Recording Not By The Book

450px-Plantronics_headset_in_use_on_HP500

Some radio producers ask interviewees to wear USB headphones with a built-in during interviews recorded via video chat.

When students of mine say to me “I’m going to record an interview via Skype,” I tend to freak-out. Recording the best possible sound is so ingrained in me, a Skype interview is close to the last thing I’d consider because of the poor sound quality. And yet, I’ve succumbed to the dark side.

Recently, I produced a story for the Greenpeace Canada podcast where I recorded all of the interviewees via Skype. And, get this — they all wore USB headsets with a built-in microphone. A sacrilegious act in my book, but one that worked… sort of.

I’m not the only producer making these choices. I hear Skype interviews on public radio with increasing regularity. Colleagues collect sound using smart phones. Others will even ask interviewees to record themselves using an app on a smart phone or tablet. What!??!

I’m not convinced the results are good. Passable, maybe, but not good. And when I say “passable,” I’m being very generous in some cases. But, alas, this seems to be a direction producers are taking more and more.

On this HowSound, I speak with three people who’ve tried alternatives to recording by the book: Andrew Norton of Greenpeace Canada, print reporter and radio freelancer Jenny Gustafsson, and long-time audio producer Dmae Roberts. If you’re adventurous and looking to try new recording methods, you’ll find their experiences informative.

One big challenge they spoke of when employing not-by-the book recording methods is asking an interviewee to do your job. If you were on location, you’d take care of mic placement, extraneous noise, cell phone interference, monitoring levels, etc. But, since you’re not there, the interviewee pays attention to all those details. That seems fraught to me. And, we already ask a lot of our interviewees. Now we’re going to require them to monitor recording levels and mic placement, too? Hmmmmmm….

But, sometimes, recording in person or hiring a producer for a tape synch is logistically or economically not feasible, like the interviews I did for Greenpeace Canada. The people I spoke with were in northern Canada, rural Sweden, and London. Of course, there’s always the option to record an interview over the phone. Yet, if you’re like me, you don’t have the gear at home to do that. So, it may be worth looking into recording alternatives and asking interviewees to help.

When preparing for, say, a Skype interview, Andrew says he starts from the premise that a producer is at the mercy of the interviewee. “You have to keep your ears peeled while you’re talking to them,” he told me, “because there’s not a person there who’s trained in audio and knows what the different things are that could come up in the tape that would suck, that wouldn’t sound good.”

The instructions Andrew and the others I spoke with give their interviewees is pretty standard:

  • Find a quiet room to record in.
  • Turn off your cell phone.
  • Turn off radios and television sets.
  • Speak close to the mic, even if it’s a built-in computer microphone.

Other directions are unique to the way the interview is recorded. For Skype recordings:

  • Close anything on the computer that might take up bandwidth such as iTunes, email, and web browsers. Turn off the video chat, too. (Though, it may be useful to leave it on at first so that you can see what the interviewee is doing and offer suggestions to improve the sound if need be.)
  • Let them know they can’t multi-task during the recording because typing and sounds from software can be heard on the recording.
  • Tell the interviewee that you may need them to repeat some answers in the event that the internet connection is glitchy and the audio drops out from time to time.

If the interviewee is recording to a smart phone or tablet:

  • Be sure they use a good app such as Tascam’s PCM Recorder (I’ve written a short outline on how to use this app). Avoid apps like the iPhone’s Voice Memo. It records files that are too compressed for broadcast.
  • You’ll need to tell them where the files are located on the phone and how to download them.
  • Instruct the interviewee on proper levels in the VU meters.
  • Make sure it’s in “record” not in “record pause.”

And, lastly, if you decide your interviewee should use USB headphones with a built-in mic, tell them to move the mic down toward their chin to avoid p-pops.

So, in the end, after speaking with Andrew, Dmae, and Jenny and taking a couple of stabs recording not by the book myself, I’m still rigorous about collecting the best sound possible in all the tried-and-true ways. But, now I’m willing to add a chapter to my book, if you will, and remain open to alternative recording methods when standard practices won’t work.

