Case

Studies

#1

Casefile True Crime

WEBSITE: 
casefilepodcast.com

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When I left my job as a team leader at Pinewood Film Studios, I started doing freelance work from home. It wasn’t much, but it was a start and enough to support myself while I looked for a life direction.

Some of the jobs that I applied for were podcast production. I didn’t know much about podcasting but soon learned that this work fits perfectly into my skillset – I was a dialogue editor for the last few years.

More than that, podcasting offered creative freedom, much more than audiobooks, and it was still in its infancy, so there was a lot that could be done without restraints.

I was intrigued and got a few gigs helping out with audio production on small shows.

One of these projects was Casefile True Crime. From the start I knew this was something different; it wasn’t a standard interview-style show, it wasn’t a talk show.

The guy who started the show, Anonymous Host—as he will be known in the future—wanted to do a true-crime podcast in the style of Hardcore History – an in-depth narrative, storytelling show.

He didn’t have a plan for it; he was out of work due to injury and wanted to kill a couple of months. However, after he published a few episodes himself, he received overwhelming feedback from the listeners and knew he might have stumbled upon something bigger. The problem was, he was a novice in audio production and needed help.

We’ve met through the online advert, and I started helping out with production, and soon I’ve also started to compose the music for the show.

However, there were several issues from the start. Working at the professional movie studio meant working in a state of the art edit and mixing rooms. At home, I had an old audio interface, laptop and no immediate funds to upgrade it. The host was funding the show from his savings, and we worked on a shoestring budget. 

Most of my plugins were demo versions or borrowed as he worked from a spare bedroom with a simple microphone.

The first episodes of Casefile have an average quality, but we were doing our best given the circumstances. With time as the show grew, we invested in a better microphone, audio interface, then a recording booth for the host. On my side, I purchased an iMac, the plugins needed to do editing, mixing, mastering as well as composing and other necessary equipment.

It took time, but the improvement is reflected in Casefile episodes, and noticeable for listeners who check listened from the beginning.

Setup

I learned to keep my set up simple but up to date. I’ve also learned that it is better to master a few plugins and get most out of them rather than chase a new plugin every week.

There are only a handful of companies that I use for my production, and these are

– Avid Pro Tools as my audio workstation

– iZotope plugins

– Spectrasonics synths

Plus additional software from Spitfire and Eventide.

I have ADAM A5X monitors, M-Audio Hammer MIDI Keyboard for composing, Sony MDR -7506 headphones for editing and AKG712 headphones for mixing.

My work is based on templates – something that I’ve learned when working at the movie studio.

I designed a Pro Tools template, a session that has all of the tracks that I need in different work scenarios.

It’s set up for music composition, editing, mixing and mastering. I hide the tracks that I don’t need and save the session at every step of the production.

When working on Casefile, there are two goals that I have on my mind – quality and consistency.

With three episodes a month, it means that the work has to be streamlined, hence why templating is so vital in achieving these aims.

Production

Casefile is a project that as for now, has just one producer – myself. I have extra help for scoring, but the editing, mixing and mastering are still on my shoulders.

For music, my style is to have continuous music in the background that is not intrusive but adds the emotional feel to the show and builds the picture around the narration.

I want to have bespoke music for every episode; however, with tight deadlines and the dialogue production on top, I also had to streamline the process of the composition and scoring.

First of all, Andrew Joslyn is the 2nd composer on the show, and he usually scores around 40% of the episodes.

The way it works is that after the initial edit of the narration, I cut it into cues or scenes and send them out to Andrew – he sends me back stereo files of already mixed music that I have to mix with the narration.

I tend to write a couple of original themes per episode. I then create 3 or 4 variations of the same theme but with different textures.

In the end, I end up with 8 or 9 cues that I can mix in any way I need to. I also keep the instrument stems separate, and during scoring, I mix in whatever I feel is necessary in the moment – using automated small mixing desk.

Even though the process is streamlined and templated, it still means that every episode sounds different and the music is made to work with the story.

Because of my goals and aims always to improve, not only the work keeps me on my toes but allows me to keep learning. 

