Good Audio Gives Life to Environmental Storytelling

April 15, 2014

Reporter’s Toolbox

By KAREN SCHAEFER

In these multimedia days, many reporters are not only expected to write stories, but to take photos, even capture video (see “Photojournalism Upheaval Heralds Multimedia’s Rise,” Winter 2014 issue). But many reporters shy away from gathering audio that could also enhance their print or photographic storytelling. Even if you’re not trying to break into radio, getting good audio doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg – and it doesn’t have to be complicated, either.

Why add sound? If you’re writing a piece about birds or wolves, imagine the emotional impact for your audience if you could offer them that actual call of the wild. If you’re doing a photo slide show, picture how much more effective it could be with an audio track recorded at the scene running underneath it. And never underestimate the power of the human voice. That catch in the throat, that telling pause – human vocal qualities tell the listener something that print alone can’t replicate.

Recording then – and now

This was the author’s first
‘portable’ recording device—
a Telefunken Magnetophon—
back in the
1960s—a 30-pound reelto-
reel tape recorder with
no external microphone.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been recording voices and sound since I was a teenager in the 1960s. My first recording device was a secondhand 1955-era Telefunken reel-to-reel “portable” recorder, which weighed 30 pounds and used 7-inch magnetic tape reels. It was big, clunky, and had no external microphone. I loved it.

Fast forward through the cassette and DAT (digital audio tape) eras to the alldigital present. These days I pack a standard NPR-style media kit: a Marantz PMD660 digital recorder, an Electrovoice RE50 omni microphone, an Audio-Technica short shotgun mic (which gives me close-up sound), a pair of Sony folding headphones, plus all the necessary cables, connections and windscreens.

It’s all solid stuff, known for long life and durability. But even though I bought some of the equipment used, the total package was over $1,000. Ouch.

Fortunately, audio newbies don’t need to open a vein to buy audio equipment good enough for broadcast on networks as fussy about sound as NPR or PRI.

Audio hardware basics

Case in point. Since 2013 I’ve been mentoring an SEJ radio newbie, Lana Straub, who caught the radio bug at her first SEJ conference in Lubbock, Texas, near her West Texas Permian Basin home. For her first trial run at recording audio, she used equipment culled from her husband’s home music recording studio.

“I started out with an Olympus DS-30 hand-held digital recorder with the mic on top, and a pair of ear buds. This is actually what I used in a press conference with Laura Bush,” Straub wrote in an email . “It got a lot of snickers from the group of seasoned radio and TV journos.”

But it got the job done. After recording a few more stories for her local public radio station, KXWT, Straub learned the basics of good recording, miking both herself and her subjects up close (a fist’s distance between the mic and the subject’s mouth), and using her headphones while gathering ambient sound. She also learned to improvise. At one event, too far away from her subject for good audio, she cut the bottom off a plastic water bottle to create a boom around her mic. And she added a sock as a mic screen to combat the Texas wind.

But Straub knew her equipment wasn’t broadcast quality. It could record only in MP3 format, so-called ‘lossy’ sound that means that some of the data is lost in order to compress the file. That’s fine for iPod listening. But when you start manipulating the MP3s in an audio editing program, you can get mistakes, called ‘artifacts,’ that can lead to loud noises and drop-outs. And why start out in a poorer-quality format, when higher quality doesn’t cost that much more? So Straub decided to invest in a new kit that records in ‘loss-less’ WAV files. “My next set of equipment was an IRig that I ordered for $39.99 to be used with my iPhone and a spare PG 58 mic that I had lying around the house from our music gear,” wrote Straub. She used it for a few months, but when an incoming call interrupted a recording session one day, she knew it was time for a more professional kit.

Lower prices, many options

Straub invested in a Zoom H4N Digital Audio Recorder, along with two external mics, including an AT-897 short shotgun mic from Audio Technica. Her total package was about $600. But there are even cheaper technologies out there for both high-quality broadcast and online applications.

For example, the Tascam DR-05 recorder that records in WAV files, with a couple of cables, a tripod and earbuds, can be had for around $100. The Tascam DR-07 with accessories sells for around $160. And BSW has a brand called Alesis that records in WAV format for around $80. It also has the Zoom H1 for about $100.

Some radio reporters are now exclusively reporting using an iPhone or other smart phone. Neal Augenstein of WTOP in Washington, D.C. profiled his transition to iPhone reporting in PBS’s MediaShift . NPR has a tutorial on how to record a good-quality phone interview using an iPhone. Others are using Skype to record long-distance interviews.

Many of these less expensive digital recorders have built-in mics that are perfectly adequate for recording good sound. But if you want to get up close and personal with the sounds of nature, you may want to invest in a shotgun mic. You’ll find in-depth comparisons of audio recording devices and microphones at Transom.org. There’s also information about how to edit your audio once you’ve collected it.

Easy audio editing programs

Audio editors allow you to easily remove long pauses, shorten sound bites, even layer sounds for a richer montage. They work in much the same way as a video editing program, allowing you to visually cut, paste and move audio around from one place to another, and save as files you can then add to your text, podcast or slide show.

Some of the simplest audio editing programs have been around for years, like the free, open-source Audacity, which many stations still use for pulling basic soundbites. Some freelancers favor the free version of WavePad, which works with pretty much all audio formats, including WAV files. And many radio reporters have moved from costly ProTools or Adobe Audition to Hindenburg, a new set of low- to medium-cost audio editing programs designed specifically for radio: hindenburg.com. Most if not all of these programs are available for both Mac and PC.

Using audio without investing a dime

Finally, you don’t have to invest a penny to use audio in your storytelling. There are a surprising number of open-source audio recordings out there that can be used in part or in toto without violating copyright.

For example, I’ve used snippets of the 1969 moon landing broadcasts recorded by NASA that I found on YouTube. Some institutions have audio libraries, like the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s thousands of recorded bird calls or the vast audio archive at the Library of Congress.

Whatever your investment of time or money, using audio can enhance your storytelling. And SEJ’s Lana Straub says it can also change the way you report.

“It’s amazing what you can hear with a set of headphones and amplification,” says Straub. “It’s made me a better listener, a better talker and a better journalist.”

Karen Schaefer is an independent public radio producer based in Oberlin, Ohio. Her work has appeared on NPR, PRI’s The World, the BBC, the CBC, and Pulse of the Planet.