Saturday, June 2, 2007

Talk dirty to me

Face it, some days you just can’t get out of the office.

These days of cell phones and BlackBerries make it easier to stay connected, but sometimes more difficult to set up that face-to-face interview. And if we’re out to get good audio for our multimedia reports, it helps to be able to set up your microphone in a quiet, almost studio-like environment and get a pristine voice from an expert source to drive your slideshow or video.

But really, how often does that happen? I’m a believer that even as we move into a multimedia world, we have to be able to get the job done on deadline. We can’t ignore being aggressive reporters or sacrifice the opportunities we’ve always seized in the newspaper business because we need “clean” audio.

Our friends at NPR don’t let that stop them. How often do you hear an NPR phone interview, which sounds crisp and clean? Just because we don’t have radio studios or cool recording consoles doesn’t mean we can’t come close.

We need what our broadcast friends have: post-production assistance. Need to record and down-and-dirty phone interview? Clean it up in Audacity, or some other audio editing software. The link asks the question and offers several explanations that will also teach the value of dynamic compression and other things you never thought you’d have to know.

Here’s the thumbnail version, ready for an info-box:

  • Phone conversations exist on the frequency curve between 300 and 3,100 Hz. Remember those numbers (I have them on a sticky note on the front of my computer screen at work). To minimize hum, static and other nasty signals coming across the phone line, just narrow your sound to that frequency, Kenneth.
  • Unless you like playing around with equalizers and other fun audio stuff, the easiest way I’ve found to do this is with the “pass” filters. Under the “effects” menu, you’ll find a “low pass” filter and a “high pass” filter. This is how is was explained to me, and I’ll see if I can relay it as a reporter with ink-stained fingernails. These filters do exactly what they say - the “low pass” lets the low sounds pass through and filters out the higher end (the larger number). Set that to 3100 to limit anything higher. The high pass lets the high pitches pass: set that to 300 to cut out all the lower ends.
  • Then you can do normalize or compress the audio (you should compress the final product so all the volumes sound the same) and your phone interview will sound better.
Really, it will. So get that interview anyway you can. Record it. Then clean it up in post-production.


  1. But what were you thinking of using that audio for?

    Listening to audio all by itself, with no video or stills, is rarely compelling enough so people will sit through it. Especially with no natural sound. And ou obviously can't collect nat sound, video or stills without being at the scene ... Maybe if there's one interviewee who can't go to the scene, this would be a good suggestion. But still no substitute for actually being there.

  2. Must try that one out. Does it work with Skype? Being there isn't really an option when I'm in Northeast China and my interview subject is in Vietnam.

  3. Chris: I use Skype to talk to my stepdaughter in Yemen, but have never used it for interviews. Since it runs through your computer, have you tried recording the call directly into your audio editing software? Then you can work with it more easily. Let us know if this works.

  4. I agree with Angela: people want something to view. But getting audio is half the battle. I know reporters who will not record interviews then later have nothing extra to put on the web. But pair that telephone interview with some good stills, or import it as an interview voice-over for video of what the person is describing, and you can get by in a pinch. There is nothing better than being there, but if for some reason you can't be, this is a good backup.

  5. Any suggestions to a cheap and goo tool / gadget that can record mobile phone interviews regardless of what phone you're on?

  6. I tried to buy one cell-phone connector for my recorder, and it didn't work.

    This is different, and although I haven't tried it it looked interesting, and for the price it might be worth trying

    Or some recorders work especially with cell phones:

  7. This is a technical question, a little off-post, but here goes: I've just bought myself one of those cheap Nady mics to play around with on some assignments, intending to hook it up to an MP3 player of mine that has a record function (it's an iRiver H320, if you want to know). When I went to the local music store to buy a cable for the mic, the guy told me I needed a "mic input transformer" to drop the impedance (or maybe raise the impedance?) so it would work with my player. That set me back $25, and I still need a longer cord for it to all be more comfortable to use. Now, it does work, although all these plugs and things make static if they just move a tiny bit. Did I need to buy this thing? And what do you do to keep static at bay between plugs - electrical tape?

  8. On the technical note, if you're having trouble with plugs, I would return them.

    Is this the kind of transformer you're using:

    This says it has a 10-foot connection, which might prevent the need for so many connectors.

    Or look here:

    for the Hosa MIT-156. It's a transformer with XLR female to Stereo 1/8" miniplug male connector.

    If this is similar to what you have, then probably all you have is a bad connection somewhere. I'd take the cords and transformer back and make them give you new ones with a more solid connection.

    If you find there's nothing wrong with the transformer, then take it to an electronics shop and tell them you want an adapter with a longer cord and a good connection fit. Test it there in the store to make sure you don't get that annoying static.

    I've connected all sorts of wires together, and if you have a good connection fit, you shouldn't get the static. My experience has been that always signals something defective, and the store should either replace it or refund it.

    Especially at a music store, they ought to understand this.

    Let us know if any of this works.