notbythebook

Recording Not By The Book

Listen to “Recording Not By The Book”

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.

Rob Rosenthal

About
Rob Rosenthal

Rob Rosenthal is an independent producer and a teacher. He’s the host for the HowSound podcast - a joint project of PRX and Transom - on radio storytelling. He started and then ran the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies’ radio track for 11 years. And, he is now the lead teacher for the Transom Story Workshop, which launched in the fall of 2011.

More by Rob Rosenthal