Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

6×6: audio

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 26, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fifth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

audio

Audio is one of the most powerful mediums available to the multimedia journalist. Whether its radio, podcasts, on video  or audio slideshows, audio brings a piece to life. So why is it almost always an afterthought? Too many good films and audio slideshows have been let down by bad quality audio. Here’s 6 tips to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

01. let sound breathe

…as soon as a voice comes out of the speakers, the listener attempts to visualise what he hears to create in the mind’s eye the owner of the voice…unlike where the pictures are limited to the size of the screen, radio pictures are any size you care to make them.

Robert McLeish, Radio Production

In other words, with audio your limit is the size of the imagination. Last time I checked, that was pretty big.

So for the love of God, show audio some respect. First off a piece of audio does not have to consist entirely of voices with no gaps in between.  In fact that sucks. When you’re out recording, take a moment to listen for sounds – in radio it’s called actuality and it is a key ingredient in bringing sound to life. Doing a story about some people on a boat? We want to hear the water lapping up against the bow. Is your scene in a cafe? Let’s hear the cups clinking, the chatter of everyday conversation, the whoosh! of the coffee machine in action.

This more often than not recorded as wildtrack. After filming, taking photos, interviewing, whatever, record at least 60 seconds of actuality. It’ll make editing a lot easier too.

Let the audio breathe. Give it a few seconds just to play in your listeners imagination and don’t talk over it. It’ll do more to paint a picture than overladen voice over will.

Marantz PMD620

Marantz PMD620

02. invest in a good microphone

Audio is so often an afterthought for video and photo journalists alike. This is mostly manifested in using a crap microphone. VJs – don’t use your camera’s onboard mic unless you’re lucky to have something nice like a Canon XL2, Sony EX3, Z1 etc. If you can, buy an external microphone to attach to your cameras horseshoe. For interviews, it is worth investing in a lapel mic.

Rodemic do some pretty decent offers, including a camera mic for under £100 ($180). For radio journalists, or photo journalists doing audio slideshows, there are a good range of digital audio recorders you can look at. The Marantz PMD620 is small, easy to use and so reliable you’d let it babysit your kids. I took it out to Iraq earlier this year and it was great. It starts at around £300/$500.

The Edirol R-09HR (£211/$349)  has had produced some great sounding audio for freelancer Ciara Leeming and journalists are raving about the Olympus DS-40(£82/$135)

03. get the mic in close

Microphones do not have selective hearing like our ears do: they won’t pick out the voice across the room you’re pointing them at. So get in close to your interviewee – really close – like a little under their chin (if they’re ok with that). It eliminates a lot of  background noise, like air conditioning, traffic, squeaks of chairs and all that. And more often than not it gives the recording a richness and an intimacy.

Compare, for example, the effect of these two recordings: the first with a mic held too far away in a large room, the other with it right in close.

Another great tip I picked up: if you can, record your interviews outside – it eliminates that shallow echo you get in peoples’ offices and living rooms.

04. let the characters talk

A bit of a personal bugbear this, but often the temptation with multimedia projects is to talk all over them, y’know, like they do on the TV and that. But new media means new ways of doing things. And I think one of the great new trends emerging is the silencing of the journalist/reporter voice over.

If you’ve recorded some great audio for your story, let it breathe – let the characters tell their own story. We don’t need to hear you saying “Angie is a mum of three struggling to make ends meet” when we can hear Angie saying “things are really hard right now, tryin’ to support three kids, y’know, payin’ the bills…every days a struggle.”

This takes some planning in the interview stages – most of all, you need to ask open questions, so your interviewees answers start as full sentences. It has been industry practice for many years to ask interviewees to include your question in their answer:

Why are you finding it so hard to make ends meet?

I’m finding it so hard to make ends meet because….etc.

05. use pauses

If you’re new to using audio, especially if you’re moving from print or photo journalism, the first thing you will notice when you listen back to your interviews is yourself. Going “uhuh, yeah, hmmmm, sure…” all over their answers.

