Ask The Expert: Scott Gurian

AIR members are a talented group with an amazing breadth and depth of radio production "know how" that's shared spontaneously in Q&A format on the members-only AIR Daily listserv.

Now with Ask The Expert, Radio College is the depository of knowledge culled from the Daily archives, and organized by those producers who routinely step forward to answer questions posed by their colleagues.

Every month we'll feature the wisdom of a new AIR member "expert." This month it's Scott Gurian.

On Logging and Transcribing

Q: What's the difference between logging and transcribing tape?

A: The way I log tape is to note any significant conversations, quotations or segments of ambience with just a few, descriptive words or parts of a quote that will help me remember that segment later on. I often use abbreviations and my own style of shorthand to avoid writing out whole sentences. And I put stars near the better parts that I think I'll use orif I'm using Microsoft Word, I sometimes make the text a different color or in italics. Occasionally, I'll also make notes about the quality of the sound, problems, background noise, etc. Finally, I note the time and track number on my mini disc where those segments are located so I can easily find them later on.

When logging, I try not to stop the tape unless absolutely necessary. I don't spend much time taking notes on the parts that I don't think I'll use, but I still write brief descriptions of what they're about, just in case I end up changing my mind later on. Then I transcribe only the actualities I actually decide to use.

Transcribing, by the way, is a very detailed, word-for-word account of what I've recorded. When I transcribe tape, I am usually very thorough, using italics and ellipses [...], as well as noting things like [chuckles] and [begins crying] to give people a real sense of what my recording actually sounds like.

Q: Which should I do?

"Transcribing -- Who Needs It"

A: There are generally two trains of thought here. The "transcribing -- who needs it?" side claims that transcribing is an extremely time-consuming and largely unnecessary task. It's often impractical for radio pieces with a quick turnaround, they say, and can be mostly avoided by logging interviews and sounds as they're recorded. If you "take notes during the interview and go straight down to cutting as early as possible after the interview is done," notes one AIR member, the material will still be fresh in your mind, and you will have avoided the need for a thorough transcription to re-acquaint yourself with your sound.

"Obviously, this method only works if the person producing the piece is the same person who produced or recorded the interview," they say. "When that is not possible or when the interview is very long, I take rough notes (key words) while listening to the audio file on the computer and then select the parts I am interested in. Very often, the piece is cut down by 50 or 75 percent this way. Then you go at it again when you've done the same with the other interviews," until the sound is narrowed down enough that the final piece begins to take shape. Editing your audio this way gives you "a sense of tone and color that you will never get on paper," they claim. "What looks like a fantastic quote on paper sometimes ends up lost in poor delivery, background noise, etc."

"Transcribing Rules!"

Those who favor transcribing are often very vocal in support of it, particularly when dealing with large and unwieldy projects where the way to structure the story is initially unclear. It's the "only way to really get a grip on your tape," says one person. "After [transcribing] my tape, I'm surprised at my brain's ability to remember exactly where each and every bit is just from memory," says another. "For me, the process marries the tape that I 'set out to get,' and what I actually 'got.' There is no more woulda- coulda-shoulda... this is what I have to work with, unless I really need to go back and record something again, which is sometimes determined only after listening and [transcribing] the whole shebang."

AIR member Richard Paul explains that transcribing has sometimes proved invaluable to him when he's edited his pieces together. "We've all experienced being unable to make a smooth edit because someone either ends on an up-inflection or slurs two words together or whatever," he says. "If I have a log of every word the person said [a.k.a. transcription], I can go back and find other times they used a particular sound (for instance 'ly' or 'pl') and cut that into my bad edit; thereby making it a good edit. If I have the log as a Word file, I can search quickly and easily."

So the debate over whether to log or whether to transcribe is all a matter of personal preference. There are also various scenarios where one method might be better to use than another. Whichever you choose, here are some tips:

Q: If I decide to log my tape, are there any shortcuts or helpful hints?

A: In addition to the aforementioned practice of never stopping the tape, AIR member Jon Beaupre suggests the following:

"Since I never stop the recording, I just keep typing away and get what words and ideas I can for the recording. Then when there is a natural break and I want to enter a time code/location, I DON'T hit return and type in the number, instead I hit the 'greater than' carat (>) followed by the time code. What you see in the body of the text is something like '...every time I returned to that location >5:15 I was able to find the same...' Then, when you are completely finished with the logging, you can replace every '>' [by using the Find and Replace command from the Edit menu in Word] with two returns. What you end up with is paragraphs separated by two returns and beginning with the time code that will help you locate material you heard."