Cheers, Rob

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18 comments to Recording Not By The Book

  • I enjoyed this episode and love the topic. A couple of thoughts:

    – I am good with using remote tools to record interviews though I am not a fan of headset mics. I would much prefer the interview subject use a quality directional, dynamic USB mic than a headset. They can use one with headphones although many are good at cancellation so that even if they are not using headphones, you don’t hear feedback from their speakers. One very inexpensive mic that is gathering a cult phenomenon is the Audio Technica 2100USB/XLR (about $40). In yields good results.

    – Experiment with Google Hangouts — Google Hangouts has some great functionality to conduct interviews. I have found the quality to be as good if not better than Skype (though not always). Plus, G+ allows you to dial a phone number e.g. Skype out for free. Like Skype, you need third-party software to record unless you do a Hangout on Air that gets recorded to YouTube. My opinion is that third-party software is a better option for many reasons particularly when the software records your voice in one channel and the interviewees in another channel.

    – Be mindful of the quality of the interview subject’s Internet connection. You may need to factor that into your choice of how you record. When possible, have the subject use a computer that is connected directly into a router. Quality can be better than on Wi-Fi — though I know sometimes you may not have a choice.

    – One other option when quality is really important and you think you can have your equipment returned is that you can loan the subject a USB audio interface that has a good preamp to increase clean gain. These things are small enough that it should be fairly easy to help a subject set it up.

    If anyone is interested, I am happy to continue the conversation. Great show and episode!

    • Brian — Thanks a ton for these additional thoughts. Much obliged! And, thanks, too, for listening! — r

    • Jenny Chen

      Hi Brian,
      What great thoughts! I’m a young journalist just starting out (1 year out of college) and experimenting with different mediums. My first love is the written word but audio is quickly becoming a fast second. I was wondering if you happened to have a couple of minutes to chat…since I still have so much to learn!!

      And Rob – what a great episode. Keep doing what you do and thank you so much!

  • This is super timely. A client doesn’t have a tape synch budget and we’ve gotta get “creative” with how to get interview tape.

  • Laura Sebastianelli

    Glad to hear and learn from this piece as by necessity I will be needing some creative “work arounds” for long distance interviews. While there are great “rules” for great sound, I believe that audiences, having used skype and google hangout, and computer speakers , etc. are used to this and are not “offended” like people interested in sound. In some cases anyway it lends a certain truth to the environment of the dialogue, as you folks referred to it, a certain authenticity perhaps. That said … I would love to be able to have access to better recording, but a good story is not killed by less than perfect sound. Thanks for this story and more important your “how to” on this subject of alternative recording!

  • Wellllll, Rob,
    Some reporters at The View From Here are talking about giving H2 recorders to their interviewees for our next show on family caregivers. One couple with a teenaged boy with cerebral palsy says they all sleep together to prevent the boy from falling out of bed when he has seizures, which happens many times each night. The reporter asked to spend the night, but the parents aren’t too keen on that. Instead, we’ll give them a recorder and ask them to catch their nighttime reality and maybe do a little diary entry on it.

    Another reporter is thinking about how to record a caregiving daughter who has to bathe her dad who has dementia. She said the reporter could stand outside the bathroom. We’re thinking about whether to wire the bathroom for sound or just plop an H2 in there with her and dad.

    I think there is room for this kind of recording. I notice that you interviewed mostly folks who should know better. I don’t think my mom would hear the difference between a well-recorded interview and a phoner/Skyper or what have you. She isn’t used to the quality that we strive to maintain. Maybe it matters most to us?

    PS It still really matters…in case you are taking a poll.

    • Hi Catherine —

      Good to hear from you. I think it’s great that reporters at CapRadio are doling out gear to characters in stories. I’m a huge fan of that approach to storytelling.

