Issue 290,  published January 26, 2021

Do we still need tape syncs?

These days, podcasts might not sound as crisp as they used to, with many audio producers relying indefinitely on guests and sources recording themselves from home under pandemic conditions. Not long into the initial lockdowns last spring, Caroline Crampton asked in this newsletter: “When should in-person tape syncs resume?” Now, almost a year later, the question lingers, though I’m inclined to wonder whether a more fundamental query is worth posing: Should tape syncs resume?

If we’re talking about maintaining a level of recording quality, the answer may vary. One might have imagined that, once reasonable precautions can be determined, well-resourced operations would have tried ramping up commissions of in-person (though socially distant) recordings to ensure a certain polish to their sound. But since the initial lockdowns, calls for tape syncs from all sorts of teams have been relatively rare, says Maffick producer Greg Haddock.

He told me about recently seeing a tape sync request posted on behalf of Gimlet Media and then reflecting on the strangeness of how rare that felt. If Gimlet — generally a frequent commissioner of the service, in his observation — was hardly using tape syncs, why should anyone?

Kristina Vazovsky, for one, has her guests record themselves with an iPhone inside a sock.

Podcasting has historically been portrayed as having low barriers to entry. In an interview from March 2019 (translated from Russian), Vazovsky, founder of the Russian podcast company Tolk, described podcasting as “an astonishing industry with a very low entry threshold”; in keeping with existing rhetoric, she celebrated the ability to “create episodes from anywhere in the world with any kind of equipment.”

What Vazovsky couldn’t have known at the time was how normal — read: acceptable, even impressive — voice memos, Zoom calls, and phone line recordings would become just one year later. No longer the marker of a small-staffed or non-monetized operation, DIY recordings, normalized through their pandemic ubiquity — and many captured through the ever-improving software of smartphones — are, frankly, pretty decent.

“The corona[virus] was a good push to look at something like iPhones and a good set of instructions as a good alternative to expensive equipment,” says Vazovsky.

Amid a recent debate on this exact topic within the New York City Radio listserv, Ellen Horne, co-founder of Story Mechanics, shared a how-to graphic for recording at home, created by her business partner Charles Michelet.

If a Zoom recording is all you’ve got, it’s fine, really, says Horne; it gets the job done. However, “it sounds like they’re standing in a cathedral—or at a bank.” She decided to share the graphic with sources, “and it works — we got much better sound,” which she says better serves the listener. (She’s even entertaining the idea of making a comedic video version, à la JetBlue’s videos about flight etiquette; interested potential collaborators can find her on Twitter.)

Even when producers agree (and not all do, to be clear) that at-home recordings are currently the best option, there are still key points of debate — namely, what appropriate tools to use. Some ask their sources to download audio-recording software; others send professional equipment right to people’s houses; still others, like Vozovsky and Horne, stick with physical objects that sources are likely to have. No tool is a silver bullet, but they’re all objectively safer than recording in person, and many are free.

In this way, the loss of tape syncs could actually be good for newer producers or those with little to no funding, says Haddock: If lots of people are doing DIY recordings, a BBC show might at times sound like a homegrown production, and vice versa, and neither is necessarily a bad thing.

“In some ways, you might see kind of an emergence of new shows that are able to compete within that framework,” he says. Vazovsky agrees, saying the determining factor of a show’s success isn’t solely the quality of its sound. “It’s important, but it’s not the crucial part,” she says. “It’s the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it.”

At the same time, a widespread lowering of standards only accentuates shows that have managed to maintain high audio quality; some do this by continuing to arrange in-person recordings.

Who’s to say if it’s worth it? Vazovsky’s company, which she typically runs from London but currently orchestrates from Bali, doesn’t have a physical location; it doesn’t even have permanent equipment. Yet, she says, “we’re one of the most successful studios in Russia — for me, that’s a sign that it’s working.”

Will in-person tape syncs resume? If the process of arriving at an answer is by asking if they need to continue, perhaps they won’t. But if one’s reasoning involves a different question, chiefly if they should continue, the answer may look different.

As mentioned in this newsletter’s 2021 preview column a few weeks back, the tape sync economy is “a valuable source of money for freelancers.” According to AIR’s rate guide for tape syncs, the current starting rate for the service is $150 for the first hour, plus transportation costs, then $50 for every hour thereafter.

Tape syncs are how many people make money. They’re also, says Haddock, how they make connections, mistakes, and memories.

At the time a young Haddock completed his first tape sync, having a career in audio felt out of reach. “It was a crazy hobby — more of an obsession — that I’d poured thousands of thousands of dollars into, not to mention hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours,” he says. Securing that gig, and doing the job well, felt incredible. Plus, the interview subject was a former professional football player, one Haddock had grown up watching, making everything extra exciting.

“Doing tape syncs is a really, really accessible way to remind yourself that the work you’ve put in, that the hustle you’ve put in, to get to where you are, has been juice worth the squeeze,” he says.

As a former tape syncer, says Haddock, “I’m very empathetic to making sure that that industry stays alive,” and as a current senior producer, he’s finally in a position — and working with a budget — that would allow him to support it.

To that end, Haddock found it imperative to pay a professional for the task of recording a high-stakes interview for one of Maffick’s recent projects. Haddock says he thoroughly consulted the source, as well as the source’s family, and together they arranged for the sync to be done by a friend, whom the family had already been in contact with. Still, Haddock repeatedly reminded all parties that, if anything felt uncomfortable, they’d pull the plug, no questions asked.

Whether in-person tape syncs will resume is uncertain. On one hand, it’s beneficial if they do, supplying at least one source of income for people working in audio; on the other hand, the absence of this once-ubiquitous service could change overall audio standards, therefore opening one door to the industry while closing another, particularly one that plenty of other folks had accustomed themselves to using.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be so binary, so bleak. Horne left me with one more bit to consider, imparted to her by Miguel Macias of Latino USA. It’s a pretty penny, he says, to commission tape syncs and studio space on the regular — what if that part of budgets went away, allowing managers to instead increase wages for existing staff (or, and this is my own extrapolation, create more positions altogether)?

Horne, for one, thinks it’s possible. “This might be the way we’re going to make budgets in the future,” she says. “We don’t think we’re going to go back.”

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.