RGMP 3: Buy an audio recorder and learn to use it

This post is third in a series called “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” You can find links to the earlier posts at the end of this one.

As a journalist or journalism student, it’s likely you already have an audio recorder. It’s also somewhat likely that the one you have is not suitable for gathering audio that can be listened to online by people other than you. So read this earlier post — A few words about digital audio recorders — and give some thought to that.

What you need, at bare minimum, is a recorder that can connect to your computer and upload an audio file that is NOT in some crazy file format that cannot be converted to WAV. If your recorder saves files as WMA, or as MP3, or as WAV, it is okay.

One thing I’ve discovered is that many people who use a computer every day have no clue about file formats. If you’re a journalist, you probably know that your MS Word files are in the DOC (.doc) format. You may be familiar with plain-text format, TXT (.txt). Well, audio files have their own formats. You’ve probably heard of MP3 (.mp3) because of the iPod, podcasts, Napster, etc. MP3 is a compressed format. It saves space on the device (such as the recorder, or your iPod) because a compressed file is smaller. That means it has fewer megabytes. For example, I have a WAV file that’s 6 min. 30 sec. long. File size: 65.3 MB. With no editing, I convert it to an MP3. File size: 4.4 MB.

So, uncompressed files are larger. But you want to edit an uncompressed file so that you have all the audio data available and unadulterated. When you finish the editing, you’ll export a new MP3 file.

Learning to use your recorder

I know journalists are all macho (even the female reporters — well, not macho, but tough), and macho people never read the manual.

That’s just stupid. The manual that comes with an audio recorder is short and simple. The main thing you need to read is the part about the menus. Every audio recorder has a crazy menu that’s a pain in the neck to navigate. But you need to set things correctly on those annoying menus, and I promise you, it will be 100 times easier if you RTFM (that’s an old computer programmer term; it means Read The F’ing Manual).

So set the date and time, for certain. And set the recording quality to the highest possible quality. (This is extremely important! You need to get the best-sounding recording possible, and this is an essential part of doing that.) If you have a choice between stereo and mono recording, choose mono. (The file size will be smaller.)

Some recorders, like the new Olympus VN-5200PC, have different recording modes for the built-in microphone. On that model it’s called Mic Sense, and the two choices are Dict (Lo) and Conf (Hi). It will be called something else on another recorder. Read about the mic sensitivity setting for your recorder, and experiment. Take it into your kitchen, for example, lay it on the counter, and walk around saying, “Testing, 1, 2, 3, testing.” Then change the setting and do the same thing again.

This is how we learn how to use our gear. You spend the time, and you figure it out.

Learning to conduct the interview

As a journalist, you already know how to interview someone. But you need to change a few small things if you want to get clean audio that can be added to a slideshow or used in a podcast.

  1. How you hold the microphone, or the recorder, can make noise that interferes with the words of your interview subject. Get comfortable, and then, don’t move your fingers, hand, or arm during the interview.
  2. Laying the recorder on a table can also allow unfortunate noises. What if your interview subject smacks the surface of the table to make a point?
  3. Figure out the proper distance between the mic and the subject’s mouth. This can depend on the mic sensitivity setting (see above).
  4. How will you know if the recording is clear and clean? WEAR HEADPHONES. Listening through headphones is the only way to ensure that you know what the recorder is recording. Sometimes you will hear a hum or buzzing through the headphones that you would not notice with your naked ears. But guess what? That noise is in your recording. Wear the headphones and save yourself the heartbreak of bringing back unusable audio.
  5. Don’t say uh-huh. The reporter needs to shut up and listen. Learn to nod and smile, instead of saying, “Yes, uh-huh, yes.” Give the subject visual encouragement, not audible.
  6. You will cut out all of your questions in the editing. So you need to learn how to phrase your questions in a manner that encourages the subject to give a complete answer. Especially, avoid yes and no answers. You can’t use those replies.
  7. The reporter always holds the mic. NEVER give the mic to the subject! YOU control the mic.
  8. Use strong eye contact to keep the interview subject’s mouth from pointing down at the mic and blowing on it. If the subject’s breath hits the mic, you will hear pops for the P sounds and hisses for the S sounds. Not good.

Practice makes perfect, so don’t expect your first couple of efforts to be free of errors. You will improve rapidly. Gathering clean audio is a very easy skill for print journalists to acquire.

It is absolutely necessary for you to EDIT your own audio, or else you’ll never improve your interviewing technique. That will be our topic tomorrow.

One final tip for interviews

There’s a simple technique I call “the questions after.” This frees you to conduct a longer interview and record the whole thing without worrying about the background noise, etc., when you want to take written notes while your subject is talking.

When you’ve finished, stop the recorder. Put on your headphones. Start a new recording, and explain to your subject that you need to put some audio online, and you will now repeat two (or three) questions, and would the person please answer as before (but don’t worry about saying exactly the same thing).

This way you can re-ask only the questions that yielded the most interesting or relevant answers the first time around. There are two benefits: (1) The subject’s answers are often more compact and organized the second time. (2) Your job of editing is easier, because the short (second) audio file will take less time to cut.

Previous posts in this series:

19 Comments on “RGMP 3: Buy an audio recorder and learn to use it

  1. Mindy — Great series of posts (as usual). One thing to point out with this entry on best practices with audio recorders is that many of the same guidelines apply during interviews on camera — especially the advice about microphones and the importance of training yourself to NOT SPEAK while your subject is speaking. I’m sure you’ll get into all that further on down the line … just wanted to say thanks for posting these breakdowns/guides!

  2. Thanks Mindy, this post come just in time… I haven`t been happy with my interviews and that I am changin from traditional newspaper work to digital.
    One of the things I noticed it that the voice is not equal in te volume… is there any techinnique to fix this? Maybe an equilizer? to make equal…
    Thanks a lot…

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  10. I apologize for not mentioning this to you much earlier, but these posts are great. They are informative and packed with very useful information!

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  13. Mindy,
    I’m not a journalist but I am a music educator who has done a lot of hands on testing of a bunch of different digital audio recorders. In reading your post I thought of a few things that I think you should also consider when buying one of these units that may not be self evident.

    First, the vast majority of audio recorders now record either to WAV or MP3 format. The smaller voice recorders (like your Olympus models) may record to some other format, but any good quality recorder will do both formats. For the best result stick with WAV, but for long recordings MP3 works fine too.

    Second, especially in a journalism application I would suggest getting a recorder that has the ability to record in 360 degree stereo. not all recorders do this. The Zoom H4n is kind of big, but it has the ability to record in three different patterns so that you can pick up only the audio that is important to you and not record much of the background noise. Also, if quality of audio is important to you, the bigger the microphones are the better.

    Lastly, always go for a recorder that uses removable media. That way if you are half way through a recording session and run out of space all you have to do is slap in another card.

    I’ll admit, I have a passion for these things. I have actually done hands on testing and presentations on a large number of audio recorders. If you or anyone else is interested in them take a look at the guide I put together on the topic:


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