"In addition, if you hear something vaguely interesting (and it doesn't have to be powerful, profound, or even dramatic) I hit the asterisk key (*) and then when the log is finished I can find the interesting passages simply by searching for the ' * '."

Beaupre claims these practices have cut his editing time by 20-30 percent.

Q: What about tips for transcribing?

A: One method is to go the old school route as AIR member Daniel Grossman learned, and to purchase a transcribing machine at a yard sale or an office supply store. One popular brand is the Dictaphone. This is basically a cassette player with a foot pedal, so you can slow down or speed up the tape to keep it from getting ahead of your typing. While this can be a valuable timesaver, you will need to take the extra step (and time) of transferring your audio to cassette, which some people might find a pain. Daniel compromises by performing all of his initial edits in Protools, then transferring to cassette and transcribing only the best material. If you decide to purchase a Dictaphone, make sure you specify that you want one that uses "standard size cassettes," since many use the smaller mini-cassettes.

If you're willing to lay out a bit of money, you have another option of hiring a transcriber, which generally seems to cost between $20 and $30/hr but can go for as much as $100 per hour, depending upon who you choose. Some transcribers charge by the page, and one AIR member quoted a rate of $4.50/ page. One place to look to find a transcriber is in your local phonebook.

Q: What about voice-recognition computer programs?

A: There are several computer programs out there now that can type the words on the screen as you read them into a microphone. The programs come with telephone operator-style headsets with microphones. After you install the software, you have run through a few exercises to train it to recognize your voice. The program works in conjunction with several applications like Microsoft Word, so as you talk (even at a fast speed), the words magically appear on the screen. The technology is far from perfect, and you'll always need to proofread and make a bunch of corrections after you finish (in my case, L&H Voice Xpress kept thinking I said "thirty" when I really said "dirty"), but the accuracy improves the more you use the program, and it still saves tons of time over more traditional transcribing methods.

Unfortunately, since you have to spend all this time training the program, it can't just recognize anyone's voice, and since the sound needs to be perfect and clear, the computer can't understand a voice from a recording, even if it's your own (at least I haven't had success with that). You, yourself, need to say the words directly into your computer's mic. How then to transcribe interviews you've conducted with other people? You need to listen to your sound in your headphones while simultaneously repeating it into the mic. It take a bit of practice to listen and speak at the same time-- kind of like perfecting circular breathing on the didgeridoo-- but it's not that difficult once you practice a little.

It also helps to say punctuation ("period," "new paragraph," etc.), otherwise the sentences appear as unpunctuated streams of consciousness, and it takes a lot more work to go back later on and add in all the punctuation.

Popular brands of speech recognition software include Dragon Naturally Speaking, L&H Voice Xpress and Via Voice, and they can be found in just about any computer or office supply store. Make sure you read reviews of a particular program before you decide to purchase it, since some are less accurate than others. In my opinion, it's well worth the investment.

On Soundproofing

Q: Any cheap and quick solutions for recording good sound without the luxury of a professional recording studio? How can I soundproof a section of my house?

People on this list have used all sorts of things for sound deadening, from futons to moose hide mukluks (literally) and everything in between. Basically, smaller rooms (including closets) and places with a lot of padding (curtains, rugs, pillows, etc.) that can dampen and absorb sound seem to work well. Personally, I have been known to achieve nice-sounding results by crawling in the little cubby under my desk to record my voice! Orin a pinchyou can speak into your microphone under a blanket or towel (don't forget a flashlight!). It might sound ridiculous, but it can work wonders. I can't say how many times I've heard Ivan Watson or Anne Garrels reporting from what sounds like an echo chamber in the middle of Baghdad or Kabul and thought to myself, "If only they had a blanket!" And, of course, be cognizant of ambient hums such as heat, air conditioners, fluorescent lights, computers, etc. You can limit some of this by using highly directional micshyper-cardiods and shotgun mics if need be. There have been extensive conversations on the AIR list about how to best soundproof your noisy computer; I won't go into them here.

