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Storytelling tips and best practices

Audio truth killers: an approach to collecting better sound

What is an Audio Truth Killer?  Is the sound in your piece supporting (or subduing) the message your piece is conveying to your listeners? Kevin Wait, former Production Specialist on the NPR Training team, hosted NPR’s “Audio Truth Killers” webinar and explores how the technical production of sound influences the editorial message in a piece. View the webinar below and/or scroll down to read tips adapted from the webinar slides.

Watch the webinar


 

Notes from the webinar

What is an Audio Truth Killer? Let’s start with some definitions.

  • Tracks: Reporter’s voice, recorded in a controlled environment, provides the editorial message and gives it direction.
  • Acts or Actualities: Voices or action sound that creates the conversation with the reporter. Interviewees, “man on the street,” experts.
  • Ambi or Ambience: Sound beds recorded in the field and added to a mix to create scenes, spaces, and locations for listeners.
  • Soundtrack: The technical mix of acts and ambi and their transitions: the bed for the tracks/editorial message.

As public media creators we are extremists when it comes to editorial accuracy and TRUTH. We spell-check, grammar-check, fact-check, continuity-check, followed more fact-checking, all before reaching the editor, who checks it all again.

WHY? To deliver the latest, most accurate and truthful data in way listeners will digest and retain an editorial message.

One area of opportunity as public media creators is to become extremists when it comes to creating illustrative, truthful, and believable SOUNDTRACKS in our pieces, to support the editorial message.

Question is: What kind of checks are in place for technically truthing audio?

There is no Microsoft Word-like tool to audition sound and suggest technical repairs or mixing tips. Since audio-quality is an intangible and subjective notion, it’s difficult to talk about and assess; a bit of a mystery that too often takes a backseat on the production priorities list.

Part of the puzzle is gaining understanding of the evolution of human hearing. Our ears continuously ping an unknown environment and our brains process the input searching for resolution:  “What is this space I’m in? What or who else is around? Is my situation safe? Can I trust this space?” 300,000 years ago it was about avoiding being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger.

Today, as sound-designers of our pieces, WE dictate the spaces, WE manage the transitions from space to space, WE introduce new entities. With that power, do our soundtracks create trust, safety, and believability, OR confusion and questions in our listeners’ brains?

A great example of believable audio is a high budget movie score:

  • The dialogue is clear.
  • The soundtrack is descriptive, providing a sense of space and scene.
  • There is continuity: a smooth journey from scene to scene.
  • Audio transparency and believability create resolution. It is easy for our brains to decode the soundtrack and allow us to focus on the message.

 As the creators of OUR stories’ soundtracks, it is OUR responsibility: If the listener agrees to take our journey, we’re obligated to lead them by the hand (with our soundtracks) from scene to scene, transparently, truthfully, and safely, so they can enjoy and retain the editorial message.

The bad news is there is no magic bullet to apply and make our soundtracks as glorious as a high-budget film scores.

The good news is that by focusing on three fundamental concepts (each with a few bullet points) you can show marked improvement in you soundtrack immediately.

 

Audio Truth Killer #1Your audio sounds off-mic, distant, washed-out, and/or unintelligible.

What your listener thinks: Is that reporter actually on site? Do I believe this? If I’m invited to this conversation, why does the guest (or action) sound so far away?

Audio Truth Creator #1:  Give your listener a believable conversation by collecting and maintaining crisp, clear, and authoritative sound.

  1. Improve your mic technique:
  • Get close, stay close! Keep your mic 4-5 inches, off to the side, and just below your guest’s chin. This presence will better match your tracks.
  • Consider using a shotgun mic for a focused sound, and yes, stay close.
  • Use a boom-pole to get your mic closer to the action.
  1. Minimize extraneous noise distractions:
  • Use a foam windscreen to prevent plosives (P-pops).
  • Use a fur windscreen to minimize wind noise when out of doors.
  • Use a shock-mount grip to minimize mic handling noise.
  • Turn on the Low Cut filter on you mic or your recorder if experiencing unwanted rumble and thumping in your audio.
  1. Avoid telephone audio if possible.
  • If your phoner actuality is short or poor quality, consider replacing it by paraphrasing that actuality as a track, or repeat the unintelligible bit in your track so your listener can grasp the idea.
  • Poor Man’s Tape Synch: Start thinking about Smartphone tape synchs (Voice Memo/Dropbox, Report-It).
  • Consider Skype or other Voice Over IP connections (w/USB headsets).
  • There are times when phone tape can’t be avoided OR, the phone tape will sound better than the artifacts presented by other methods…if in doubt, vet it with your editor.

 

Audio Truth Killer #2:  Your soundtrack conveys no scenes, no transitions, no continuity, OR the soundtrack is indefinable and/or obviously fabricated (“looped”).

What your listeners think: Is the background sound repeating?  Have we moved to a new place? What is that awful rumble and why does it keep starting and stopping?  Where is this, and what is happening?

Audio Truth Creator #2:  Present authentic, descriptive scenes with plenty of transition ambience from scene to scene. NO looping or substitution!  Make a habit to gather one minute, if not more, of each:

  1. Repair sound, otherwise known as “room tone”: obnoxious drones, fan, system sound you don’t want but will need for your mix, in order to conceal edits and fade into and out of scenes
  2. Ambience: interesting and definable sound from the scene
  3. Action sound: something happening in the foreground (to be used like an actuality in the soundtrack). Use your boom to get the mic close to the action. Remember “Get Close, Stay Close!”
  4. Random sound: Open your ears to sounds you won’t think to capture but might need to bandage your mix: annoying music, trains, planes, sirens, fridges and fans kicking on, etc.

A cautionary tale: In 2000, CBS got caught using a loop of fake birdsong in golf broadcasts. This quote from a British golf website frames perfectly how a listener might react to learning of or suspecting a fabricated soundtrack:

It’s fraudulent and fake, and the very fact that a network can take liberties like this puts the whole credibility of an alleged journalistic enterprise in doubt.”

 

Audio Truth Killer #3:  The Sounds of Tampering

What your listeners hear: edits in the audio, glitches, “butt cuts,” volume inconsistencies, cutting on inflection (“upcut” audio), changing speech cadence, etc.  How can it be truthful if it sounds like it has been messed with?

Audio Truth Creator #3:  Keep it sounding honest.

  1. Stop editing with your eyes and LISTEN! Your brain will gloss over a bad audio edit if there is visual correlation. While creating a tough edit, look away from your computer screen and listen.
  • Does it sound like normal speech?
  • Is it smooth?
  • Are the cadence, breathing, and inflection natural?
  1. Manage your volume levels:
  • Start your layup by adding reporter tracks to the top edit panel.
  • With your mixing software, adjust the overall level of this reporter track to your liking using your level meters (or ear).
  • Then add your actualities to panel 2 and adjust each of their levels UP TO the track volume, adjusting volume USING YOUR EARS, NOT looking at the meters or waveform. Do the same with the ambi bed.
  1. Check your levels, a “Micro-Check”:
  • Once your layup is complete, lower your headphone/speaker volume so the tracks are just barely intelligible.
  • Play back the piece and make certain every track and actuality is intelligible and doesn’t jump up or drown out.
  1. If in doubt, don’t: Not all edits work.
  • If you have to ask about the quality of an edit, it’s probably not good enough
  • Consider cutting around it. Let someone else try or take a break before trying a different approach.
  • If you must roll with a questionable edit… get your editor’s buy-in.

Embrace your inner audio engineer, and get busy converting your Audio Truth Killers into Audio Truth Creators.