Picture a professional recording studio. What do you see?

Perhaps a band rocking out in an acoustically treated room, or a vocalist singing softly into an expensive microphone. Artists and engineers will spend thousands to build or use studios that provide the acoustics and consistency they need to do their jobs. But in recent years, a different kind of recording studio has emerged: the podcast studio.

Consider the case of Gimlet, a podcast network known for its high production values, acquired by Spotify for $230 million earlier this year. Within a few years, Gimlet grew from a humble studio operation to building a custom, 28,000 square-foot production facility in Brooklyn. In doing so, it hired the Walters-Storyk Design Group, a renowned acoustic architecture firm, to help create 12 rooms dedicated to podcasting.

You may not have heard of WSDG, but you’ve probably heard some of the music it’s helped create. John Storyk, who founded WSDG with his wife Beth Walters, has been responsible for thousands of studios around the world. His first big project was Electric Lady studios for Jimi Hendrix in NYC, and he’s since helmed projects for a myriad of clients including Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, and Jay Z.

After touring Gimlet’s new recording facilities earlier this year, I had the chance to speak with Storyk about the challenges of designing a recording studio specifically for podcasting.

Credit: Cheryl Fleming Photography

By now, some of you are probably wondering why one would hire an entire architectural firm just to create some podcast rooms. After all, aren’t podcasts just a person or two rambling about a topic for an hour? Indeed, most podcasts start this way. “Podcasting could be as simple as a Mac computer in a bedroom, or as simple as this phone call,” acknowledges Storyk.

But despite the low barrier for entry – or perhaps because of it – podcasts are exploding. There’s something out there for everyone, and you can listen to a podcast at times when reading an article or watching a video would be inconvenient.

According to a March 2019 survey by Edison Research and Triton Digital, about a third of Americans over 12 had listened to a podcast in the last month – and about 40 percent if you only include people under 54. That number was only about 30 percent in the 2018 survey.  More telling, an estimated 22 percent of Americans over 12 – about 62 million – listen to podcasts every week.

So while it doesn’t cost very much to start a podcast or build a small following. “At the end of the day, there’s only so much bandwidth for all this podcasting,” says Storyk. That means creators have to up their game to catch your ear. “The levels of production on podcasts have gotten much more complicated… demanding much more sophisticated production techniques.”

Podcasters vying for your attention might produce hour-long shows across several days, involving multiple interviews, original music, and extensive post-production. Once you go beyond a simple uncut interview, consistency and efficiency are key. You need “equipment that’s stable and rooms that are stable.”

Credit: Cheryl Fleming Photography

Herein lies one of the challenges WSDG encountered. When you record music, it pretty much all happens in one room. But Gimlet podcasters tend to work on long-term projects, and might use almost any of the dozen rooms which vary dramatically in size and shape. Some have more windows than others, some were are meant for a pair of podcasters, others for large groups.

WSDG had to find a way to make these rooms sound “basically exactly the same” to ensure consistency within and between podcasts. If the recording sounded different from one segment of a podcast to another, it would stand out like a sore thumb. This isn’t a concern with music, in which albums are generally recorded in the same space, and there’s more going on to mask any differences anyway.

Further complicating matters is the fact the podcast studios are mostly small, adjacent rooms. Though the decibel level isn’t usually as high as with music rooms and you don’t have to deal with as many bass frequencies, WSDG needed to provide significant isolation between a dozen rooms stuck right up against one another. You don’t want to ruin a recording session if a podcast next door devolves into a shouting match.

On top of this, the rooms still need to let in some sunlight and actually, you know, look nice. The architectural challenge is as much visual as it is acoustic, and WSDG needs to work within both budgetary and aesthetic constraints.

Credit: Cheryl Fleming Photography