RECORDING FOR RADIO

Tips from Alex Smith, Radio Ecoshock

 

[Draft version 1.0]

 

At this critical time in our civilization, and our planet, mainstream media fails to pass on equally critical information.Often the crest of both activism and science is presented at local events which could be share with everyone - if a few people in every city learn how to record with reasonable quality.

 

Also, mainstream media is in financial trouble, letting good reporters go.It may be up to all of us to report the newest information.

 

In my experience with radio, people will not invest time if the sound itself is annoying.They tune out, even missing great speeches or discussions.Getting a good recording is not too difficult or expensive.These are tips from what I have learned so far, recording for non-profit radio.

 

Each topic begins with a number in square brackets, to let you search within this top sheet - like this: [1]We will begin with the mouth of the speaker, and end up with a little on audio editing and distribution.Please forgive any mistakes.I am not a professional, and have no training, other than experience.

 

[1] A NOTE ABOUT PERMISSION:

 

Also, you need to get permission to record a speech, if you want to get it on radio, or distribute it legally to others.One approach is to just show up and ask.Most speakers will agree, once they know you are not selling the product (it is for non-profit use).They may not agree if (a) they are trying to get more speaking engagements and feel threatened by your recording (only happened to me once in three years) or (b) they are recording it themselves for resale (again, extremely rare).

 

I prefer to phone or email ahead for permission.Email is best, because then you have the record of the permission, and the name of the person who authorized it.Usually people are glad to know others will hear their message.It if it is an environmental or socially important event, you may say you are recording for Radio Ecoshock, or will post it at the radio non-profit exchange site, radio4all.net.

 

Sometimes a booking agent, or book promotion person will hedge or deny permission.But you can email the speaker/author directly (look them up on the Net) and get their permission.I usually go direct, unless I think that will offend an agent.And I like to be welcomed back at various halls, so I will work with the promoter.

 

If everybody says no, I don't go.

 

 

[2] THE MOUTH AND THE MICROPHONE

 

I arrive at least 20 minutes before the event.Half an hour is even better - that is when you may find the person who is setting up the audio system for the audience.Remember, their task is different - they want to disperse sound throughout the room.You want to capture it as close to the mouth as possible.

 

Basically, there are three sound options you may meet:

 

[a] the meeting is small, there is no microphone.You will set up your own.

[b] the room is large, there is a microphone, but there is no way to get a feed from the main PA system.You will set up your own mic.

[c] there may be several microphones (perhaps for a panel, or for questions after the presentation), they feed into a mixer (possibly at the back or side of the room) - and you can connect your recording device to that mixer. You will not use your own microphone at all.

 

[a] small meeting, no microphone.I will presume you have a recording device, and I discuss those in detail later.It could be anything from a Sony Mini-Disk, a digital recorder of mp3 player, an old tape machine (not recommended), or a your portable computer.

 

Whatever machine you use, you must have a separate microphone.

 

Recordings made by a laptop computer, with a built in microphone, even from the front row, are seldom - if ever - good enough for radio broadcast, or satisfying as an mp3 download.That is because: the slightest motion near you, such as zipper on a bag, or your feet moving, is amplified.Also, you will pick up a lot of room noise (including overly loud clapping, sneezing, doors closing, etc).You may also have an echo.Sometimes these noises coincide with words of the speaker, and cannot be removed.

 

I cannot stress this enough.A decent recording requires either (a) you have a very small recorder which can be placed on the podium, or somehow facing the speaker within about three feet maximum (possible, if you tape it in place, with non-permanent tape) or (b) you have a separate microphone (the best solution.)

 

MICROPHONES:

 

There are two basic types of microphones.

 

Type One is the old fashioned kind, often like the brand name "Shure" mic, used by rock bands in the '70s and still employed by colleges and public places today.It has a large round head, and requires no outside power source, being mechanical.

 

A Type One microphone cannot be connected directly to a computer "line-in" jack, since it has no power, and thus the signal is too low.It always has to feed through a pre-amplifier (pre-amp)(which may be built into a mixer).If you have this type of microphone, or find one you can use at the site, you purchase a "tube-amp" for less than a hundred dollars, and use that as your pre-amp.So the mic would run into the tube amp (through a mic cable) and the tube-amp is connected to your recording device (through a "patch" cable.A patch cable is just a connecting cable with the correct type of jacks at each end.)

