Sometimes known as “Engineer Brett,” ”Engineer Cody-Brett," or “Engineer ‘Stard,” Brett Morris is Earwolf’s lead engineer. He is responsible for developing the audio signature of Earwolf’s shows, and also personally engineers the recording of many of them, along with his two colleagues, Cody Skully and Sam Kieffer.
This is the first interview in a series that will introduce the people behind the scenes at Midroll Media, giving you a peek behind the scenes at the dynamic business of podcasting. In this interview with Brett you’ll learn what it’s like to be an Earwolf engineer, with a truly unique kind of access to shows like Who Charted? and more.
Q: Tell me about yourself.
A: I come from the Bay Area, and that’s still where my family lives–the Stanford, Palo Alto area, south of San Francisco. I came down to L.A. in 2001, so I’ve been here a while.
I’ve been a musician since I was a kid. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve been in bands and I’ve played countless shows around Southern California. My band is Scattered Suns, which has been my main band for the last few years. We have an album online.
From my DIY experience in music, I quickly developed as a producer and became interested in working with other artists. I’ve been producing Howard Kremer’s (from Who Charted?) last few albums. We just came out with a new Summah album we’re really proud of. That’s been awesome. It’s so cool to hear all the fans’ excitement, and read the positive reviews.
It’s really fun because I get to stretch myself. I play all the instruments. I write, mix, sing a little, and get to collaborate with someone who is so talented, but also so outside of my typical box. I’m currently producing a big project with another Earwolf luminary. I think it’s still kind of under wraps right now, but I’m really excited for that. And, again, I get to play on it!.
One of these days, I’m going to get back to my own music which is really my passion, [along with] writing and performing. I hope at some point to get into writing music for other artists and productions, too. Writing and creating is what I’m best at.
Q: How did you start working at Earwolf?
A: Well, it’s funny, because I didn’t come from a comedy nerd kind of background, knocking at Earwolf’s door wanting to be around all the comedians. I’ve always loved comedy, but I was a just a musician who had recently decided, ‘Hey, I can make some money freelancing, and have fun working with some other artists.’ I didn’t know what I was getting into.
I have a good friend who is similar to me, Cyrus, who used to work at Earwolf, so I knew about it through him. I always thought it sounded like a pretty cool job. In a roundabout way, through him I met Joel (Mandelkorn) and Mandee (Johnson). They put on the Super Serious Show around town and I did one or two recording gigs with them. By happenstance it was the time when Earwolf needed another engineer, so they referred me to Jeff (Ullrich).
It started out for me as just a really cool way to work with production on a daily schedule. It’s kind of rare in audio to have a “day job” that’s literally during the day, for the most part. That left my nights free to do my music and everything else.
I was amazed at the content I was recording and now I feel so lucky to work with all these amazing artists.
Q: What’s an average day like for you, as an Earwolf engineer?
A: I look at the calendar and I see what sessions are scheduled for that day. There’s three engineers–Cody (Skully) and Sam (Kieffer) are the other two–and we’ll kind of call out our sessions at the beginning of the week. We have all of the equipment set up, and we have our ProTools templates already set. We show up early, make sure everything’s tidy and just start rolling tape.
I’m sure listeners imagine a more elaborate studio setup than we have. It’s just like a big dining room table. We’re all sitting there and I’m at the head of the table, which is crazy. It’s like the best spot. I basically spend all day laughing. Then I either take the recordings home or stay at Earwolf and edit them and go back and forth with the hosts.
Q: That’s a very different setup than most other studios. That’s especially different from most radio studios, where usually your engineer or producer is in a different booth than your talent.
A: Right. It started out because it was such a small operation, sort of DIY style. When we moved studios and had the budget to get what we wanted for the first time from an engineering and technical standpoint, I actually considered that option of having us in the corner somewhere.
But I actually think it works much better this way because there are a lot of visual cues that the hosts will give us. There’s a lot of back and forth communication going on, [that] sometimes you don’t even hear on the podcasts. We have to be very responsive. We have to have a cue ready to play. Or maybe [the hosts are] talking about a certain subject, and I’ll Google it and bring up what they’re talking about, because I can kind of sense that they’ll want the YouTube video played of that thing they’re talking about.
Sometimes we’re on the mic, too. Occasionally they’ll call on us and we’ll goof around with them. It’s definitely not your average radio studio and I wouldn’t want it to be.
Q: What are the politics of breaking, of laughing out loud?
A: It’s still really hard for me (laughs). I’ve kind of let myself go a little bit.
At the beginning I was really nervous, really scared of laughing. The more I’ve learned the shows and learned the equipment, I know what will get picked up on the mic, and what won’t.
