Martha Smith

Critical Listening

The most critical task in making a good audio recording is listening. This is a difficult task for someone who’s spent their entire life focusing on visual content. Listening to the audio is made immensely easier if you use a good pair of isolation headsets. And you need to use them all the time. When you are recording an interview, hearing these headsets will allow you to hear only the sound being acquired by the microphone. The headset you use should be wired to a stereo-mini jack, which will allow you to listen to each camera audio channel separately (one in each ear).

Let’s say you’re recording an interview with a person seated about 12 feet away from the camera in an open park area. Your visual is a nice head shot. You’re asking questions about growing up in the neighborhood. You expect the interview to run 45 minutes. You mike the subject with a lavalier which feeds the left channel of your Beachbox; the camera-mounted mic feeds sound to the right channel. Using your faithful stereo isolation headsets, you can check the audio going to each channel separately by listening to each ear muff individually.

In this hypothetical interview, there’s only one source of audio that you really care about-- the interview subject’s mic (left channel). So take a little setup time to make sure you’ve got it right-- taking time before the interview starts to adjust the mic correctly will save you lots of time later. For instance, if, 10 minutes into the interview you suddenly realize that the subject’s jacket corner has been flapping in the breeze and covering the mic, you have to stop the interview, fix the problem and start over. Or, let’s say you didn’t catch that annoying little creak in the gate as people open and close it, until you’re in the edit room. You’ll be mad at yourself. What you should have done before the interview started was to listen for such sounds, and, in this case, block open the gate with something heavy, or do the park a favor by oiling the hinge with your handy little can of 3-in-1. (I’ve always been handy at oiling hinges, fixing running toilets, and negotiating with the lawn service folks.)

To reiterate. In order to maximize control of the audio situation before you start the interview, you’ll need to listen intently through the left channel ear muff (the one with the subject’s audio), blocking sound from your other ear with your hand. Get your subject talking about a non-interview topic close to his/her heart (their family, the weather, politics), so you can hear their normal tone of voice and speech pattern. Make certain the subject’s head--and therefore, voice projection pattern--is pointed where it will be pointed during the actual interview. You can hear if the subject tends to angle their head to a certain side (which may cause you to move the mic). The subject will move around--you can hear if there’s any clothing rustle you need to deal with. Listen specially for unseen jewelry--the bangle bracelets, the noisy watch band. When people are nervous, they will play with something in their hands--glasses or a pen (click, click, click). Most important, pay attention to the relationship of the voice to the background level. Is your subject’s voice clear and distinct? Can you understand your subject’s words with your eyes closed?

If, during the actual interview, your subject will be talking about a topic that they’ve talked about many times before, you’ll most likely hear that same normal tone of voice that you heard in your tests. On the other hand, if your interview subject matter is quite sensitive, or your subject is nervous about talking on tape, you’ll notice a dramatic drop in audio level once the interview starts. Some people almost whisper. You have to be prepared. If you suspect this might be the case, make sure the subject’s voice almost overpowers the background in your pre-interview tests. Do whatever you need to do to get a good voice-to-background balance (called “signal-to-noise ratio”). Move the mic around if it helps; move the subject around if that helps; bribe the kids playing close-by to move away for a while, if that helps. Do whatever you have to do before the interview starts, so a quiet voice during the interview won’t get lost in the background. Recording a voice level which stands out from the background is vital because, if there are quiet voice passages during the interview, you can raise the overall audio level slightly during the edit, making the quiet voice passages match the level of the normal voice passages.

Now, (did you think you were finished with audio prep?) it’s time to check in on the sound of the other microphone - in our example, the on-board camera mic. Listen carefully just to the right channel audio while covering your other ear with your hand. Chances are it will sound fine-- meaning you remembered to turn on the mic and the batteries and cables are ok. I’m assuming it will be used to pick up questions during the interview, and it will be available to provide audio for those cut-aways as they present themselves. Even if you don’t intend to use interview questions in the final piece, pay attention to this channel of audio before starting the interview. If you get to the edit room and suddenly decide you need the questions, and they aren’t there, shame on you. It’s nobody’s fault but your own. Plus, there is the added advantage that you will pick up interview audio on this mic (anywhere from faint hint of voice to robust interview sound). In the edit, you can mix in audio from this channel to add “presence” to the final product. Make a habit of always recording on both channels; and, as often as possible, use two separate mics. This way, you’ll extend your audio possibilities in the edit room.