 

Or you can connect the Type One mic to a small mixer, and then to your computer or recording device.For example, I have a Xenyx 1002 mixer, made by Behringer, which is only about 6 by 8 inches, quite light, fits into a backpack taking up hardly any space.This little mixer costs less than $100, and allows up to four microphones, meaning you could record a panel discussion.But I only use it occasionally, and it is not a required piece of equipment if you buy a different type of microphone.

 

A Type Two microphone is called a "Condenser Mic".It requires some sort of power, which is usually provided by the mixer (such as the Xenyx above, or a big mixer at the hall).But I heartily recommend a little Sony mic that uses just one AA battery.It is the Sony ECM-MS907 (look it up online) Electret Condenser Microphone.Mine cost $125.This mic goes directly into a "mic-in" spot - either on a Mini-Disk recorder, a computer, or digital recorder.It should even work on the occasionally Mp3 player (like the older Rio models) that offer a "mic-in" plug.The Sony mic is hardy, small and unobtrusive.It can be taped right on to another larger mic provided for the PA system.And it allows you to set either a 90 degree angle (for speakers who remain at a podium) or 120 degree coverage (for people who may wander over to a slide screen, or pace about).The sound quality is excellent.

 

You may see very inexpensive Condenser mics, ($40) but they are quite tinny sounding.And recording studios use Condenser mics that cost $400 to $2,000.The Sony is the best for the money, on a budget.

 

You will need a small microphone stand.It is a real hassle to carry a full standing microphone stand, and that clutters up camera shots, if others are making video recordings.So I found a very small collapsible stand, that fits right on a podium, or on a table, and holds the mic.It cost $12 at a store that sells supplies to musicians and recording studios.The little stand fits in my backpack nicely.

 

And finally you need a cable to reach your recording device.In most cases I use a Sony Mini-Disc, and leave that down near the base of the podium or on a table near the speaker.So a six foot connecting cord is plenty.Often just the cord from the mic is enough.That setup depends upon the automatic volume settings provided in your recorder.Most devices have this.So you don't need to monitor the sound during the recording.I often do this, now that I have experience with my recorder, and know how to be sure it is working.

 

However, many people want to check volume (and make sure the recording is really happening) - so they have a much longer cable, perhaps up to 25 feet.Then you need non-sticky tape (black, on a roll, called "Gaffer Tape", from a music supply store).You tape down the connecting cable so people don't trip over it, and keep the recording device on your lap, or on a side table, whatever.

 

[3] PATCHING INTO A MIXER OR "MEDIA FEED"

 

When there are multiple microphones set up for a speech or event (say for a panel, or to allow audience questions) then you need to try and "patch in" to the main mixer.Or the event may provide a box for a "media feed".To use either of these you just need a bag full of different types of connecting cables.

 

There are five kinds of audio connectors you may encounter (both male 'the jack' and female 'the plug'):

 

- XLR - the largest, three prongs, used by older microphones, and in radio studio equipment.

- the standard 1/4 inch jack (found on all older and professional level audio equipment)

- the "mini-jack" (used by most consumer electronics, like the Minidisk small digital recording devices)

- the micro-jack (smallest, used on some mp3 players)

- RCA jacks (the oldest of all, used to hook up audio equipment, one prong surrounded by a little ring of metal grippers, usually colored red on one channel and white for another).

 

Ideally, you should have them all.††

 

The Media Feed boxes expect you to have an XLR FEMALE plug.People who record for radio stations often get a cable made for them, or order from the Net, which has an XLR female connector on one end, and a male mini-jack (to go into your recorder) on the other.The cable should be about 6 feet long, in case you need to sit to one side of the media feed box.Without these cables, you may not be able to record the whole event.But you could still put your mic on the podium, if any, for the main speech.(See handling Q and A session appendix below)

 

Other large mixers, including ones set up in back rooms, such as at a University, expect a 1/4 inch male jack.You could have a cable with 1/4 inch male at both ends, and then a "converter" to take one 1/4 inch down to a mini-jack for your recorder.

