Tech tips for audio storytelling

Portable Digital Recorders

Zoom_H5_frontMost of the digital handheld recorders available now come with a stereo condenser microphone built-in.  These microphones are excellent for recording ambience, speech, and music in a controlled setting and at a distance.  However, they’re typically very sensitive and don’t do well outdoors and in windy situations.  In these situations, be sure to use a windscreen over the mics. These microphones are more sensitive and prone to handling noise and distortion in standing interview situations. If the built-in microphone is your only option, be sure to use a foam pop-filter or windscreen.  The preferable option for interviews is to use a dynamic microphone (such as a Shure Beta SM58 or comparable) as these are much more robust and forgiving, and they tend to reject a lot of unwanted background noise.  Zoom-type recorders often have separate external microphone inputs.

Recommended devices:

Zoom H-series – H1, H4-N, H5, H2-N, H6

Tascam TASCAM DR-05, TASCAM DR-100mkII

iPhone/iPad Recordings

iQ6_iPhone_slant1As smartphones and tablets are capable of audio recording, many people are turning to these devices as their primary recorders.  The built-in microphone is of acceptable quality for speech, though it is not ideal for ambience or music.  But a much better solution is one of the several external microphone options available, particularly for the iPhone.  Again, stereo mics can be effective for voiceover and interviews, but should be used with a foam pop filter/windscreen .  There are several recording apps available, but generally the built-in voice memos app is very good. One important point… always put your phone into airplane mode so that you don’t end up with electrical interference on your recording.

A basic how-to for iPhone recording.

Recommended external microphones:

Zoom IQ-5, IQ-6

Tascam IM-2

Recording Technique

Interviews

For interview recording with a handheld dynamic microphone, keep the mic close to the speaker’s mouth (between 3 and 6 inches – if there’s a lot of background noise, you need to have the mic quite close).  But don’t let the speaker ‘eat’ the mic, as this can cause popping and distortion. For interviews using the stereo condenser microphones, such as the built-in Zoom mics or iPhone external mics, make sure you’re in a relatively quiet space and that the mic is not too close to the speaker’s mouth (6 inches or more).  And again, be sure to use a pop filter.

 

Ambience

In audio storytelling, it’s often very useful to support key parts of the story with sound.  For example, for a story on a new coffee shop, you might wish to record a couple of minutes of the overall ambience (aka room tone), close-ups of the espresso machine, the milk steamer, some dialogue between a barista and a customer, and the sound of the cash register.  All of these sounds help orient the listener and can be used to punctuate key parts of the narrative.

For recording ambience, let your ears be your guide.  Stereo microphones pick up an approximation of your (stereo) ears, so, orient the recorder in a direction that best captures what you hear.  

 

Phone/Skype Interviews and “Double-enders”

When possible, we prefer to record interviews in person. It sounds better, you can gather ambience and wild sound and you’re likely to establish a different relationship with the person you’re interviewing. Of course, interviewing someone in person isn’t always practical. If you have to interview someone remotely – via Skype or Google Hangouts, for example – there are approaches that ensure the best audio quality.

For Skype/Google interviews, we recommend an app called Zencastr, which records full quality audio on both sides of the remote interview, and then uploads the audio to Dropbox.  This is much preferred over the native Skype/Google audio which is highly data-compressed and of unreliable quality.

If you’re unable to use Zencastr (for a phone interview, for example) we recommend that both the interviewer and interviewee record themselves whenever possible (this is known as a ‘double-ender’).  If the interviewee is on a land-line, and they have a cell-phone or iPad with a recording option, have them use that as a recorder.  If they have a portable recorder or recording software on their computer, that is also an option.

Of course, some people are not technically inclined, and may not be amenable to these options.  We can work with Skype and phone audio, but your piece will sound better if you can avoid it.

 

Voicetrack

Because we often mix voicetracks over music, ambience, and sound effects (and silence!), it needs to be as clear and clean as possible.  This means finding a quiet space in which to record (away from appliances, traffic, etc.) and a space that is not too reflective or reverberant.  Rooms with hard floors and no furniture are often problematic as the sound becomes washy as it bounces off hard surfaces (consider what you sound like in a tile bathroom, gymnasium, or long corridor).  Try positioning yourself in a space with a sofa, pillows, blankets, tapestries, bookshelves, carpets, rugs, and anything that helps absorb sound reflection.  Closets are typically not ideal, unless you have a large walk-in.  (If so, I’m jealous.)

Most important, your voicetrack is a performance!  You want to present an authentic version of yourself, but also one that captures the imagination of your listeners.  Make sure to project your voice as if you were speaking to someone 6 to 10 feet away.  Stand, if it make you feel more energized. Sit, if it makes you feel more calm and grounded.  Have someone sit in as a proxy listener, and check in with them to see if they’ve understood what you said.  If you’re stumbling a lot, it may be your script.  Try re-writing tricky sections so that they’re easier to speak. Take your time. Pause between thoughts.  Block your script into easy-to-manage sections.  Breathe!

 

Levels

It’s always best to err on the side of levels being too low than too high (danger of distortion!).  If you can test levels, try setting them so that the loudest thing that you’re recording goes to about 7 or 8 on your meters (if 10 were the maximum).  Many recorders come with limiters, which automatically adjust the volume when things get too loud.  If you have a limiter setting, use it!

 

Editing


If you are comfortable editing clips, then go ahead. But try to avoid cutting clips too tight (i.e. trimming a breath or a pause, or clipping off part of a word). It often gives us more flexibility to have extra audio on both sides of a clip, so err on the side of too long rather than too short. If you’re not editing clips yourself, be sure to note specific timings of clips in the raw audio so we can find them easily.

Deliverables

If you’re delivering raw (unmixed or unedited) audio, the preferred format is WAV at 16 bit/44.1 kHz.  Mp3 audio is fine, but make sure it’s at a high bitrate (e.g. 320 kbps).

At Pacific Content, we do most of our production in Adobe Audition. If you’re delivering a mix in Adobe Audition, make sure to include all of the associated audio files and the session (.sesx) file in one folder.

If you’re delivering a mix from another audio editing program (Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Hindenberg, Garage Band etc.) it’s preferable to export talk and music/sound fx as separate audio files so we can make adjustments, if necessary.  The ideal approach is to export ’stems’.  These are multiple audio files, one for each track in your mix, each starting at 0:00 (which may mean silence at the beginnings of several files). This way, your mix will line up properly in our editing system.  Again, WAV files at 16 bit/44.1 kHz are the ideal format settings.

Generally speaking, if you’re delivering a multitrack mix, please do not apply any significant EQ, compression, or noise reduction.  You can leave that to us!

Additional resources

Here’s an excellent primer on field recording for journalists.