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.
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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.
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.