OK. You thought we’d never get to rolling tape. Now it’s time. If you’ve done your prep work well, nothing will go wrong - for a few minutes, at least.

During the interview, make certain that the principal audio is in your ear (via the headset) at all times. Block sound to your other ear (to minimize distractions) with the rim of the other ear muff. (Don’t try to listen to both mics at once unless you’ve had a lot of practice.) Just as there will be visual intrusions during an interview, there are going to be audio intrusions. What do you do? Well, first of all, did you even hear that car horn or siren? A person listening to interview story line will tune out a lot of those background sounds. But, if it’s LOUD enough to get your attention, it will definitely get the attention of a viewer of the finished piece. Does that matter? If your viewer pays more attention to the background noise than to the interview content, you’ve got a problem.

That problem is mitigated when the viewer can see the source of the distracting sound - the kids in the background just ran through the shot, noisily chasing after each other. The viewer will not dwell on the sound once the source is explained to the eye as well as the ear; the viewer will tune out the sound of the kids. (That is, as long as the kids aren’t more interesting than the interview subject.)

It comes down to a complex balance between how engaging the person being interviewed is versus the distraction (visual or aural) on screen. If your subject is really pulling on the viewer’s heartstrings, the viewer will stay with the interview through an amazing number of distractions. Your job as a careful listener is not to produce a perfect interview (you get studio-quality sound ONLY in a studio). Your job is to make sure that the soundbites are usable. When you hear a soundbite go by, you must discipline yourself to do a quick reality check on the background noise-- was that siren in the distance going to be distracting. Actually, that depends: a.) on how far in the distance the siren was, and b.) on when it happened during the soundbite. If a siren builds through a bite (starting at almost nothing and getting louder by the end), your viewer will most likely be able to tune it out, because they’ve become engaged by the on-camera speaker before the annoying background sound starts to intrude. But if the soundbite starts with the siren in the background, bail out politely. Say to the interview subject, “I’m so sorry to stop you but the siren just now was so loud that I’m going to have to ask you to start that answer again.” If you don’t do this, you may end up in the edit room cutting from an answer with a quiet background to-- BOOM-- siren plus answer. Chances are, at the BOOM, the viewer will pay more attention to the siren than the answer. (This is not a good thing.) If I’m waffling about whether or not to stop an interview because the background noise is getting to be intrusive, I look for a logical breaking point in the flow of the conversation to say, “Could you just hold that thought until the ambulance passes?”

Here’s an additional problem. On location, you will have had the luxury of listening live to the siren very far away and then getting closer, so it makes sense to your ear and brain-- you are able to tune it out. But, will a viewer watching the edited piece be able to tune it out? Answering that question correctly takes practice-- you have to start thinking like the viewer instead of the interviewer. Careful listening through the headset helps. The siren sound may not be prominent on mic if your subject has his/her back to the sound and, therefore, shields the mic with their body. You’ll never know that if you are listening to the environment without the headset. It’s important to hear the audio as it comes through the mic into the headset, because that’s how it will be recorded.

Here’s the good news-- hooray. You WILL hear the soundbites go by. A soundbite has energy behind the words which instantly commands your attention. You look up, you smile, you cry, you react. That’s your soundbite. Is it usable? Think fast. No jackhammers in the background? Good. Idea well stated by the interview subject? Good. No kids pointing at the camera in the background? Good. Maybe you’ve got it. If you don’t, your insurance is that most people naturally make the same important point several times during an interview. Usually they don’t make the same exact statement, just the same point. You may like the phrasing of that one with the jackhammer burst in the background, but you have to settle for a not quite perfect soundbite because the background audio is clean. That’s life. It’s all a trade-off. Truth be told, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now, it’s a shame you have to listen three times as hard to the second half of the interview as you do to the first half. But this is so. The reason is that most of the soundbites will happen in the second half of the interview (as your subject gets warmed up). And that is when you are bound to be at your most unguarded-- you’ve established a rapport with your subject, tape is rolling, you’re getting to the interesting questions and answers. Remember the viewer of your edited piece will not enjoy the luxury of having 30 minutes to get used to your subject’s speech patterns, the normal background sounds, the story line. You are going to pop this stuff in and out during the edit. Again, you need to listen like a viewer. You need to be extra vigilant about background audio on soundbites at the point when you start feeling the most comfortable.

