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Four smartphone tricks that every audio producer should know

There's one tool that everybody has that can make doc making easier — and sound better. So grab your smartphone and veteran radio producer Cesil Fernandes will share four tricks that can save your audio life.
Cesil Fernandes is a producer with CBC Radio and has covered stories from the papal conclave to U.S. presidential elections to the Sochi Winter Olympics. (Rick Nye/CBC)
I've been lucky enough to travel the country and the world for CBC Radio. I was in Vatican City when white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel and a new Pope was elected, and I was in Sochi when Canada's women's hockey team won the gold in overtime.

As much time as I've spent in the field gathering, producing, recording and reporting, I've spent countless more time packing, prepping and collecting various hacks and tricks ... but there's one tool that can make doc making easier and sound better. So pick up your cellphone and I'll share four tricks that every doc producer should know.

1.  The one cable you should never leave home without

Your recorder (whether it's a Marantz, Tascam or any other brand) should be your go-to device to capture the best sound quality. They're built to do one thing and one thing well: record audio. But what do you do when all of your batteries are dead? When your luggage gets lost? Or when your wife doesn't want you to take your gear on another family vacation?

The iPhone breakout cable in action. (Rick Nye/CBC)
What's the trick? I always have an iPhone breakout cable in my bag (the technical name for it is a 3.5mm male to 3.5mm headphone jack and three pin XLR jack). Pair it with your microphone and it will allow you to record high quality audio directly onto your phone. The male end of the cable plugs into your cellphone's headphone jack. The other end gives you a three pin XLR and headphone jack connection. You can buy the cable online or if you're handy, you can make it yourself.

Why it works? While you can easily record audio on your smartphone (more on that below), the quality you're going to be able to record will be limited by the phone's internal microphone. With this breakout cable, you can plug in your professional quality microphone for a recording that sounds much better. And it works on Android devices too.

When you shouldn't do it. Your audio recorder is your best friend. If you've got batteries, memory and space for it, then use it. But if you're in a situation where you're recording on your phone, the cable paired with your mic will make things sound closer to a real recorder.

2.  Never put phone quality on the air

There's nothing that drives me crazier than hearing crackly, fuzzy, phone tape on the radio. Sure there's a place for telephones on call-in shows, but in your beautifully crafted doc? I don't think so. Whether you're trying to interview someone who can't make it into a studio or is too far for you to get to, there's a better way.

What's the trick? Using the built-in voice note or voice memo feature on your smartphone can be a lifesaver. For this trick to work, your interview subject will need two telephones (only one needs to be a smartphone). While talking to you on one phone (this could be a landline) they hold the smartphone near their mouth. With the smartphone recording a voice memo they are taping an isolated and much higher quality track of all their answers. Once you're done the interview, simply ask them to e-mail you that file and you have a high quality interview without having to leave your desk.

Why it works? Voice memo apps are built into smartphones; I've even done this trick using older BlackBerrys. It may take a few minutes of walking your interviewee through the process but the sound quality is so much better than just settling for phone quality.

Voice memo and recording apps are standard issue on today's smartphones.
When you shouldn't do it. Do you have a great tape sync lined up? Can they make it to your subject and double end the interview for you? Great, then use them! Their skills and gear will no doubt be better than having your guest record themselves. But when that's not an option, try this before you settle for phone tape.

3.  Not all room tone is created equally

Room tone and background sound is a doc maker's best friend. Don't believe me? Read this. Without that gentle rumble of sound, speech and ambience running underneath your voice track, your doc will feel stark, cold and naked. I learned this trick from CBC senior reporter James Murray.

What's the trick? Recording with the voice memo app, use your phone as a second recorder to get a different sense of ambience during an interview. Before you start interviewing your subject, set your cellphone to record a voice memo on the far side of the room. When it comes time to mix your doc, use the cellphone audio as your background sound under your voiceovers.

Why it works? The difference between using your recorded interview and cellphone audio as background comes down to presence. Of course you could dip the volume of your interview audio down and run it under your voice track, but what you'll find is your background sound is too in your face, competing for your attention. By using the cellphone audio that was recorded from a distance, the background sounds much further away and doesn't compete for your attention. To use a television analogy, you can think of it as your wide shot and your recorded interview as your close up.

When you shouldn't do it. Do you have a second producer? With a second recorder? And a second set of mics? Then use them! But chances are you're by yourself, staring down a deadline, and need to do two things at once.

4.  Don't get caught with the goods

It's a lesson you only need to learn once. You've just recorded an interview with someone you weren't supposed to talk to, somewhere you weren't supposed to be. You're on your way back to your computer to copy over the files, when you are stopped. Your gear is confiscated. Your tape is erased. You're left with nothing. Like I said, a lesson you only need to learn once. So when it comes to recording risky interviews, I'm a big believer in taking out a little extra insurance.

The Hindenburg app (and others like it) allows you to record, edit and share audio from the field. (Rick Nye/CBC)
What's the trick? Using a third party recording app like Hindenburg or WavePad, simultaneously record that important interview onto your cellphone. Then, with a few button pushes, wirelessly e-mail the audio file, or send it to an FTP server, so you can retrieve it later.  

Why it works? By FTP-ing the audio file you make a copy of it on a remote server. It creates and sends a backup of your interview in case your original tape is taken away. The best part? You can record into Hindenburg or WavePad using a breakout cable, so you can either hold two microphones in your hand (one going to the cellphone and one going to your recorder) or use a Y-cable and split the feed of your mic to the two devices.

When you shouldn't do it. In a studio environment, when you have a backup recording rolling, this isn't really necessary. But if you're in the field with one recorder, this trick can come in handy. It's also useful when you need to turn around tape fast. By recording a copy of the interview on your phone, you can FTP and send the tape back instantly to the newsroom or your editor.

Do you have a trick we missed? Send us a note atdocproject@cbc.cato add to the list!

About the author

Cesil Fernandes
Cesil Fernandes is the producer behind the CBC original series Back Story. He's traveled Canada and the world for CBC Radio, covering stories from the papal conclave to the Sochi Winter Olympics. He's covered the 2012 U.S. presidential election and his reports from the remote island of Eleuthera shone a light on over fishing in the Bahamas. He's produced docs for The World This Weekend, Dispatches, Tapestry and Spark and is currently working on season two of Someone Knows Something.

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