      I wonder if a difference between what you’re doing and what the producers in the latest HowSound were doing is this: training. I suspect your producers will provide hands-on training for the people involved. I suspect, too, that your producers will listen to the recordings people turn in and you’ll review them not only for content but for quality. And, if there are issues with the quality, the producers will provide more training.

      In the instances covered in HowSound, the reporters were only able to provide nominal “training” — in fact, I wonder if “orientation” would be more accurate. And, their interest is a relatively short interview, not a documentary.

      Do you think the H2s will sound good enough? Will the people involved use external mics and wear headphones?

      Onward!

      r

  • Kelly Walker

    As we’ve talked about this issue in forums and at conferences and on email lists, one aspect of the issue we don’t discuss is delivery. The quality of podcasts varies widely in terms of bitrate as does the quality of streaming audio. Even over-the-air broadcasts deliver dramatically lower audio quality than we hear in our own studios. None of which is to mention the lack of control we have over the equipment our listeners are using on their end.

    I do think you touched on it a bit in this podcast, Rob, when you cautioned about what happens to the audio as it works its way through the production process. Poor quality audio can grow worse without care and attention. On the other hand, is there a possibility that the audience is more forgiving as regards sound quality because they have grown used to listening to compressed audio on earbuds (to say nothing of the “loudness wars” in music)?

    I conduct interviews with musicians for a music show I produce and while one would think I would be in a position to ask them to “self sync,” I often find myself talking to them while they’re on the road between gigs on their mobile phones. I cringe when I listen to the sound quality on my end, but I have yet to have a listener complaint. Of course, listeners won’t complain if they’re tuning out. Sometimes I’m fortunate to get a Skype or Google Hangouts interview, but more often than not I’m at the mercy of an older iPhone and questionable mobile coverage.

    As for Catherine’s experience regarding the Zoom H2, several years ago I sent members of a university alumni association out to conduct interviews with the first generation of that device just setting it on the table between themselves and the subject. The quality was startlingly good. The Zoom H2n has only improved on the quality and ease of use of the device. One of my favorite recorders on the market to be sure. I carry one in my every day bag with a pistol grip, a Rycote mount, and a pair of Sony MDR-7506s. I’ve brought home sound gathered on the fly that I would put side by side with some I’ve gathered with my Sound Devices MixPre-D.

    • Hi Kelly — That’s a high recommendation for the H2. I’m sure Catherine will be glad to hear that. And, yes, you’re right, starting with the highest quality file and recording is typically preferable because of everything that will happen to that audio in the production process and the audio chain at a station or network. Thanks for reinforcing that. Cheers, Rob.

  • Dan Epstein

    I’ve really never understood why we need to hear a piece of tape introduced thus: “We spoke with Dr. Frankenstein via Skype…” Neither landline nor mobile phone tape is handled this way. Listeners seem pretty acquainted with phone sound.

    That said, I think Skype gets a bad rap. No, the sound you get via Skype won’t sound like a what a good, well-equipped tape syncher will get, but at worst what you’ll end up with is what a phoner sounds like, in my experience. And yes, with Skype there are things you need to watch for (closing applications that use bandwidth or make regular checks like email), and yes, sometimes a Skype connection can sound really bad. When it does, I call again. But I’d rather talk to someone over Skype than over cellular.

    My own experience with Skype-to-Skype has been good, and it always sounds better than a phoner. There is often a sort of tinny edge, but the frequency response is inherently better than what you’ll get via landline or cellular. VoIP applications like Skype are often “tuned” to work best with USB headset/mic combos, and like you I’m no fan of those because people often put the mic too close to their mouth and you end up with the worst combination of mouth noise, plosives and sibilance. But that’s not a Skype issue.

    When it comes to Skype-to-phone, then it sounds like a standard phoner. I use Skype for all of my office voice calls. When I need to record I use Total Recorder which has a Skype recording pre-set. And once I was comfortable with that set up, I got rid of my telephone hybrid.

