Who are you, and what do you do?
I am Helen Zaltzman, I am a podcaster. I host and produce The Allusionist and Answer Me This.
Answer Me This began in my living room in suburban London in January 2007. I had no idea what I was doing – I had barely heard of podcasts, I hadn't listened to any, I'd never edited audio or run a website before or done anything relevant to podcasting, except talking, which is hardly a unique qualification. Ten years later, the show is still going, to my great surprise and wonder. In January 2015 I began the Allusionist, with the Radiotopia collective. It's an entertainment show about linguistics. No, really. And it's the greatest job I've ever had in my life.
What hardware do you use?
13" MacBook Pro, a couple of years old, slightly dented. It is hardworn. The trackpad stopped working a couple of months ago and I need to work on my laptop too much to send it off for the requisite two weeks to get it fixed, so I'm using an external Magic Mouse because audio editing without sideways scroll induces fury.
I record into a Zoom H6 recorder, usually through Audio Technica AT897 shotgun mics, one for me, one for the interviewee. Audio equipment is mostly pretty boring to look at, so I have red, blue and green mic cables to cheer up all the grey and black.
The earphones I use while editing audio are Superlux HD-662, which are cheap but way better than any other kind I've tried for hearing every horrid little flaw in my edit. They are pretty uncomfortable to wear because they squeeze my head tightly, keeping all the audio in. This is useful in a way, because when I have them on, I'm not having fun; I know I have to work. It's hard to have fun or faff around wasting time when my head is in a clamp.
The earphones I favour for listening to podcasts are Skullcandy Jib noise-isolating earbuds. When I'm on trips to the USA I stock up on these at Target. In fact I bought five pairs in a Target in Palm Springs just recently. They're $10 a pop, which allows for my habit of losing or breaking a pair every three months or so, and I buy them in different colours to give me some sense of the passage of time. They're good for not letting noise seep out of my ears, because I'm not a sociopath and don't want to annoy whoever's sitting next to me on the train; and the sound quality is ideal for my podcast subscriptions. I've tried other earbuds, but they couldn't handle Roman Mars's perfect sonorous tones in 99% Invisible, so obviously they had to go.
iPad mini. My favourite gadget of all time. I read and write on it a lot, particularly when I have insomnia and am lying in bed in the dark not wanting to wake up my husband by cranking open my laptop or rustling book pages. I think I'm using an iPad mini 3, which should be a couple of years old now but on November 9th 2016, having woken up to the news that Donald Trump was to be president of the USA, I dropped it on the floor at airport security and the screen smashed to splinters. The Apple store replaced it for free with a new one of the same vintage, which was very decent of them given that it wasn't their fault that Trump made me break my iPad.
If you're talking really old-fashioned hardware: Leuchtturm 1917 medium hardcover is my choice of notebook. With dotted pages. Lines or a grid are too prescriptive for my requirements, but the dots are useful for keeping my writing straight AND sketching out patchwork designs. Current Leuchtturm: turquoise. All-time best Leuchtturm: orange, but sometimes you can't go back to where you were once happy, eh?
Mostly I write or draw in the Leuchtturm with pens I have stolen from hotel rooms.
I keep an Oxford Concise Dictionary to hand to choose the randomly selected word that appears at the end of every episode of the Allusionist, and a charity shop Boggle set for spelling out the name of each episode.
And what software?
I edit my shows on Logic Pro X. I kind of hate it, but it's partly my fault for being resistant to understanding it. I just want tech to work without having to devote any brainspace to it.
Izotope plugins – the Dialogue De-Noiser is actually magic. Trint to transcribe interviews – then you can click on a piece of the text and it'll play you that part of the sound file, or vice versa. It has saved me a lot of hours of typing this past year.
Ecamm Call Recorder for taping voicemails and interviews via Skype, Audio Hijack for other online audio-ripping.
When I'm interviewing people, I'm paranoid that my Zoom recording will conk out, so I record a backup on my phone, using iTalk. If you're looking for a simple recording app, this is it. It's just a big red button, and has never failed me.
I use Dictionary.com's app and website every day, for etymological research and for the invaluable thesaurus function when I'm writing anything.
I use Google Drive for writing, spreadsheets, presentation slides, creating graphics.. I've effectively dumped my whole brain in there. I am fond of a spreadsheet, particularly the shared spreadsheets in which my husband and I plan road trips. Planning a road trip is almost as good as going on the road trip. Well, not almost, but at least 15% as good. Definitely 90% more fun than the spreadsheets with which I keep track of my finances.
Pocket. I send dozens of articles to Pocket every day, so now there are several thousand articles in Pocket waiting for some mythical stretch when I will have time to read them. Retirement?
Similarly, my podcast app is stuffed full of thousands of shows I want to listen to but haven't yet, because I'm working on my own shows most of the time. Retirement is going to be GREAT. (Haha I'm never going to be able to retire.) I love to listen to podcasts when I'm walking or on public transport, or in the show now that my husband bought a Bluetooth shower speaker. I use the Apple Podcasts app, which is glitchy but I'm too far down that road to turn back now. I also listen with Overcast, specifically for the shows I have to listen to for my monthly Podclub, where my husband, three friends and I each choose an episode of a show that has not previously been Podclubbed about, then meet up for dinner to discuss them. Podclub is my favourite fixture.
Being a podcaster is a solitary existence much of the time, so Slack is where most of my social interaction takes place. The Radiotopians are a delightful bunch of people, but all scattered geographically, so we get to hang out on Slack more than in real life. Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly is my regular late night Slack buddy. We're both insomniacs and work at appalling times of day (i.e. middle of the night), but him being awake at 3am in LA needing a second pair of ears on an episode he's finishing works fine when I'm in the UK and it's 11am. A couple of weeks ago, his Friday night pre-dinner entertainment was screen sharing with me trying to sort out a weird problem with the sound wave of my episode. It was 2am my time and I was desperate to get that episode done and released so I could go to bed. What a gent; thanks, Hrishi.
What would be your dream setup?
Having a job that is portable and allows/requires a lot of travel is pretty much my dream setup. I can carry all the equipment I really need in one bag: my microphones, Zoom, laptop. As long as I have a decent wifi connection, I can and do get my job done from hotels, Airbnbs, friends' couches, cafes, trains, museum cupboards, wherever..
That said: a couple of years ago I bought an amazing desk. It's a 1960s Danish piece, which at first glance looks like a boring teak cupboard. But when you open it – ta-da! Out slides a tabletop, drawers, shelves all around – and when you sit at it, it's like being in a little wooden room surrounded by my favourite dictionaries, toy dinosaurs, sewing equipment, microphones, all my stuff. Really it's a piece of furniture that represents the contents of my brain.
However. In the summer of 2016 my husband and I had to move out of the flat we'd been renting for ten years, and put all our possessions in storage while we figured out our next move. Fast forward through several kinds of tedious life bullshit, and nearly a year later we're still living in our temporary home of my brother's attic, with no new home yet, or even the prospect of one. We have no idea when we'll see our stuff again, or even in which city or country. It is OK, but I do miss the desk. My dream setup would be to park the desk discreetly in a corner of the 99% Invisible offices in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.
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