Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Teaching Audio, part 4 - Sounds Effects, Music and Audio Libraries

When not working with original material recorded directly in the field (which isn't usually ethical for journalism, but is fine for other types of work, such as documentaries, podcasts, etc ...), adding music and sound effects can be really helpful to move an audio story along. It's important, however, to hit that right note, not sound too cheesy, or over the top, or quickly dated.

The catalog of copyright-free music of Kevin MacLeod is used by many. Looking for a news jingle? YouTube is the best audio library in the world, and it now has a distinct copyright free audio library section Free Sound is my favorite for a sound effects library. Here are some others:, and

ANY EVER (Trailer), Ryan Trecartin PS1 from Ryan Trecartin on Vimeo.

MoMA PS1 :: Opening June 19th (Fathers Day) - September 3rd.

Insane video artist Ryan Trecartin knows how to also work the audio, so listen closely as the madness escalates.

If you found this tutorial useful, check out previous installments:

Teaching Audio -- Instilling Passion

Teaching Audio part 1-- Recording Audio

Teaching Audio part 2 -- Writing for the Ear

Teaching Audio part 3 -- Audio Editing

Teaching Audio -- Part 1, Recording: Soundscapes, Gear, Microphones, Audio Types , Levels, Do's and Don'ts

Audio is all about creating soundscapes. Here's one I love having students listen to, a non-narrated audio piece about fight night during the recent North Dakota fracking boom. Here's a great NPR radio story on the work involved in recreating historical audio for the recent Lincoln Hollywood film. Here's an article in the Washington Post on the same topic. Here's a behind the scenes webpage on a documentary audio team finding sounds in the desert.

Soon smart phones with a good microphone attached will always be the way to go, but I still like to go with a separate audio recorder. My go-to workhorse has been a Zoom-H2, while many NPR reporters use a bulkier, but higher quality Marantz. In terms of recording, you want to make sure you are always recording in wav or PCM format (44.1K), rather than mp3. In terms of storage, it's important to use an SD card that's big but not too big (I would recommend in the 2 to 8 gb range), and have a few other ones in your reporter's bag. A phone with camera, microphone with cables which work with my recorder, long and short for interviews and press conferences, a little microphone tripod, chargers for phone and recorder, AA batteries as backup, a small water bottle and energy bars, a pen and notepad round out my equipment, unless I'm also carrying a video camera and tripod for that.

Here's a useful beginner's guide to microphones with a summary and excerpts below. There are really three types of microphones to know about when starting out ....

1) 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. These are also very good for stand-ups in not too noisy places.

2) 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.

3) Built-In Microphones – Many portable ‘prosumer’ recorders such as those offered by M-Audio, Edirol and Zoom, have built-in microphones that allow an all-in-one field recording package. These microphones tend to be of good enough quality. ... For beginning field recordists, these are an ideal way to get started without the hassle of larger, more cumbersome units.

It's good to have an idea of terminology for different types of sounds, used in journalistic radio reports. Here are some of the main ones.

Nat sound: You can think of this as natural sound effects (recorded out in the world not created in a studio). If you were at a dairy farm, this could be the close-up sound of a cow mooing. At a construction site, it could 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 with legos, for example. You use this sound to help set a scene. Someone talking in a show and tell situation, or talking to themselves or to a group of people can also be a nat sound, if it wasn't recorded in a formal interview structure. Whichever the nat sound, get your microphone right up next to the source of the sound you’re trying to capture. If the sound is very loud, though, you want to pull away slightly, so your audio isn't too hot. You should try to record a minute of this, even if only 5-10 seconds of it will be heard in the clear in your final story. You can almost never record too much nat sound.

Background sound: (this is also sometimes called ambient) 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. A good example would be the sound of a casino floor room. 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.

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. 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. If a siren goes off, or the telephone starts ringing, it's important to start over. Room tone is basically the sound of a room when nothing is happening.

Interviews: I'll cover these all-important audio captures separately in future tutorials.

Here's a summary of important recording tips while out in the field. It's important to eliminate distracting sounds, music, ac, etc, unless you are only getting background sound. If you are doing an interview in a noisy place, move to a somewhat quiet location, like in the hallway, in your car, or behind a wall. Background noises can be distracting and can make for difficult editing later. Turn off fans and AC units so you don't hear them humming. If there's a window open, close it and shut out traffic noises. Some background noise can be nice, but not too much. If there's music playing in the background, turn it off. Leaving it on while you're recording will make editing difficult as well, because you can't cut and rearrange clips without hearing jumps in the music. If you like the music and want it in your story, it's better to record it separately as a distinct nat sound

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 wind. Make sure the engine isn’t running, though.

Your own voice / hands / bracelets can also be your worst enemies ... Don’t say uh ha -- 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, try to avoid making any noise while the other person is talking. 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. I'll cover interviews in a future tutorial.

Also, make sure to set your recording levels on your recorder (your recorder should be set for manual levels adjustment rather than automatic) as high as you can without it peaking. If it’s too hot, the sound can be distorted. Alternatively, if it’s too quiet, you’ll get a lot of hiss. This is something that you constantly have to think about. Always look at your recording levels. Some people speak more loudly than others. Some people are really soft and then all of a sudden get animated and blast your recording. I usually ask people to give me their name and title, so that I can make sure the levels are properly adjusted. I ask them to spell out their name while I am recording. 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.

For most purposes, an optimal recording level is such that when your input is at its loudest, the maximum peak on the meters is around –6.0 dB (or 0.5 if you have your meters set to linear rather than dB). This will give you a good level of signal compared to the inherent noise in any recording, but without creating distortion. Distortion is often referred to as clipping , because at this point there are not enough bits available to represent the sound digitally, so they are cut off above this point.

Microphone Position: You should hold your mic pretty close to a 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.


Do: • ◦ Hold the microphone firmly in the middle ◦ Rest your arm on a chair or table if you are recording a lengthy interview ◦ Point the microphone directly at the person you are interviewing to capture their answers ◦ Point the microphone at yourself while you are asking questions ◦ Swap the microphone between your hands if your arms start to get tired

 ◦ Grip the microphone too hard or your hand will go numb and may start shaking ◦ Allow rings or bracelets to knock against the microphone or lead ◦ Wave the microphone around or let it knock against anything ◦ Fiddle with the microphone lead or let it sway as this will interfere with the quality of your recording. • Your Arm: 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: Don't move too much. 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.

This may seem like a lot for one tutorial, but there you have it, the basics to being a great or at least competent audio person in the field. Time outside is precious, so use it wisely. Sounds are distinct from each other, so when you hear a good one, record it and you won't regret it. If you liked this tutorial make sure to catch up with the introductory session Teaching Audio -- Instilling Passion and other parts to follow.


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