NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

Read this before you record ambience in the field

Cindy Carpien, a former NPR producer, is now an independent radio trainer. She works throughout the public radio system.

Ambience: the sonic environment in which an event takes place. Also referred to as ambi.

Peet Sneekes/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Peet Sneekes/Flickr

When it comes time to record ambience in the field, it’s important to capture different perspectives. It helps to think about these perspectives similarly to how you would think about photography.

Here are the five approaches you should take.

Wide shot

Stand back and get a very generic feel for the scene. As obvious as this may sound, there is a tendency for people to forget this part.

Medium shot

Move closer in, almost as if you’re standing in the middle of the scene.

Zoom in

Get close to specific sounds that punctuate and enhance the scene. These should be moments that are identifiable, like a cash register, a bell, a door, a train, the conductor or people chattering.

Interview ambience

Record these at the spot you conduct your interview. This helps to match sound for smooth transitions. If you record in a very quiet room, you still need what we call room tone. Even if you think there is no justifiable sound, every space is a “presence.”

The surprising moment  

You won’t expect the surprising moment, but you need to keep your eyes and ears open. This could turn out to be the most important thing you record.

More tips

  • Record a few minutes for each of these. Don’t settle for 30 seconds. You’ll need to edit out superfluous sounds and mic handling noise. So make sure you record more than you think you’ll need. Otherwise, you could be left with very little in the end.
  • If possible, allow for a second or two of clean ambience before you start a question to an interviewee. Same for rolling tape at the end of answers – but again, only if possible.
  • Avoid microphone handling noises as you move your mic from you to the subject. (Best way to avoid mic handling is to not handle the mic at all! Attach it to a pistol grip.)
  • Mic yourself. You never know when you’ll use your question.