At a recent campaign speech by a presidential candidate, a reporter from a major metropolitan daily sat in the front row reserved for press. The room was crowded and noisy, and as the candidate began to speak, this reporter pressed the record button on his mini-disc recorder and set a microphone on his lap.
“Is that to back up your notes?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s for our podcast.”
“Did you ever get any training on how to use that?” I asked again, pointing toward his recording equipment.
“Nope,” he shrugged, “they just gave it to me and told me to record everything.”
Not every newspaper tosses recording equipment at their reporters with only the instruction manual for training, but if you find yourself in the field with a notebook in one hand and a microphone in the other, here are some basic tips that can improve the quality of the sound you take back to the newsroom, whether you are using a flash recorder, a mini-disc or even an old cassette player.
• Use a good microphone. A handheld mic is always better than the microphone built into the machine. If you carry only one, use a dynamic omni-directional mono microphone. They are more durable and forgiving than condenser and directional microphones.
• Wear headphones when you’re recording. It used to be easy to pick out the public radio reporters at a news conference because they were “wearing cans.” Your ears are the most sophisticated monitoring device you have, and nothing gives you a better idea of how your recording sounds.
Recording in the field without using headphones is like videotaping without using the monitor. If you don’t want to mess up your hair or feel conspicuous, use some ear-buds from an iPod.
• Put the microphone close to what you are recording. Hold the microphone 6 to 12 inches from the speaker, and point it at his mouth on an angle. If the speaker talks directly into the microphone, he may “pop his P’s and T’s.”
Don’t get too close to the subject’s mouth, or his voice will sound unnaturally boomy. Use a sturdy mic-stand on podiums, and get the microphone as close to the speaker as you can.
For stand-up interviews when you must take notes, put your microphone under your notepad pointed at the speaker and hold your notebook close to the speaker’s face.
You might pick up some noise from the writing, but it’s better than putting the mic down. If what you’re recording is very loud (a live band or a protester with a bullhorn), stand back from the noise and use your headphones to find the best distance.
• Don’t share the mic. If you let your interviewee hold the mic, or let a group of speakers pass the mic between them, it will almost certainly add handling noise that is difficult to edit out.
• When possible, record from the mult-box. Large press events will often have a box somewhere with multiple microphone inputs. Take your mic off the cable, plug the cable in the box, and listen with your headphones to make sure the sound is clean. (A surprising number of mult-box feeds are dirty or have buzzes and can make your sound unusable.) The input may let you choose between a “mic level” and a “line level”; you want “mic level.”
• Record in mono. The recording is for a podcast, not a movie soundtrack. You’ll double the amount of space on a memory card and reduce the number of things that can go wrong.
• Don’t wave your mic around. The sound of your mic cord moving around quickly can cause loud clunking sounds on your recording. If you’re asking questions that you want recorded, your omni- directional mic will hear you fine if you speak loudly.
• Listen to the room. For one-on-one interviews, beware of air conditioners, noisy ventilation systems, fluorescent light hums, etc. Our brains typically tune these noises out, but they show up as loud hums on your recordings. If it’s possible, turn off air conditioners and phones, or move someplace that is quieter. Small rooms will sound better than big ones.
• Record more ambient sound than you think you need. Many newspaper Web sites are creating slide shows played over reporter-collected background sound. You may only need 30 seconds of sound for this, but record much more. The goal with ambient sound is to establish a sense of place without being distracted by overly identifiable sounds. Get lots; your Web producers (which may be you) will be thankful.
• Wind is your enemy. Recording outside can be ruined by wind. A foam windscreen can help reduce the noise of a light breeze. In stronger wind, try using your body or even your notebook to block the wind. In remote locations, you can conduct interviews in your car.
• Watch out for the “uh-huh” disease. When a source is talking into your microphone, keep your mouth closed. Reporters will often say “uh-huh” or “yeah” to let a source know they understand or to keep a person talking. This invariably ends up with your voice over their best quote. Learn to keep your mouth shut when they are speaking and communicate with eye contact and nods.
• Watch your levels (more advanced). With a digital recording device, your recording level should average -12 on your meters. Make sure that the loud noises don’t “peak out.” Digital recorders do not have the forgiving head room that cassette recorders do. If your record level peaks too high, it will result in digital pops on playback. Try not to “ride your levels” either. Constantly changing your input level during a recording creates difficult variations to smooth out later.
These are very basic rules, but using them can improve the quality of your recordings. A great Web site to find more of these types of suggestions and ask technical questions about your equipment is www.transom.org.
Vincent Duffy is the news director for Michigan Radio.