It also gives me confidence in leading other types of audio projects.

#2

From the Files

WEBSITE: 
fromthefiles.com

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From the Files started as a bonus content that we provided for Casefile’s Patreon supporters. 

Patreon.com is a crowdfunding membership platform where creators run subscription content service and paying members or ‘patrons’ often get extra experiences and exclusives.

On Casefile Patreon page we do things like ask-me-anything with the team and behind the scenes of the show, and From the Files was one of these extras.

The premise was quite simple; every month we would record an episode that would list updates on the cases that we’ve released on Casefile in the past. True crime stories don’t end with the theme music; there are ongoing trials, investigations and developments, both in the lives of victims, families and offenders. 

Our patrons enjoyed the show, and after some time we decided to improve its format, take it from behind the paywall and release it on public feed, as the first show on Casefile Presents platform.

The new format is as follows: the episode starts with our anonymous host listing latest case updates, but he also invites a person involved in true crime world for an interview. It can be an author, detective, researcher or someone connected to the case we’ve covered in the past.

Production

This meant that my workflow had to change from the usual Casefile-way.

The first thing is the addition of the interviews. The case updates from the host are easy, even though he uses a different microphone (SM7B) and takes a more casual tone, I still use the same Pro Tools plugin set up as with Casefile – adjusted to the new sound.

However, the interviews are a bit more problematic. Some of them are recorded over the phone, some over Skype. Some people are better speakers than others too.

On top of that, some questions that we asked during the recording are kept, and others are added later.

His set up is also different as for Casefile the host uses Apogee audio interface to record the narration, but for From the Files we use Rodecaster for the updates and the interviews.

So the most significant change is in editing and the way I treat the audio from interviews.

I still use the same plugins from iZotope, but can’t use the same settings every time.

The other thing is background music. For Casefile, background music is the emotional link, building the whole picture around the narrator’s voice, and I spend a lot of time making it work.

With From The Files I don’t need to do this; however, I still want the continuous background music playing as it often fills the low-frequency space that is lacking in these over-the-phone interviews.

So I’ve created a few templates with background music that runs for about an hour that I rotate, so it doesn’t repeat every episode.

The episodes are much less frequent – only one every month. However, sometimes they need a lot more attention because of the variables – and because there can be technical hiccups, especially when you are recording an interview over the phone and not in a controlled environment!

#3

silent waves

WEBSITE: 
silentwavespodcast.com

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Silent Waves was the first original project for our platform Casefile Presents. It wasn’t developed for us; the show was already out in public. However, when the team stumbled upon Silent Waves, we knew it would be the perfect show for Casefile Presents.

Not only the story was compelling and real, but also it didn’t reach that many people – we knew we could help it to get more listeners.

Issues

When I first listened to the show from the QC (Quality Control) perspective, straight away, I noticed several problems with the sound.

The loudness wasn’t correctly set, and the show was louder than even the loudest recommendations from Apple and Spotify. The LUFS also varied from episode to episode.

The second problem was the editing on the music and dialogues as well as general issues such as noise, lip smacks and plosives.

General mix was something that I’ve also looked at – the music at some moments felt out of place and overshadowed the dialogues, same with sound effects.

Immediately I offered to re-mix the show as long as the creators were happy to send me the stems.

There was a problem though, after back and forth with the creators it became clear that stems and original audio files were nowhere to be found, and the only thing I had was the MP3 files released on the RSS feed.

There was my dilemma, I wanted to show to sound better, but without the access to the original files, my options were severely limited.

Production

Nevertheless, it was a challenge.  

I decided to pick up the gauntlet and iZotope would be my best friend throughout the journey. My process would be unconventional, and I guess borderline offensive to standard audio production work.

I knew I would work in phases.

STAGE 1

The first phase was to do the general edit and make the episodes flow a little bit better.

It meant cutting out and clearing a few edits and in some places, cutting short the sound effects and music. I was clear that I would not change the overall structure of the show though, I wanted to improve the flow.

STAGE 2

The second stage was about music, and it was the one that I worried about the most. 

I felt that in places the background music was too loud and was overshading the dialogue, the question was – how to make it better with only a stereo mix file.

