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Ep: 185: How this digital nomad creates income as a remote audio engineer with Ben Smith

In this episode, I speak with Ben Smith, who is the co-founder of Vagabond Podcast.

A podcast production company that helps make podcasters’ lives a little easier by helping them edit, mix, and master their show, so they can focus on content. 

Listen on to find out how Ben has been able to live a location independent lifestyle as a remote audio engineer.

Listen Below:

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Transcription:

Debbie:

Hey everyone! Thank you so much for joining us. I’m really excited to speak with our guest today because he’s such an important part of my podcast. I’m here with Ben who is my amazing editor. 

Hey Ben, how are you?

Ben:

Hey, I’m doing great, Debbie. How are you?

Debbie:

I am wonderful. So before we get to all of the things that we’re going to talk about today, can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live an offbeat life? 

Ben:

Yes. My name is Ben Smith. I’m a freelance audio engineer currently based out of Houston, Texas. And I guess I live an offbeat life because I’ve worked strictly as a freelance engineer for the last six years.

And throughout the journey, it has taken me all over the country working with fantastic clients, working and recording studios, working on movies. And yeah, it’s just been a real whirlwind of the last six years, and can’t wait to see where else it takes me. 

Debbie:

I’m so glad that you found me, Ben because if you all know anything about podcasting, someone who knows how to edit your work – is super crucial. And it took me a really long time to find Ben and he actually found me.

And it’s amazing what you do especially now with the huge amount of people who want to start doing their own show. How did you get into this? How did you get into this type of career?

Ben:

Yeah, so it all started really in 2018. I was working at a recording studio in Illinois and it was kind of the slow season. Summertime, bands started gigging more rather than recording and I was just looking for some more consistent work that could just fill my time throughout the week. 

And then on the weekends, I would go work the live shows with the bands but throughout that, I found a client on Upwork actually. And was working with him for a couple of months and he actually interviewed Debbie on his show. 

And so really I just DMed her on Instagram and just hit her up and asked if she had anybody editing her podcast.

I think at that time, you did have somebody but a couple of months went by and then you got back in touch with me. And yeah, we started on this journey, and it’s been really great so far. 

Debbie:

Yeah. It’s pretty amazing because a lot of people are super afraid of what you did, right? You just messaged me and I do get messages from people who want to work with me with certain things and I do have people that I’m working with already, but you never know what’s going to happen. 

And I think that’s such an important thing to learn: it’s never bad to approach someone especially if you’re doing it in a way where it’s really great. They’re going to need the services and what happened with us as I did.

I did need a new editor and now Ben is like this awesome person who does it all. And now he, like, reads my mind. I don’t even need to tell him anything. He’s just like “Ben, this super editor that I have” which is incredible. 

Ben:

You make my life so easy, honestly.

Debbie:

We have a good working relationship now where I just give stuff and he’s like bam! Done.

Ben:

Yeah, it’s been really great. I got into podcasts, like I said, about 2018 and just kind of, like, fell in love with the production aspect of it. And just the freedom that comes along with it with entrepreneurs such as yourself. 

It gives you this whole new platform to put out content and brand yourself and it’s just really great. I am so excited to be a part of your show as well as my other clients that I’m working with. It’s just a really great opportunity.

Debbie:

So now that you’ve been doing this for quite some time and you’ve edited quite a few types of podcasts, what would you say is your top three tips for people who are starting this out and they want killer audio for their show?

Ben:

So probably the biggest one is a decent microphone. I mean, you can spend a hundred bucks on a mic that is just going to take your podcast from sounding amateur to very pro-level sounding just bypassing either your built-in microphone on your laptop or your headphone microphone or anything like that. 

Just putting in that initial investment to get a dedicated microphone is just so important. 

And probably the second one after that is something to record into. I know a lot of people, just for simplicity’s sake, they will record through either Zencastr or Zoom or something like that, which is great just for a really quick simple interview style. But to get that really proper sounding audio, super important to have a dedicated feed for your microphone. 

And probably the third one. This is going to sound pretty, I don’t know, a little ridiculous but something called a pop filter is really important too. That’s going to keep your audio really clean and it’s also going to reduce any clauses that you get from certain consonants. 

Little things like that. Don’t go into, kind of, the nerdy side of audio right now, but just maintaining that super clean, clear audio is what’s going to, not only attract listeners but also going to keep listeners coming back to your show week after week.

Debbie:

The tips that Ben gave you, he definitely gave me and it definitely took my podcast audio to the next level. And I’ve been doing it for so long and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Okay. Let me see if this helps,” and now the audio quality is so much better because I listen to actually what you say. 

