Intro from Jay Allison: Jeff Towne is starting a new tech series! It’s all about sharing digital audio sessions. In this first installment, Jeff covers organizing a session so that you and your collaborators know exactly where everything is. It includes naming conventions, recording tips, track sequencing, channel setups, etc. Future features will cover editing and mixing, exporting and importing, and cross-platform collaboration. This is really valuable and helpful stuff, not too complicated, but complicated enough that you can use this help!
Even though independent reporters and producers often work alone and handle all of the production process themselves, there may still be times when they will either need to collaborate with others, or submit their project to a program where it will be tweaked by a different engineer. It’s important that all collaborators understand what’s going on in a project, and even if a producer is working totally alone, some of these techniques might help organize the workflow.
Most important: Discuss these issues with your collaborators early on, and make sure everyone understands what is expected, or required. Many radio programs have specific standards for file types, file naming, and more, and it helps to know these things at the very beginning of the project.
If you’re submitting a project to a radio program or podcast, or collaborating on an established project, those entities will likely prefer that recordings be made at a specific sample rate and bit-depth, and it’s MUCH better to use those settings when recording the audio in the first place, rather than converting later.
16-bit, 44.1 kHz wav files have been the most common standard in most radio work, but any particular project might require different settings. If your audio will be used in video, it’s likely best to record at a 48 kHz sample rate, which is the standard for digital video. Some recorders and audio interfaces can record at even higher sample rates, but those are not widely-used in radio, podcast, or audio documentary production. But standards change all the time, and the most important thing is that you communicate with your collaborators and agree on an acceptable setting.
If you’re recording directly into your computer editing system, go to the session preferences and set the input controls as described above.
If you’re working independently, and not sure whether you’ll be exchanging files or audio projects with anyone else, it’s still a good idea to stick to widely-used conventions. If you do end up collaborating later, using those standards helps ensure that your audio will be of acceptable quality. Always record WAV files (or BWAV) as they are the most commonly-used file type.
Do not record in the field to MP3 or other compressed file formats. Doing so risks poor audio quality in the final production, even if the recordings seem acceptable as you play them back. Although the smaller file size of an MP3 would allow longer recordings on a field recorder’s memory card, it’s a better idea to invest in a larger memory card, and/or multiple cards, and keep the quality as high as possible at the start.
Check your recorder’s manual; some recorders can only use memory cards up to a specific capacity. If you’re recording directly to a computer and space is an issue, it’s time to get a larger hard drive, and/or a large external drive to record on. Prices on hard drives and memory cards are dropping all the time, and it’s a good investment to get a large card or drive, and also a spare, or two (or more. . .).
16-bit has long been considered to be sufficient for most radio or podcasting work, and in most cases that remains true, but some programs and producers prefer 24-bit recordings for their larger dynamic range, which allows for better sound quality even at lower recording levels. Recording at 24-bit will use more space on your hard drive or memory card. But as mentioned above, as it becomes easier to get large storage devices at reasonable prices, it might be worthwhile to use the extra space to get a higher-resolution recording, if you have a good quality recorder or interface.
Older field recorders often did not make good use of 24-bit resolution, even if they offered it, because their internal system noise was so high that the low-level detail that can be revealed by 24-bit recording was often lost in hiss. But newer recorders and computer interfaces have cleaner input stages, and recording your raw tracks at 24-bit allows you to set input gain a bit lower (thus safer), avoiding potential distortion from loud peaks, while retaining useable audio at quieter levels.
If you set your recording and editing software to 24-bit, plug-ins and other audio effects will run at a higher resolution, even if your source audio is only 16-bit. Tracks recorded directly into the project, such as narrations, also will be at that higher resolution. But doing so will cause your project to take more space on your computer’s hard-drive, and make it slower to transfer over the internet, or potentially too large to fit on a USB thumb drive or other easily-transported device, and will eat up more space in an archive.
Also – if you record at 24-bit and are engineering your project yourself, when doing the final mix, you will need to reduce the bit-depth to 16-bit for most delivery formats, for instance, sending to PRX or the PRSS ContentDepot. To do that be sure to insert a “dither” plug-in to ensure the best audio quality when making that change in bit-depth from 24- to 16-bit.
The improvement in audio quality is subtle in most cases, but it can be worth the extra disc space to record a little lower and avoid distortion, and to make your source files more likely to be forward-compatible, as some aspects of audio production move toward higher-resolution audio as a standard.
One of the most crucial organizational steps comes early in the process: The naming of your audio files. Most field recorders allow some kind of file-naming, although those names are usually too short and crude to serve as the final name. But it’s very helpful to set your recorder to tag your files with helpful names, so that you can easily find and sort your recordings when transferring the files from your recorder to your computer. If you do nothing else, make sure that the date and time is set correctly on your recorder. At the very least, you can probably identify your field recordings if they have an accurate time-stamp.
