Recording Audio in the Public Radio Style
By Tamara Keith
Radio is all about sound. We don’t have pictures or printed words to help us tell the story, just the sounds of people’s voices and their surroundings. Sound brings listeners into our stories, takes them to a place, helps them feel the events we describe. It’s a powerful thing if gathered well and used correctly.
Recorder: These days the industry standard is a flash type recorder. I use a Marantz PMD 620. That one is pretty expensive, but it’s a professional model and works really well. Transom.org has great resources for choosing which recorder to buy. Here are some key characteristics. You want to be able to adjust your record levels. You want to be able to plug in a microphone. And ideally, the recorder would also have a good built in mic because sometime plugging in a big external mic isn’t practical.
Omni-directional Microphone: The most common example of this is the Electrovoice RE-50. This type of microphone tends to record sound with a very warm quality, picking up not just what you’re pointing at, but some of the other sound around it. This is good for recording interviews in quiet places and for gathering the general ambient sound of a place.
Unidirectional Microphone (A.K.A. Shotgun Mic): These microphones tend to be long and thin. They are very sensitive and pick up mostly the sound of what you’re pointing at. They’re great for recording interviews in noisy places and for gathering sound of quiet or distant things. They’re also rather expensive.
Headphones: The bigger, the better. Wear headphones at all times while recording so you know what you’re getting on tape. It’s best to use headphones that fully cover your ears. A good pair costs about $100 but they last a long time.
Types of Sound:
Actualities/ACTS: These are your sound bites, the tape gathered during interviews or press conferences.
Ambience/AMBI: You can think of this as natural sound effects (as in gathered out in the world not created in a studio). If you were at a dairy, this would be the close-up sound of a cow mooing. At a construction site, it would be the sound of a saw or a hammer. It could be the sound of a bus going by on a busy street for a story about traffic. If you’re doing a story at a daycare center, you’d key in on a particular event, the sound of a couple of kids playing ball. You use this sound to help set a scene. Get your microphone right up next to the source of the sound you’re trying to capture. You should try to record a minute of this, though often only 5-10 seconds of it will be heard in the clear in your final story.
AMB of a cow mooing
AMB of water bubbling
AMB of up-close construction
Background sound: (just to be confusing, this is also generally called ambience) This is the sound of a place. It’s what you’d hear standing in the middle of the locale where your story takes place. You don’t want a singular easily discernable sound but rather the full spectrum of sounds. For this, you don’t want to point your microphone at anything in particular. You should record at least a minute of this in every place.
Background sound at a dairy
General construction sound
Room Tone: Close your eyes and listen for a moment. What do you hear? The hum of your computer, the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead, the quiet sounds of cars passing outside. Each room has a distinct and often hardly detectable sound. When you record an interview in a room, the sound of the room is always there behind the voice of your interviewee. As you put your story together, you will pull ACTS from this interview, a few 20-second clips from various points in the conversation. You’ll likely introduce those clips with your own voice, recorded in a pristine studio that has no room tone. Moving between your voice and the voice of the interviewee can sometimes be jarring depending on how present the room tone is. You can smooth this transition by mixing in a little room tone behind your voice. (See the editing section for a more detailed explanation of how this works). This may not make a whole lot of sense now, but just know that it’s important. You need to gather at least 45 seconds to a minute of room tone in each room where you do an interview, more if there are distinct sounds happening, like cars going by.
Example: room tone
How to Record Sound:
As a radio reporter/producer, you should always be thinking about sound. You want to make sure to get top quality sound, and gather your tape in a way that makes the story exciting and engaging. For instance, if you’re setting up an interview with a developer, don’t to meet him at a coffee shop. Arrange to meet him at the construction site for his latest project. There are many reasons for this.
1. Interviewees often want to meet at the neighborhood Starbucks or café. I always tell them, “that’s fine, we can meet there, but we’ll have to go somewhere else to record the interview.” Coffee shops tend to be noisy places, so they’re pretty awful for doing interviews. In fact, the only time you want to record an interview in a coffee shop is if you’re doing a story about coffee. You want to interview people in a place that makes sense for the story. You don’t want to have to explain the constant sound of frothing milk.
2. It is best to talk to people in their natural environments, so that the sound under the interview advances the story (or at least doesn’t distract from it). (Except, of course, when that environment is really noisy – interview them in a quiet spot then go to the noisy place for ambiance and to get them to show you around.)
3. Now that you’ve got the developer out at the construction site, you can get him to describe the project. This may seem unnecessary in radio, but it helps to have people look at and point to the things they’re describing. It makes for more active, “visual” tape.
