Cameras and built in Microphones – A Marriage of Convenience

wedding-rings-public-domainOkay, so yes. I’ll start out by acknowledging that Marriages of Convenience can sometimes work. And built in microphones in cameras can sometimes work too.

But for the most part —  an external microphone is always the better bet.

In the next few articles, I’ll talk about the various kinds of techniques and gear that video makers can use to get good sound. To begin with, some words about those built ins and why they’re not the best idea.

Stand the same distance from the person you’re going to be shooting. Ask them to talk. Close your eyes. What do you hear?

If you’re no more than a foot away, you’ll likely hear the person pretty clearly.

Step back about four feet.

When I did this yesterday, I heard:

a) the person’s voice. I had to strain because her voice was very soft. Some of the words were lost.

b) the ventilation system in the room.

c) the person sitting next to me coughed. It was loud.

d) And then an ambulance went by.

Built in camera mikes will pick up all of that sound. They are what are called “omni directional” microphones. Which means, they record everything they hear, at the same sound levels as your ears are hearing.

So, my recording picked up:

a) the main speaker. But she was very soft. I could hear her most of the time, but I was straining.

b) the sound of the constant furnace, which also masked the sound of my speaker.

c) the cough. Really loud. Ouch. My ears hurt.

d) and then the ambulance sound, which masked the cough, the furnace and my speaker.

Many video makers I talk to say that sound is one of their biggest frustrations. But it doesn’t have to be. There are many easy ways to get good quality sound from the get go, and make it sparkle in post.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing series of posts about Getting Good Sound for Video.

Next in the series, choosing the right kind of microphone.

The Birth of the Talkies — or “You Can Add Sound to that Movie!”

“Somehow or other it never seemed to dawn on anybody that they should talk in motion sound_technicians_setting_up_the_turn-table_and_amplifiers_for_the_first_-talkies-_in_australia_1927-1928_2877787608pictures”  – George Groves

You might not have heard of George Groves before. Sound people are like that.  Always in the background. (That is, until they stop the action on set because they can hear a truck roaring by in the background).

George Groves is credited with being the first person to figure out how to synch sound with film. The year was 1926. The film was Don Juan. (Incidentally, the film also has the distinction of containing the most kisses from the most characters of all time. 191 different women. That’s a lot of kissing) It was primitive – essentially, George recorded a record album with an orchestra of 107 musicians, timed to exact scene changes in the film. Essentially, they synched the sound on film by needle dropping at precisely the right moment when the film started. And they let it play until the end.

And of course, most people know that the next major development was the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in 1927. Not much kissing in that one because the actors were too busy using their lips to speak words. Audiences were spellbound. Again, in the words of George Groves – “Everybody held their breath…It took everybody by storm that he just came out with spoken words”.

So why did it take so long for sound and images to synch up? It’s essentially because getting good sound and good images require different sets of equipment that are not really compatible. The solution these days is to buy a camera that has a built in microphone. But even then, these microphones and cameras don’t always live happily together.

In the next couple of posts, we’ll explore some techniques to synch up good sound and good pictures. It’s surprising how many of these techniques are the very same as those early film producers way back in those early days of film.

(PHOTO: SOUND TECHNICIANS SETTING UP THE TURN-TABLE AND AMPLIFIERS FOR THE FIRST “TALKIES” IN AUSTRALIA, 1927-1928)

Podcast Intros and Extros – Best Practices

I listen to a lot of podcasts. It helps me keep up with all the different podcasting styles out there, and I’m always thrilled to find a new podcast to subscribe to.

I sometimes listen to them on the treadmill or when I’m out for a walk. It’s a different experience than listening on the desktop with show notes in front of me. Here are some of my best practices re: intros and extros to make sure your listeners have all the info they need in your podcast.

a) Assume that your your listeners won’t have the show notes in front of them. There will be a a general description, but not much detail. Some podcasters dive right into the content without an intro. This works when the listener has the website open in front of them, but not well when your podcast is automatically downloaded by subscribers onto their mobile device. So, my recommendation is that your podcasts be complete and self contained so they can stand on their own without the show notes. This also works out well if some of our radio friends hear your content and want to put it on the air. Broadcasters love it when everything is ready to go for them and they don’t even have to write a script.

b) theme: a very short, standard intro (possibly with a bit of podsafe music) will help your podcast be recognizable. It is your signature beginning .. when listeners hear it, they’ll know it’s your podcast. So when they’re previewing content on their ipod when they’re in the gym, or listening in the car, they’ll know right away it’s you. And a theme with music makes you sound so organized and professional.

c) calls to action: if you have promos, or website information, or other ways you’d like listeners to respond, put it at the end of your podcast. You want to get into your content right away, not ask your listeners to wait while you read a whole long list of things. It slows down the pace of the listening experience, so get into your content as fast as you can.

