Get Good Tape (Sync)

TapeSync_FEATURED

Intro from Jay Allison: Unlike Transom's Companion Feature, this this is a totally legit article on Tape Syncs from Katie Mingle of 99% Invisible, one of the Tape Synciest shows in the business. If you ever need to hire someone to do this job, be sure to give them this link, not the one below.

TRANSOM COMPANION FEATURE: From the Transom Imaginary Archive, a vintage-y instructional video on the art and craft of the Tape Sync, created so that you radio freelancers can finally get it right. Dubious Credit for this goes to our friend and Transom Story Workshop graduate, Andrew Norton, the tall guy in Canada.

Maybe it’s mainly a radio nerd’s thing to want to know about “Tape Syncs” (aka “Phone Syncs” or “Double Enders”), i.e. when the interviewer and the interviewee are in different locations and the interviewee is recorded by another producer while they answer questions over the phone. Still, I recommend that you entertain and inform yourself with Transom’s two new offerings, because even If you just listen to the radio and don’t make it, you hear tape syncs every day, and now’s your chance to GO BEHIND THE SCENES. Exciting.

Getting Tape At A Distance.

Tape syncs make the radio world turn. It’s kind of our dirty little secret: we’re often not in the same room with the person we’re interviewing. I’ve recorded a lot of tape syncs and I really love doing them. I love the sudden access into a total stranger’s world—getting to eavesdrop on an interview that I don’t actually have to conduct. Sometimes I wish I could record tape syncs as my full-time job.

At 99% Invisible, we rely heavily on tape synched interviews and we’re super grateful that there’s a virtual army of producers out there ready and willing to do them, often with very little notice.

I struggle a bit with how much to go over the process when I hire someone to do a sync for 99PI. I don’t want to insult an experienced producer, so I often forgo a lot of details—details that might be really helpful for a new producer or someone who’s used to a different protocol.

So, what follows here is a list of things to keep in mind while doing a tape sync—based on expectations that we (at 99PI) have of people who do these for us. They basically revolve around this premise: our job is the content of the interview; your job is the sound quality of the interview.

1. A Quick Chat: have one with the person who hired you.

Humor them as they explain how they want the tape sync done. And here are a couple of things to ask about if they don’t come up during your conversation:

  • What file format would they like you to record in (i.e. Wave, MP3)? Recording in Wave is standard, but they might mention exactly what type of Wave file they want.
  • Who is the person you’ll be recording and is there anything you should know about them?
  • Will the interview be inside or outside?
  • When should you start rolling? Do they want you rolling from the moment the door opens a la Radio Lab?
  • What will the payment be? (Most public radio shows pay between $100 and $150 for tape syncs.)

2. Equipment: have it / check it.

You should have a recorder AND an external microphone of decent quality. Check out Transom’s Tools section for suggestions on what kind of gear to get.  Don’t attempt to use the built-in mics that currently come on most recorders. The sound won’t be as full or intimate, and your arm will thank you for that extra foot or so of distance that an external mic provides. You’ll need a basic foam windscreen on your mic if you’re recording inside, and one of these Don King style ones if you’re recording outside.

Check all of your equipment before you set out to make sure it works. Clear out the memory card in your recorder so that you don’t run out of space mid-interview. Make sure you pack extra batteries.

And don’t forget your headphones. My personal biggest tape sync fail happened when I had forgotten my headphones and had to monitor my levels visually. Sorry about that, Marketplace.

3. Environment: scout it out.

Show up about 15 minutes before the interview gets started so that you can get set up and figure out the quietest place to record. Here are some things to think about.

  • Is there an air conditioner or heater that might come on?
  • Is there a lot of traffic noise?
  • A dog barking?
  • A refrigerator buzzing?
  • A clock ticking?

Fix the things that are within your control (maybe the fridge can be unplugged, or the dog can be put outside) and let the interviewer know about the things that seem out of your control (traffic, etc.). And if you unplug the fridge, don’t forget to plug it back in! Some producers put their own car keys in the fridge so that they can’t leave without remembering to re-plug it.

4. Levels: check ’em.

When you first arrive and get set up you’ll want to have the subject speak into the mic so you can get an idea of how loudly they speak. “What did you have for breakfast?” seems to be the most popular levels-check question, but it’s flawed—people are never excited about what they had for breakfast. On the contrary, they seem almost depressed about it. “I had a bowl of crispix.”

Maybe in the comments section we could brainstorm on better levels-checking questions. For now, anticipate that your subject will likely speak louder and more animatedly in the interview than they did about breakfast, so you may want to turn down the input slightly for the actual interview. In any case, you’ll want their levels to hit at around -12 (give or take 6db).

