Teaching Audio -- Part 1: Soundscapes, Gear, Microphones, Audio Types , Levels, Do's and Don'ts
AUDIO POSTCARDS AND SOUNDSCAPES
Audio is all about creating soundscapes, "theatre of the mind". Here's one I really like a non-narrated audio piece about fight night during the recent North Dakota fracking boom. Here's a really good NPR radio story on the work involved in recreating historical audio for a recent Hollywood film about Abraham Lincoln. 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. Here's a really nice nat sound/interview story about a school bus driver.
YOUR AUDIO GEAR
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. You can of course move into the new dimension, and there are plenty of videos to teach you how to do it, even though most audio pros haven't yet made that conversion.
IF NOT USING A SMART PHONE
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 to have a few other SD cards in your reporter's bag in case you start recording like crazy. A phone with camera and or point and shoot, microphone with cables which work with your 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 camera tripod for shooting video. You want to wear sensible clothes and shoes to keep your mobility, and park your car in a legal space, which will also give you a quick exit if need be.
BEFORE YOU GO OUT IN THE FIELD
Before you start recording and go out in the field, check that your recording machine works properly and that you have all the recording material you need. Do this at home. Check you have fresh batteries and extra batteries. Always format your recordings to PDCM / .wav rather than mp3. There are two types of file formats. Lossy, and non-Lossy. In the case of audio, MP3 is the lossy one because it compresses the audio. Though this is intended to save filespace, it does this by weeding out data. In doing this , the quality of the audio can suffer. Wav on the other hand is raw sound and much higher quality. Headphones: The bigger, the better. Wear headphones at all times while recording so you know what you’re recording. It’s best to use headphones that fully cover your ears. Don't forget to charge your cellphone ... Now on to microphones...
INS AND OUTS OF MICROPHONES
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. A stand-up is an on the scene report, or recording yourself while you are also recording background sound of an event taking place in the background.
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.
A LEXICON OF DIFFERENT SOUNDS
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 and not created in a studio or on a computer). If you were at a dairy farm, this could be the close-up sound of a cow mooing. At an artisanal 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. Even an interview sound can be used as a nat sound, if it's used as a person going on and on about a topic. 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. It's like b-roll for video.
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 a future tutorial. But make sure to set your levels right, to keep your mic at an appropriate distance, not to make noise when the person is talking, and not to stop recording in the middle of a sentence.
MORE ESSENTIAL RECORDING TIPS IN THE FIELD
Here's a summary of important recording tips while out in the field. It's important to eliminate distracting sounds, music, ac, fluorescent lights, computers, fridges, any humming sounds, etc, unless you are only getting background sound. Always wear headphones. 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. 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. More on interviews in that 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 or where they plan on going on vacation next.
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. In jargony terms, 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 or audio you are recording. It may seem awkward at first, but the best place to hold you mic is 3-5 inches away from their mouth or the source of your audio. 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 the audio world. In order to avoid it, hold your mic off to the side, just a bit, so it’s out of their airstream.
MORE MICROPHONE SPECIFIC DOs and DONTs
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
Don't: ◦ 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 cables ◦ 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 as well.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE SCENE
Check that your interview / sounds have been recorded before parting from your guest / recording area. Make a note of your track numbers and what is on them. Knowing where your material is will save time when it comes to editing. Quickly rename your files or jot down which track is of what, and what you think is the best. Also don't forget to dump your material as soon as you can on your personal hard drive and name your new folder appropriately. Not a bad idea to also create a backup raw folder, which you keep in your archive captured material.
HELPFUL EXTERNAL LINKS FOR THE AUDIO REPORTER
And finally here's a great resource on gear and what to do before going out in the field for young reporters. Here's a how to guide on a beginning to end process of how to record your own radio documentary. Here's a great primer on everything technical from Transom.
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 found this tutorial useful, check out other installments. Here's the full list of chapters from my audio tutorials:
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 4 -- Sound Effects, Using Music and Audio Libraries
Teaching Audio part 5 -- Anchor Leads, News Writing, Judgment and Features
Teaching Audio part 6 -- Voicing
Teaching Audio part 7 -- On the Scene Reporting
Teaching Audio part 8 -- Interviews
Teaching Audio part 9 -- Newscasts and Stacking the News
Teaching Audio part 10 -- Commercials
Teaching Audio part 11 -- Raising Your Game
Teaching Audio part 12 -- Podcasting Intro
Teaching Audio part 13 -- Window Dressing
Teaching Audio part 14 -- Podcast Lists
Teaching Audio part 15 -- Big Podcasts, Little City
Teaching Audio part 16 -- Listening to Podcasts and Publishing your Own
Teaching Audio, part 17 -- Joining Podcast Communities
Teaching Audio, part 18 -- Podcasting for PR
Teaching Audio, part 19 -- Promoting Your Podcast
Teaching Audio, part 20 -- Making Money in Podcasting
Teaching Audio, part 21 -- Building a Career in Audio