    Of course we always want the best sound we can get, and Skype is a good alternative when a tape synch isn’t possible. I just wish we’d stop making on-air apologies for Skype. Otherwise I think we also need to say, “I arrived for my conversation with Dr. Frankenstein in a Ford Pinto because the Prius was being steam cleaned.”

    • Dan — Wish there was a “like” button on comments. So, consider your note “liked.” Perhaps, the reason why Skype calls have been identified is because they sound different than standard phone tape. Maybe, with the passing of time and more frequent use of Skype calls, they won’t be IDed as such. — r

  • Paradigm changes are challenging, but, like Rob and his interviewees suggest, being open to the ways audio texture can help tell a story differently might be the way to look at these changes in recording approach. I’ve just finished interviewing six people for an audio series about artists and how they approach their media. They were all far-flung from my Northern California location. Two in Europe were Skyped via audio only, recorded via Voice Memo on their iPhones—not the best quality, but OK); several in the U.S. were called via phone and they used pro-gear, similar to my Zoom h4n. One even used a Sound Devices deck, but didn’t mic himself properly and the tape is unusable. The latter was a real lesson for me to confirm with the interviewee that they know how to operate the gear and send a test file beforehand. My old-school recordist sensibilities say I just can’t use that tape. Even people who you think are aware of how to use the equipment might not be willing or able to shift the location of their recording to a quieter room (that happened, too). Thanks for this conversation Rob. I will be sharing it with students. And I will take a cue and add a USB headset to my toolbox. By the way, I launched this recording approach because I knew the audio series is only being posted to a Web site (it’s a retrospective of the curating on the site for the last five years); so perhaps the end destination has a relationship with how I’ve allowed the recordings to be less stellar. I know I would have more doubts about this if the series were to be broadcast. Certainly there’s more freedom online and I can also be as creative/artistic with the tape as I like.

  • Rob – A couple of things…

    #1 – Thanks for creating this podcast and it’s predecesor “The Saltcast” I’ve enjoyed and learned so much from the lessons and content you’ve put out though I’ve never before been compelled to comment on an Episode. More it’s been a quite mentorship of me taking notes, getting ideas and applying the concepts to a podcast called “Stories from the Pitch” that I got myself involved with a couple of years ago that you can find at http://buskerhalloffame.com. As our tag line says – “Stories from the pitch is a podcast dedicated to creating a living oral history about street performing and some of the crazy characters that populate this world.”

    #2 – This particular episode that you released had me laughing then blushing then laughing again because just about every mistake, every rookie move, every possible blunder that’s mentioned ‘s something that has happened with this project. Now it needs to be said that none of the people involved with the project knew much about audio production when we got started, so we were bound to make mistakes. This is very much a side project for all of us and we really are making it up as we go along.

    #3 – We originally started with excessively skype recorded content as our first host was located on the Big Island of Hawaii and his interviews were conducted with people all over the world. We have since had several other people conducting interviews both via Skype and face-to-face with relatively inexpensive TASCAM DR-05 Digital recorders. Our live face-to-face interviews always seem to have a more interactive feel to them, and I usually prefer cutting from these recordings, though, because the skype calls capture the interviewer and interviewee audio on separate channels, being able to isolate the voices from the Skype calls does have certain advantages that the face-to-face recordings don’t allow for.

    #4 – Knowing one’s audience… A few of the comments above suggest that the average listener has become accustom to the ‘sound’ of Skype calls and telephone interviews. I think this is a really valid point. Sure it would be great if every story could be constructed from audio captured by professional sound engineers, but in a world where randomly captured YouTube videos regularly garner more views than professionally crafted content, is content king or is quality king? I attempt to raise the bar on the quality with every episode that we put out, but our growing audience seems to care more that the content exists than whether the recording levels were perfect, the mic placement was 100% accurate or the background noise is mildly distracting. I think it’s important to hold oneself to as high a standard as possible but not to allow one’s OCD tendencies about perfect recordings to get too much in the way of creating and releasing content.

