be open and receptive to trying your clients’ suggestions with honest enthusiasm. Your positivity will be infectious, sessions will move faster, and everyone will feel validated at the end of the day. And who knows! More than a few happy accidents have come about when a producer said yes, defying her gut reaction.
It took a full two hours in the studio and 45 minutes of recorded material, but I got my two minutes. And it was a flawless two minutes. Better still, my clients left the session not only smiling and optimistic, but fully convinced of the virtues of cookies over pretzels. I call that a win-win-win.
When I approach my sessions, I have one simple mantra: people before tape. And it’s never let me down. And when you’re careful to create an environment that puts people at ease and fosters empathy and collaboration, it solves problems before they arise. If you take as much time to consider your clients as you do picking the perfect microphone, you’ll be rewarded with a reputation for both affecting audio and genuine kindness, and I’d trade every single piece of gear on my shelf for that.
Brandon Grugle co-produces Join the Party, a collaborative storytelling and role-playing podcast, and is a Producer at SiriusXM.