Tips for Audio Production & Recording

In my last post, I outlined some of the key components of audio storytelling, such as narration, interviews, actuality and natural sound. Once you’ve brainstormed, or even scripted, all the audio elements you need to effectively tell your story, it’s time to capture them. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you get started.

  • Choose the right equipment. Just like cameras, microphones are not all the same and they’re used for different purposes. For example, omnidirectional mics pick up sound coming in from all directions with equal sensitivity, making them the obvious choice for recording certain kinds of natural sound. Bidirectional mics are most sensitive to sound in the front and rear (great for two-way interviews), while unidirectional mics are only sensitive to sound in the front and actually block sound coming in from other directions, making them the ideal choice for narration or one-way interviews.

Additional considerations for selecting a mic are size and mobility. Lapel mics that affix to an interview subject’s shirt or dress collar are widely used in videos because they’re small and discreet, and allow you to conduct the interview from behind the camera. High-quality cordless mics are also available for shoots that require greater mobility, but it may take some practice to master their frequency settings. Think about your needs, get the best equipment you can afford and learn how to use it well.

  • Focus on sound bites. A great conversation doesn’t always translate into a great interview. Good stories require interview subjects to deliver clear, succinct responses, or sound bites, without a lot of filler words like “umm” and “like.” Long, rambling sentences are confusing for your audience to digest, difficult for you to edit, and will, ultimately, slow the pace of your story, which means you risk losing your listeners’ valuable attention.

To ensure that your interview subjects provide concise responses, prepare them with your questions and expectations ahead of time. During the interview, ask short, targeted questions (and repeat them if necessary) to get the coherent sound bites you need to enrich your story. And, of course, make sure you don’t sabotage your sound bite by accidentally interrupting your interview subject’s response!

  • Watch your levels. When you can, especially during interviews, wear headphones to ensure that you hear exactly what your mic is recording. This works well if you have a partner to conduct the actual interview. If you can’t wear headphones because you’re conducting the interview yourself, be sure to test the audio levels with headphones before you start to record and check them periodically throughout your session to make sure the mic is picking up sound within a safe range of volume. You can adjust audio levels up and down some during post-production editing, but it’s much easier to begin with high-quality sound.
  • Beware of ambient sound and white noise. You’ll be surprised how loud your office is the first time you try to record an interview in it—people coming and going, phones ringing, doors opening and closing…the list goes on. Some of this may be useful as natural sound, but there are two kinds of sound that should be minimized or avoided: ambient sound and white noise.
    • Ambient sound is similar to natural sound, but it provides distraction from, rather than context to, your story—for example, the sound of the office toilet flushing or a microwave beeping as a colleague finishes heating her lunch. These sounds, however true they may be to your office environment, won’t lend anything to your story and will probably distract your listeners.
    • White noise is the soft din created by the many electronics that surround us. It can come from things like air conditioning or heating vents, fluorescent lights, or even your recording equipment itself.

Be aware of these sounds and whether they’re filtering into your recording and compromising its audio quality, as they’re very hard to eliminate in post-production.

  • Capture sound separately when necessary. If you’re shooting video, know ahead of time that you won’t always be able to capture high-quality audio simultaneously with your video. This pertains mostly to natural sound and actuality. Of course, it’s always ideal to record your audio and video together for ease of editing, but depending on your equipment, you may occasionally need to do a separate take just for sound. For example, if you’re shooting video of someone running through their neighborhood, you’ll need to capture the visual shot from a distance, but you may also want to mic the subject to capture the sound of the run itself—the subject’s breath, footsteps, leaves crunching underfoot, etc… When planning your shoots, be sure to allow some time for additional sound recording.

Once you’ve recorded all of your audio elements, it’s time to edit them together! Check back soon for part three of this three-part series, “Tips for Post-production Audio Editing & Mastering.”

Ariel Surowidjojo

Former account manager Ariel Olson Surowidjojo loves watching small things with lots of potential grow—like her daughter (Senoya), her porch hanging garden, and the many nonprofits she’s privileged to serve. Ariel feels most at home on her yoga mat and most alive when she’s looking down from a mountaintop or standing knee-deep in a tide pool searching for hidden ocean creatures. She’s worked as a social change communicator for nearly a decade and still can’t persuade her dad to get on Facebook.
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