So, thanks for that, Ben. What you’re saying is actually true.

Now, going back to when you first started editing, is this something that you wanted to be? You wanted to be an audio engineer all your life or is just something that you kind of got into by mistake or good luck, I guess?

Ben:

Yes. So I guess I was probably 16, I was in a band and we were just making demos at my parents’ house. Just messing around and for whatever reason, I was always the one in charge of doing the recording and I had no idea what I was doing, obviously. 

And just kind of through trial-and-error, I found that I really enjoyed doing it and then some of the other local bands would come to me and ask me to record some of their stuff. It was all for fun. Just hanging out, having a good time. 

But then, that led me, after high school, to go to audio engineering school out in Phoenix, Arizona. And so I went to that program, absolutely fell in love with the studio aspect of things.

After I got done with that, I moved to Nashville for 2 years where I worked exclusively in studios, worked with some of the larger countries acts as well. Somehow I still have no idea why or how this ended up on my plate but I got wrangled into doing a bunch of orchestral classical music, which I’m not a classical person that classically trained or anything. 

So that was a really, really strange change-of-pace but it was an incredible situation and led me to be featured in films, doing the scores for them. National films as well, a couple of international films.

And so it’s really great getting to get that experience of being in these huge sessions with all the string players. Very, very fast pace. Lots of money on the lines, very high-stress situations.

And through there, it evolved into me moving to Illinois – my homestay. Opening up my own studio where I worked with local artists and just really got to move from that high-stress situation to kind of one-on-one interacting with your client in a very personal way that I really didn’t get to experience a lot in Nashville because everything is financially-based there. 

It’s all very high stress. You only have a couple of hours to pump out as many songs as you can versus what I was doing in Illinois which is very relaxed. We had the studio to ourselves and we can just take the time and really craft what they were doing – craft the sound.

And I think it was really beneficial for me to get that experience of sitting in a tightened space with just me and a client: really sorting through stuff, interacting with them. 

And yeah, it was a really great experience and I think it translated extremely well to now doing a lot of podcast editing where, in me and Debbie’s case, we have never met face-to-face. Finally, two weekends ago we had a video call. 

It’s translated really. The ability to speak to our clients through email in a very friendly and yet professional way. And so, it’s been really really amazing to have this transition.

Debbie:

That’s one of the best things about being able to do this, right? Because years ago, you didn’t even have this opportunity to do now with podcasting. And so many other different prospects that you have digitally, you’re able to do this from anywhere technically. 

So you have me. I’m in New York City and you’re all the way on the other side of the country and you’re doing work. And you have all of these different clients from all over and that’s really exciting. And it’s something that you really enjoy doing. 

Ben:

Yeah, exactly. I really love the freedom that this allows not only me to have but the clients that I’m working with. You, for example. 

You could be anywhere in the world and send me files to do and I’ve edited your files here in Houston, Texas, and in Illinois. I’ve done files in Virginia and airports in Florida – really having that freedom to travel and still work is something, honestly, I’m still getting used to.

It’s a really great luxury that, like you said, a couple of years ago, just really wasn’t an option.

Debbie:

And as an audio engineer, you’ve done this for quite some time as you said but for somebody who is thinking about doing what you’re doing right now, what are some of the main equipment that you absolutely can’t live without or you would recommend to someone who also wants to edit for other people or even just for themselves?

Ben:

Sure. As far as editing goes, you can really go barebones. I would suggest, at least, getting an Apple computer, either a Macbook,  iMac, Mac Mini, or anything like that. Just because a lot of these audio software programs interact really well with Macs – that’s just been my experience. 

If you have an Apple computer, it comes stock with GarageBand which will give you that barebones. You can do basic edits, it comes with a set of plug-ins, basic EQ compression – all of that stuff that can really get the ball rolling. 

And if you want to get a little more in-depth, I can’t remember the price on it, maybe a couple of hundred bucks, you can buy Apple’s Logic Pro which is a more professional digital audio workstation. 

That’s going to give you even more flexibility, more capabilities, it’s just going to give you a bit more of a professional feeling granted it does take a little bit more time to learn than GarageBand. 

So I would say if you’re just getting started, probably stick with GarageBand, there are tons of videos on YouTube of people giving tutorials on how to do just kind of basic editing. But really, all you need is just a digital audio workstation. 

You could get Audacity, that’s also free if you’re on a windows-based computer, but there are tons of options out there. Most of them are going to do the same things being basic recording, basic EQ compression. 

