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Reverse Engineering: ‘Song Exploder’ Podcast Puts the Pieces Back Together

Popular artists take apart their tracks on "Song Exploder," revealing to host Hrishikesh Hirway and his podcast team what it takes to create a great recording.

Solange with Song Exploder host Hrishkesh Hirway
When Solange (seen here with host Hrishikesh Hirway) appeared on Song Exploder, she took apart the song “Cranes in the Sky” from her 2016 album A Seat at the Table, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

Los Angeles, CA (July 9, 2020)—Unlocking recording studio secrets is a frustration that has long dogged would-be producers and audiophile gear hounds. But instead of racking his brain trying to re-create John Bonham’s cavernous drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks,” or pick apart the intricate perfection of Steely Dan’s Aja, Hrishikesh Hirway found an easier solution: just ask the artist.

On Hirway’s acclaimed and long-running podcast Song Exploder, listeners get to hear renowned artists break down one of their own songs, instrument by instrument, explaining their creative process and how all the elements fit together. Bolstered by guests like Metallica, Lorde and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 180-plus episode roster reads like the ultimate Coachella lineup. That’s not an accident.

Song Exploder Logo“The trick, I think, is to make it feel like the show is something that everybody can listen to—not just music nerds, but anybody who is interested in how an idea comes to life,” said Hirway, creator and host of the podcast.

Pulling apart noteworthy songs is the easy part, he noted. For each episode, the featured artist provides Hirway with stems for the instrument tracks from the original recording. The host sets up each episode with a short introduction, then steps out of the way while the artist narrates. The hard part starts when it’s time to edit—putting it all back together with up to 90 minutes of raw interview audio can be tricky work.

“It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but instead of 1,000 pieces, you’re given 3,000 pieces—and 2,000 of the pieces don’t belong in the final picture,” he said.

Along with producer Christian Koons and production assistant Olivia Wood, Hirway makes extensive notes in a Google Doc detailing the interview pieces they’ve selected and the corresponding audio stems, as well as a rough show order and suggested musical transitions and crossfades. Once the team arranges them in an order that feels coherent and carries the proper amount of emotional heft, that serves as the blueprint for the episode.

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“Almost nothing in the show is heard in the sequence in which it was said in the interview,” he noted. “An artist might remember one detail 35 minutes after they said the first thing about a particular track, so we need to combine that in a seamless way.”

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend (center) worked with Song Exploder producer Christian Koons (right) and Hirway to discuss how the song “Harmony Hall” came together.
[/media-credit] Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend (center) worked with Song Exploder producer Christian Koons (right) and Hirway to discuss how the song “Harmony Hall” came together.

The real creative work begins when they pull those clips into Pro Tools. Hirway begins assembling each episode on a template he set up in Pro Tools, with iZotope RX and Waves EQ plug-ins ready to clean up the interview audio. From there, the episode can change dramatically as they go through several rounds of revisions until the final product is done, usually three weeks later.

“There’s a huge element of [taking] time to step away from an edit and then come back the next day and listen again, or pass it from one of us to the other and just be like, ‘How does that sound?’ And you realize something in the mix actually feels a little awkward, [even] something that you labored over for hours.”

Somewhere over the course of recording nearly 200 episodes, Hirway finally discovered the studio secret he hoped to learn along the way—but it wasn’t what he thought he would find. One by one, guests on Song Exploder revealed to him that there really is no blueprint for making a perfect recording.

“I had this notion that there’s a correct way to do things and I just needed to learn it, and that by having these conversations, I would learn it,” he said. “I got completely disabused of that notion pretty quickly. All these songs that I loved and thought were so perfect ended up being the product of so many accidents and just doing what you can with what you’ve got.”

Song Exploder •