The tool that came in handy was Dialogue Isolate from my Rx6. The module helps to bring the dialogue up front, making everything else quieter. Of course, it is a destructive process that changes the structure of the audio. I had to go through the music spots individually and make sure it still sounds ok.

STAGE 3

The third stage was about the dialogue. I could not run global processes because every recording was a different one, made in a different environment.

So I treated each one separately using tools such as De-click, Denoise, De-ess.

There was a lot of music underneath, so I had to be very careful about what processes to use.

STAGE 4

The fourth stage that I did several times was the mix and eventually, the master.

Running Neutron 3 and Ozone plugins as I listened to the episodes several times – on my AKG K712 mixing headphones as well as cheap mobile earbuds.

With each listen, I spotted something new to fix. It was at the same time as I was making sure that the show was at a constant volume.

RESULT

In the end, I was happy with my work – it was something that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with doing, changing the already mixed stereo audio file. However, I had no choice.

At the end of the project, I stopped being objective to it, but after sending it out to the creators as well as several other people, the feedback was good, and it helped to ease my anxiety.

Overall, I’m glad I had a chance to work and help to re-release the podcast. Ideally, I would like to re-mix if from scratch, but unusual problems require unusual solutions, and this was one of these moments!

#4

What’s Missing

WEBSITE: 
whatsmissingpodcast.com

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What’s Missing is a brand new 10-part series that explores the wide-reaching, devastating impacts that occur when someone disappears without a trace. Hosted by Loren O’Keeffe, the founder and CEO of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN), the series features candid interviews with family members and loved ones of missing Australians, going beyond the headlines to provide a deep, unflinching insight into their searches and struggles.

Pre-Production

When we first talked about Casefile Presents, our Casefile‘s anonymous host knew that he wanted to produce a podcast that focuses on missing persons. 

He was introduced to Loren O’Keeffe – the founder of Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN) and knew that she was the person for the job.

We’ve decided on eight episodes that would feature stories of missing persons and chats with family members and two episodes where Loren would interview experts in the space.

With the help of Loren, MPAN’s book Too Short Stories and Casefile writer – Erin Munro and after many iterations and re-writes, eight full episodes were ready to record.

The structure would be as follows:

Each episode would start with a scripted story read by Loren and family members (in most episodes). This segment would be produced similarly to Casefile, with background music, nice reverb and polished mix, both Loren and the guest would read from the script where possible.

After the story, Loren would invite the guest for an unscripted, intimate chat and talk about topics such as missingness, grief, loss and what happens to families of long term missing persons.

After the chat, we go back to the well-produced story/outro, then roll the credits.

This structure would be the same for all eight episodes, the other two would be interviews with experts.

After the writing process was finished, we had to book the studio. Me being in the UK and the rest of the team in Australia, it was challenging to find a suitable place as I wasn’t there to physically check it.

We only had a week to get everything done – so 10 interviews in total plus story/narration parts.

On some days we’ve scheduled just one session, but on several days we had two sessions in a day – morning and afternoon.

Recording

The studio was located in the heart of Sydney. A recording room was set up with six microphones (Rode Procasters) around the table, as well as lighting and cameras.

The tracking room was behind the big glass door, and the tech staff set us up with monitoring headphones.

As I stepped into the studio, I did notice a few things. The studio was in the office building, with other offices next to it, separated by a thin wall. There wasn’t any acoustic treatment on the walls, and there wasn’t much isolation at all.

I sensed straight away that this could be a problem, but the first two sessions were on the weekend, so at least the start was good.

The studio also appeared quite cold with AC running constantly. This is ok for short sessions, but during longer days it can be quite problematic.

The tech staff was accommodating and professional, made us and the families feel comfortable and looked after. We also had a green room upstairs where we could greet the guests and debrief after the sessions.

The sessions would look as follows – we would greet the families, explain the process, Loren would also explain how she would run the session.

We’d start with reading from the script for the story, and during that, myself and the anonymous host would take notes for the re-does and pickups.

When this was all done, Loren and the guest could relax and had an informal chat that we recorded for the episodes.