When you transfer your field recording to your computer, you have an opportunity to give the file a standardized, easy-to-understand, easily sortable and searchable name.
We recommend that you make two copies of your field recordings. Making that initial transfer is the best time to do so — later you might forget. Save one copy as an archive. This should be a complete, unedited copy of your field recording, saved to a different hard drive from your audio projects. You’ll want to name this in a way that will make sense many years later, even if the current project ends up not working out. Recommended naming schemes include the interviewee’s name, the date, and perhaps the recording location, or other identifying characteristics, especially if it’s not an interview.
The order of the elements in the name may vary depending on your sorting priorities: Is the subject’s name, or project name, the most important? Or is the date a better primary sorting parameter? Or perhaps another element, such as location, might make sense to you. Separating those elements can be done with a dash or an underscore, or systematic use of capital and lower-case letters. You should avoid slashes or periods in filenames as they can confuse computer systems.
The important thing is to be consistent. For dates, use the format YYYYMMDD. This will sort logically on a computer, grouping years, months and days in a predictable way. You can probably get away with a two-digit year, but in case you even want to include recordings made before the year 2000, a four-digit year will sort better, and remove any ambiguity.
Doe-John-Cleveland-INT1-20170215.wav DoeJohn-INT-1-Cleveland-2017-02-15.wav 20170215_jdoe_Cleveland_INT1.wav 20170215_BankCollapse_Cleveland_ParkAmbi.wav
Save a clean version of the file in an archive. You will also back up your edited session but you still want to have a separate archive. Logical naming will help keep the archive useable.
The second copy of the file can be named the same way, or you may want to name it in a way that relates to the specific project that you’ll be using it in.
The most important thing to remember is to name the files BEFORE importing them into your editing project. DO NOT rename the files after you have brought them into your project and begun editing them. Some software allows you to rename files from within the program, and that can be useful in some circumstances. But beware: Using the computer’s file-management to rename, or move, a sound file after you’ve begun editing it, is very likely to confuse your software, leading to missing or mis-aligned files in your project. Most software allows re-linking of missing files, but it’s annoying, doesn’t always work, and creates a potential for re-linking to an incorrect sound file.
Renaming CLIPS in the workspace is a different process, but renaming a sound file, outside of the editing program, is highly discouraged.
When recording directly into your editing software, name the track(s) you’re recording into before you record. In almost all audio software, the resulting sound files will be named with whatever the track is called, so be specific. When you’re searching through audio files in the future, you’ll be happy to not be confronted with large numbers of files called “audio1” or “narr”. Keep it short, but include the project name, or the date, or both.
Creating A New Session
If you’re starting a session from scratch, make a new folder for the project. Some editing programs, such as Pro Tools, create a folder that contains all the various elements of the session, but it’s often useful to have a larger folder into which you can save other information, such as scripts, notes, logs, transcripts, etc.
When you create the audio session, use the same parameters as your primary recordings: Choose the same sample rate and bit-depth as the majority of your audio files. This will reduce the instances of converting from one file format to another, which can have a negative effect on sound quality, and in some cases, even lead to improper playback of audio.
Some radio programs and podcasts have session templates they would like you to work in. If so, open that template, then save it in your project folder with an appropriate name. Keep in mind the same naming conventions as you used for the sound file names. If you’re collaborating, find out if your partners use a specific naming scheme, and if so, stick to it.
If you’re working alone, pick a logical naming system, and save new versions periodically, at least every day. Even though some programs can save incremental backups, those are not always easy to dig through, and sometime the numbering can be misleading, so whenever you make a major change, consider doing a save-as, with an incremented number, such as v1, v2. ALWAYS include the date, in YYYYMMDD format, as part of the name: If you need to come back to the project later, you’ll be thankful to have a clear indication of which versions are older and which newer.
You may want to include a code for the stage of the project as well, using words like edit, assemble, mix, master, PIP (production-in-progress) etc.
When importing audio into a Pro Tools session, you are usually offered a choice to “add” or to “copy” the file into the session. If the sound file requires conversion from a different sample rate or bit-depth from the project settings, you’ll be prompted to “convert.” In Pro Tools, “add” simply creates pointers to the audio file in its original location and does not put a copy in the project’s Audio folder. There are some instances in which that’s a more practical solution, but in almost all cases, you should use “copy” in order to be sure that all sound files used in the project are located in the project’s “audio” folder. Convert automatically makes a copy. You’ll be prompted for a location to save files when copying or converting; the default is the session’s audio folder, and that’s where you should put them, unless you have a good reason for saving them elsewhere!