5. The Subject’s Grill: get all up in it.

You know how radio is the most intimate medium?  The tape sync is where you will feel that in the most literal sense. I’ll sometimes make a joke about this to the person I’m recording, like “Hey, I’m about to be seriously up in your personal space, sorry.”

Your mic should be about a fist’s length away from the subject’s mouth while they’re speaking, and slightly off center to avoid p-pops. The subject might try to back off of the mic at first, but usually they’ll forget it’s there once the interview starts.

Being comfortable in the recording position can be hard. You could be holding the mic for an hour or more and if you don’t find a way to rest your arm, you will be sad. Try to rest your elbow on a table or the arm of a chair. It’s also best not to reach across a desk or a table when recording – it can be an uncomfortable position, and the subject’s voice may bounce off the surface of the table and cause a slight echo.

If you need to fidget or cough, try to do it during the interviewer’s questions.

6. Background Noise: only you can prevent it.

The interviewer on the phone has no way of knowing if a siren goes by, or some meddling kids decide to start up a kick-ball game right outside the window. Or maybe the interviewee is making noise—clicking a pen, or tapping on a table.  As the interview proceeds, if there is background noise, you’ll need to interrupt and let everyone know that they may need to repeat whatever questions were affected. I find it’s helpful to let the subject know beforehand that you occasionally might have to interrupt—that way they understand that you’re just doing your job.

I recently did a story for Love + Radio that Gwen Macsai taped for me. There was a TON of background noise, and Gwen (like a pro) stopped the interview for all of it. I really appreciated that! And we ended up using all of those stops and starts at the end of the show.

Download
Listen to “Background noise during a type sync”

7. Room Tone: get it.

Before you finish up, tell the interviewee that you need to record the room you’re in, without anyone speaking for about a minute (secret: 30 seconds is also fine).  This is called “room tone” which could also be the name of our public radio band, should we want to start one. If the room you’re recording in is particularly full of ambient noise, such as a heater, or traffic, “room tone” will be especially appreciated by whoever ends up editing the interview.

8. The File: don’t edit it; just send it.

If you know the file you’ve recorded has some p-pops in it, or that maybe your levels were a bit off, it’s tempting to try to fix it yourself before sending the file, but you should resist that temptation. Even making small edits in the audio can make it harder for the producer to sync the interview you’ve recorded with their side of the interview. So resist the temptation to fix it yourself but you can send a note to the producer letting them know if there were issues and what they should listen for.

It’s always nice when people get you the file the same day that they record it. Some people will want you to upload the file to their FTP server, which might require you to download an FTP client like Filezilla. At 99PI we’re usually fine with the file being sent to us through wetransfer.com or some other similar large file-sending site.

Katie Mingle

About
Katie Mingle

Katie Mingle is a producer for 99% Invisible. Before joining 99PI, she worked with the Third Coast Festival as a producer for their weekly show, Re:sound.

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  • Phil Harrell

    11.06.14

    Reply

    Best levels-checking question: Tell me about your first car. Just about everybody has a good story about their first car.

  • Alan Mairson (@AlanMairson)

    11.06.14

    Reply

    Thanks for a great article, Katie. One question: When editing, what’s your preferred method for syncing the two ends of a double-ender? Do you do triple hand claps when you begin recording the interview — or something similar? All details welcome. (Sorry if this is a rookie question, but hey — I’m an audio rookie! 🙂 ) …. Tx.

  • Jon Kalish

    11.06.14

    Reply

    I’ve been doing tape syncs for about 30 years for NPR, WBUR and Marketplace among others, I’m a bit surprised to read this and not see any mention of using a mic stand on a desk or table. That’s how I do almost all of my syncs, or simrecs as the Dutch call them. Once in a blue moon someone will insist on sitting at a couch with a coffee table in front of it, so then I may have to hold the mic in my hand. But my mic is shock-mounted, which I notice is not the case with the mic in the picture above.
    Also, the advice to be a fist’s length away from the subject strikes me as appropriate for certain kinds of mics but not with a shotgun, which is what I use.
    I have found that staffers who set up the syncs at times neglect to explain to the interviewee that the person who is coming to record them will not be doing the interview. And I very often have to ask the staffers for a phone number of the person being recorded or for the floor or office suite at the location.
    I like to get an email confirmation that the audio file has been downloaded and all is well.

    Jon Kalish

  • Flawn Williams

    11.06.14

    Reply

    To Alan Mairson et al: Back in the Dark Ages of Analog Tape, it was important to have a findable cue point to start both playback tapes rolling so we could sync them. 3-2-1-…. (Once they were started, we kept them in sync by rubbing our fingers on the edge of the reel that was running a bit faster than the other, to slow it down.)