All of these really simple things that realistically that’s all you needed. Just learning how to manipulate those in the correct way is the important thing and. like I said, the pro audio community is large. There’s tons of information out there. 

The really great thing about this industry is that no one really hides information. We’re all kind of an open book. We’re all playing the same game, we’re all playing on the same team. We all want to win and provide the best products possible. 

So tons of resources out there that can teach you, to the people that you can just reach out to. And odds are they’ll hit you right back with, “Okay. Well, maybe you should try this thing or try this thing to fix your problem.” So it’s really great. 

Honestly, the best advice I can say is just jumping into it. Fumble your way through it, stumble around and you’ll figure it out.

Debbie:

Yeah, you’re so right. There are so many different things that are online right now that if you really wanted to do this, you can definitely start right away. You can start today if you want to and when I started a few years ago, I was doing what Ben said to start with.

I was using GarageBand. Obviously, my audio wasn’t that good. I didn’t have my recorder yet. 

But honestly, when you’re just beginning, you’re sampling things out. You’re figuring out, your learning.

Ben:

And it’s alright to mess up.

Debbie:

Yeah, exactly. It’s okay to mess up and honestly, in the beginning, I always feel like if you’re going to start a podcast, it’s really important to also understand what it’s like to edit. Because it makes you more understanding of what your editor is going through.

Ben:

One reason why I love Debbie.

Debbie:

Yeah.

Ben:

You did your own editing so you understand some of, I won’t say frustrations, but just what the editors are looking for. 

Debbie:

Yes. Exactly.

Ben:

Very much appreciated.

Debbie:

Honestly, when I first started, I had about 45 minutes of the initial edit. There’s nothing edited yet. So it was 45 minutes till like an hour I started with and it took me, oh my God, Ben, like almost 10 hours. 

Yeah, like 8 to 10 hours to do 45 minutes, and sometimes it was longer. So obviously, I got better, I got my first editor. I was probably doing it for like 4 to 5 hours. So it was half that so I’m like, “Yey! Good job, Debbie. You’re finally doing this right.”

So I know exactly, like, what I needed to do. Actually, also, when you’re editing yourself, you know what type of filler words you use. You know what you shouldn’t do anymore.

Ben:

Yeah, absolutely. Kind of a cool thing too. You, having done your editing, probably made you a better interviewer. ‘Cause you are more conscious of, like you said, the filler words that you’re throwing in, the cadence that you’re speaking with. 

All these things that you might not catch if you’re just doing the interviewing and then sending the files off.

Debbie:

Absolutely. And it makes your job so much easier because me not saying like and you know all the time will just make your life so much easier. And it also really is very painful when you’re listening to yourself over and over again. You’re like, “Oh my God, I need to stop doing this. It’s just annoying.”

Ben:

You’re always your biggest critic.

Debbie:

Exactly.

Ben:

I’m not looking forward to editing my own episode, I’ll say that.

Debbie:

It’s always painful to hear yourself. I don’t even bother anymore. I’m like, “Okay, that’s it then.”

Ben:

Yeah. You just got used to it at this point.

Debbie:

‘Cause there’s just so much and that’s why I tell people all the time, “If you are not making money from it or if your business doesn’t make a lot of money and you’re just starting this out, do your editing,” ‘cause even if you do I think it’s helped so much and you become a better speaker in the long run.

Ben:

Absolutely. It’s a great perspective on all of it. 

Debbie:

So for you, Ben, throughout all of this, what has been the biggest setback that you’ve encountered as an entrepreneur?

Ben:

Probably the biggest one was when I was focusing primarily on just working with musicians and recording them, mixing them, mastering – doing all of that. It’s a very feast or famine industry.

And so probably the biggest setback has been learning how to navigate through these different famines. The feasts always come and then learning how to budget that money that you might get in a lump sum has been a very, very big learning curve for me.

I got started professionally when I was 19 and when someone just hands you a pile of money for doing an album, you’re just going to go blow it. And then you might not get more work for a couple of weeks, maybe a month just because the industry only has so many artists.

And so probably the biggest setback has been navigating those feast and famine. Honestly, podcasting has been a huge way to do that for me. It has given me a level of consistency.

Honestly, without doing a live sound I wasn’t used to it. I enjoy doing live sound but that was never my passion. It was more of just a way to pay the bills. So finding this avenue of editing podcasts, mixing, consulting, doing all of these things to help this growing industry has been really, really helpful because it’s giving me a level of consistency.

