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Podcasting: Finding meaning
This is the fourth piece in our special series on podcasting, which shares insights into the dynamics of this booming audio phenomenon. This month, we hear from Snæbjörn Ragnarsson, bassist and vocalist with Icelandic metal band Skálmöld. He and his brother — and fellow band member — Baldur own the podcast production company Hljóðkirkjan, and currently run four weekly podcasts, some with friends, plus one guest podcast. Being in a band, they know how to connect with an audience, and they get to play with an intimidating array of audio tech, but they must still deal with one of the biggest challenges in podcasting: finding meaning.
REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Podcasting is, to a degree, a logical extension for us — being musicians and therefore used to working with mics and audio to get our stuff across. We also do some video stuff, but that is more foreign to us. This is the environment we are used to: Pressing “Record” and getting our stuff to tape through microphones, processing it and getting it out there. It’s not too distant from being in a band.
I guess our journey into podcasting started because we listen to podcasts on our bus when touring — we’ve done that from the early days of podcasting. We just always liked the format, and when we like something, we tend to try it out for ourselves. Baldur [Snæbjörn’s brother and fellow band member] gave it the first go with his friends with a show called Dómsdagur (Judgment Day), which is still ongoing.
Shortly thereafter, I had the idea of a music-related newspaper column series, which quickly evolved into a podcast. Since Baldur was already up and running with his show, we had the setup ready, so that was easy. Built on that, we decided to take it a step further and formally founded Hljóðkirkjan, our podcast platform company. We have one show each — I do weekly interviews, and he has a very popular history show. Others joined, and there are now five shows.
Challenges — old and new
One of the biggest challenges is something we are familiar with: Iceland is a small market — there are only so many Icelandic-speaking people out there! Even though our shows are popular in Iceland, the market is still limited. There are some benefits, but the drag, of course, is the financial income. The only way we’ve made it work is by working our asses off. Hljóðkirkjan may be owned by us brothers, but Baldur is the only one working full time, and by “full time,” I mean days and nights. It has been tough, but it is slowly coming together — week by week, episode by episode. Grind, grind, grind. That is our method.
We’ve also realized that, as with everything else ongoing, it becomes somewhat of an obligation. You can only do a handful of weekly shows for the pure enjoyment of it; when it starts feeling like a job is when you really have to find the meaning. The joy comes from doing something that matters, and I think both of us are built that way.
Entertaining people is great in itself, but I think our fuel is to go a bit deeper than that. A letter from someone who listened to one of my interviews that changed their life in some way… that gives the whole thing real meaning.
If I were to give someone wanting to get into podcasting some advice, it would be: Do it. I think that is the biggest barrier. Just go out there and do it. Stop thinking about every detail, equipment, audience and nuances of the idea. Stop that. Get yourself something that records audio — your phone, for that matter — and do it. Only then do you really find what you have going. After that first step, you can refine stuff and tweak it to what you really want it to be. After that, it comes down to the grind. Grind, grind, grind.
Besta platan (The Best Album) One of us nominates a specific album as the artist’s/band’s best. That is debated and discussed.
Dómsdagur (Judgment Day) The show where everyday things are evaluated and ranked. For example, how many stars would you give wood glue?
Draugar fortíðar (Ghosts of the Past) A historical podcast where a historian informs an ignorant person about interesting matters from the past.
Snæbjörn talar við fólk (Snæbjörn Talks to People) One-on-one interviews about life, the universe and everything.
Listamenn (Artist/Men With Lists) Currently the only guest podcast. Two friends make top 10 lists about random things.
We have two setups: one in the studio and a portable one that fits into a single case. I do my interviews at home, so I use the portable setup, but Baldur does his shows and post-production in the studio.
The portable setup:
Shure SM7B Microphones
The case has room for four mics. We chose the SM7B mics because they are awesome. They are the podcast mics of choice for many, and for a reason. We use them in the studio for music stuff — vocals, guitars, drums and so on.
Audient iD44 Interface
This audio interface has served us well. There are four analog channels to go with the (up to) four-mic portable setup — easy to use, great preamps and phantom power when you need it.
Triton Audio FetHead In-Line Preamp
The SM7B is quite a juice-demanding mic, so the preamps must be powerful to drive them. In the studio, that is no problem, but it can be trickier with portable solutions. The Audient can handle them on its own. Even with the preamps driven very high, the signal-to-noise ratio is great, and we did that for a long time. The FetHead helps a lot, though. It draws phantom power from the Audient and pushes the signal, so we don’t need to drive the Audient preamps as hot.
RØDE PSA1 Arm Mic Stands
These are great. They degrade a bit after heavy use — an issue because they’re part of a portable setup — so we might end up replacing them, but they work.
Apple Mac Mini Computer
I run Ableton on the Mac Mini. We try to keep everything as portable as possible, so I came up with a solution to use an iPad for a monitor with help from a product called Luna Display by Astropad.
Pelican Hard Case
All this equipment plus cables, extra table stands, Zoom recorder for backup and misc stuff fit into the Pelican case, and we are good to go.
Recording: Ableton Live on PC in the studio and Mac Mini for the portable setup
Editing: Ableton Live on PC in the studio and Mac Mini for the portable setup
Mics: AKG C414 and Shure SM7B (studio), Shure SM7B (portable setup)
Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 80 OHM
Keyboard: M-Audio Hammer 88
Distribution: Podbean, from which it is distributed to every major platform.
Studio setup (managed by Baldur):
Shure SM7B Microphones
We have eight channels in the studio, but we haven’t recorded a podcast needing more than six at once.
Millennia HV-3D-8 Preamp
A lovely analog preamp that gives enough juice to drive the 7B and clear high frequencies. So, no FetHeads in the studio.
Focusrite Clarett OctoPre
We use this basically to change the signal from analog to digital, bypassing the preamps.
RME Babyface Interface
Last stop before the computer. I bought this card years ago, and it’s still as lovely as the first day.
Zoom H5 Recorder
For backup recording.
RØDE PSA1 Arm Mic Stands
Same as those in the portable kit, but they’re not so abused since we don’t take them down after each session.
I run Ableton on the PC, three screens and a Logitech wireless keyboard and the most important thing of all, the Logitech MX Ergo trackball mouse. If you manage to get used to that kind of mouse, it will save you a lot of time. I chose Ableton because I want to do whatever I want as soon as I get the idea. If I feel like a certain chapter needs electro music or soundscape or whatever, I can just start doing that straight away. Not the best editing DAW for most people, but perfect for me.
Yamaha HS7 Monitors With HS8S Subwoofer
They’re relatively cheap and pretty good. They’re definitely good for the price.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro 80 OHM Headphones
The best headphones I’ve tried for mixing podcasts at home by far, especially considering the price.
AKG C414 Microphones, Pair
Since we write all the music ourselves, these are good to have. We also use them for crowd mics during live performances.
M-Audio Hammer 88 Keyboard
We use this for the music and soundscape effects — a great keyboard with 88 fully-weighted keys.
Ableton Push 2
When I’m trying to make interesting music, but failing, I go to this. It creates happy surprises, and different kinds of music appear for different kinds of podcasts.
Podbean Postcast Hosting
We use Podbean as the back end for all our shows. It just works. From there, it gets distributed to every major platform. We use Facebook groups quite a lot for some of the shows, since after-show discussions are a perfect way to interact with the audience.