The studio was a podcast in the box kind of a place. However, I wanted raw, uncompressed and unfiltered files. All the sessions were nicely labelled with the day and part of the day, so I could easily find the audio.

I bought a hard drive for the occasion, we made several copies to be sure, said goodbyes to Loren, and that was that!

Editing

Some people will already know that I work on templates as this is what I learned at my previous job as a dialogue editor at a movie studio. I have one template that I use for my projects and adjust them accordingly, so I did the same for What’s Missing.

I knew that Loren would feature in every episode so her track, or preferably two tracks – story parts and chat which needed to be in What’s Missing template. The rest of the tracks would be somewhat similar with some adjustments on EQs and compressors depending on a person featured.

Before the editing, I decided that the story parts will have reverb on the dialogues to make them pop a little bit. The reverb would then be off during the intimate chat making the sound slightly different when the episode moves into that segment. I dropped the original audio into the folder. I created folders for all 10 episodes as well as sessions for pickups which we recorded at the end of the week.

Draft 1 means a structural and flow edit, cutting out the mistakes, creating the story, getting the pickups and editing the flow of the chat plus the outro. So you’d get the whole picture of the episode however with no clean ups, no mixing, and very basic levelling.

Draft 2 would be more complicated. Draft 2 meant that the feedback notes were incorporated, the dialogues were cleaned up with iZotope Rx, and also the story featured the score. However, the episodes would still lack the proper mix, but it would sound close to the master.

After that, I would incorporate the final notes and do the mixes and final masters. At this stage, there should not be any further changes – however, we could still do tweaks and adjustments if needed. The team would be notified at every step of my production, so the process was transparent and organised.

The first structural edits were a time-consuming process. First of all, a lot of pickups, re-records and additional parts were all over the place so getting them in place took time. As I said before, I took notes but still, I had to scrub through the pickups session to find the relevant audio.

The other process was editing the chat, this took time because, during structural edits, I was not only editing out the uhms and aahs but also cutting down parts that were off-topic or repeated. I was working on my monitors ADAM A5X in Pro Tools, in my templates.

When the team was reviewing the first cuts, I started working on in-depth cleanups of the dialogues. That meant applying processes within iZotope RX – the audio restoration software. I use RX every day, both for manual cleanups as well as with module chains and global processes.

Because the dialogues were recorded with dynamic microphones, the gain wasn’t there, and I had to pull up the volume quite a bit. Once I did that, all the issues of space not being isolated were audible – recordings were noisy, background noises were there, and the noise floor wasn’t great. I’ve done my best to tackle that, but if recordings were better, it would be much easier to do the job.

Next was the bleed and outside noise. As I mentioned before, space wasn’t isolated. Because of the nearby offices, there was a spill and in places quite audible – laughter, chatter, the phone ringing.  Dynamic range and general recording issues were also tricky to fix. Coughing, sniffling, mistakes, clothes moving, and of course moving off-axis were at times very problematic. Again, in that instance, the intelligibility comes first and quality second, so as long as the dialogue was audible enough and understandable, it was a good enough job for me.

Scoring

The first thing that comes to mind when scoring a podcast is the main theme. Loren knew an artist called Jess Ribeiro and wanted to use her song Wildflowers as the theme to What’s Missing. She thought it fitted perfectly – the lyric and the music. We’ve contacted Jess, and she agreed to license her song for the podcast. Besides the final master I’ve also requested the instrumental version which we used for various trailers, promos and credits.

As mentioned in previous episodes, the structure of the 8 main episodes would follow the same flow: the story – chat – outro and credits. My idea was to make the story and the outro a polished mix with background music, in a similar way, I do it for Casefile. The chat with the guest wouldn’t have any music in it.

My initial plan was to write eight musical cues, one for each episode and then as I do for Casefile – play and mix with the textures of each cue during the scoring. For writing the cues I used my M Audio Hammer keyboard with my virtual instruments software from Spectrasonics and Spitfire.

By this point, I knew the episodes well and the feeling I wanted to convey with it. I opted for piano, some strings but also rhythmic elements and guitar in places. The music was softer and more melodic than what I usually write for Casefile.

