Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘microphone


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Dog with Tilted Head

I know people who can’t take a tone above about 4000 cycles per second, or hertz.  That’s about the frequency of the standard 1950’s plastic whistle.  Spending so much time in TV and radio, you get used to hearing test tones, squeals, hums and buzzes as you wander through a station and past various studios, editing bays and engineering benches.  But you assume they are temporary; the equipment is warming up, somebody is checking gear, whatever.

But tonight I heard something in an NPR story by Tom Bowman that I’m sure couldn’t have made him happy.  While he reported on a story, I heard a tone at about 12,000 hertz.  At that frequency, the sound is like a teeny, needle sized drill going into the side of your head.  And I know how it happened.

Sometimes, when you’re working in a studio, something isn’t quite right.  There is a mismatch somewhere, a loose cable, a bad circuit, a bleedthrough, an open pot – something.  And you think you’re hearing it but you’re just not sure.  So you record your narration and you edit the soundbyte and the piece is finished.  But then, you hear it later and you hear that thing you hoped wasn’t there, but clearly now; 12,000 hertz that isn’t in the soundbyte.  And you know what that means … it was you.  Not the field gear, not the phone, you.

And to the audience, they might think they’re hearing something else coming from somewhere else; it’s the refrigerator, or the TV or the computer.  Maybe it’s the Android.  But for Bowman and every newsie or producer/editor who spends their day hunched in front of Audacity or Adobe Audition, they know it’s not that.  They know the audience isn’t imagining things.  They’re hearing something that shouldn’t be there, they just aren’t sure what it is.

But we know, and man, that sucks.

Written by Interviewer

December 2, 2015 at 11:24

Across the Room

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Man uses an ear trumpet

This blog talks about many aspects of the interview, from ethics to technique.  Sometimes, it’s about gear and sometimes it’s about science.  This post is about science.

I’ve been noticing more radio reports recently that sound as if the subjects were being recorded from across the room.  This is not something that radio reporters want to do, BTW.  There is a lot of handheld gear out there that reporters covet that can be set to record sound and voice in extremely high quality.  Tascam, Zoom and Olympus recorders come to mind.  All of this stuff lets subjects be recorded in crystal clear formats. And we all know what this sounds like.  A good interview recorded on a good piece of gear, and listened to over a high quality pair of headphones can make the subject sound like they’re right beside you.

But what I’ve been hearing instead are stories with voices almost buried in high signal to noise ratios.  Quickly, S/N is the ratio of sound to background noise.  Background noise is every sound between a subject’s mouth and the recorder’s microphone.  The more distance between the two and the more space around the two, the more background noise, which can sound like hiss.

Besides the background noise itself, sound has a physics problem with distance.  Any sound our ears hear decreases by 50% every time the distance doubles. In other words, if someone is talking to you at conversation level 1 foot away and they move 2 feet away, they get two times harder to hear.  So imagine if a reporter is pointing their recorder at a speaker standing at a podium 20 feet away.  They are 20 times harder to hear than if they are one foot away.  Plus, there’s the hiss and other noise.

I’ve been at plenty of press conferences and public meetings where the option was stay back in the throng and hold your recorder up high or muscle your way to the podium and duct tape it on somebody else’s mic stand.  Whenever I brought back bad audio, bosses weren’t happy.  But after awhile, it’s wasn’t about them anymore.  It became getting as close to the front row as possible.  Then, it’s about sociology, but that’s a different discussion.

I’ve talked about the quality of interviews before over telephones.  Reporters can’t always control the quality of the land lines or the behavior of cell phone networks.  But although in public settings, a voice barely audible is probably better than nothing, it’s the least preferred and achievable option, inverse distance law or not.

Sometimes, you really can’t get closer for reasons that are way beyond your control.  But sometimes, you’ve got to sharpen those elbows and get in there.

Written by Interviewer

January 15, 2015 at 01:00

Things That Go Bump

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This is a quickie.

Most studios have microphones that are mounted to boom arms that are attached to walls or ceilings.  Back in the day, it was more common that microphones were attached to boom arms that were bolted to desktops.  And in many studios, microphones were in movable stands that sat directly on those desktops.  Why am I bringing this up?