Having said all of the above, I will now admit that I let an amazing amount of background junk get recorded, because stopping for every little thing is just too disruptive. If the interview subject has gotten to the heart of the matter, and they are making a really strong statement, and unpleasant background audio happens, I let the interview go on until the offending sound gets so strong it’s obvious the audio can never be used. At that point, I will stop the proceedings with profuse apologies. Since offensive background sounds often leave as quickly as they start, I tend to let people finish saying what they want to say, even if there’s a sharp burst of annoying background sound in the middle. You can never predict when intermittent audio will blow out a soundbite and when it won’t. (There’s a 50/50 chance the bite will be clean.) If you’re feeling uncertain about whether or not you can use what was just recorded, you can always circle back to the topic later in the interview.

When it’s obvious that you have to STOP recording (sirens, planes overhead), you have to stop. And you hope that whatever made you stop is just temporary. When the lawn service or the tree-trimmers start up down the block, you have a hard decision to make. Can you keep going with this stuff in the background? If it’s a low, constant drone which doesn’t impact negatively on the clarity of the voice-- yes. However, now you’ll have interview audio with drone in the background and interview audio without drone. Stop and record some “room tone”. Room tone is the sound of the background audio as it comes into your open mics, without any foreground audio (talking, movement, rustling papers, coughing). You should always take room tone at an audio location-- 30 seconds before you start or end an interview. But, it’s especially important to take room tone when you have a noticeable constant noise in the background. If you start the interview with the lawn service working hard, take that room tone up front. When they’re finished and shut down the motors, the silence will be deafening. But you can bridge those audio backgrounds in the editing process by mixing a little lawn service “room tone” into the soundbites which are free of droning motors. If the lawn service sound intrudes on the interview in a way that draws your attention, and you can’t wait it out, or move, try having the subject refer to the source of the noise (“When I was growing up in this neighborhood, we didn’t have an outside lawn service.”) in a soundbite. And be sure to take a cut-away shot of the noise source to edit into the final cut. This will help your viewer understand what they are hearing and why. They’ll be put at ease and be free to concentrate on the interview.

Now, all of this assumes that you intend to use head shots with “sync” sound (the viewer watching the lips move) in your edit. If you intend to use any of this audio as “voice over,” things can get tricky. I love seeing and hearing the tinkle of dangle earrings as someone is speaking. But hearing them without seeing them is truly distracting. Speech patterns which pose no problems to a viewer watching the lips move, can trip up someone trying to understand an unfamiliar accent without the visual cues. In the edit, you can establish your speaker securely (accent, earrings and all) in the beginning of your piece before cutting away, hoping the viewer will get used to it. Or, you can eliminate the nice earrings, and pay special attention to that accent, making certain to have the voice pop out of the background. Again, your isolation headsets are your best friend-- listen carefully with your eyes closed to preview a voice-over situation.

One more piece of advice. Don’t forget tape playback checks in the field. Make a record /playback test at the start of the day-- I find it convenient to do this as I’m checking mics (“Test, one, two . . .”) during set-up time. Play back 30 seconds to make certain everything looks and sounds right before the interview starts. Then, make time to spot check your recording when you’ve finished a tape or two-- I usually listen to the last 2 minutes. If you’re out on a multi-day job, spot check tapes more thoroughly back at the hotel before dinner.

I remember when I was first learning audio, thinking that I’d never get it. Well, I did. It just takes time and practice, and lots of determination. With time, practice, and lots of determination, you, too, will be wearing those headsets as a badge of honor-- and I’ll salute you.

Martha L. Smith
Contributing Writer

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