 

I have run into places that offer only an RCA connection.Any Radio Shack or other store will sell a cable which has RCA male connectors at one end, and a single stereo mini-jack (for your recorder) at the other end.

 

You can tell if a jack is stereo or mono by looking at the jack.If it has just one ring, it is mono; two rings, stereo.A mono feed is OK, if you have audio editing software that will convert mono to stereo, later back on your computer.

 

Nobody will offer you a micro-jack, but your own recording device might need one, so you need a converter for that.

 

Finally I have a small collection of male to female converters, called "sex-changers".And I have a couple of longer cables, quarter inch, in case I have to stretch from the podium or mixer to a seat 12 to 20 feet away.That usually isn't necessary.

 

All of this costs at least $100.You don't need some of this, if you intend to just park your own mic on the podium, tape your recorder up there, and capture a single speaker.

 

Note: take a pee before the recording, and bring a bottle of water.Once you place your recorder on the podium, or wherever - you can never take your eyes off it.Sadly, at open public events people will steal the recorder.Never leave it unattended.Maybe another person you trust can watch it for you.

 

 

[4] THE RECORDING DEVICE.

 

Before I describe recorders, I want to stress one key to success: try always to plug the unit into AC power.Do not depend upon internal batteries, if you can avoid it.

Of course you will have charged up any internal batteries several hours before you set out.That is part of the routine for recording.Find out how to read the battery gauge on your device (read the manual) - perhaps buy a cheap battery tester, and bring extra batteries if possible.

 

Even so, I seldom record on battery power, unless there is no other choice.Events go on longer than planned, batteries run out.So a key part of my equipment is about 12 feet of extension cord.Usually there is a place to plug in near the podium, stage, or in the room.

 

Another tip: rather than use a single head extension cord, I always have one with three plugs at the end.You can use two or three if you intend to bring a mixer or tube amp.But more importantly, there may be a couple of other people recording, everyone competes for perhaps one plug, and you can solve the problem by providing a couple of extra outlets.Also: often there is no room to plug in a large power converter, which your laptop computer, Mini-disk or whatever may have.You know, the blocky things at the end of the power cord - but the plug you find only has room left for a single simple two prong plug.No problem, if you have your little extension cord.Don't bother with a big heavy duty extension cord, you won't be using much power.Just the kind suitable for a lamp will do.Tape it down, if people will be walking over it, or near it (they may kick it loose during the recording, or trip).

 

OK.What to record with.

 

RECORDING DEVICES

 

Tape players don't last long enough, squeak and creak, forget them.

 

The debate today is whether to use a Mini-disk, or a digital recorder, or even a computer.

 

I have and like the Mini-disk.The newer Sony ones DO let you transfer recording via a USB cable.Older ones do NOT let you do this - and so you have to re-record the whole session on your computer.An hour recording takes another hour to transfer.So avoid older Mini-Disks if you can.Also the new ones are "HD" meaning High Density, and can record up to 9 hours in a pretty high quality format (a better quality than radio can transmit, and good enough for CD).So you could record an all-day session by just turning it on and leaving it.A brand new HD Minidisk still costs around $300, or $400 with a double headed small condenser mic (which can be attached to a speaker's lapel - a "lav" mic.)Expensive, but lives more or less forever.

 

More people are getting digital recorders now.They are quite small, record in high quality, fit in your pocket.A friend bought an Eideron RS-9 for about $300.It has built in microphones, but also input spots to accept either an old Shure type mic, or a condenser mic, or a "line-in".I'll explain the "line-in" part later, when we discuss getting your sound from a mixer, or the sound system in the hall.

 

Digital recorders make a file which can be passed quickly to your computer for editing, using a USB cable.The time they will record depends upon the size of the memory card you put in, and quality you specify.Make sure you get at least a 1 gig memory card.More is better.

 

As I said earlier, it is also possible to record to some Mp3 players.Some models have a mic input jack.Others at least have a "line-in" spot (like the older "Creative" Mp3 players) which will allow you to accept sound from the main PA system (providing you have the right connectors, access, and permission from whoever is running the sound system for the room).If you are on an extreme low budget, search around for an older Mp3 player with the right inputs.If you get that to work, that is the cheapest way to go, but not as useful as a dedicated recording device, whether Mini-Disk or digital.