These themes and scripts don’t have to be long. Shorter is better. I recommend that your standard theme be less than 30 seconds long. And the spoken intro to individual episode can be as little as 3-4 sentences. What’s important in the intro to each episode is: Who your guest is, who you are, what you’re talking to your guest about, and why the subject is important. Give your listeners a reason to keep listening instead of requiring them to get into the piece so they can figure it out themselves. Because a many of them won’t. They’ll stop listening. Especially if they don’t have show notes in front of them.

d) And finally — don’t forget to say goodbye. And repeat who you’ve been talking to so they don’t have to go look it up. And this is where you can suggest email links, tell listeners about other shows or other promo points.

Interview Basics – Part 2 – Recording the Interview

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Okay, so you’ve done your preinterview and know what you are going to ask.  It’s showtime.  

Before the interview:

Organize your technology. Arrive early. Check out the location that you have chosen. Make sure that no loud noises or construction crews have appeared since your last visit. (This happens. Frequently – when it does, think fast. And change location)

Be organized and calm. If you are flustered, your guest will be flustered too. The best way to relax your guest is to be relaxed yourself.

Check your gear. Take your time, do a short test recording and listen back to make sure your gear is working correctly. If you are working with a camera crew, make sure they have about half an hour before the shoot to set up.

Greet your guest. Say hello. Be friendly and personable. Make the person feel at home.  Resist the temptation to talk too much about the questions you’re going to ask.  You don’t want the freshest, best responses coming out before you’re rolling.

When you’re ready to go ..

Greet your guest. Say hello. Be friendly and personable. Make the person feel at home.  Resist the temptation to talk too much about the questions you’re going to ask.  You don’t want the freshest, best responses coming out before you’re rolling.

Keep your questions short and tight. The listeners want to hear your guest, not you. Your function is to get your guest to talk about the issue/subject. Avoid long and rambling questions. They are usually a sign that you don’t really know what your question is. Especially if your guest has to ask “excuse me, what was the question?”.

Stick to the questions you’ve pre-scripted. When you planned your questions, you crafted a “flow” to the conversation. Your questions are your roadmap. If something interesting comes up, and you have time, you may want to follow the tangent. But always return to your questions and keep the interview on track.

Avoid jargon. If your guest uses a term that your listeners won’t understand, ask “what’s that?”. Your listeners are not experts. Your role is to make the interview understandable. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations and “shop talk”, unless your target audience is a professional group that understands the shop talk.

Watch the clock. If your interview is scheduled to go ten minutes, don’t make it fifteen. Or five.

After the interview …

Check your recording.  Technical malfunctions can happen, even to seasoned pros. Make sure the recording is there.

Thank your guest.

Respond to her questions. Like “when will it be done?”. “When can I hear it online?”.

Confirm contact info.

And then, pack up, go home and get your post-production done (editing, packaging with themes, voice intros etc).  If you’ve followed these instructions, you won’t have a lot of editing to do.

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Interview Basics – Part 1 – Getting Ready

Charlton Heston
Yes, that is Charlton Heston being interviewed. By a very young Victoria Fenner

Interviews are building blocks for every kind of communication project. Whether you’re doing an interview for a podcast, a video or as the basis for a text article, the principles are the same.

The more prepared you are, the stronger your interview will be. Do research before turning on the camera or microphone. It will save hours of editing and writing time if you only get the information you need. And you will impressed your guest with your ability to focus the conversation.

Here are a few tips:

a) Know WHY you’re doing the interview. This is also known as “focusing” your interview. What exactly do you need to know from the person you’re interviewing? The clearer you are about why YOU think this is an important subject, the clearer it will be for your listeners.

b) Do a Pre-interview – Call your prospective interviewees on the phone before showing up to film or recording. Do they know their subject? Are they good talkers? Can they talk about their subject in a way that ordinary people can understand? Are they available when you need them? If yes, book them for an interview. If not, thank them for the useful information and look for another guest.

c) Set the time and location for your interview – Where and when will you do the interview? If it’s an audio interview you will want to think about background sound. If it’s a video interview, you have to think about both the visual background and the sound background.

d) PLAN your on air questions in advance. Every good interview has a beginning, middle and end. By planning your questions in advance, you won’t have to make it up on the spot. If your interviewee is a good talker, you will need less questions. Figure on six questions for a ten minute interview if your guest is reasonably verbose.

There are only six questions in every interview that really matter: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

Next time: Doing the interview