There are some times when I can’t help it, I gotta lose it. But 90% of the time I’m holding it back. That’s become a skill. They’re all so f**ing funny. Occasionally something like Kyle’s “body rap” will happen out of nowhere [on Professor Blastoff] and I have tears streaming down [my face]. You can’t hear that luckily, but it’s there. The hosts don’t mind. I think they enjoy getting the reaction, and they know me well by now so it’s not weird.
Q: What are some of the most memorable episodes you’ve engineered?
A: I was just thinking the other day: I should go back and count how many podcasts I’ve done. Because it’s got to be hundreds and hundreds.
Some of the most personal ones for me are the Two Charteds (the in-between episodes of Who Charted?) because they’ll involve me on that. I make my own mustard sometimes, and they gave me a lot of shit for that. Then I brought them my mustard and we had a tasting on air. I think I won them over. But that’s why they call me ’Stard on Two Charted, in case any listeners are confused.
Another memory was getting to meet Jack Black on Sklarbro Country. I’ve been such a big fan of his for so long, he recently came in again too. Driving Reggie Watts home after Comedy Bang! Bang! was a very fun and musical car ride. Another completely unforgettable show was when Richard Simmons came on [Sklarbro Country], and ended up kissing me on the cheek! You don’t forget the day you met Richard Simmons, let me tell you.
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was on Jon Daly’s RaffleCast. I would be on guitar, or on bass, or whatever instrument was around, with Jon, Cyrus and the guest, and the goal was to write a song in 20 minutes front to back. It was amazing. When you set that timer, there’s a kind of frantic, explosive creative energy that happens–and every time it miraculously came together somehow, into something that really worked. We all had that thought in our heads: what if the song just sucks? It never did.
One of the not-so-great memories that I think of often, was when Tig Notaro got her diagnosis. I’ll never forget it. I was here with Kyle and David for Professor Blastoff and she just had gotten the news that she had cancer. That was just really a crazy, scary, deep moment, and we had some very touching conversations during that period. I remember her talking about it: ‘all this is happening, and I’ve got this show coming up at Largo, I’m debating what to do for it.’ A couple of months later that Largo show is nominated for a Grammy. Now she is doing great, and that moment is considered comedy history. It makes me realize even more how lucky we are.
Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: It’s easily just being here at the table during these moments. The actual recording is probably the easiest part of my job, and the funnest, because I’m basically just hanging out, laughing my ass off. It’s a lot of work though, this job. It’s full time–overtime–constant deadlines, and lots of hours put in to making these podcasts great, making artists happy and keeping everything running smoothly. But nothing beats actually being here for the sessions.
Q: What’s the key to making the Earwolf podcasts sound so good?
A: That’s my secret (laughs). There’s a lot of ProTools processing that goes on, and I’ve streamlined it so a lot of the work is happening live. The main thing that you learn in audio production–and I never went to school for this, I’ve sort of learned it through experience–is what comes in generally is the quality that goes out.
It really starts from the root of the source. The mics, especially, make a huge difference. How close are they [the talent] to the mics? How does the room itself sound?
We use these Shure SM7 microphones, that have been great and are pretty standard in radio. In ProTools–I’m looking at it now–I’ve got 6 or 7 plug-ins that compress it, EQ the sound, take out some of the noise, and make it nice and loud.
It’s built for speed. I’m not going for a sparkling, dynamic sound that I would with music. For podcasts I’m more utilitarian. Nothing sounds worse to me than a certain sound that a lot of amateur podcasts get. It’s a very raw, uncompressed sound and it’s very quiet. I like the sound of it being very up front, very loud in the speakers, so you can hear every word in your car. I hate when you’re in your car listening to a podcast and you can’t hear when someone’s speaking quietly. And then, all of a sudden, somebody yells, and it’s way too loud. So you’re basically adjusting your volume constantly.
Q: In a lot of ways you’re there at ground zero for podcasting, every day. Do you have any sense for what you see for the future of this medium?
A: I feel like in some ways I’m insulated from what the real public sentiment is about podcasting. I’m so surrounded by it. And like you said, I’m at ground zero. I’m at the eye of the hurricane in some ways.
I knew embarrassingly little about podcasting before I started at Earwolf, which I think will piss people off who really want to be working here. Since then I definitely have learned a lot. I think we’re in sort of a golden age right now. But I think there’s gotta be that turning point, and I think it will come when podcasting goes mainstream, I mean really mainstream.
I’m talking to more people everyday who are really getting into it, but I think that there is still that moment that will probably come from technology where it’s just what’s on. You turn on the radio and podcasts are what is on. I think that Apple Carplay looks really exciting. I can just picture a day when you turn on your car system and podcasts are what pop up. For a lot of people, that will be their first introduction to it.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: I just want to express my gratitude again for all the relationships that I’ve built up with these incredibly talented people at Earwolf. And I’m equally as thankful for the listeners who write in, who have been so good to me, and crazy talented themselves. I can’t wait for what’s next.