    But now with visual waveforms in computer programs, when you pull the two files into the same window it’s pretty easy to align the squiggles to get them in close sync. The questions on one track correspond to silences on the other track.

    To get them REALLY tightly synced, you have to decide Whose Time Is Right. If there is any leakage from the telephone at the remote end or from the headphones at the studio end, you’ll want to adjust sync so the full quality voice from the other end masks that leakage. If there’s leakage at both ends, time to start cursing!

    And beware trying to do a tape sync where the live contact is through Skype rather than a phone call: the time base stability of Skype can be all over the map, it’ll lag for a while then catch up in a flash. And if there’s any leakage from that into the recording at either end, it’s very hard to mitigate.

  • David Fender

    11.07.14

    Reply

    Great article and full of things that I wish I would have known up front and not having had to learn the hard way over 25 years or so of recording syncs. One of my best stories about room noises was when I was recording a gentleman and had a loud ticking noise that I thought was a clock at first, but turned out to be the valve on the oxygen tank he needed to breath. Needless to say, we couldn’t turn that off 🙂 But in situations like that, make sure to tell the host up front and they usually can work in some kind of explanation of the noise into their questions if needed. Ditto what Flawn said about lining up the audio…it took me a couple of years to convince my host though that doing the countdown over the phone is pointless these days (and actually not as effective as finding a good hard consonant to line up with.

    From a studio standpoint Alan, the trick is to make sure to record your studio side in stereo with the telephone panned completely to one channel and everybody who is on a mic panned completely to the other channel. That makes it really really easy to drop out the phone recording after you have everything lined up. Flawn makes some good points about needing to make sure that things actually stay aligned throughout an entire interview. In this digital world all kinds of things can throw it off. The two biggest ones are the differences in the CPU clocks in the computer recording the interview and the recorder you’re using, fractions of a second difference per sample can add up to a couple of seconds off over the course of an hour long interview. Also, that’s another reason to make sure you’re recording in the same format your client is expecting, if you’re recording in 48k and they want 44.1 or vice versa, that can (although it doesn’t have to) really screw things up. It’s not hard to fix in a DAW…just split the sync side file clip every few minutes and realign the audio as necessary.

    As far as using a desk stand, I personally don’t like to do that for a couple of reasons: 1) I find that a lot of guests will move around quite a bit as they focus on the host in the phone and not their relationship to the mic, so it’s much easier for me to chase them around with me holding the mic to keep the recording distance and axis relatively consistent. 2) When they do stay still, another batch of guests will find themselves playing with the mic stand and/or cable, or fidgiting with stuff on the desk or table, which of course leads to bad things in the recording, and 3) In noisier environments, you can reject more unwanted sound with a hypercardiod/shotgun mic than with more open cardiod pattern. But I’ve also had some guests, particularly higher up political types, who insist on having a desk stand mic and not some guy like me pointing a mic at them.

    That also reminds me that one thing I also try to remember to talk with the guests about before the interviewer calls is to minimizing any noisy fidgeting they might do. It almost never stops them from starting at some point during the interview, but it’s enough that when I get their attention with a glance or a gentle point, they remember and stop before it gets worse.
    That also reminds me that you need to remember that you are, in effect, the “face” of the interviewer during the recording so while you don’t want to be obtrusive, make sure to actively listen and appropriate facial expressions to what’s being said can help the guest keep a warm, storytelling kind of vibe in their answers.

    Great article Katie!

  • Zena

    11.16.14

    Reply

    I was just wondering how does an independent producer find someone to do a tape sync for them? Is there a good database?

    • Samantha Broun

      11.17.14

      Reply

      The Association for Independents in Radio (AIR) has a great database of independent producers willing to do tape syncs. They also have a very active list serve where you can post tape syncs that you need someone to record and/or where you can find tape syncs to cover in your area.

      http://www.airmedia.org/

  • charles

    12.07.14

    Reply

    I’ve been looking for a solution for amateur producers with no budget who need to remotely record.

    I’ve found the Tascam iPhone app PCMRecmkII and the Zoom HandyRec. App offers upload to sound cloud in was format. Perhaps creating a dummy account and sharing the info is one way.

  • ademack

    2.16.15

    Reply

    A new possibility for podcasters et al who can’t access the tape-sync world, is Ringr (http://www.ringr.us/) … an iPhone app which records the interviewee on their local iPhone mic, and uploads both ends of the conversation, syncs it up, and emails a download link to the originator of the call. I’ve used it a couple of times now, and I think the results are superior to recording Skype calls.

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