Steps to Take Before Recording
Use headphones when recording. You’ll get better tape, every time. Headphones will help you correct the most common sound problems: popping P’s, overloaded microphones, room echoes, hand noise, and crackling cables.
REMEMBER THAT SOUND BOUNCES- a “live” recording space has hard, flat surfaces that create bouncing and echoes. A “dead” recording space has soft or textured surfaces to create clearer sound without bouncing. If you are doing an interview in a noisy environment, try to position your interviewee FACING the noise, with their back away from it. Try to position them with something “dead” behind them like curtains or bushes so the sound does not bounce.
Be aware of other noises that your mic captures- your hand jostling, your fingers pressing buttons, etc. Practice a firm grip on your recorder that keeps your hand still. Remember, with headphones you’ll hear these noises and can adjust to avoid them, without headphones you’re taking a risk.
Before you start recording an interview, put the audio recorder on hold and get your interviewee to speak into the mic so you can set the audio levels. Levels should be set to peak between -12 and -6 DBs. You shouldn’t need to use the gain when you’re doing an interview as the mic will be held close to the speaker. If you need the gain to get the proper levels, then chances are you’re battery is dying. You should change your batteries. If you turn your levels up too high you might get distortion (hissing sound when the volume is too high). DISTORTION IS THE ONLY THING THAT CAN’T BE FIXED IN THE EDITING PROCESS
Keep the microphone out of the person’s face, so that they can’t really see it. The psychological effect of having a big metal rod in their face tends to make people clam up and get nervous. If they are standing up, look the person in the eye and point the mic upward, parallel with their body, under the chin, so they can’t see it. If they are sitting down, keep it off to the side and pointed at their chin.
Make sure your source is talking across the top of the microphone, not directly into it. Otherwise, the wind from their mouth will make a popping sound when they pronounce their P’s.
Even if you’re in a quiet office, record a minute or two of the sound of the interview location with nobody talking. This “room tone” can come in handy when you’re mixing. You or the engineer can use it to smooth the transition between your narration and the source’s voice.
Steps To Take During The Interview
Don’t be afraid to explain what you’re going to do in the interview, before you start asking the questions:
- “I won’t be saying much while you’re talking, because I want to get a clean recording of your voice without interruptions from me. But that doesn’t mean I am not listening.”
- “I might ask you some of these questions more than once, just to expand on answers you’ve already given.”
- “This interview will be edited, so don’t worry if you mess up and want to start over.”
Before you ask any questions, make sure your source identifies herself on the microphone, with her full name and whatever title she wants you to use. (One useful technique in a crowd situation is to ask for ID and information at the same time: “What’s your name and title, what do you think about the president’s tax cut plan, and why?” This way you’ll have an actuality and ID all in one: “I’m Ronnie Fong, I’m a pipefitter, and I think the tax cut is a terrible idea! The billionaires are rich enough already!”)
Be careful not to say, “Uh huh”, “Mmm Hmm” when the person is talking, as we all do naturally in conversation. Just nod your head to show you are listening.
If you have time, ask a few throwaway questions at the top of the interview, just to get them used to the situation. “How long have you been doing this kind of work?” “How did you get into it?” “Where did you get that tie?”
If what you really want on tape is the answer to the question, “Did you embezzle $10,000 from city government?”, you might want to start with some softballs which make the source feel good. For example, “How has the first year of your term been going Mr.Mayor? What achievements are you most proud of?”
If you’re not sure what to ask, remember that your ignorance can often be an asset. Start with a really general question, like “What is happening here?”, “What are you doing here?”, “What’s your problem with capital punishment?” If you run out of questions, veteran Pacifica reporter Larry Bensky says to ask, “What’s the next step?”
Once the interview is about over, you should always give the source another chance to divulge something useful. Try something like, “Is there anything else you think the world should know about this topic?”
Gathering Ambient Sound for Your Report
Just like photography, in audio you capture not just the subject but anything that is around or behind your subject. You want your audio to reflect the scene in a real way, just like a photo.
You can position yourself to focus more on the subject, the background noise of the crowd, or ambient sound like traffic passing, etc depending on what kind of sound you want.
Background can be used to frame the subject but shouldn’t be a distraction. Ambient sound can be used to layer the sound during an interview or as a segue between sound bites. For a long piece, having sound that helps link different points you may be trying to make in your story and/or breaks up the interviews so the segment isn’t just wall to wall talking can really enhance your feature.
Here’s a technique for gathering ambient sound and often some great interview material that some radio reporters use. Before entering the office or jobsite or house or other location that you’ll be conducting the interview, press record on your machine and leave it running until after you leave. You can’t air any comments recorded while the person thought the machine was off, but this technique will allow you to get the sounds of phones ringing, machines grinding, and people introducing themselves to you. And if you don’t turn your machine off right after the end of the interview questions, you won’t miss the best part of the interview, which starts at the moment the person thinks it’s over. Again, before you use this post-interview tape, you’ll have to ask permission, but at least you’ll have it, in case they say yes.
Download a word document of the above Audio Recording Checklist here.