 

You can also record to a computer, but again, get an external mic.You may get one of the very small ones that can be piggy-backed (taped on to) the existing mic in the hall - and then run a cable to your seat at the front (which you got because you arrived early to set up, before the crowd came).

 

[5] AUDIO EDITING

 

Once you have the recording, you need to transfer it to a computer.

 

Tip one: as soon as you get the raw recording on the computer, burn that to a CD.Your hard drive may fail, or you may accidentally erase or screw up the file - so keep a copy of the original.CD's cost about 50 cents - do it!

 

The amount of editing you do depends upon you skills and time.

 

In the case of Radio Ecoshock, unless you have a lot of experience, I actually prefer to receive a raw recording, to work with it myself.If you change it, you may limit my options.Just save it as an .mp3 file and send it to: radio@ecoshock.org.Of course nothing longer than about 10 minutes of mp3 will go through the normal email system.But you can send a much larger file (even two hours worth of mp3) using the site: http://www.yousendit.com/

Instruction on how to send it are right on the main page there.

 

To post the file for others, on the Net, or on radio4all.net, you will need to prepare it first.That requires an audio editing program.

 

Most Mac computers come with audio programs, I donít' use a Mac, and can't advise you on that.

 

On a PC, using Windows, you can do a decent job with a free program called "Audacity".Google that and download the program.Read the help files carefully.Muddle through.I use Sony Sound Forge, which is a professional level program costing around $350.It does amazing things.You can also go all the way up to "Pro-Tools" but man, that is expensive (over $1000) and requires more skills than I have time to develop.Your choice, on how deep you want to go.Maybe start with Audacity.

 

Step one: check for and correct "DC Offset".You must do this first.DC Offset is a slight mis-adjustment of the sound wave, due to differences in the electric components of the recording device, compared to your computer.The Offset wave may actually appear slightly above or below the center line on the screen, which means problems.Most editing programs just correct that automatically, if you tell them to (it is on a menu somewhere).

 

Step two: chop off any silence at the beginning and end of the file.(Select the empty space and delete it).

 

Step three: zoom out as far as possible (so the whole file can be seen on your computer screen) and look at it.Are there places where the volume (represented by the wave pattern you see) drops way down?Those may be too quiet, and you may have to raise that volume.(Perhaps the speaker wandered away from the mic...)

Is the whole thing too quiet?(Not very visible, tiny waves).That is not a disaster.First set your computer volume level (in Windows, learn how from the help menu) to about 30 percent. Don't raise the computer volume to listen to a file that is too quiet.You will have to raise the volume of the whole file itself.

 

I use 30 percent of my computer's volume as a standard - and I always edit with headphones on, so I can really hear.

 

Sometimes, the sound is so low I can barely hear what is being said.I select the whole file, and then "Normalize" it.Don't just randomly raise the volume by a few DB - as you may actually wreck the file, by making parts too loud (which is called "clipping")The Normalize function will raise the volume to a percent level you set, and not allow the loudest parts to crackle over the top.I often Normalize to 82%.

 

But what if there are a few loud spots, and the rest is too quiet?

 

OK, when you zoomed all the way out, and looked at the file, you should notice where the sound levels reach almost, or all the way, to the top or bottom of the wave screen.If you used a manual set up, or got a feed that was too "hot" (loud) then you may already have some clipping.If the whole file is full of clipping, too bad, you can't really fix it or use it.That is why it is better to have a recorder with an automatic level setting device, or else to monitor the recording with your own headphones while recording, and looking at the built in level meter as you recorded it.

 

But if you just have a few really loud spots (often the applause, for example) - you an manually select them, and bring them down in volume.As a rough guide, if you reduce a file by 6 DB, that cuts the sound in half.Most people can't tell the difference below 2 DB.So you could try 2 DB and see if that brings the loud spot down more level with the rest of the file.You may have to do this in half a dozen or more places.Then normalize the file again.

 

That still might leave a few too quiet places, which you will raise (unless the speaker meant to have a quiet voice for effect, in which case you leave it.)

