My friend Rae asked me for some guidance making a podcast about her grandmother. We talked on the phone about resources, tools and techniques. I put together a follow-up email that I thought might be useful to anyone interested in narrative audio storytelling. Rae and I are also both interested in video so you’ll see some mentions of that too.
Glad to hear from you about radio storytelling!
Here’s a somewhat outdated field gear guide
. Check out their other articles too, especially the audio samples from recorders and mics in their gear section.
and its defunct predecessor, SaltCast
, are great radio making how-to podcasts from the guy who teaches radio at Transom. Look at older episodes and pick titles related to whatever you’re curious about. These are kind of extra credit—pretty sure you’ll be good at most of the interviewing/editing/
is the NPR manual to making radio. Extra extra credit. Lots of useful knowledge for all aspects of recording, producing, interviewing and reporting. You already have a lot of this knowledge from reading Out on the Wire
A few technical tips before we get to the gear: mic 4-8 inches from your subject, slightly off-center and below their mouth, but pointed right at it. Set levels to hit -12 or -15 Db so you have headroom for a loud laugh but don’t record so low that you have to boost and get a lot of hiss. Always monitor with headphones and avoid air conditioners, traffic, crowds, airplanes, etc. whenever possible. Don’t let your subject hold the mic. Record in a 48khz, 24bit resolution (or higher) lossless format—.wav or another “PCM” format.
Do use bass roll-off/high-pass filtering. Most mics have a low-cut switch on them that’s got a straight line icon to indicate flat response and a line that angles down at the left to show it reduces bass. This helps keep speech from sounding boomy in recordings, and it reduces wind rumble, mic handling and p-pop plosive sounds. A foam windscreen helps you prevent p-pops, as do proper mic placement and headphone monitoring. If you’re EQing manually, reduce frequencies below 80-150 hz.
You’ll need a DAW (digital audio workstation) software for editing. I use Adobe Audition because it’s part of my Adobe CC subscription, and it seems totally equipped for audio stories. ProTools is the standard. Logic Pro and Audacity are popular cheap/free softwares.
You’ll want to apply limiting to reduce the loudest few parts of your raw file down to where most of the loud words are, normalization to boost everything so the loudest parts of your audio stretch to the top of the volume range, volume automation (which is either like riding a control board slider to even out loud/soft passages or doing the same thing with those connect-the-dots keyframes), and then maybe compression (don’t go higher than a 2:1 ratio).
Your goal should be to keep most speech peaking above -24 db (and preferably much closer to -6 db, without clipping or sounding like it’s boomy, pumpy, or sucking in and out). Volume automation helps you boost quiet passages and make up for the volume trail-off at the ends of sentences. You’ll be able to hear everything, even quiet words, in your headphones while editing, but bear in mind that listeners will have trouble understanding speech that goes even a little quieter than the rest when listening while driving.
You may also want to futz with EQ to roll off more bass, boost the 4khz-12khz range for crispness/clarity, make up for a boomy room sound or reduce a background hum/buzz. But it’s generally good to use a light touch, because you’ll have to apply EQ to everything in a piece to make it sound consistent and it’s easy to overdo it.
FIELD KIT GEAR
Closed Back Studio Monitor Headphones:
Best value: $99 Sony MDR 7506 Monitors
Also good: $79 Senheiser HD280
These are $49 and would work: Audio-Technica ATH-M20x Professional Monitor Headphones
Tascam DR-40 handheld, built-in mics, 2X XLR inputs w/ Phantom Power (48V) $179
– This is what I have. Camera / tripod mounted or sling around neck, 2X XLR inputs w/ phantom power (48V) and can record a stereo 1/8″ in simultaneously; doesn’t have built-in mics but has more other features. Also $179
Zoom H4n is really well-liked for video but has hissier preamps than the Tascam recorders. I actually wouldn’t recommend buying a Zoom for that reason. H5 & H6 are similarly battery efficient but noisy.
Short shotgun mics:
Rode NTG-2 Video producer favorite, very good value, $269.
Audio Technica AT897 Similar, but slightly noisier short shotgun that I own. Didn’t realize it’s gone up in price to $249. I’d go for the NTG2.
Shotguns trade off directionality for a slightly boxy / focused sound. There are also cardioid condenser mics that balance directionality and natural sound. Avoid omnidirectional mics. Dynamic mics (magnet-and-coil element, as opposed to condensers, which are two plates) don’t need 48v Phantom Power, but they tend to be less sensitive and more noisy. My SM58 stage mic is a dynamic cardioid mic around $100 and can do an all-around acceptable job.
You need a foam windscreen, and you’ll want a fuzzy “dead cat” if you plan to record anything outside ever, at all. If you want to be well-set for film outdoors, you’d need to invest in a blimp. It encapsulates the mic for the best wind protection, but they’re expensive.
You’ll need an XLR cable
. Don’t skimp here or you’ll get crackly sounds and your cable won’t last. Look for a popular, well-reviewed, not-quite-cheapest option. 6′-10′ length is sufficient if you’re hand-holding your mic (which is hard to do without getting handling noise in your recording). 12′-15′ is a good length if you’re using a boom pole
(more necessary for film—this is mine
Regardless of whether you get a boom, you should seriously consider getting a shock mount
. You can attach one to a boom or to a pistol grip handle (I think your mic comes with a handle, and I think some shock mounts do too). Helps a lot to isolate from handling vibrations.
and a charger. Get panasonic eneloops or the white Amazon Basics Ni-MH batteries
. They hold their charge better and longer and have better total life than other Ni-MH’s. The Panasonic Advanced charger does de-charging and fast charging and has all the charges-fast-but-not-so-fast-
it-screws-up-your-batteries features you want at a cheap price. This is a great overall value
combo pack. Own at least two sets of 4 and carry some spare alkalines, especially if you use a battery-hungry recorder like mine.
An SD card. Mine is 32 GB and I’ve never come close to filling it up, even after two or three projects.
Camera neck strap—any will do—essential for a recorder like mine because you can’t hand hold it easily. Also nice even if you have a handheld recorder because it frees up one of your hands to make levels adjustments while you hold your mic. Transom does a good job of evaluating the way the knobs and screens are positioned on various recorders to easily allow this kind of carrying while still being able to keep an eye on, and adjust, your gain level.
You could get a large diaphragm condenser mic and an audio interface (or a USB mic like the Blue Yeti
) if you want to track better narration at home, but honestly you can do it just fine with your field kit under a blanket or in your closet. Parked cars are also surprisingly good places to record tracking or interviews, so long as you’re on a quiet street.
Really hoping you get into radio making! I want more radio friends to nerd out with. Let me know how it goes!
PS I’m probably going to publish this now that I’ve written it all out. Thanks for the prompt!
Contact me if you use this info! I’d love to hear about your project. chris dot sirico at gmail. Photo by ores2k on Flickr.