Ask a question – then keep shtum. This pays dividends in some interviews – especially emotional ones – where your interviewee finishes their point. There’s a pause…you would normally fill it by asking a question…but don’t. Stay silent – and let the interviewee fill the pause. It’s a bit mean, but it gets them to reiterate their point, and in the process show what they’re really thinking.

And then keep those pauses in your piece. They are a natural part of speech and often reveal more about your character than their words.

06. take them on a journey

There are times when it’s right to bring yourself into the piece. But try not to use it just for dry voice overs recorded in a studio. Your voice is best when you’re somewhere your audience wants to be, and you can show them what it’s like.

To achieve this, you’ll need to be very descriptive in your writing. Tell people where you are and what you’re doing in vivid detail.

For the best examples, we have to go way back, to the first broadcast journalists:

I began to see what was happening to Berlin. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. The cookies-the four thousand pound high explosives-were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad.

And then, as we started down again still held in the light, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly. And the light still held it, and I was very frightened. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate.

Ed Murrow, on a boming raid over Berlin, 1944


Richard Dimbleby

Richard Dimbleby

There were perhaps a 150 of them, all so thin that their skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they’d  never lived at all.  They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.

At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a small fire. They were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight.

Richard Dimbleby at Bergen Belsen, 1945


The BBC’s Alan Little is one of the finest radio writers, still alive – here’s his advice:

Try to use old words, words that reach into the very core, the very oldest part of the language. They have the most impact….beware of adjectives. This is a rule I keep breaking and I have to exercise great vigilance to rein myself in. Adjectives are fine in moderation and when they genuinely add to the meaning or clarity of the image being conveyed.

The final word…

From award-winning multimedia producers Duckrabbit, the combo of a great photographer and a great audio producer:

Many great photographers make really bad audio slideshows because they treat audio as afterthought, or they try to do a voiceover without having any presentation skills. They might as well not bother.

Actually I’d go further then that.  When you put your photos together with poor audio you actually diminish the value of your photos. Good audio is like a bad dog. It gets its teeth into you and won’t let go.

Next time: making things happen!

8 Responses

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  1. duckrabbit said, on August 26, 2009 at 8:11 am

    fuck me Adam, what a great series … will be linking.

    AWESOME.

  2. panographer said, on August 27, 2009 at 4:14 am

    Great series, Adam!

    Maybe in the last section, you could share how you (or others) go about simultaneously capturing sound, video, stills et al; the kind of planning which facilitates the prioritization required in covering a scene for a multimedia production. Multimedia journalism appears to increasingly presuppose a one-man-band deal while similar documentary film ventures in content/scope normally would separate sound and video responsibilities.

  3. […] was especially struck by the audio and ‘making things happen‘ parts of the series. I think most multimedia journalists […]

  4. fauna corporation said, on September 2, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Excellent series, Adam, and this piece on Audio is a fantastic primer / reminder for all journos.

    I think it’s interesting that so many of the individual skills for multimedia journalists have related profiles. For example thinking in terms of composition, pace, narrative, etc., for photography, writing, sound design, etc.

    I wrote a short post about the series here:
    http://www.faunacorporation.com/?p=35

    Good work (and thanks for the earlier post on free tools for multimedia journos!).

    Take care.

  5. […] freelance multimedia journalist and sophisticated advocate of new forms of journalism, here’s his excellent list of six tips on using audio. Right on, Adam. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Living Galapagos: Another […]

  6. john said, on June 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Thank you for this fantastic information because finding relevant sites on this topic is sometimes hard to find. You did an excellent job covering the subject and I look forward to more posts from your site. Do you offer RSS Feeds or feedburner to get more content for our blogs? I will be sure to include links from my other blogs to yours.

  7. […] Choose a good microphone and try to get it as closer as possible to the interviewee. It eliminates the background noise and captures what you want to capture: the intimacy of the interview. […]

  8. […] As Adam Westbrook mentions: […]


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