Behind the Mic of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert Series

Tiny Desk audio director Josh Rogosin talked about the human side of sound engineering at a Cafe 939 event.

September 17, 2018

Audio engineering is a detailed craft that requires immense technical skill. For Josh Rogosin, concert audio technical director for NPR’s Tiny Desk series, it’s also an art: a chance to capture the magic of a live performance and celebrate human connection. 

Rogosin shared his experience at a recent Tiny Desk Talk at the Red Room at Cafe 939, in conversation with Toki Wright, assistant chair of Berklee’s Professional Music Department. He gave the crowd a glimpse into the technical intricacies of engineering Tiny Desk concerts, which take place behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. But his focus was on the human side of the experience. 

“Your ears are the best possible microphone,” Rogosin explained, adding that the Tiny Desk audio setup includes “Fritz,” a hanging apparatus with two multi-directional mics embedded in it to mimic a pair of human ears. Fritz is usually invisible to viewers of Tiny Desk concerts, but it helps to pick up both the sound from performers and the studio audience, which is often largely comprised of Rogosin’s NPR colleagues.

“We’ll send out an email to the building,” Rogosin said, and a handful of people—or sometimes several dozen—will turn out to hear the day’s performance. The engineering challenges vary depending on the audience size, as well as the makeup of each group: everything from solo artists to small ensembles to big, multi-piece bands with instruments galore. It’s tricky, Rogosin admitted, but “the key is listening”: not only to the music, but to the room itself, the audience, the balance of instruments and vocals. 

Hear more from Rogosin about his journey to NPR and working on Tiny Desk:

The Technical Side of Sounding Simple

Audience members got a live demonstration as local ambient folk trio Anjimile took the stage. The group, winners of WBUR’s Massachusetts Tiny Desk contest, played several tunes as Rogosin tweaked the equipment and sound levels, then played a few clips back. “I mix aggressively, but I want it to sound natural,” he said, adding that it’s often a lot of work to achieve a stripped-down effect. 

While Tiny Desk is enduringly popular, with more than 800 concerts to date, Rogosin emphasized that it’s still a simple human moment. “It’s just people playing music in a room for other people,” he said. “Sharing the human experience: there’s no better way to spend time.” 

Watch: Tiny Desk concerts featuring Berklee alumni

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