NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

Rock and roll mixing tricks for journalists

The techniques music engineers use to quality-check and deliver final mixes are not limited to music production. Journalists can use them, too. Here are tips to heighten your listening awareness and improve the technical quality of your audio stories.    

Variety is the spice of life

Studio engineers need their mixes to sound great on all playback devices so they mix while listening to a variety of speakers.

  • Audition your mixes on your best (and worst) headphones, your laptop speakers, ear buds, smartphone speaker, boom boxes, etc., to be certain your levels translate well. Make level adjustments that give the best sound balance across all the devices.

Loud and proud

Perceived loudness is a psycho-acoustic phenomenon which can fool your ears and cause you to mismatch levels of elements in a mix.  While your playback meters are great rough indicators for levels, auditioning a mix at various volume levels will help reveal trouble spots.

  • Lower the speaker or headphone volume so your mix is just barely audible. Listen carefully to ensure every track and actuality (supporting voice or sound) is intelligible, and that no element jumps out or gets buried. Pay special attention to tracks and actualities layered with voice-overs, ambience, and/or music beds.
  • Raise the volume of your speakers and listen to your mix from across the room. Are the tracks and actualities still balanced and intelligible?

Improve your image

Music engineers pay close attention to imaging: how sounds are skewed toward the left ear, are centered, or are skewed toward the right ear, in a stereo mix. Even if your mix does not contain stereo elements it is important to check the imaging.

  • While listening with stereo headphones, make sure your tracks and actualities are centered and not unintentionally skewed (panned) toward the left or right ear.
  • If your mix contains stereo elements, check your stereo ambience and/or music beds to be sure they are nicely balanced in both ears and that you haven’t unknowingly summed them to mono.

Step away from the sound

Engineers are keenly aware of fatigue which develops during long mix sessions, especially if wearing headphones and/or monitoring loudly. Tired ears make mistakes.

  • When you are tired, re-check the tricky spots in your mix: With headphones at moderate volume, check all edits, the top and tail of the entire piece, each track, each actuality, and each fade. Make certain no element is clipped at the top or tail (up-cut or down-cut) and that your fades start and end fully and smoothly.
  • Take off your headphones or turn off your speakers and let your ears rest before your final mix quality check.

It’s all down hill from here

Whether your piece is for destined for radio or Web, it will most certainly undergo multiple digital coding/decoding processes necessary for delivery, publication, and archive. These processes tend to be lossy (destructive) to the audio file and may decrease sound quality. To minimize coding effects:

  • Always record, edit, mix, and render the highest quality, most dense audio files you can manage. Deliver 16 bit, 48 kHz .wav files unless your boss/client requests something different or if it is impractical (delivering .wav files via intranet with low bandwidth may be too slow, etc.)

Final thoughts: The devil is in the details

Just like your favorite commercial music recordings, your published mixes will likely be archived and live in perpetuity on the Web:  Build a catalog you can be proud of.  In as much as impossible deadlines allow, treat each piece as if it is your last and best offering.  Don’t let technical sloppiness steal from your editorial thunder.