Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward long-buried profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. This advice about mic use and placement comes from Robin White, the founder of Radio College, in 2001. Last week, Transom.org put out a terrific, updated set of advice about tape syncs from Katie Mingle of “99 Percent Invisible” (and Andrew Norton added this excellent instructional mockumentary video).
by Robin White
Getting a good quality recording is the most important and sometimes the most difficult task of a freelance radio producer. Freelance producers have to be jacks and jills of all trades, but just because you are good at writing imaginative radio, that doesn’t mean to say you have an aptitude for operating electronic equipment. Often the opposite is true.
At an interview you are doing a lot of jobs. When you are concentrating on what your interview subject is saying, you are paying attention, making eye contact and thinking up your next question. You may not notice that the person in the next room has turned the television on and the sound is bleeding through the wall and onto your tape. Or that your tape recorder is occasionally distorting the sound because your record level is set too high. But if you don’t get a high-quality recording, the amount of work you have to do later will increase exponentially.
Getting a good field recording makes editing easy. You want to make a recording with the smallest amount of extraneous noise possible.
You may want to record ambient sound if it has bearing on the story but try to record it separately and mix it into the background later. That way you avoid the sound of “butt cuts” in which the ambient noise suddenly jumps into being.
Here are some suggestions to help you.
TAKE CHARGE OF THE ENVIRONMENT!
Often you will end up interviewing people in their offices because that’s where people spend a lot of their time.
Offices are not great places to do interviews. With many hard, reflective surfaces, they’re often echoey or just generally noisier than rooms with soft furnishings which dampen sound. They usually have noisy equipment like computers running and there’s often traffic outside and officemates who decide to have a loud conversation in the hallway outside when you’re in the middle of an interview.
KILL THE NOISE
Certain people, like scientists and academics, may not be happy or able to turn off their computers, but mention that you wouldn’t want to waste their time making a recording which may be of sub-standard quality. If it’s not possible to turn the equipment off, move as far away from it as possible and sit with your back to the source of the sound so that your microphone points away from it.
Tell the people in adjacent rooms what you are doing and asking them if they can possibly avoid making noise for the duration of your interview.
BATTERIES, POWER CORDS AND HEADPHONES
However, watch out for a rare problem when using AC. Electrical circuits, such as those in old houses, sometimes generate a electrical hum which may show up in the background of your recording if you use the AC power for your tape recorder. Listening to the interview through your headphones will tell you if you have this phenomenon. You can prevent it by using battery power.
You should always use headphones during the interview. It will allow you to head off all kinds of mistakes in the recording. It also establishes you as a professional.
Always clean and maintain your equipment. Always carry a head-cleaner for the tape recorder.
If there is a table in the room, interviewing across the corner of the table is perfect because it gives you a place to rest your arm (which will get tired if you are interviewing for 45 minutes or an hour, which is common). Place your tape recorder where you can look at it to check levels without taking your eyes too far away from the person you are interviewing. If that’s not possible, explain to the person that you may occasionally have to look away to check that things are being recorded properly, but that he or she should keep talking.
If you are recording a tape sync, you will need to sit near the telephone. Find out which hand the person holds the telephone in and adjust your position accordingly.
Practice using different distances for micing your subject. If you mic too closely, you may pick up mouth noises, but if you mic too far away your interview may sound off-mic.
The closer you come to your subject, the more intimate your sound will be. Is that what you are looking for?
The farther away you mic, the more you will pick up the sound of the person’s environment, which may tell you a lot about them and enhance the sound of the interview — although in environments like offices or kitchens, it can interfere with the quality of the recording. The sound of each word spoken will continue to bounce around the room for a little and will itself become part of the ambient noise behind the next word, and so on. In noisy environments, it is better to mic closely.
When you hold the microphone out, some people instinctively try to take it from you, thinking they have to hold it themselves. Call it the Oprah Winfrey syndrome. Of course you don’t want them to do that. Explain that you want to be able to adjust the micing distance for the best technical quality of the recording.
If you are recording a tape-sync, you will need to sit near the telephone. Find out which hand the person holds the telephone in and adjust your position accordingly.
MIC STANDS AND MICROPHONES
Most producers will use an omni-directional microphone for an interview, but some prefer to use a short shotgun. This allows the “sound” of intimacy but keeps you a little farther away from your subject and allows them more social space. Instead of holding your microphone at 6 inches, you might hold it at 12 or 18. This may be more or less important depending on the comfort of the person you are interviewing.
RECORD ROOM TONE FIRST
Even with all the precautions to reduce ambient sound, it is essential to record some room tone so that if there is something subtle in the background (distant traffic noise, for example), you give yourself or your engineer a way to blend the actualities you record more smoothly with your tracks. It is best to do this before the interview because you are more likely to forget afterwards.
