Microphones and recording

All material copyright Inquit Publishing Ltd 2001-2011

Voice recording is about a getting a story, and as well as simply preserving that information, getting the highest quality recording as possible give more options for how you can use the material in the future.

Good recordings make good stories, which can go on to sparkle on your website, enhance CD and DVD multimedia shows, and make listening posts come to life. Good recordings give you lots of options, poor recordings only take them away.

Another reason for getting high quality is to give media organisations what they might need in the future. Radio uses oral history techniques all the time; TV documentary makers need today's recordings for tomorrow's programmes and they always need the best quality.

There are four main things to bear in mind:

  • microphone type
  • recording pattern
  • microphone placement
  • recording settings

Microphone types
There are several different types of microphone. The simplest is a dynamic one - it doesn't need any external power, is robust and can give very good results. Dynamic mics may lose some nuances and produce low levels of output.

The other main type is the condenser mic, more sensitive and generally giving a more detailed recording. Condenser mics need power to charge the capsule, either from an internal battery or from 'phantom power' from the recorder along the mic lead.

In general, go for a condenser mic if you can.

Recording pattern
Microphones have different patterns of picking up sound from the areas around them.

Those which pick up sound from every direction are omni-directional, as well as getting the subject's voice, they often pick up sound you don't want to record - like fridges, cars, sirens, heating, radios etc, and aren't always ideal for voice recording. Those with a narrower pick-up pattern are called cardioid - they will pick up sound from, say, 45 degrees off the microphone axis, but not from the wider area. Ones with a narrower pattern are called hyper-cardioid, too specialist for this area of recording.

Omni-directional are often used for speech recording and have the advantage of picking up the interviewer as well as the interviewee; they are more more tolerant of poor positioning but will pick up unwanted sound too.

Placement
The third main question is where to put it. The first option is to put a hand mic on a stand, close to the subject. It's a bit more obtrusive, but will usually get a good sound. The second is a small tie-clip - or lavalier - microphone. The best can be very expensive but we have some which give good reproduction for a reasonable price. These give a more informal feeling to the session, and can be helpful for less confident interviewees. Typically you would have one for the interviewee on one channel, and another for the interviewer on the other channel.

Try to get the mic about 9-12" (22-30cm) from the subject's mouth; look where mics are placed when you're watching TV. Ever wondered why they are often upside down? It's to avoid percussive breath noises, think of the subject saying "Pah", and you lose most of that with an upside-downer. Only use this technique on an omni-directional mic, or you'll get nothing at all.

The third option is the recorder's built-in microphone. This is probably not going to give a satisfactory recording: the mics are often not best quality, it will usually be at least one metre from the subject, and it may pick up mechanical or electonic noise from the recorder itself. Leave it for emergencies only.

Recording settings
Lastly we come to recording settings. The most important is the level. The best analogy is the strength of a cup of coffee - too little in the mug and it's weak and insipid, too much and you feel you've been hit over the head. Setting the level manually should give the best results: on analogue recorders with meters, adjust the input level on the recorder so that the highest levels just nudge into the red zone. Then you'll have a good strong level, with little or no distortion, keeping noise from the tape at a low level.

On digital recorders it's a little trickier: the meter should show a mark for normal level, maybe half way along the scale. Digital will drastically clip levels which are too high, resulting in distortion.

Try to monitor the recording through headphones while you’re recording, then you’ll hear exactly what it sounds like.

Using automatic recording level is quick and easy, but may bring levels up and down too quickly, as the circuit listens for sound of any kind. So while your subject pauses for a second or two, the level rises right up and you hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece; she starts again and the level dives right down. All auto circuits are different, so the best answer is to test it carefully using the same subject, location and microphone and do recordings on auto and manual level; listen to the results through a hi-fi or or good headphones and assess the quality of the auto circuit.

Call Inquit Audio for free advice and guidance if you feel you need any - but do it before that important recording session, and not afterwards!

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