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March 26, 2009, 11:39 a.m.

Audio tips for print reporters from NYT sound sage Amy O’Leary

Setting up my interview with Amy O’Leary, a multimedia producer at The New York Times, was a little intimidating because her specialty is audio, and I hardly know a lavalier from a capacitor. The sound turned out fine, though, with the exception of my questions, which I didn’t think to properly record. If only I’d watched this video first!

In our chat, O’Leary offers a ton of great tips, recommends a few pieces of equipment, shows us where to point the microphone, and takes us through the Times’ interview with President Obama on Air Force One.

A full transcript is after the jump.

[Chatter as microphone is set up]

Zach: I guess the first question I should ask is whether I’ve setup the audio for our interview correctly or what tips you’d have for someone doing it themselves?

Amy: Sure. Well, generally, a reporter’s first instinct when they’re recording audio is to put the recorder in the same place they put their microcassette recorder.  So, they’ll put it on the table during the interview and they will just it leave it running and try to ignore it and hope that the interview subject will ignore it, too.

Really, there are three tips for a good, clean recording that we try and focus on for reporters who are new to this. And one is, to get the mic close enough.  If you have a microphone, you don’t want to have it on the table, you usually want to have the microphone about five inches away from the chin underneath it. You don’t want to do the “American Idol,” like singing into the microphone, because you’ll get some noises and sounds you don’t want.  If you have it under the chin, there is also this advantage of it’s not in the line of sight of the interviewee, so they will forget about it more, if you have it sort of under the chin pointed at the kind of Adam’s apple area. That’s a sweet spot. So that’s the first thing, getting the mic close enough.

The second thing would be to wear headphones. A lot of reporters are a little skittish about wearing big headphones in an interview situation, but for me there’s a Murphy’s Law. If you’re not wearing headphones anything can go wrong and you won’t know.  It’s like trying to take a picture without a viewfinder. You don’t even know what you are getting. And all kinds of things can happen, like cellphone interference or maybe the air-conditioning system doesn’t seem that loud to you, but the microphone’s really picking it up.  So you can’t know what you’re getting unless you are wearing headphones. That can solve a lot of problems right there.

And then the third thing is just to make sure that — and this is different for every device — but that the volume you’re recording at, the recording levels, are not too high. And there are a lot of things we can fix.  If a recording is too quiet, we can fix that in the computer later.  If there’s background noise, sometimes we can remove or reduce that. But the one thing you cannot fix in recording, the one thing that can really ruin it, is if you’ve recorded it at too high a volume. The equivalent in photography is if you shoot an image that’s overexposed, that data’s just not there, and you can’t fix the photo in the darkroom or in Photoshop afterwards.  And so if you record at too high a volume, you have just lost that data, and it is going to sound bad no matter what you do. […]

I don’t really have a preference about the recorder as long as it’s a broadcast quality digital recorder.  At The New York Times, we use this Edirol R-09 Recorder, but the piece of equipment that I really love that I would recommend to anybody to buy is a shotgun microphone. They’re a longer microphone. I use the Audio Technica 835b, which is a great microphone. And what I like about it is most microphones work, you think of them like a light bulb. The light shines everywhere, and that’s the pickup pattern.  So the mic is equally getting sound from behind you and in front of you and to the sides.

With a shotgun microphone, it works like a flashlight, you can point it at what you want and it is going to get the sound to the side or behind you.  And so you don’t have to stand as close.  I can be in a room and stand in the middle of a room with a bunch of different people talking and just by pointing my microphone in different directions, I’m getting very clean sound. And so that one tool, it extends your reach.  It’s like if you’re a photographer, getting a zoom lens. You suddenly can view many more places at once. And so I would recommend anybody getting involved to invest in a good shotgun microphone. […]

Zach: You give correspondents these recorders, and you talked yesterday about encouraging them to record themselves, not just their subjects. Why?

Amy: Well, I think, you know, again, a lot of print reporters are a little skittish about being on tape or performing in any way, but one of the things about audio is that you can’t hide. You’re there.  I mean some of the most revealing moments in an interview is not what someone says but the length of pause before they answer the question.  And unless you have the question there in the tape, you don’t get that interchange and the full richness of the interview.

But in another way, I mean if you’re a foreign correspondent, sometimes what you’re witnessing is really unique.  I mean one of the more powerful pieces that we have done at the Times recently, it was a phone interview with the photographer who shot the images of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, John Moore from Getty Images.

[Clip from audio slideshow]

John Moore: I saw, through the corner of my eye, her through the sunroof waving, and a couple of shots were fired and she went down. She fell down through the sunroof into the car.