Ask your interview subject to tell you what he had for breakfast or where she went on a favorite vacation and check the levels on your tape recorder to make sure you are recording plenty of signal. Then, when you are sure that you have your recording levels set high enough (but not too high, especially with DAT tape recorders), ask them to sit quietly for a full minute while you record the sound of yourselves in the room. Use your watch to time it. (This can also function as a way to get nervous interviewees to relax).
Outdoor interviews can become some of the most evocative radio because they give the listener a sense of place. Instead of trying to eliminate all extraneous sound you deliberately use the sound of the local ambience to enhance the meaning of the interview.
If you do an interview outdoors, make sure that it is for a good reason. If you are interviewing a doctor about breast cancer, don’t do it in the park across from her office, because there is no reason for her to be there with all the traffic passing by to give away the location. If you are interviewing a gardener about air pollution, then it’s a perfect place to be.
When you are outdoors in very noisy environments, like street fairs or crowds, you need to change your micing technique. Turn your recording levels down and mic very closely (within a few inches). By doing this you continue to highlight your interview but you put the ambience further into the background. It is still present, but is likely to intrude less on the interview in the foreground.
When you are outside, deliberately working with environmental sound, it is even more important to collect ambient tracks. Record a couple of minutes in the place where you do the interview and if there are specific sources of noise, such as birds or musicians or machines, record those separately and from a variety of distances. This gives you the opportunity to create a full-scale ambient sound bed to run beneath your own tracks in the final mixed piece.
Beware of new noise hazards. Airplanes, which take a very long time to fly over in term of an interview, make it very difficult to edit your interview because their sound is constantly changing in pitch and volume and internal edits will show up as “jumps” in the tape where the background noise (the plane) disappears and comes back in a different place. If a plane starts to go over when you are interviewing outside, stop the interview and wait for it to go by. Particularly loud peaks in traffic noise (for example, motorbikes accelerating) can have the same effect.
Wind can make it particularly difficult to record outdoors, but at the same time can yield some dramatic ambient effects. Ideally, in a light gusty wind, you will pick up occasional blasts of wind sound in your microphone without any sustained roaring. But it’s hard when you’re outside with the wind making a lot of noise in your ears to tell how much of the sound you are getting is distortion and how much is useful.
One way to know what is going on is to bare your arms. If there is a light occasional breeze blowing the hairs on your arms, the recording will probably be useful and there will be some light occasional wind sounds which will add to the atmosphere of your recording. If there is a constant blowing on your arms, it means that the recording will be distorted and may not be usable. In this case, you should try to find a sheltered place, behind a rock or a tree or a building and do the interview there. Or you can hold the microphone low down and try to shield it with your body.
DURING THE INTERVIEW CHECK THE TAPE
At some point after the interview has got going, check your tape to make sure that your recording is working. This is a good way to take a little break in the middle of the interview to collect your thoughts and to allow your subject to collect his or hers — but don’t leave it too late. If there’s a problem with the recording, you will want to be able to catch it early enough to remedy the situation before your interview subject has exhausted himself.
Flexibility is the key. At a press conference, you may be able to get a feed from the “mult box,” or you may be able to tape your microphone up on the table in front of the speaker. You may get more dynamic sound if you can use a short shotgun microphone and follow the speaker as he or she moves and answers questions, if that’s possible. In the worst case scenario, you can always mic the speaker of the PA system.
Prepare for all possibilities. Call ahead and ask the person organizing the event if there is a PA system and if you can take a feed from it. Find out which kinds of jack and cables you will need to transfer the feed signal to your tape recorder and always carry extras and alternatives. Carry a roll of duct tape to attach your microphone to the stand. Arrive early and assess the situation. If you get stuck, ask the audio technicians if they can help you out.
RECORDING GROUPS OF PEOPLE
Recording an informal group of people speaking can be difficult, but can yield some of the most dynamic recordings as people interrupt each other with new ideas and the movement of the mic from speaker to speaker gives a sense of motion and of being surrounded. You might find that after a public meeting, for example, small groups of people gather outside and continue the discussion, often in a less restrained way.
Don’t be afraid to walk into the middle of a group of people with the mic held out in front of you. You will find that you will be controlling the flow of the discussion with the microphone as people wait to speak to you.
For maximum control of a recording like this keep the microphone in your hand and follow the flow from person to person. Hold the microphone farther away from speakers than you would in a formal interview and be ready to move to a new speaker as that person interrupts.
NEVER TURN THE MICROPHONE OFF
You may find yourself interviewing someone who is nervous, or guarded about what they are saying. One technique for getting lively tape from someone like this is to leave your tape recorder on after your interview is over.
You can say “Thanks very much for the interview,” but keep your microphone in your hand and your player in record. Once people think the interview is over, they will relax and may say that crucial thing that they have been too nervous to say all the way through. At that point raise the microphone back up to let them know that you are still recording, and let them speak.
• Robin White is an independent radio producer and a co-founder of Radio College.