After that initial scoring, I committed each MIDI track to audio with respective instruments, placed it on instrument audio tracks and ran through iZotope Neutron Mix assistant to get a quick premix of the instrument STEMS.

Once I had all the instruments on audio tracks, I mixed them to the narration. I use Icon platform M+ for my mixes. Each track corresponds to a single fader, and I simply ride the volume automation to mix the instruments together. 

After the first mix of the score I’ve exported the episode and sent it to Casefile host and Loren to review and make further notes.

At this stage, I would say that the episode is 90% completed – the editing, scoring and first premix are done the rest will be just making it all sound great and final tweaks.

Mixing

The way that my templates are set up is that I have mixing plugins on each channel as well as mastering suites running at all times. This allows me for efficiency when working on podcasts. It means that I can hear somewhat mixed and mastered so when I get to the actual mixing stage, most of the work is already done.

For What’s Missing I had a simple set up with four mono narration tracks, score track, a stereo bus with reverb on it, stereo mixing bus and master track. All of the dialogue tracks were sent to Stereo Mix bus where a bit more EQ, compression and saturation was applied to glue them all together. The stereo audio track with the score was also sent through the mix bus.

And then on the master track I have Ozone 9 with EQ, compression and limiting set up to -16dB LUFS as well as a few other modules such as Imager and Exciter.

Because the dialogue was evened out with Leveler during editing and limiting is on as well I don’t really need to run automation on it. If there is a clip that needs fixing, I do it with a clip gain. I tweak music automation a little bit, but really I focus on making the dialogues and overall mix work as good as they can. I run the first pass on my mixing AKG K712 Pro headphones – that’s the first mix.

Then for the second time, I have several earbud headphones, and I listen to the whole episode once again switching the earbuds throughout to hear how it sounds on cheap consumer headphones. That’s two mixing stages that I always do.

Mastering is more of a QC process, but I do make final tweaks here and there. I listen to the episode again on AKG K712 Pro headphones, and I also have a codec preview set to MP3 192 or 128 kbits. This allows me to hear how the exported audio will sound with the lossy compression.

Finals

Once I listen to the episode for the last time, I select all tracks and bounce it down. For What’s Missing, I’ve also exported the audio as MP3 with the bitrate 128kbits. I reckon it was good enough for the quality and the size of this podcast.

We worked really hard to get it all down for the release, and we wanted the podcast out during the Missing Person week, which happens in Australia every year the first week of August. That meant getting the designs, website, marketing, RSS feed and everything else in order. The team worked together to make the process as smooth as possible.

While they were busy with sorting that out, I was making short 1-minute trailers for each episode as well as the extended 6-minute trailer to be featured on Casefile feed, our YouTube channel and other places as well.

Everything was ready to go, and we’ve released the first episode on Friday 30th of July with other episodes coming out every Tuesday after.

Loren’s wife MK had done a fantastic job on the look of the podcast as she designed the logo and artwork. Paulina took care of the website, podcast uploads and release as well as other graphics. The Host and Loren had their hand on marketing and driving the awareness to the show.

All went great and without a hitch and I’d like to thank everyone who took part in this fantastic project.

Lessons

But going back to the production process. What did I learn? What would I do differently?

In hindsight, I would take more time selecting the right studio and make sure they are what I’m looking for. Recording wise, I would probably have the signal a bit louder at the source and of course, get the electronics out of the room. Also making sure the temperature of the room is comfortable for everyone, especially during the long days.

Editing and production?

There are lessons there for sure. It was the first big project outside of Casefile, and I think that initially, I thought I will apply the same workflow, same processes and it will work fine. So I overplayed my hand here a little bit. Doing it again, I would spend more time adjusting the mix, working on getting the ambient tone right and deciding on the noise floor for the background fill. Also checking the noise on earbuds a bit more.

I was happy with the music and story parts, I would spend a bit more time on the chat and sorting some issues with that.

Overall, it was a challenging project, both in a subject matter and production. However, everyone was pleased with the outcome, and it was an amazing experience for everyone involved.

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