And I’m sure there will be more setbacks that come but right now this has been really great to kind of find this out, learn from this, and really grow with it. 

Debbie:

Yeah. And there are so many different types of opportunities right now because I can’t even tell you how many people come to me every week and tell me they’re going to start a podcast or they ask certain questions about how to do it. And it’s just going to keep growing. 

I feel like it’s such a great industry and it’s a great platform.

Ben:

Absolutely. Great platform. Most people are going to commute to work Monday through Friday and to me, the podcast is the best way to pass that time. 

You can either listen to a comedy podcast which is going to pass the time really easily or you can listen to something like Debbie’s podcast where you’re going to learn something, you’re going to learn from other people.

It’s really great and it’s ever-growing. It’s free to publish, it’s free to record, and it’s just really great to me. 

Debbie:

Absolutely. And I think you also get to meet people. Like, for example, I’m interviewing you and people are technically really meeting you and learning your story and maybe reach out to you. 

Ben:

Absolutely.

Debbie:

Hopefully, reach out to Ben. He’s awesome. 

Ben:

Thanks, Debbie.

Debbie:

Ben, when you started this trajectory: to this lifestyle into this business, did you have any money saved to start your own business? If you did, how were you able to budget it to make it last?

Ben:

I wish that I had but, like I said, I’ve pretty well lived this life since day one. I’ve had some full-time jobs. I’m currently working a full-time job to save up some money for the next venture. But realistically it’s just been kind of flowing with it from day one. 

Honestly, I don’t really have a good answer for that because since I was 19, I’ve just worked freelance.

Debbie:

It’s really interesting if this is the type of life you know, you don’t know what it’s like to do anything else. So for a lot of people, it’s kind of nerve-wracking but if this is the life that you’ve always tied, it’s kind of just the norm for you. So you’re like, “Okay. Well, this is just every day for me.”

Ben:

Yeah. To an extent. I mean, like I said, right now I do have a full-time gig and that has been quite the adjustment, I will say.

Going from 6 years of just strictly working for myself and being hired out by different clients, that to me made the most sense. But there’s a part of me that wanted to try the full-time job. 

And so I got in with a production company. That’s where I’m working now and honestly, it’s been an adjustment. Like you said, this has been the only adult life that I know: having this amount of freedom to go and do as I want.

And as long as I have the finances for it, I can spend my day however I want. It has been an adjustment on the other side of it. Most people might be a little nervous to drop the full-time job to move towards this more freelance lifestyle, but for me, I’ve done the opposite and it has been an adjustment for sure. 

Honestly, I don’t really have a good answer for that because since I was 19, I’ve just worked freelance.

Debbie:

What about now that you have your day job, right? How do you usually find work when you’re a freelancer? It’s the total opposite. Like you said, it’s feast or famine when you’re freelancing, but then there’s more security for your day job. And you’re kind of making sure that you have savings in order to be on your own again.

But when you’re finally on your own, how do you get the clients? I know how you found me, is that usually how you do it or there are other techniques that you can share with us that’s really valuable?

Ben:

Yes. I mean, there is always the option of just sending a cold email or, in Debbie and I’s case, I just sent her a cold DM on Instagram. That has worked I’ll say relatively well. You can definitely land clients that way. I’d say it’s probably easiest if you’re doing podcasting to cold email people like that.

In the world that I originally came from: music, honestly, it was all about the network that you were part of and I think that’s still incredibly important. It’s very based on: who you know, what artists do you know, what producers do you know, what engineers do you know.

And that honestly wouldn’t lend to itself. For example, whenever I live in Nashville, I would maybe go to the barber and just start talking to my barber and they would ask what I do. And they’ll be like, “No way. Do you know this person?” I’ll be like, “Yeah, I do actually.” 

And then, they’ll be like, “Okay. Well, I’ve got this band that needs somebody to record. Can you record for them?” And it really happens in an extremely organic way.

And I think that’s still totally possible even in a digital realm like podcasting where most of my clients I’ve never met. It’s all through email but, like I was saying earlier, being able to form that relationship through a digital way lends to itself.

I think my original message to you, Debbie, I said I work with so and so. I just heard you on his podcast. I love what you’re doing and if you need an editor, I’d love to do a trial episode for you. 

And so something like that kind of builds that network of you reading that I’m already connected with somebody that you’re familiar with. And it builds that level of trust. It’s really difficult to just cold email somebody and just say, “Hey, I do podcast editing. I’d like to work for you.” 

