Record Crisp Interview Audio for a Better Production

Though video is a visual medium, there are certain types of productions where what the viewer hears–not what the viewer sees–drives the video forward. Examples include the music video, the narrated documentary and the interview.

Of these, the video interview may be the simplest to produce. Simple is a relative term, however–turning out a crisp, articulate interview can be a challenging task even for the best videographers. Those who record a lot of interviews have developed a number of audio techniques and principles they rely on interview after interview. To help your interviews look and sound just like the pros, here are 10 proven techniques for taping and editing video interviews.

  • Find the best-sounding location For interviews, you want a location that sounds as good as it looks. This means finding a place free from unwanted noises (traffic, refrigerator, ringing phones, etc.). Listen closely to any location before setting up your gear. If you hear lots of noises and distracting sounds, you can be sure the mike will pick them up too. If necessary, find a different location.

    Equally important is a locale with good acoustics. Recording in a highly reverberant space will douse your audio with hollow-sounding ambience and echoes. This compromises the intelligibility and clarity of your interview, and makes the voice seem distant and indistinct. Rooms with carpet and soft furnishings usually provide very good acoustics. The average living room makes a great place to conduct interviews.

  • Let clarity be your creed The prime directive for any interview is crisp, clear audio. Do all you can to ensure that your sound remains crystal clear from the initial recording all the way to the final dub. At each step in the production process, compare your audio to the previous step. If the interviewee’s voice has lost some crispness or definition, try to find and alleviate the problem. Check to make sure that the mike stays the same distance from the speaker’s mouth at all times (see below) and verify that all cable connections are secure.

    Crisp audio starts with a good mike. Use the best mike you can (not necessarily the most-expensive mike), preferably one that boosts upper frequencies a bit. Avoid a wireless mike unless you must have the mobility and use the shortest, highest-quality mike cable you can get away with.

  • Use an external mike Your camcorder’s mike is attached to a box full of whirring motors and buzzing circuits, one that’s usually located too far from the action to pick up crisp sound. An external mike, on the other hand, can sit within inches of your interviewee and won’t pick up noises from the camcorder. External mikes, especially those in the $100-and-up price range, tend to be of better quality than the built-in variety.

    For interviews, a quality lavalier mike is hard to beat. Pin it to your victim’s chest, and you’re all but guaranteed crisp audio. Next best is a vocal mike on a stand, positioned just outside the frame. If you don’t have a mike stand, your interviewer can hold the mike 18 inches or so from the interviewee’s mouth.

  • Keep audio consistent If clarity is your prime directive, then consistency is next on the list. When you start patching the interview together during editing, changes in tone or level become painfully obvious. The best way to ensure that voice tone doesn’t change over time is to keep the mike position constant.

    This means a mike held by interviewer or interviewee shouldn’t wave around like a baton. Nor should it drop from three inches below the mouth to 18 inches as someone’s arm tires. If you’re using a lavalier mike, make sure no clothing shifts to cover the mike. Likewise, don’t let the lav rotate to point sideways instead of directly up. If you have to put the interview on hold briefly to correct mike position, do so. The consistency of your audio is at stake.

  • Watch levels closely Every bit as important as voice tone is voice volume (level). A long, slow change in level will be hard to catch during the actual interview, but will be obvious if you splice the beginning and end of an answer together during editing. You may need to encourage your interviewee to speak a little more loudly if their energy level tails off.

    A camcorder’s auto gain control (AGC) will compensate for level changes by turning the voice up or down, but you’ll hear a change in background noise as a result. This fact, coupled with the rising whoosh of background noise during pauses, makes AGC a poor choice for interviews. If you can set audio levels manually on your camcorder, do so. Manual record levels are important enough to justify recording to a high-quality VCR with this feature–simply plug your microphone and camcorder’s video output into the VCR.

    During editing, you may need to make adjustments at each edit point to ensure consistent voice level. This is easy to do with a non-linear editor, especially one where you can simply adjust a volume line. This volume line also makes it easy to compensate for slow level changes over a long period of time.

  • Remember that silence is golden When editing an interview, it’s the pauses that make everything flow together smoothly. Without some silence to work with, editing becomes a nightmare.

    In their zeal, some interviewers will fire off the next question the instant the interviewee is done answering the previous one. This is bad. Likewise, an eager interviewee may make editing more difficult by speaking hot on the heels of the interviewer.

    Encourage your interviewers to hold their next question for a second or two after the interviewee stops speaking. Ask the interviewee to pause briefly before answering each question. Some interviewees feel that pauses in their speech sound unprofessional, and will try to fill every moment of their interview with something. Assure them that pauses are not only OK, but even beneficial to the process.

  • Limit your audio A device called a compressor will automatically make quiet sections of an interview a little louder, and loud sections a little quieter. Compression evens out the dynamics of the voice, allowing you to set your record levels hotter and get a louder, fuller sound overall. You can put a hardware compressor between any two components in your linear editing rig, or if you’re editing on a nonlinear system, use a software plug-in to get the same effect.

    Set to tame just the loudest peaks, a compressor becomes what we call a limiter. Its effects are a little more transparent overall, as a limiter works only when your interviewee laughs loudly, coughs or delivers a few words with a little too much enthusiasm. With a limiter in the signal chain, these loud sections won’t force you to lower all your levels to avoid distortion.

  • Edit to the audio Editing an interview is something you can do nearly with your eyes shut and your ears open. A smooth, natural audio track is your goal, so the interviewee’s words should guide your editing. As you edit, make sure you maintain the speaker’s natural flow of pitch and inflection. Good interview editors are students of human speech.

    The end of a sentence is the obvious place to edit, but you can also edit within sentences if your editing system is up to the task. Folks doing nonlinear editing enjoy the highest degree of precision, making editing interviews a much easier process. They have also the capability of doing a quick audio crossfade at each edit, which makes for a seamless audio track. Throw a cutaway shot over the edit, and nobody will even know the edit occurred.

  • Pace yourself When editing, it’s easy to disturb the pacing of an interview by shortening up pauses too much. Remember that speech has natural silences whose lengths differ depending on the emotion and energy level of the speaker. If you cheat the gap at every edit point, you’ll upset the natural rhythm of the interview and call attention to the edit.

    If you’re editing mid-sentence to mid-sentence, you probably won’t have enough silence to create a seamless edit. This is where nonlinear editors can create their own natural-sounding pause, if they…

  • Use natural sound If you need a little more space at an edit point, insert some natural sound, because pure silence rarely sounds right. This is because most interviews take place in a room where there’s some background sound, which the mike and camcorder dutifully record. The viewer grows used to hearing this ambient noise during pauses, and its absence will be as jarring as an unexpected trumpet blast.

    Record a few minutes of the room’s natural sound before or after the interview, and save it as an audio clip on your computer. Lay this sound on your timeline on the gap, and let it overlap the audio on either side. Then, do a quick crossfade (10 frames or so) to and from the natural sound and the result is a perfect, seamless pause.

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