Hindenburg automatically makes a copy of all files added to a project, and stores them in the (project name) Files folder. In that case, unless you go into that folder and delete, or rename, files — and don’t do that! — all audio needed for the project will be in that folder.
If you’re working with an established radio program or podcast, they might supply a session template, or instructions for how you should structure your session. If not, no matter what software you’re using, there are still a few ways to configure your session so that someone else can easily figure out what’s happening.
First: Name your tracks. This makes it obvious what elements are where in your session. It also serves another purpose: If you record into the session, rather than importing files recorded elsewhere, the track name determines the file name of the recording. You don’t want to end up with a jumbled pile of files named audio1, audio2, audio1.3, music4, narr7, etc. In a very short time, those names will make no sense to you. So, give the tracks concise, but meaningful names.
One Track For Each Voice
This may seem to be unnecessarily cumbersome, but most editors and collaborators will thank you for creating a new track for each person that appears in the piece. It visually helps a project make more sense: You can literally see who’s talking, and also helps if a voice needs a particular kind of processing, such as EQ or noise reduction. For that reason, it also makes sense to make more than one track for a voice if that voice was recorded in different environments. So go ahead and make a Mary Studio track, and a Mary Outside track, and place your clips from Mary on the proper tracks.
Of course, there can be exceptions to this system: If you have many short clips of different voices, such as a vox-pop, or are using several clips pulled from the internet or TV, perhaps some of those can share a track, just to reduce the vertical space that the session occupies.
Ask if your collaborators have a preference for track order. The most widely-used order is: Narration, then “actualities” (radio jargon for someone speaking about something), then ambience, then music.
2. Act 1
3. Act 2
4. Act 3
5. Act 4
(More tracks, or fewer, depending on how many different people are speaking in your production.)
7. Music 1
8. Music 2
9. Master Track
Michael Raphael, from WNYC, was kind enough to send me an example of a Pro Tools session template that he uses on The New Yorker Radio Hour. (Pictured at left) They call the interviewer’s voice tracks “Tracks” rather than “Narration.”
You’ll want to rename the tracks with more specific descriptions of who’s speaking, or what’s on the track, and you may need more, or fewer, of any certain kind of tracks, but this gives you an idea where to start.
Of course, there will be occasions when a different structure will make sense, and as long as you label your tracks clearly, and keep them in some kind of logical order, your collaborators should be able to figure things out. It’s usually better to err on the side of using more tracks, rather than too few. It’s easier for an editor to condense things than to try to figure out the location where a clip was recorded and therefore might need special EQ, or other processing.
Mutes And Solos
Solo-ing tracks to focus on them exclusively, or muting a track to temporarily take it out of the mix, are powerful tools during a mixdown. So, try to avoid using them as an integral part of your session when you hand it off to someone else. If mutes and solos are engaged, it’s very easy to get confused about whether a track is supposed to be heard or not. If you will want quick access to your complete, original recordings, or rough cuts of audio elements at a later time, try moving them out of the way to the right, “downstream.” If you park your original recordings so that they start at exactly one hour elapsed it will still be easy to find sections from your transcript or logs — just add an hour.
Clearing-away those intermediate clips will make it much easier for a collaborator so see what you’re hoping to accomplish!
Of course, there are exceptions to this: if you have different reads of a narration, or alternate music beds, or other such options you would like your collaborators to be able to sample, it might be appropriate to place those clips and mute them. Just be sure to clearly label the tracks they’re on: “Alt Narr” or “Music V2” or something illustrative like that.
Naming the clips used in your edit timeline is very helpful when sharing that session with someone else, and for yourself as well. In most editing programs, renaming clips does not change the names of the underlying sound files, so it will not create any problems with the software being able to find the audio. You can choose a naming scheme that is as detailed as you find helpful — keep in mind that not many characters will display unless you’re zoomed very close, so you may want to be concise.
As has been mentioned above, the most important rule is to communicate with your collaborators. As long as all the participants understand the system, the collaboration should go smoothly.
In following installments of this series, we’ll discuss adjusting gain, automation, and effects. We’ll also give some ideas about how best to export your session to be sure all elements of the project are included. And we’ll look at some options for working with sessions created in a different editing program than you use.
Major thanks to Michael Raphael from WNYC’s The New Yorker Radio Hour (and many other programs) for sharing his practices and techniques. Additional thanks to David Krasnow of The New Yorker Radio Hour and to Jim Briggs from Reveal, for sharing their thoughts.
If you have collaboration techniques that you’re willing to share, please describe them in the comments section below, we’re eager to hear them!