That tends to not work out so great at least for me, it might for other people. But for me, I really haven’t had a lot of luck with that but building a network of people that you know and that the person you’re trying to reach out to knows. Just having that mutual connection builds a level of trust and builds a level of credibility and can really blossom into some really fruitful relationships.

Debbie:

And also because you were doing it in such a personalized way. It was better personally for me because, like you said, it was somebody that I know already, it was a mutual person. And now with me, I’m trying to get the word out on Ben because he’s such an incredible editor.

And I think word-of-mouth is a huge way of getting clients as well especially if you’re such a good worker, if you’re a good business person, and you know what you’re doing, people will automatically want to refer you to others. 

Ben:

Absolutely. And you know this goes back at least in my experience to the music industry. Everything, like you said, Debbie, is word-of-mouth and that’s one beautiful thing that happens, not only in the music industry but in the audio industry.

Once you build a reputation you have no choice but to treat people the right way because if you don’t, everyone’s going to talk about it. I’ve witnessed this firsthand with some people that I used to work with. 

They were not so great to be around, not so great to spend time in the studio with. And lo and behold, in a few years, nobody wants to work with them because that travels quickly.

If you make a client upset or you make an artist upset, they’re going to tell people. And then before you know it, you don’t have any work. And so it’s really, really important to maintain a good relationship with all of your clients. 

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to compose an email that is friendly, uplifting, doesn’t take a lot of time to compliment them, and it’s all organic. And the thing is if that’s how you actually feel, it’s going to be conveyed even through a digital format like an email or a video call. 

Debbie:

Yeah. I love that approach ‘cause it usually works and I try to do the same when it comes to clients or even when you just want to do a collaboration with other artists or other entrepreneurs. It’s just a great way to do it, especially when you do it authentically which is what Ben has been doing.

Ben:

Absolutely. Authenticity is always the key.

Debbie:

So now, Ben, let’s fast forward to 50 years from now and you’re looking back at your life, what legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for? 

Ben:

Oh boy. I knew this question was coming, 

Debbie:

Yes, you edit all of it so you know this is coming. 

Ben:

I still don’t have a good answer for it.

I think, honestly, I just want to be remembered as somebody who took a platform like podcasting and made a positive impact and I guess… Hmmm…

Debbie:

You can edit this out.

Ben:

Yeah, right. All my stammering.

So I guess I want to be remembered as somebody that took an audio platform such as podcasting and made a positive impact and helped clients, entrepreneurs, everybody reach as much of their potential as possible through this platform.

And doing that through the proper technique. Teaching them proper editing and just helping their business. I mean, that’s what I love doing: helping my clients, helping them reach their goals. 

And so I really hope in 50 years that I can be remembered as someone that has done that as well as maintaining that genuine authenticity towards everybody, all of my clients and just a level of kindness that I hope is remembered by then. 

Debbie:

Well, I love that legacy, Ben, and you’re definitely doing that for me right now. So it’s already coming to fruition.

Ben:

Love to hear that.

Debbie:

Are you currently working on anything that is really exciting to you?

Ben:

Yeah. So there’s actually really big plans for 2020 that me, a business partner, and friends in Nashville have. We’re still in the development stage of it but basically the idea with it is as audio engineers, both of us love podcasts. We love working on podcasts. 

The idea is to start a kind of a freelance community of audio engineers and all of us just collaborate, share ideas, and share work with each other. If somebody’s overwhelmed with clients, you’ve got a resource to pass along to one of your friends, somebody that you know is going to do great work.

And just a community for people to come to if you’re starting a podcast and you don’t know where to go. You can come to us as just kind of that starting resource to help get your show off the ground. 

And so that’s headed down. It is still developing but really, really, really excited for that and just see where that goes. And hopefully, help out the podcast and community as much as we can, as well as helping out the audio community. 

Debbie:

I love that idea and it’s definitely going to be very successful because there’s so many of us that need your help. 

Now if you want to know more about you, where can they find you? 

Ben:

Yes. So probably the easiest way to get in touch with me is through Instagram. You can find me @ben_smith_. I’m pretty active there. So if you have any questions, feel free to just shoot me a DM on there and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. 

Debbie:

Perfect. Thank you so much, Ben, for speaking with us. I’m so excited for you to share all of these different things that you’ve shared with me and my audience too ‘cause it’s so exciting to introduce you to everybody. 

Ben:

Thank you, Debbie. It’s been really fun.

GET THE EXTENDED INTERVIEW WITH BEN WHERE HE SHARES PODCASTING BASICS TO START YOUR OWN SHOW.


Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith


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