MAEKAN Classroom Audio Stories — Part 4: Production
The MAEKAN Classroom is a series created by the MAEKAN team to pass on the skills we’ve learned in the past few years. We don’t plan to wait until we have a “masterclass” or spent decades honing our craft to share experience and knowledge that works. We want to help get self-taught creatives started telling and publishing their stories today.
By now, you’ve prepared enough to know what you want and what you can expect going into production, while still leaving some room for spontaneity and pleasant surprises.
This fourth part of the MAEKAN Classroom series on audio stories will cover a few best practices for when you’re recording audio, depending on the type of recording situation you’ll be facing, whether it’s:
• An interview with one subject or several
• An off-the-cuff discussion
• Narration to go with other pre-recorded audio
• Sound capture out in the field
• Like taking a picture, you want to separate the things you want to capture away from the things you don’t. You do this in a photo through a variety of choices such as lenses, composition, exposure, and focus. For sound, you do this through your microphone choice, where you point the microphone, the distance between the mic and sound, and your gain.
• Whether it’s a discussion, interview or narration, warm ups are good to have instead of just jumping in. For narration especially, warm ups are key to good delivery. If you’re recording your own voice by yourself, warming up your voice, mouth and face will save you time by reducing mistakes and make for a better sound overall.
• When recording with other people, guide your subjects but don’t over direct them. You goal should be to capture candid, natural delivery.
• When capturing sounds in the field, make sure to monitor the sound with earbuds whenever possible, especially if you’re working by yourself. When capturing sound in the field, try to anticipate the action or create it.
• Under most circumstances, your recording levels for most situations should fall between -12db and -6db. This is to give you some buffer so that any sudden loud noises won’t make your audio capture “peak.” It’s easier to make a recording that’s too quiet louder, but hard to make it quieter when it’s too loud.
• Ideally, every key element being captured is recorded to a separate track and file. You can do this by either recording with more than one microphone or by recording elements individually in isolation.
• Before recording voice, have everyone do a microphone check by speaking at the volume they’ll be using during the recording and testing for ‘p’ pops by saying the tongue twister “Peter Piper picks a peck of pickled peppers”. If the pops are very audible, adjust the microphone distance, use a pop filter, or decrease the gain on the microphone.
• Where possible, make sure there’s no music or similarly repetitive background noise. For the cleanest capture, switch off background noises like air conditioners or fans. Tell everyone present to turn their phones to silent mode.
• Try to capture at least one minute of room tone per location, especially when there’s recorded speaking. This will be used to “patch” or “fill” any silences you make by cutting audio out of a track.
The same techniques above apply to conversations. But there are a few extra things to consider depending on how many people are speaking and how many microphones you have:
• Turn-Taking: Where the focus of an interview is on one person, a recorded conversation places more emphasis on the dynamic between several people. Try to avoid exceedingly long stretches of a single person talking (roughly over one minute) by acknowledging points the person makes as they go or asking related prompts if it seems the person is struggling to find their words or to finish their sentence.
• Interruptions: If you’re recording an interview or conversation, try not to interrupt your subject too often. This makes it hard or impossible to remove the sound of your voice if it overlaps theirs, especially if you’re sharing a microphone.
Overall, unscripted conversations work best when everyone including your subjects are at ease, especially if it’s their first time. Re-assure them that they are free to say anything they want, and that any undesirable bits such as off-color jokes or mis-stated information can be cut out after.
Whether you’re recording an interview, conversation, and even narration (if the location isn’t a studio), remember to get your one minute or more of ambient sound.
With semi-scripted interviews, help your subject by setting the mic at a height and position that’s comfortable to them and encourage them to keep their mouth relatively in front of the mic so that the captured audio remains even and constant.
• Change the game: If your subject has already been interviewed before, there’s a good chance they’ve answered a lot of similar questions. Whether or not this is the case, we generally feel it’s not imperative that you make it through every question on your list. Be sure to leave room to ask follow-up questions that unpack their answers.
• Act natural: Depending on your subject, if you can treat your interview as a conversation (backed up with questions for structure), you’re more likely to get unique moments and insights than you would if you rigidly stuck to a list.
• Guide, but don’t over direct: Your subject might not be the most confident or eloquent speaker, and that’s totally fine. Occasionally, you might want them to repeat a statement that’s especially impactful or informative but where their delivery isn’t as smooth or orderly.You might also want them to rephrase their answer to include the original question if you think you might use their answer separately and need the context included (Q: “When did you first start?” A: “I first started when I…”).
