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Audio tech guide: equip yourself to get the best possible tape

Part of what makes interviewing so tough is you can't predict where things will go — you have to be nimble and ready to react appropriately as the story unfolds. But one thing that is within your power to control is your audio recording equipment.
Producer Vanessa Greco interviews John O'Keefe for her documentary, Welcome Noise.

I don't know about you, but I get pretty nervous before interviewing someone. I mean, asking challenging and personal questions to a person you don't know? I love it, but it's not easy.

Part of what makes interviewing so tough is you can't predict where things will go — you have to be nimble and ready to react appropriately as the story unfolds. One of the things I've found can put me at ease is being prepared and controlling the things you can. That means researching your subject and what you want to get from the interview.

Another thing that is within your power to control is your equipment. Always be certain you have the right equipment for the job, and it's in proper working order before you dive into an interview.

Here's an audio technical guide to make sure you're heading into the field in tip-top shape, every time.

Do you have the right mic for the job?

  1. a) Cardioid handheld mic
The Shure SM58 mic captures in a cardioid recording pattern.
This is the go-to mic for many doc makers. From conducting an interview, to recording natural sound, this mic can do it all. The word cardioid refers to the space which the mic can record. 

A cardioid mic basically records in the shape of an inverse heart. Point the mic directly at what you want to record. There is some sound pick-up on the side of the mic, but it won't be as good quality as what you are pointing the mic at.

 At CBC Radio we commonly use the Shure SM58 or BETA58A.

Pro tip: mic positioning

A mic needs to be pretty close to your subject — but not too close. A good way to quickly measure if your mic is in the right spot is to use your thumb and pinky to measure the distance between your mic and their mouth.

  1. b) Shotgun mic 
The Sennheiser ME 66 and the typical polar pattern for a shotgun mic.
This mic is a good one to grab if you want to get really tight on a single sound that is difficult to get close to, like the footsteps of someone walking ahead of you, or the crashing of waves on a beach. This mic is like a laser pointer sharply focusing in one spot. There are a few things to remember when using this mic:
  • You need to turn it on
  • This mic needs a battery
  • You need to make sure your recorder has its P48 — phantom power turned on
  • It is very sensitive, and mic noise can be an issue if you are holding it in your hand (consider purchasing a handheld mic holder to cut down on mic noise)

 At CBC Radio we commonly use the Sennheiser ME 66 hyper-directional microphone.

  1. c) Omnidirectional mic
The Shure SM63 mic captures an omnidirectional polar pattern.
This kind of mic gives you a more global sound — it records in a full circle around the mic. 

This can be good, but it also can be trouble. 

If you are recording a conversation where you want to just focus on the voice you are pointing at, the omni isn't a good choice. But, if you are in a situation where you want to record sound 360 degrees around, you've found your mic.

 At CBC Radio we commonly use the Shure SM63 omnidirectional mic.

Pro tip: practice 

Knowing your equipment is in good shape helps keep your nerves under control — and it also relaxes the subject. When someone is sharing their story they need to feel like it will be well-cared for, and that that they have your undivided attention.

It's always wise to practice using your equipment before recording an interview. Practice changing your batteries. Practice setting up. Record a mock interview with a friend or family member. The more relaxed you are during the recording, the better the chances that your guest will also be at ease. 

Choose a recorder and make it work for you

There are lots of recorders you can use — here are three common ones in the industry:

  • Here at CBC Radio we use the tried-and-true Marantz (doc producer Karin Wells walks us through using this recorder in the video below)
  • Other recommended recorders include the Tascam and Zoom.

Each use an XLR cable to attach the mic to the recorder, but the Tascam also has an internal mic. This can be a nice back-up mic if something were to go wrong with your handheld mic or XLR cable.

Pro tip: headphones

The most important thing to know about headphones, is you need to have them! It allows you to better monitor the levels of your recording. Most importantly though, it allows you to recognize if your recording has stopped. Oh, and it makes you look pretty darn professional.

In these two additional videos, Sook-Yin Lee and Karin Wells talk through some of their tips and tricks of recording, including the use of headphones, positioning of mics, and more.

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