4. Because you’re at a construction site, with lots of hammering and other sounds, you have a ready-made scene. You can record AMBI and background sound and really take your listeners to the place. Obviously this example doesn’t just apply to developers and construction sites. I am constantly working to get people out of their offices, from zookeepers and farmers to politicians.
Mixed excerpt of story using AMBI, background sound and an ACT gathered in the field
Farmer at his farm
Zookeeper at the zoo
Often, especially with breaking news, you can’t control your recording environment. You have to work with what you have and do your best to get good sound, even in bad situations. Here are some tips:
1. In a noisy place, if you have a shotgun microphone, use it.
2. In a noisy place, if possible ask the interviewee to move away from the noise, go to the quietest part of the room. If that doesn’t work…
3. Determine the source of the most distracting sound. Put your back to the source of the noise and have the interviewee face towards it. Your body will block some of the noise, and basically you won’t have the distraction right behind your interviewee’s head.
4. In noisy places, record lots of background sound. You’re really going to need it to smooth out transitions. It is best to record sound both before and after the interview, because the sound often shifts in the process of the interview. If there’s music being blasted over a loud speaker, record a ton of it.
ACTS gathered in a noisy place with a shotgun mic, followed by background sound recorded to mask the noise
5. Press conferences are often bad places to get sound. The sound systems are almost always bad in one way or another. People tend to get off mic, or bump the mic or any number of other things that you can’t control. Record the whole press conference. Then, if possible, grab your mic and chase after the most articulate speaker. Explain to them that you have a couple more questions and that the press conference sound wouldn’t work for your purposes. Pull them over to a quiet corner and ask them a few questions. Hopefully they’ll repeat the good stuff they said during the press conference, and it will sound like you got a 1 on 1 interview.
6. Wind. Wind is evil. When it’s really blowing, it can totally destroy your recording (you’ll be able to hear it in your headphones). Put your back to the wind and try to block it with your body. Stand beside a wall or behind a large vehicle. If none of these things work, I’ve found the best way to keep the “outdoor feeling” without the wind noise is to sit in a vehicle with the windows rolled down. It still sounds like you’re outside, but you’re sheltered from the breeze. Make sure the engine isn’t running, though.
7. In offices, people sometime have music playing. Please ask them to turn it off before starting your interview. If you can avoid having music in the background, do it, because it’s very hard to edit ACTS with music running behind them.
Set your recording levels on your recorder (make sure your recorder is set for manual levels adjustment rather than automatic) as high as you can without it peaking. If it’s too hot, the sound can distort. Alternatively, if it’s too quiet, you’ll get a lot of tape hiss. This is something that you constantly have to think about. Some people speak more loudly than others. Some people are really soft and then all of a sudden get animated and blast you out. I usually ask people to give me their name and title, so that I can make sure the levels are properly adjusted. Sometimes, if I need a little more time to get the level right, I ask them to describe what they had for breakfast. This also helps warm them up a bit.
Overmodulation – levels too hot
Mic Position: You should hold your mic pretty close to the person’s mouth. It may seem awkward at first, but the best place to hold you mic is 3-5 inches away from their mouth. You might want to explain to the interviewee that it may seem a bit close, but it helps you get the best possible sound. Often when people say words that start with the letter P, a burst of air blasts out of their mouth and makes a funky popping sound in the mic. This is what we call “P-popping.” In order to avoid it, hold your mic off to the side, just a bit, so it’s out of their airstream.
Mic too far from mouth
Your Arm: Rest it on a table or against your torso. You don’t want to be holding your arm out a long way in front of you (unless you have to), because within a few minutes you’re going to feel like your arm is about to fall off.
Your Hand: Hold it steady. The mic will pick up the sound of your fingers rubbing against your mic and that will mess up your audio. This is something you have to think about at first, but it will become second nature.
Example: Mic Handling
Don’t say uh huh: When you’re having a conversation, it’s natural to respond with an occasional “yes” or “uh huh.” But when you’re recording an interview, that’s a big no no. No one want to hear you saying “uh huh” in the middle of a sound bite. Resist your inclination to vocalize and instead tell the interviewee you’re listening with facial expressions. Smile, nod, scrunch your nose, just don’t vocalize. Also, when doing an interview don’t be in a rush to ask your next question. Often interviewees will fill a pregnant pause by saying something wonderful and unexpected. Give them time to sit with their thoughts and you might be surprised at what you end up with.
Example: Uh Huh
Now Get out there and start recording!