Some examples of how you can ask your subject to repeat their statement:
“That was really good, but could you repeat that for me in a complete sentence?”
“Do you mind trying that one more time?”
“Could you include the question in your answer?”
Give your subjects a heads-up that you’ll be doing this before you start the interview, but don’t make them repeat themselves too often during the talk. Your goal should be to catch a good conversation with them on record, not extract pristine audio clips from them.
Scripted Recording: Narration
Here are a few ways you can enhance your vocal delivery if you’re tense or your story needs a certain tone:
• “Clean” your tools: Water is a must to keep your body hydrated, but you can consume other things to control the inside of your mouth, your throat and your voicebox. These are to prevent mouth noises (those little clicks like when you smack your lips while eating), which can make editing a lot more time consuming. Some people recommend tart green apples or diluted vinegar to cut mucus (Nate’s go-to is a cold can of black coffee because it’s readily available). Others recommend raw honey, olive oil, or similar substances to lubricate a dry mouth. Experiment and use what works best for you
• De-stress: The biggest thing that kills delivery is stress or nerves so whether it’s taking a shower first, stretching your neck or doing light exercise, your goal is to get your body out of a tensed up state and into one that’s more comfortable and fluid to express yourself. However you choose to do that is entirely up to you.
• Breathing: Warm up your breathing means activating your diaphragm, the big flap of internal muscle under your lungs that helps you breathe. A quick way to do this is take a deep belly breath—as opposed to a shallow chest breath—and slowly exhale by hissing in a controlled manner, letting out the minimum amount of air at a time. Once you’re comfortable doing one long one, you can add three short hissing bursts followed by four to five faster ones in rapid succession.
• Voice: A classic way to warm up your voice box without hurting your voice is to hum, use tongue trills or lip rolls through the comfortable range of your singing voice. These involve making controlled vibrations with your tongue or lips and raising your pitch up and down. If you’re having trouble doing lip rolls, you can lightly pinch the corners of your mouth with your thumb and finger.
• Mouth and face: You can loosen up the muscles in your mouth and face by first “scrunching” all the muscles in your face (as if you ate something extremely sour) and pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Hold this for a count of three.Then, do the complete opposite by stretching your mouth, eyes and eyebrows up and outward for a count of three.
You’re going to look silly doing this, so you can either own it, do this in private, or cover your face with your hands.
Finish the warm-up doing a quick massage of your cheeks and jaw joints.
• Good to know: If you keep find yourself getting tongue-tied or breathless, you might need to revise the script and make sure it’s written to be spoken and not read. Doing this will save you time and energy. Otherwise, you can break up long sentences into parts—you say one part, pause, take a breath, pause, and say the next part. This keeps your tone consistent and stops the microphone from picking up your inhalation noises.
Freeform: Field Audio & Foley
When you’re recording audio out in the field,
• Safety first: Be wary of your surroundings. Even as you’re scanning the environment to look for sounds, make sure you find a safe spot to scout from or check your device. Similarly, keep one earbud out of your ear if you’re in hazardous areas such as near roads.
• Big to Small: If you’re recording for coverage, that is, you’re trying to get comprehensive coverage of a given location, you could approach it in the same way you would when taking video or photos: you start with a very wide shot and once you’re satisfied with your capture, you get progressively closer until you’re focused on the fine details. Elphick tends to record the wide shots in stereo (Left and Right tracks) to capture a broader picture, but records in mono for individual sounds.
• Use discretion in public: Just as many strangers are not happy to have their photos taken, a group of people might not be welcoming to a random person recording their animated conversation. Thankfully, most of the public is less accustomed to people with recording devices and headphones walking around pointing their microphone at things, so you have some freedom from judgement.
• Record in mono and not stereo.
• Record at least one minute of the ambient audio of your interview/discussion location (the room tone) with the exact setup as your recording such as keeping the microphone pointed where your subject was. Where possible, avoid having music or any other non-repetitive sound.
• Especially for field recording, always keep your headphones in to monitor the sound. To not do so would be like shooting a picture without framing it in the screen or viewfinder. Exceptions: in hazardous areas.
• When recording with other people, ask subjects to repeat statements if you really need to, but don’t constantly coach or interrupt them.
If you have any questions or feedback on this episode or series, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Produced by Nate Kan
Audio by Elphick Wo
Main Illustration by Kevin Wong