From the Archive: Getting good ambient sound

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward long-buried profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Robin White, the founder of Radio College, championed entrepreneurship before it was a popular term in public media, and wrote several pieces about how independent journalists could make a living wage (or better).

His story, published as “How to Make $60K a Year Freelancing in Public Radio,” is one of the most-read pieces of advice we’ve ever published. Today we bring to you his tips on how to record great ambient sound—something every radio producer has to master.

by Robin White

Ambient sounds, the sounds around a person, or the sounds of what a person does, are essential to making a richly-textured radio feature. If radio is like a magazine, ambient sounds are the photographs. Words alone can tell a lot, but the right piece of ambient sound can give the listener a sense of having ” been there, ” listening along with you.

Weave sounds in and out of the story, letting us hear what each new place sounds like. Take us outside! Take us inside! Take us overseas! Take us to the tops of mountains! Take us home for the holidays! Take us underwater! Let us hear the huge rumbling soundscape of humanity and let us hear the peace and awesomeness of nature! Start with sound, end with sound.

Gathering ambient sound can be a highly enjoyable part of putting together a radio feature, but if you don’t like getting dust on your knees and cow dung on your shoes, you’d better stop right here. Otherwise, before you know it, you’ll find yourself scrambling around a marsh trying to catch the sound of some elusive bird, or sitting on the floor in the corner of a dusty studio recording a famous musician practicing, and you’ll be thinking to yourself, “This is a great job!!”

You shouldn’t overlook the amount of time it takes to get sound when you are budgeting time for the project. If you are working on a five minute story, you might want to set aside several hours just for gathering sound. If you set up an interview where you know there is going to be ambient sound, make sure to let the person you are interviewing know that you will be doing some recording of sounds as well. It may take an hour to do the interview but it will take more time to record the sounds. Don’t schedule interviews back to back, just in case you need extra time to gather ambience.

Microphones For Ambience

Recording ambient sound is a time when the more exotic microphones come into use.

Most radio programs don’t expect you to record in stereo, but if you do, and if the program is broadcast in stereo (check first), it can make a good feature sound even better. You might even want to try making a binaural recording using small microphones in your ears. As you turn your head, the soundscape will change, giving a remarkably accurate recording of the sound you are hearing. Or you might want to choose a shotgun microphone to record animals or birds from a distance. However, many excellent sound-rich radio features have been made using the standard, mono, omni-directional microphone that you might use for your interviews. If you haven’t got a lot of financial resources, don’t worry, you can still do a good job.

How To Go About It: Record Before And After Interviews

You can start gathering ambient sound even before you do an interview. If you turn on your tape recorder before you walk in you might find that the sound of the door opening is a usable sound if it has a bell attached or a distinctive thunk. This is a useful technique when the person you are interviewing is connected with a place. For example if you are visiting the curator of a museum, you can use the sound of the door opening to make the difference between the curator being a faceless expert and being a real person who works in this particular museum which sounds like this… as you go in through the door.You can throw in a word or two of description in your writing, and it has become not just a person but a “small white-haired lady in a cavernous room.”

As you are walking in you might also find that you have an unexpected exchange with the receptionist which could be used to give insight in the piece. Or perhaps the sounds of people looking at the objects in the lobby tell you something of the nature of the place.

Bear in mind, as you do this, that it’s unethical and in some cases illegal to record people without them knowing it.

During or after an interview, if people use equipment as part of their jobs, ask them to turn it on and, as they do so, tell you how it works. When they have finished, ask them to turn it on again and operate it without speaking so that you can re-record it. This will allow you to mix it easily with your interview.

Always try to record the sound of what people do. If you weren’t there, what would they be doing right now? What does that sound like?

To come up with ideas about useful sounds to record, you can mention in your pre-interview phone call that you will be looking for sounds to record. This will set your host to thinking of good sounds for you and when you arrive you can ask again, “What sounds are there to record round here?” Most people don’t ordinarily think about sound as a separate element, but once they have the idea put in their minds, they can come up with all sorts of good ideas.

How To Go About It: Wild Tracks

Wild tracks are sounds which are unconnected to people and what they do. You may go and interview the manager of a nature reserve in her office. The wild tracks would be separate recordings you make of an endangered species out in the marsh, or the sound of a nearby fog horn, or the railroad running through the middle of the wetland, or the sound of the aquarium in a nearby laboratory. All of those could give context for the story and they could be used in the foreground of your story or in the background, depending on their importance.

For example, if your story is about the train running through the wetland causing erosion because of the huge vibrations, then we need to hear the train up front. We need to be able to listen to the rumbles. But if the focus of your story is the fact that this wetland is a careful balance between animal and human uses including a power plant, a shell fishery and the railroad, then the railroad needs to be further in the background.

When you are out on location use your ears to come up with ideas for sounds. Try to find sounds which characterize the environment. Animal sounds, people talking to animals, people operating machinery, people starting and stopping machinery, warning signals, bells, insects, waves, water flowing, the sound of different kinds of footfalls, traffic, trains, helicopters, telephone messages (ingoing and outgoing), and if you can get it, weather.* Record the sound of the local birds (don’t fake it, you’ll get found out). Record short wave radios, intercoms and PA systems. See if you can find people playing music. Ask people to sing for you. If you are in an disaster situation see if you can find the control center and record the conversation.

Seize the moment! Any time you notice someone making a sound that might be useful to you, try to record the sound on the spot, because the chances are slim that it will still be going on later when it’s more convenient to you.

Try to record from different distances because sounds change relative to other sounds. Mic close up to try to isolate a sound, one particular insect, for example. Then step back and record all of the insects and birds together. Try recording at different angles because sounds change with slight changes of mic direction. With a flowing creek, for example, pointing your microphone at one part will give you distinctly different sounds from pointing it at another even a few inches away. Sometimes you will get gurgling, sometimes rushing. Get enough of each different section (over a minute, timed with a watch), that you will have enough to use in your piece without looping.

Take your time! Get lots of tape!

*For more on recording weather see the Radio College page Recording in Difficult Weather Conditions.

Further Information

For an illuminating exchange of emails between public radio trainer, Catherine Stifter and veteran producer, Jim Metzner about his use of found sound in radio production, visit this page.

Recording ambient sound is a specialized niche in the audio world. There are people who call themselves sound recordists, audio artists, acoustic ecologists, sound finders and soundscape designers. You can contact several specialist organizations from the Radio College Resources page for more information. By joining these organizations, you will have a chance to learn skills which you can use to enhance your radio work.

Robin White is an independent radio producer and a co-founder of Radio College.