If you want to invest a little money to make a more permanent and professional recording space, you can buy some foam from companies like Sonex, Auralex or Markertek. As AIR member Jeff Towne explains, that will stop the reflections off the walls, making your space sound less like the room it is.

But for true soundproofing -- "if you need to block outside noise, (or stop your noise from bleeding out of your room)," Jeff explains, "you can put up ten layers of foam and still have leakage. To block sound transmission, you need a combination of mass and airspace. This is often done with fairly conventional materials by building double- thick walls, with an airspace and/or foam in-between. There are other materials that help this, such as heavy vinyl sheeting designed to provide a mass layer in a more convenient thickness than drywall."

"It's actually quite complicated if you need to block very loud sounds, in addition to the mass-airspace thing, you need to seal all cracks, stagger drywall seams, baffle ventilation, etc... so if there's any way to start with a fairly quiet space, it's relatively cheap and easy to make that room sound better with some foam, maybe some diffusers, maybe some "bass traps" if the room has low-frequency build-up. The less regular the space is, the better: parallel walls and flat ceilings create resonance problems. If you can build something yourself, the secret is to have a heavy deadening layer, an open vibration layer and another heavy deadening layer. And as airtight as possible."

"But sometimes the simplest things work great, try hanging some quilts or heavy blankets or sleeping bags, if you can get them an inch or two away from the wall, you'll get even better effect. Clothes hung on a rack make a great bass-trap."

If you want to try something more elaborate, there are some ideas here:

http://www.sonex-online.com/

http://www.auralex.com/

And their instructional site: http://www.acoustics101.com/index.htm

http://www.soundsuckers.com/

http://www.markertek.com/MTStore/Store.cfm (search for "foam")

On Buying Cd-Rs and Archiving

Q: What kind of CD-Rs should I buy?

A: Ah, another common question asked on the AIR list. There are various types of CD- Rs for various purposes, and while the garden variety blue or green-colored Sony or Memorex CDs are often OK for less important tasks such as mass duplications and copying/ transferring files, CD-Rs with gold and silver emulsion are generally recommended for longer term archiving, as they are said to last 75-100 years. AIR member Steve Rowland notes that "the 'silver' finish have a rep for being better for audio because they play back in more machines -- because they are slightly more reflective " but "the gold discs are theoretically better for archiving." Apogee and HHB are the two brands most highly recommended, and someone on the list also mentioned a positive experience with gold Taiyo-Yudin CDs.

By the way, based on personal experience, if you do purchase cheaper CD-Rs for any reason, I would strongly recommend against Imation-brand media, as it's developed a nasty reputation in some places I've worked for its seemingly high failure rate.

Whatever you use, it's recommended that you consider transferring the audio at least every decade or so as a safety measure and that you keep multiple backups of important archival material on various types of media (DAT, MD, hard drives, tapes, etc.). Remember also that you should only use special, non solvent-based felt-tip markers to label your CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. Sharpies will eventually eat through your discs and shorten their lives dramatically.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has prepared a very instructive and useful manual and tip sheet on how to best preserve CDs and DVDs. It's available at: http://www.itl.nist.gov/div895/carefordisc/index.html.


Scott Gurian

Scott doesn't really consider himself a radio "expert," and he's somewhat humbled that he was chosen for this noble task. Nevertheless, he's gone through the AIR archives, compiled some of the most interesting postings of his fellow AIRheads and presented them here for inclusion in Radio College's online resource of radio revelations.

Scott Gurian has produced and reported for a number of public/community stations and programs across the country, including Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered and WNYC's Radio Lab. He has worked at the UN-affiliated shortwave station Radio for Peace International in Costa Rica, and most recently he served as producer of a daily, national news magazine program on Pacifica radio.

He's also produced several special, live broadcasts for Pacifica, and he coordinated round-the-clock, national coverage during the first few days of the Iraq war. Among the highlights of his reporting, Scott covered the 2001 march of the Zapatista Indians across Mexico, and he produced an hour-long documentary after September 11th using interviews he conducted with people whose family members were killed. He has also worked with filmmaker Michael Moore.

Scott studied radio documentary at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and he hopes to one day be a foreign correspondent. You can listen to and review some of his work at http://www.prx.org/user/jimson8.