 

So most of the work is setting volume levels.But you can also remove annoying sounds if they don't all during a speaker's words (like coughs from the audience), silent spots (where the speaker stopped for a drink of water, or to adjust a cranky computer slide thingy), or extraneous rambling (if your speech is too long for your purposes).

Incidentally, a half hour radio show is actually 26 minutes long, at the most, allowing for introductions etc, and an hour show cannot broadcast more than 56 minutes.But again, if you are sending a speech to me, I would rather have the whole thing (even two hours) and make those decisions myself.

 

There is another way to adjust volume, if your software program offers it: compression.Compression lowers the loudest spots, and amplifies the quietest spots, without the manual editing.But it takes a little experimentation to do compression well.All FM dj's use compression, incidentally, to boost their sound.Usually light compression (2:1 - that is double the lowest spots) is best.I only use 3:1 if the there is a wide difference in volume throughout the file.Compression can also add a bit of bass to a file.

 

Speaking of bass, you may also have to adjust the "EQ".If you have ever adjust the bass or treble of a CD player/record player or radio you know enough.It just means if the recording sounds too high and tinny, you may cut some of the high frequencies, and amplify the bass.However, some recordings, especially in a big hall with echo, have too much bass.Then you do the opposite, cut the base a bit, and add treble (which can add "presence").With a good recorder, I seldom have to adjust the EQ, unless the hall made the sound too muddy.But you wouldn't have that problem anyway, if you get your mic as close to the speaker's mouth as possible.That cuts out the reverb from the hall.

 

Save your file regularly as you work with it.I don't save over original, ever.With each major change, or as I work along, I save to the same name plus a number.

Like "Watson 1"and then "Watson 2".When I'm done, I may erase these work files (after I have burned the finished product to a CD!!) as they take up a lot of room.But if I make a change that doesn't work out, I can just go back one step, to the previous file.Computers can crash at any time, wasting your work, so save often.

 

Once the file is ready, you want to save it to an .mp3 format.Usually you save a stereo file, but not always.If your original recording is mono (just one channel) most audio editing programs offer you a tool to convert it to stereo (it just copies the one channel into two).The file must be stereo to burn it to a CD.Always.

A CD is 44 MHz at 128 Kbps (Megahertz, at 128 Kilobytes per second).

 

However, you may prefer to save the .mp3 file as mono, to make a quicker download.(It will still play in both headphones at the other end).Or you may prefer a lower quality (for faster download, or because the radio station broadcasts at 32 Kbps, etc).Your choice.On Ecoshock, I offer a 33 KHz 128 KBPs file for those who want to burn it to a CD ( or listen on a high quality audio device) and a low quality 22 MHz 32 KBPs "Lo-Fi" version for people downloading by telephone, or who just want a quick and dirty download.

 

You could post both versions to radio4all.net.If sending to Radio Ecoshock, I need the CD quality 44 KHz 128 Kbps version.Once your lower the quality, I can't put it back.If posting on the Web, probably the lower quality version is better, for faster downloads.

 

I always save (a) the original raw recording on CD (or DVD if too big to fit on a CD) and (b) the finished product on CD (or CD's)

 

I hope this helps you make recordings that you can share with the world.We'll all learn together.

 

Alex Smith

host

Radio Ecoshock

http://www.ecoshock.org

 

APPENDIX 1 HANDLING THE Q AND A SESSION AFTER A SPEECH

 

As radio time is limited, I usually don't run the Q and A sessions.I may not have time to edit them, and they require a lot of editing.The exception comes with the odd speaker who is very stilted in the speech, but then warms up during the debate with the audience, and says important things.Then I will add Q and A material to my presentation.

 

One way to help is to go up to the speaker ahead of time, and ask them to repeat any questions, before answering them.Although you may not hear the audience question on your recording, the speaker has summarized it for the radio audience.

 

Actually, depending on your mic, you may find the questions are picked up, if you amplify that portion by at least 12 DB.That also amplifies the room noise, so the quality is not good enough for broadcast - but it reminds you what the question was.Then you can record your own version of the question for the radio audience.

 

If you are patched into the mixer with all microphones, you will get the questions clearly.Some questions are not worth including, frankly.Others are very good.The choice of what to include is yours.