How to Record Audio for the Web
Recording audio isn't rocket science, but it's definitely a skill that requires practice and attention to detail. There's no doubt you'll get the cleanest, quietest, best recording in a sound-proof studio using high-quality microphones. But studios are also "dead" environments, devoid of the kinds of sounds that help evoke a sense of place.
In radio production, sounds that "take you there" are called ambiance; the sounds you don't want are simply called noise! Studios are good places to record intimate conversations without distractions. But it's usually more fun to get out of the studio, meet and talk with people where they live and work, in homes, offices, at events and on the streets.
Before you head out, make sure you have everything you need and that all of your equipment is working properly. There's nothing more disappointing than doing an amazing interview that was never recorded or having your batteries die at the beginning of an event.
Recording Audio in the Field
Here are some tips for getting broadcast-quality sound. Keep in mind that this is a best-case scenario for someone who has all the equipment one would need. In reality, you may only have some of the items you want, but these tips can still help.
Always wear headphones (preferably the kind that cover your entire ear) even if it looks silly or messes up your hair. Headphones allow you to hear exactly what your microphone is picking up (or not recording at all in some cases).
Minimize background noise. Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Birds chirping, cars and trucks on the street, kids playing outside. Keep in mind that all of these sounds would get picked up if you started recording. The less noise on your source recording, the easier it will be to edit and get your audio online quickly. Restaurants and coffee shops aren't such great environments because they are so noisy, with dishes clanging, people talking, announcements on loudspeakers.
When you record in a room that has music or a television on, those background sounds will make jarring pops and noticeable blips when you edit your audio later on. Don't be afraid to ask someone to turn off the TV or radio or cell phone or anything that brings unwelcome sound into the recording. Even recording in an office can be noisier than you'd expect. Air conditioners, fans and computers create a constant, annoying background hum that can't be removed since it will underlie every bit of the recording.
Record some room tone. If you must record in a noisy environment, record 2-3 minutes of "room tone" at the beginning or end of any recording session. Basically, you just set your microphone up and "roll tape" while you and your interviewee are silent. This "room tone" can be mixed into your interview later to smooth out any bad edits and make them less audible.
Set up the microphone correctly. Many interviews are marred by bad miking techniques, for instance, when the mike is too close or too far away from the speaker. The further the guest is from the mike, the more noise you are introducing into the recording, making the guest sound hollow or boomy. But if the mike is too close, you might hear heavy breathing, dry mouth noises or plosives, the fancy technical word for those popping sounds people make when they say words that begin with the letter "p."
Hold on to the mike. If you are interviewing someone using a hand-held microphone, hold the mike with your fingertips (not your whole fist) since this will reduce mic handling noise and allow you to more easily to tilt the microphone away to record your own questions. You can also gently and soundlessly wiggle the mike to nonverbally signal to your guest that they are going on too long and it's time to wrap it up. Never let your interviewee hold the microphone; when you do, you lose control of the interview and the quality of the recording.
How you position the microphone depends on what type you are using, but generally, you want to want the microphone to be two to four inches from someone's mouth, at a slight angle (45-degree) from the corner. Listen and re-position the microphone if your guest sounds off-mike or you're getting too many plosives.
There are many kinds of microphones, but generally an omni-directional microphone works well. If you are using a lavalier or lapel microphone be sure that it's positioned so that it will not rub against your subject's clothing when he or she moves. Lapel microphones are not ideal because they produce a muddier sound, but they can be helpful for recording people who are not used to being interviewed and who may get nervous with something being pointed at their mouths. If you are setting up microphones on table-top stands, make sure your guests know that they shouldn't hit the table (or wear jangly jewelry) since every noise will reverberate up the microphone stand and will cover up a word they speak). Once you set a recording level for your guest, make sure she can see you without having to turn her head and that she knows to maintain the same distance or relationship to the microphone, without leaning closer or pulling away during the interview.
Mike all participants, including yourself. Even if you don't intend to use your own questions, it's better to have them miked and recorded, so you can use them later if you change your mind. If you are using a single hand-held microphone during a group interview, just remind people to wave when they have something so say, so that you can put the microphone in front of them before they start talking.
If you decide to set up individual mikes for each guest, make sure you arrange people so that they can make eye contact without turning their heads away from the microphone in order to talk to each other. Be prepared to use sign language to direct your guests to talk into the mike, back off or wrap it up. Some sound recording devices have multiple microphone jacks, but you may want to acquire a small mixing board that lets you control volume for each microphone individually. If you are using a mixing board, remember to label each mike input with a person's name, or label each microphone with a number, so you can quickly adjust the right source's volume as needed.