Because those relatively unsophisticated setups of guest mics on desktops gave listeners another aspect of the passion guests might have for an issue.  How?

Because when a guest pounded a desk, you could hear it.

Today, besides mounting microphones away from anything that can pick up vibration, many microphones rest inside what are known as shock mounts which absorb even more vibration.  In a studio, vibration is seen as the enemy of good quality audio.  But when you are interviewing a guest with a old school setup, vibration can be your friend.

When I say pounding the desk, I don’t mean Nikita Khrushchev style shoe pounding the poduim at the UN pounding.  I mean very soft but distinctive bumping the hand or a semi closed fist on a desktop whenever the answer holds a lot of passion and energy for the guest.  When a guest chooses to do that bumping can be telling and often, they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  It’s another one of those unconscious “tells” that I’ve talked about before here. Conversely, holding back emotion and showing no tells is the anti-emotive, which I talk about here.

An interviewee may be answering a question for which, if you listen to their voice, they seem very calm.  But hearing their hand bumping the desktop belies a passion and conviction much deeper.  And when they do that is also significant, as they may be unknowingly emphasizing to themselves how strongly they feel about something.  These are things the interviewer needs to pay attention to because they can help him or her direct the next question.

An interview is a complex interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Then there is the interaction between the audience and the interview.  But often, the key aspect of a conversation is guest interaction with themselves.

Written by Interviewer

July 20, 2014 at 01:24

Better Gear; Better Life

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I posted about a Behringer mixer I bought earlier this year that I thought would meet my needs. When I talked about the smaller Xenyx 502, I was happy with the construction of the box, the clean signal with no noise, and the simplicity. But what I didn’t realize when using an analog mixer (which is slowly going out of fashion it seem in favor of digital mixers), with an analog telephone auto hybrid (digital versions of these are also touted to be better), the problem is feedback. I’m not an engineer, and believe me, I’ve posted to audio websites and harassed engineers in person and over the phone to try to help me thresh this out.

But in a nutshell, the issue is when the audio comes into the auto hybrid, which is a box that turns the telephone signal into something the mixer can hear, and is then fed into the mixer, the 502 didn’t prevent the signal from seeing itself. Somehow, and I don’t know how exactly, the voice coming in collided with the voice going out within the mixer and so, when caller audio passed through the auto hybrid on the way back to the caller’s earpiece, there seemed to be two problems. First, that collision seemed to cause the microphone I’m using to drop so low that the caller couldn’t hear me. Second, because the caller’s incoming audio and the microphone audio were somehow intermingled, when I tried to boost the caller’s audio if it got too low, there would be massive feedback. Likewise if I tried to boost my audio, the microphone was terribly distorted and the audio was garbage. I’m sure part of the problem too was that the 502 allowed me to input my audio only through LINE IN inputs and hear my audio from MAIN OUT outputs.

The Xenyx 802 apparently solves that problem with two different sets of jacks connected by a process. The jacks, FX SEND and STEREO AUX RETURN let me feed the auto hybrid’s input to the former and output the caller’s audio through the latter. The process in-between is something called “Mix Minus”. This, apparently, returns all of the sound the mixer hears to the auto hybrid except the caller audio. These advancements, something the 502 didn’t have, eliminated feedback and separated the microphone and the telephone line. I now have full control over the caller audio and can boost it without feedback. Likewise, I can increase microphone levels if I need to and now, the caller can hear me with no problem.

This problem, as readers of my blog know, has dogged me for months. It now seems solved. I have to say how much I appreciate all of the people who listened to my problems. In the end though, I was the one who understood the uniqueness of the problem and I was the one who had to research how to fix it. That isn’t to say nobody else helped, but it wasn’t their problem and bottom line, they had their own stuff. That’s the thing about fixing problems. In the end, they’re ultimately yours to abandon, live with or solve. Of course, for anybody else with this problem, I’m glad to gallop to the rescue.

Written by Interviewer

September 18, 2013 at 21:36