Recording High-Quality Audio

This chapter includes information about:

  • Tips and principles for recording high-quality audio
  • Tips for conducting audio interviews

Which of the following can ruin an audio recording?

A. Traffic at a nearby intersection
B. A slight breeze
C. The hum of a refrigerator
D. Leaning back in a squeaky chair

If you said all the above, you’re absolutely correct. Listen to the room you’re sitting in right now. Is there a slight hum or whir from any computers or appliances? Are any sounds coming in from adjacent rooms or out the window?

The human ear is sensitive to sound quality. Since there are few simple ways to improve a poor audio recording, even with sophisticated audio editing software, it’s important to capture high-quality audio recordings at the outset.

Tips for better audio

Eliminate unwanted noise. Choose a quiet setting for interviews and do everything possible to get rid of other sounds. It is often not possible to “edit out” background sound later. Be aware of anything that might suddenly begin making noise, such as a phone ringing or a heater coming on. Unplug refrigerators, fans and other appliances. Outside of an actual sound studio, the ideal recording environment is a small, quiet room with carpet.

Record ambient sound separately. You may want additional sounds from the environment to help tell your story. But always record these separately so you have more control in the editing process. If you’re interviewing someone about a recreational basketball game, take that person out of the gym for the interview, then go back and separately record the sounds of sneakers squeaking on the gym floor and basketballs bouncing off the backboard.

Know your microphone. No matter what device you are using to record audio, it requires a microphone to do so. If you are using a smartphone, tablet or laptop to capture audio, do you know where the microphone is located? (If you don’t, search online for information your particular device.) Try holding your recording device at different angles and distances while recording sample audio to find out where your audio recordings sound the best.

Check quality as you record. Whenever possible, listen with headphones as you record to monitor levels and make sure you’re not picking up unwanted noise. (This is not always possible with smartphones and other devices, in which case you should do test recordings.)

Record silence. Even in the most quiet settings, “silence” isn’t really silent. Always record at least a minute of silence in every environment where you’re recording — it will be useful if you need to fill gaps or ease transitions when you’re editing later.

Tips for interviews

Practice nonverbal feedback. Get people to keep talking in an interview by nodding and giving other silent encouragement. Nothing is more frustrating than ruining your own audio by interrupting with the occasional “uh huh” or polite laugh.

Ask people to repeat thoughts. In interviews, you can only use the exact words a person says – and most of us don’t naturally speak in full, coherent sentences. Ask people to answer a question again, and they’ll often speak more clearly the second time.

Don’t turn off the recorder too soon. Even people you know can become stiff and unnatural during a formal interview setting. Give them time to relax, and don’t be in a hurry to end the recording. People will often speak more naturally after the “pressure” is off.

Additional Resources

Basic tips for radio recordings (Transom.org)

Recording and Interviewing Basics (Radio Rookies)

Before the First Question (Transom.org)

“Bring Extra Batteries,” an audio presentation on preparing for an audio story (Third Coast International Audio Festival)