When it comes to recording sound, not all equipment is created equal. But even if you can’t afford a top-of-the-line audio kit, there is a wide range of devices that you can use to record an interview for your stories. In the end, whether you’re using a Zoom H4N or a Fisher Price Cassette Recorder, it’s still the audio you gather that truly makes your story compelling. This guide will help you get the best audio for your commentaries AND give your instructions to guide your interviewee through recording themselves using one of the most accessible audio recording devices — the smartphone.
Where to record
IF YOU’RE RECORDING A COMMENTARY OR INTERVIEW: Get to a quiet spot. Record in a small, carpeted and furnished room if possible because sound bounces off of tiles and bare echo-y spaces. Unplug or remove all devices that click, tick, ring, hum or buzz.
How to record
IF YOU’RE RECORDING A COMMENTARY OR INTERVIEW: In order to get the best possible sound, the speakers need to be about 2-3 inches away from the mouth, held at a 45 degree angle downwards. Make sure nothing is touching the microphone.
Press record, and make sure the counter is going (if you’re guiding an interviewee through this process ask to make sure the device is recording). A red bar will appear at the top of the screen.
IF YOU’RE RECORDING A COMMENTARY: Have a glass of water nearby just in case. Whether you’re reading the script off of a computer or piece of paper, make sure it won’t move or make noise as you record. We recommend printing it out on a piece of paper and using a pencil to mark it up as you read. Either way, make sure the script is easy to read—if you’re in a dark space, you may want to use a headlamp.
Always remember to record multiple times with varying emphasis—again, like we do in the studio. Read it all the way through one time, then each section several times (until you’re positive you have at least one good take), then all the way through again. Write down what time you start each take so that it’s easier to string together (your DIY cut sheet). We recommend doing all of your takes under one long recording, as sending a dozen different audio files over email can get confusing and time-consuming.
IF YOU’RE RECORDING AN INTERVIEW: If the interview goes longer than 6 min, tell your interviewee to start another recording. This will make the audio easier to send later. When the interview is finished, have them stop the recording one last time.
Make sure to have your interviewee retitle their recordings with their name and number of the recording out of the total number of recordings (for example: KyraKyles_1of5).
Additional Tips and Tricks
- Consider investing in an external microphone. If you need to gather higher quality sound, there are many setup options (like this one) that allow you to record and edit via your phone. External microphones can also help if you want to gather characteristic sounds of a particular scene.
- Check out some broadcast/recording apps. There are many free or inexpensive mobile apps that allow you to customize the levels and quality of the sounds you record on your phone. Two popular options are Hindenburg and Transom — though new ones are popping up every day!
- Can’t go there in person? Record your phone calls. “Phoner tape,” as it’s called in audio editing circles, isn’t the highest quality sound — that’s why many radio studios use tape syncers (locals with audio equipment who can gather sound in-person) to do remote interviews. But if your source lives far away and you’re on a budget, there are still ways to preserve that audio. Check out inexpensive apps like Tape A Call or Recorder. Free options are possible using Skype and Google Voice. If you’re doing a phoner, try asking the person you’re interviewing if they have a smartphone. If so, they can record using the voice memo option on their device (using the tips above) and then email you the audio afterwards.
OTHER RECORDING OPTIONS
Computer (desktop or laptop). Built-in computer microphones generally aren’t as high quality as the ones in smart phones, but you can always pair them with a good external microphone to get decent sound. Check out Transom’s guide to setting up a basic home studio for tips on mics and software. Free audio editing software mainstays like Audacity and GarageBand are excellent programs for beginners.
Portable Digital Recorder. Outside of a professional studio, a high quality portable digital recorder is your best bet to get broadcast-quality sound — but expect to shell out a few hundred bucks. Transom has a comparison guide geared toward professional storytellers that may help you make your choice. Don’t forget, for a full set up you’ll also want to invest in a good pair of headphones and an external mic that fits your needs.
Now that you have a way to gather your audio, check out YR Media’s free lesson plan on How To Teach Field Recording.