    #5 – Wallow in the mistakes! I go back to some of our earlier episodes and am shocked that I released episodes that sound so bad. That being said, there’s something wonderful about having the living oral history about street performing also document our teams growing abilities as content producers. We’ve made every mistake in the book and even invented some new one’s but I think you can often learn more from making the mistakes than by simply being told that this is something to avoid. The weight of the lesson seems more profound if you’ve had to learn things the hard way.

    Thanks again for everything you do to create this resource and the lessons it teaches. It’s been such a help!

    Cheers,

    David Aiken
    The Checkerboard Guy
    Content Creator/Mistake Maker for The Stories from the Pitch Podcast.

  • Meredith

    (late to the party, as always)

    There’s irony here. You’re willing to blame kids these days with their distrust of highly-produced media, and their youtube videos and highly compressed MP3s and raw recorded content, and you don’t wonder if the problem isn’t within you.

    I’ve produced for radio professionally, and I was also there with the very first generation of podcasters at the bleeding edge of user-generated-content revolution. We learned a lot, doing grass-roots media production with no budgets or experience, and one of the biggest lessons out there is that consumers are a lot more forgiving of technical quality than you think they are. Almost anything short of being physically painful, if the story is good, will be enthusiastically listened to.

    I know this pains you to hear it, Rob, but the only people who really care about the incredibly high standards that you set for yourself are people like you: producers, engineers, audio nerds. I know personally the satisfaction that comes with an exquisitely produced piece of sound, and I love listening to the good stuff produced by the best people, but the bulk of your audience doesn’t know the difference and, more importantly doesn’t care.

    It’s the same thing I tell new podcasters: Good audio is always preferable to bad audio, but if you’re making yourself crazy over gear and sound quality, you’re not working to tell a better story.

    • Hey Meredith,

      I sense a bit of bile in your post. If so, sorry I worked you up so much.

      You’re right. I think the problem may be within me. That’s why, over the course of the story, I change. I start as the guy who wants the best sound always into the guy who’s willing to compromise when necessary because, as you say, it isn’t always about the gear. Perhaps that point wasn’t made clear enough.

      When thinking about podcast quality and the willingness of listeners to endure less-than-stellar sound, I think an analogy to fanzines can be made. People listen to roughly-produced podcasts because of the niche, can’t-get-it-anywhere-else content in much the same way people read less-than-professionally printed fanzines — it’s because they’re *so* dedicated to the content that the way in which it’s delivered doesn’t matter as much. They’re just incredibly thankful someone is creating content that speaks to them.

      At the same time, if a producer is not considering production values and finding ways to improve the sound, they’re missing part of what it means to be a producer. I encourage people to make what they make but keep figuring out how to improve — how to improve writing and voicing and interviewing and scoring and sound quality….. just get better. Anything wrong with that?

      Thanks for writing!

      Best,
      Rob

  • Meredith

    *chuckles* No bile, just a well-worn fight.

    Well, maybe just a little bile for the kids-these-days bit. Not that I’m one of them anymore, but someone needs to defend them.

    Improvement is wonderful, you know I can’t possibly have a problem with that. Even those crazed populists on youtube learned about basic lighting and lav mics years ago to improve their production values. But, I think, you’d be amazed at how many people have gotten themselves hopelessly wrapped up in knots trying to sound like you, with nothing more than snowball mics and a profound enthusiasm for the format. Podcasters don’t try to sound like Rush Limbaugh, or like those surprisingly good Christian radio dramas, or like the AM news with traffic on the 8′s, they try to sound like NPR, even when they’re not doing NPR-style shows. The style and techniques that you advocate for and have taught set an incredibly high bar for the rest of us to aspire to. You personally are largely responsible for why this argument even exists.

    And yet, you’re still going to bitch about skype audio quality? :) It’s reassuring in a way. All audio geeks, pro and amature, are obsessed with the exact same things in the end.

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