Recording away from the studio
Meet your audio recorder – your new best friend.
The first question is “Why out of the studio?” Some of the reasons are practical;
- The interviewee can’t get to the studio at all or at a suitable time.
- It is necessary for the reporter to see something for themselves.
- The location is pertinent to the interview.
But some other reasons are less practical and more to do with adding additional audio dimensions to the podcast. There is nothing wrong with all interviews happening in the studio, but if you can vary the atmosphere using location interviews, it adds variety to the overall sound of the podcast.
[Hi – I’m Davy Sims. I have been teaching, lecturing, speaking and writing about radio and podcast production for years and have been producing radio since 1979. In 2016 I wrote Podcasting for Communities intended for community organisations intending to make podcasts for their clients, supporters, funders and other people they want to reach. Podcasting for Journalism Students is intended as a level 1 introduction to students who are studying journalism where radio and podcasting form part of their course.]
Here are a few reasons who you would record away from the studio
- You are recording in a school and you want to hear the sound of children playing.
- You are doing a piece at a fire station (or anywhere that has a unique sound) and you want to add the atmosphere to the recording.
- The interviewee is doing an historical walk around the town and you want to capture some of the actuality of the walk and the talk, the sound of the town and other locations.
Perhaps it’s more serious.
- An event and being on the scene is important to the report.
- There are several people to be included in the report and it is simpler to go to them.
There are all sorts of reasons why you would record outside. A podcast episode can benefit from changes in tone and atmosphere. Reporting from a place rather than just about a place can give context to the story. It can add new textures and make the episode more interesting.
Willis McBriar lectures at Belfast Metropolitan College in Creative Media. He teaches students studying computer games about sound and how it can be used to enhance video and games. He also coaches small businesses in audio visual techniques. Willis spent over thirty years in the BBC as a broadcast engineer and a communications engineer. “I’ve had the dubious pleasure of teaching journalists about techie stuff … which has been a challenge. He says with a smile. “Don’t give me the pointy headed crap.” one journalist told him. “Just make it work.”
You can hear an extended interview with Willis on the “Podcasting For …” blog [http://www.podcastingfor.com/sound-recording-and-microphones-interview-with-willis-mcbrier/]
I wanted to talk to Willis about microphones, sound and recording techniques.
He gave me an example of students who had recorded a report for a mock radio programme. It was awful and the students knew it. Willis explained. “The recording had been made at the side of a road, and there was a lot of traffic noise. The students asked about which microphone should have been used to have recorded this better.
“The two things I said were, first; it looked as if they were using an omnidirectional microphone which was picking up sound from all around.” “Omni” meaning all things. “They would have been better off using what is best known as a hypercardioid or zoom microphone which as best it can, picks up from one direction.
“The second thing I told them that the key thing they should have done, looking at photos of the interview taking place, was place the interviewee with her face to the road and the interviewer with her back to the road, and used the interviewer’s body as a shield to reduce the sound coming from the road into the microphone. The interview had been done parallel to the road picking up as much noise as possible.”
The choice of microphone is critical to making a good recording. Willis and I will discuss some specific models toward the end of this chapter. There is also a podcast with the two of us talking about sound, recording and microphones.
Monitoring the recording
When you are recording your interview or atmosphere (wild-track) you will need to hear the sound that your microphone is picking up, not the sound that you hear in your ears as you stand there! You might be surprised what you don’t hear that your microphone does.
So have a good pair of headphones, the more external sound the block out the better. Put them on when you are recording so you can hear what the microphone is picking up. These are just some sounds your ears fail to hear, but your microphone will:
- Over modulation and under modulation – Willis McBriar explained, “If you have wound up the level on the recording and I keep talking really closely to the microphone you swamp, over modulate is the technical term, but you just swamp the recording with too much sound. The recording becomes distorted. Under modulate is too little sound if your record level is too low.
I suggested to Willis that of the two, it is better to record too low than too high. If the recording is under modulated (too low) you might be able to do something with it. But if it’s over modulated (too loud) it’s broken.
“If you have made a recording with a lot of “noise” because the level was too low, you can do something with it.” Using editing software – even basic software like Audacity – you can filter out the top end. “You’d have to be pretty bad to get the level so low, it’s impossible to make out what you are saying. Once you have over modulated, once you have distorted the sound, there’s nothing you can do. It’s gone.” You can hear examples of both in the podcast with Willis.
- Wind noise – whether in a field, on a shore, on a city street, even on what seems to be the calmest day, there is a possibility of wind noise being picked up
- “Popping” – Otherwise known as “plosives”. This is more likely to happen in the studio when someone’s lips are too close to the microphone, but it can happen away for the studio for the same reason. When people are saying words beginning with hard letters like P (public, purple, protest and so on) and B, (because, broadcast, bank and so on) even T (tissue, taste, terrible and so on) the record level shoots up.
- Sound balance – you will want to make sure the interviewee’s voice is not quieter than yours, or if there is more than one interviewee, everyone’s voice is at much the same level. It is more than just making sure that everyone is about the same distance from the microphone. Some people have louder voices, some people project more. You need to monitor to ensure a good balance.
- Loud background noise – just because the noise around you seems OK to your ears, does not mean the microphone hears it the same way. Background noise is good, but it needs to be managed.