Listen. Before you begin recording, sit quietly in the room you want to use and simply listen to the environment. Be aware that different locations in the room may produce better results, as you move away from air vents and computers. Close doors and windows and be sure to mute phones and computer speakers. Turn off cell phones. If there is noise, put it behind you so that when you point your mic at your guest, you are pointing the mike away from the noise. Try not to record near windows and walls and marble floors since sound bounces off of these surfaces into your mike, creating a hollow echo.
Do a test recording. Spend a minute recording some small talk with your subject and then listen to it before you do your entire interview. It will be a little awkward, but if it prevents you from creating an unusable tape, you'll be happy you did it. It's good to record your guest saying their name, the date and a verbal acknowledgment that they are giving you permission to record AND EDIT their voice for use in a broadcast or podcast. Do not erase this; it is an audio version of a signed release form.
Set healthy, solid input levels. If you record too low, you are introducing more noise into your original recording (called signal to noise ratio by techies). If you record too "hot" you might add peak distortion to someone's voice, either clipping their words or making them sound like they are talking into a kazoo. Recording levels that are too hot are also called "in the red," because many mixing boards and recorders have volume unit meters (V.U. meters) with input level lights that will blink red when the sound coming into the machine is too loud.
Bring actual tape. If you are recording multiple guests with individual microphones and need to run cables and power cords, it's helpful to have some tape to cover cords that can be a safety (tripping) hazard. You want cloth gaffer's tape, which is like duct tape but won't leave behind the residue duct tape does.
Backup power sources. If your recording device runs on batteries, bring extras. If your recording device requires a power source, don't forget the power cord. You may also find it useful to bring an extension cord. Some microphones also use batteries, so you should bring extras of those as well.
Keep quiet. As the interviewer, you will naturally be asking questions, engaging in a conversation. Whatever you do, do not egg your guest on by saying "uh-huh" or "mmmm" or "I see" - things we all say on the phone or in person to let people know we're listening and we get it. These interruptions will sound very annoying and you won't be able to edit them out. Instead, practice nodding and making facial expressions that will nonverbally let your interviewee know you are engaged.
Avoid recording from the phone. It's always best to interview people face to face where you can get the best sound and build a stronger rapport. Telephones, especially cell phones, add a lot of noise to recordings and should only be used when time, distance or access leave you no other option.
Field Recording Kit
This is a list of possible field recording equipment. Keep in mind that these are only suggestions, not strict requirements. Most good electronics stores will carry a selection of hardware, and you can also order online from B&H Photo (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/) or Full Compass (http://www.fullcompass.com).
- Microphones. Find yourself a $50-$150 omni-directional or cardioid microphone. Omni-directional mikes record sounds coming from all directions, cardioid microphones pick up sound coming into the mic from a narrower, heart-shaped angle. Don't use the cheap microphones that come with computers. Get a stand for handheld mikes. ElectroVoice, Shure, Sennheiser, Sony and Audio-Technica (among others) all manufacture suitable microphones. If you expect to record outdoors, consider buying a windscreen for your microphone. Be forewarned, though, that it's best to use one designed for your particular mike.
- Mixing board. A mixing board will let you easily use multiple microphones and control individual volumes. The Behringer Eurorack is a popular and inexpensive model and has six microphone inputs.
- Recording device. A digital audio recorder or laptop computer is usually your best option (instead of minidisk or digital audio tape machines). Refer back to the section on Audio Recording Equipment for specifics. When purchasing equipment, consider investing in something not too heavy that will last a few years and withstand transport and minor abuse. Smaller is not necessarily better. Be careful with miniplug (mini jack) inputs and outputs since these often break. Transom.org, a Web site for public radio producers, offers comparative reviews of digital recorders and other equipment.
- Headset. You want a decent pair of headphones that fully cover your ears. Look for something in the $30-$75 range. Sony, Sennheiser and Denon (among others) carry headsets in this range.
- Cables. You will need to connect all your hardware together, and many microphones are sold without cables. Your needs will vary depending on what you purchase, but as a general rule don't opt for the cheapest cables. Every cable you add to the system adds a little more line noise, so you want your connections to be high quality. Whenever possible, avoid using adapters to make connections between cables and components, but you should always have an assortment of adapters with you in case you need to plug into someone else's equipment, mixing board or computer to get your audio.
- Extra batteries, power cords, extension cords, tapes, and gaffer's tape.
- Bags and boxes. A good backpack or messenger bag will likely hold everything you need but look for a hard-shell or padded case if you need to travel with your equipment. Keep everything dry and don't store it in hot cars or freezing cold places.
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