[End of clip]

Amy: He was there, and his eyewitness account was so powerful, I don’t think it was any less valuable. I mean, in a way it was more valuable because he had a perspective that was somewhat objective than if he just interviewed people in the crowd.  And I think a lot of times journalists discount that their own eyewitness account is of tremendous value and that kind of record is really important.

Zach: For someone like myself who has worked in print and certainly recorded interviews, but never had to face the horror of someone else hearing them and asks questions by like stuttering for quite a while and just saying, having some thoughts and then stopping and hoping that someone answers. And maybe that works as an interview technique but sounds terrible in audio — or at least, you know, seems to sound… Do you have tips for that person, for me, on what to do there, to feel more comfortable in one’s own voice, I guess?

Amy: It’s a great question. I think, you know, a lot of print reporters are, again, a little skittish about being on tape. And what I think the problem is, is not that print reporters are asking questions in a sloppy way. I think they’re just uncomfortable with themselves. I think it’s great to hear a reporter try three different approaches to the question. And I think that can really work, when you hear a smart, lively interchange with an interview subject. And if the reporter is being honest and thoughtful and smart about the interview, I don’t think there is anything to hide. There’s nothing wrong with ums or ahs or stopping and taking something again. I mean, we all talk like that in real life.

And so, first to get comfortable, I would just say that a reporter should not put too much pressure on themselves. But second, and this is a more practical tip, I think it does help if reporters can be a little more succinct sometimes. A lot of times I hear reporters and their questions, they’re sorting it out for themselves as they’re saying it. And that’s fine. But I would just encourage: Okay, do that, have your longwinded question, but right before you’re done, say it again — just shorter. So if I’m rambling on about, “So, you know, about health care, what do you think about this, you know, the health care proposal that was in Michigan, and how does that compare, or maybe the one in California, actually?” Get through all that and then say, “What’s your position on health care?” Sum it up in a way that is shorter at the end of your question because then you can lop off and edit off your rambly intro and you have this nice, succinct piece to run with. […]

Zach: When the Times had its first interview with President Obama, audio clips from the interview were made available along with the transcript and, of course, the article about it. How’d that come about?

Amy: So when the Times was given an exclusive interview with President Obama on Air Force One, we knew that we wanted to record it and have the full recording available along with the transcript. To do that, our reporters in the DC bureau and one of our web editors, they were smart, they called us, they said, the multimedia team, well, how do we do this right? I consulted a bunch of friends of mine in the radio world and had a set of recommendations. One was to have — they had a group of reporters, and I said have one reporter really focus on getting the audio. Make sure they’re wearing headphones. Make sure they’ve got the shotgun mic, which is gonna help them get good sound, and that they’re sitting really close to Obama and putting the mic in the right place. You know, five inches away from the mouth, underneath the chin. And then I also said, once the sound came back, we would try some things in-house to reduce the noise and just clean it up a little bit. So the interview happened, and we get the sound back, and the sound was pretty good.

[Clip from Obama interview]

President Obama: I’m absolutely committed to making sure that our financial, our financial system is stable.

[End of clip}

Amy: And so I was pleased that they’d done what they could to make the sound quality work. I was extra pleased when I saw that NBC had not just played the quotes from the interview on the screen, but they actually played our audio clips. And I thought, wow, you know The New York Times is like a true multimedia organization, and other broadcast organizations recognized that we can do broadcast-quality work. I was thrilled.

And that day, when the story came out in the paper, I was even more elated ’cause I saw this photo, this great photo shot by Stephen Crowley on Air Force One. Obama sitting there, there’s two reporters, their backs are to the camera, and just on the right of the photo, there’s this like shotgun mic jutting in.

And I thought, great, they did everything right. They were brave. Who is that brave reporter with their hand in the microphone? And I was so excited, and I write an editor to ask, “Who was it that did that?” I wanted to send them a thank you note, that they put down their pen and paper and sort of bravely took on multimedia in this high-preasure environment.

I found out that that was not a Times reporter. None of the reporters wanted to do that, and so they instead hooked Obama with a lav mic, like I’m wearing right now. And the shotgun mic was actually a White House person who was recording it for the White House’s own records. And I still think it’s a great image and a great example of, you know, Obama’s comfortable with it. He’s used to being recorded like that all the time. And if the White House can record like that, we as journalists shouldn’t be intimidated or feel like that’a not something we shouldn’t be doing. So i still keep the picture up in my cubicle to show reporters that’s the correct technique. We should be doing it in the future.

POSTED     March 26, 2009, 11:39 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Nieman Narrative Conference 2009
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