- Music – Background music is the same as background noise – only worse! Mainly it is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to edit audio with background music. As you edit what is being said, the music jumps around. Edit is often not just taking bits out of interviews. Sometimes you move answers around. And the music in the background follows. The same with a clock ticking loudly in the room where you are interviewing. Again very difficult as the ticking loses its rhythm in the edit.
- Exterior noise – Once again what you hear might not be identical to what the microphone is picking up. If you monitor the recording, then you can more easily manage background noise.
- People walking past, and other passing annoying noises – So you are recording a very serious interview with someone who is upset and sharing a difficult story. Then in the corridor outside or the next room two or three people pass by laughing and having fun. You need to know if they are loud enough to disturb your recording.
- Tummy gurgling! Honestly – I have recorded the sound of an interviewee’s gurgling tummy. Remember, your microphone is not where your ears are. Best to say. “Oh, just a moment, can we record that again, please?”
Mobile recording devices
The second question is “What equipment should I have?”
Most of us carry around enough equipment in our pockets or bags to go live on radio or TV anytime from almost any location. What once required trucks and cameras and specialist operators and expensive communications connections are on our smartphone.
All you need is a 3G, 4G or connection to the studio, the right sort of app. and someone to call on the other end to take your feed.
At a pinch, our smartphone has a sound recorder which is good enough in to use in an emergency to. I’ll explain why it is not recommended in a moment. It has a lens that can be used for video and even going on air if needed. While a smartphone is great to have and fine as a fall back, you will need better for recording for your podcast.
Why is it not good enough?
One issue is the transfer of files to your computer from editing. The phone and the file extensions might not be compatible with your editing equipment. There are ways of getting round that.
More importantly, you cannot properly monitor the recording through headphones.
There are some sounds that you will not hear unless monitoring with your headphones on. Here are a couple of examples and what to do about them:
- Electronic interference – This is something you will not hear unless you are wearing headphones and monitoring the recording. I once drove more than 200 miles to interview a singer on an old cassette recorder which I could not monitor. The fluorescent light in the singer’s dressing room caused a buzz on the recording which I didn’t know about until I returned to the studio the following day. Well it was 1980 and I was very inexperienced.
- Problems with the microphone connection – It all might look as if it is going well, but what if that microphone lead it damaged and you are recording all sorts of clicking and drop-outs at the same time. Again, although I did not travel far, I was offered an interview with the guitarist and song writer with a band who were very successful at the time. Normally the singer did the interviews. The songwriter talking was rare. Again I wasn’t monitoring and there was a faulty microphone connection. I didn’t know until too late.
- Microphone lead – If you are using a separate microphone, you won’t hear the lead rattle.
- Recorder body – if you are using a recorder the way you hold the machine might cause noise on the recording.
These, and other problems, may not be picked up during the recording.
However that monitoring problem can be overcome easily as Willis McBriar explained.
“If you plug in a pair of headphones they switch off the internal microphone. You can overcome this with an adaptor. They are very cheap to buy.” There is a photograph of a couple of adaptors on the website.
“They will allow you to plug in a set of headphones and a microphone into the headphone socket of a mobile phone.” By doing this you use the phone as a recording device only.
“One of the great problems of using a mobile phone as a recorder is that the standard apps that come with mobile phones usually only allow you to record in mono. You can get apps that provide metering, so at least you can see what levels you are recording. But you have a fundamental problem of monitoring what you are recording.”
If you do have to use a mobile phone, Willis pointed out something that is counter intuitive. “The most fundamental mistake that people make is that they forget that the microphones are at the bottom of the phone, at the other end from the headphone socket. So you need to turn it around. The screen (and the monitoring app.) will be upside down.”
A mobile phone is not recommended unless you can monitor the recording. In real life though, sometimes you are left with no choice. Radio producer, Johnny Seifert suggested this strategy. Spend a few moments recording a conversation. How did they get there today? How was the weather/traffic/scenery – it really doesn’t matter – on the journey? This will enable you to do three things. First you will settle your interviewee and begin getting some sort of rapport between the two of you. As you are recording you can set the right level. Then listen back to the recording and check for faulty connections, electronic interference and the balance between you and your interviewees.
Now you are ready to go. Remember to push the “record” button again …
Monitoring – what should you use?
While monitoring a recording in the field or in the studio, the best possible option is a pair of good headphones worn over both ears that let you hear exactly what the microphone is picking up. If the recording is in a difficult place or you have specific challenges, use proper good quality headphones. If you are recording wild-track rather than an interview or doing something more sophisticated, always use good quality headphones.
While you can’t plan for every eventuality, you can be prepared by always having a backup option available. Keep simple earbuds in your bag or pocket. If your headphones fail or you forget them, at least you have a means of monitoring. Buds are unobtrusive when you are interviewing and good enough to monitor the basics.
I had never heard of psychoacoustics until Willis told me he taught the subject. “Any time you are doing a recording you should be wearing a decent pair of headphones that can shut out as much of the external noise as possible. If there is a buzz coming off some electrical equipment, you’ll notice that the minute you come in and after a few minutes your brain will say to itself .. yeah, that’s ok … that’s always there .. And it will filter the sound out and you will not hear it. What you hear is filtered by your brain and ear. So you will be more attuned to the human voice than almost anything else.
Then, if your ear can filter out those annoying sounds why are they not filtered out when you listen to the recording? “When you listen back to the recording, you don’t have the context of the room around you and getting all the signals.”
There is more from Willis in the podcast [http://wp.me/p7UXLW-1h]