Posted on October 31, 2007
First lesson in audio for journalists
I am getting a little weary of hearing journalists and educators say they don’t know how to do audio.
Let’s see whether I can translate my less-than-50-minute* lesson into plain text.
It helps if you are holding the recorder, mic and cable — and demonstrating while you teach this. (Sorry, I don’t have video of me teaching it!)
- Always use an external microphone.
- Make sure the recorder is recording before you start.
- Let the subject do the talking.
- Don’t say “Uh huh” or “Mm hm.” Learn to nod silently and make great eye contact so they know you are listening closely.
- Ask questions that lead the subject to tell a story.
- Collect relevant natural sound, e.g., hammers, crowds, water, traffic, street musicians.
- Never let the subject hold the mic, and don’t move your hand on the mic.
- Don’t swing or bump the mic cable.
- Carry spare batteries.
- Ask the subject to say his or her full name, job title, home town, etc. — at the end. If they say it too fast, ask them to say it again, more slowly.
Practice Gathering Audio
If you have gear, or if the students have gear:
- Put students in teams of two, with one recorder and one mic for each pair.
- Send them outdoors, and tell them to interview each other (one at a time, please) for five minutes.
- Tell them to be careful about background noise in the spot they choose.
- Require them to WEAR HEADPHONES while they conduct the interview. What they hear in the headphones is what the recorder is recording. (If the interview subject’s P’s and S’s are too pronounced, the mic is too close to the subject’s mouth. Move it.)
- Open Audacity (more about that below).
- Open this file (or one like it) in Audacity. This file is a good one to use because: (a) it is very short; and (b) it has clear pauses between statements, which make it easy to demonstrate selecting bites.
- Show the students how to delete the preliminary stuff at the beginning: Select and delete (press the Delete key).
- Show the students how to undo (Edit menu, or Ctrl-Z, or Cmd-Z).
- Show the students how to MOVE a piece of audio from the end of the clip to another place in the clip: Select, cut, click on the new place, and paste (use the Edit menu, or use Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V; on a Mac, it’s Cmd-X and Cmd-V).
You’re done. Those are the basics of editing digital audio.
I always tell students: It’s like using Microsoft Word, which every reporter already knows how to do. Cut, copy, paste. You already know how to do this.
Practice Editing Audio
If you have computers, or if the students have computers, with Audacity installed:
- Copy the file onto the hard drive.
- Convert from WMA to WAV (if necessary).
- Open the file in Audacity.
- Edit the interview you just completed to a length of 45 to 60 seconds.
- Cut out all the “ums” and “ahs.”
- Move the subject’s introduction from the end to the beginning.
- Save and export as an MP3 file.
If you are a journalism educator, I can promise you — these take less time to grade than a 300-word (written) news story. You can complete this entire training — including gathering AND editing — in less than three hours. I have done it lots of times! The students can turn in their first edited audio project at the end of the class.
* If it’s all hands-on, you’ll need about 2.5 to 3 hours. If it’s only show-and-tell, with no hands-on, you can do it in less than one hour.
Grading Criteria for First Audio Exercise
- 2 points: The audio is interesting and tells a coherent story.
- 2 points: The audio sounds clear, and the quality is good.
- 1 point: The length is between 45 and 60 seconds.
(I am assuming your students already know how to conduct a journalistic interview.)
Use this handout (PDF, 236 KB) for instructions. It explains not only how to do all of the editing, but also, how to download and install Audacity — which is free and works on Windows, Mac and Linux.
In most cases, I’m using a sub-$100 Olympus digital recorder. I have mics that cost abut $100 each and others that cost about $15 each. The cable costs about $10. So you can put together a usable audio kit for about $100 altogether.
When you are ready for more, look here.