Getting Good Tape From Home

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Tips on sound design and home recording with KCRW producers. 

How do you get good tape when you’re stuck at home or have some sort of creative limitation that keeps you from getting to the location?

Remote recording and sound design is the norm for Here Be Monsters , a KCRW podcast about fear and the unknown. Co-hosts Jeff Emtman and Bethany Denton shared what they’ve learned along the way in an IPP virtual workshop in April. They produce their podcast while one is on the Eastcoast and the other is on the Westcoast. 

Denton said there are two approaches to getting in-person quality recording when you can’t be in the same room or location to your source. 

One approach is audio diaries.

“We have done a number of audio diaries over the years on ‘Here Be Monsters,’” Denton said. “It can be a really great approach for a lot of stories.”

Denton said audio diaries work well when your source is experiencing something currently, such as the ‘Here Be Monsters’ episode that featured Denton’s friend returning to the Philippines for the first time in 18 years. The audio diary documented how he mentally and emotionally processed the transition of returning to his homeland.

Audio diaries are also a good option in cases where someone has access to a location or sounds that a reporter or producer might not otherwise have access to, such as for a story that otherwise would require a lot of travel.

Photo credit: KCRW.

If you decide an audio diary will work for the story you want to do, Denton said come up with a list of “dream tape” or audio that you would love to have in a perfect world. She suggested sending your source a list of questions and recommendations, including recommendations for sounds you would like your source to gather. They then can refer back to this list during the course of the audio diary process, that in some cases, can take months. 

Denton said this list of questions should be written in such a way that it elicits stories. Ask questions like, when have you felt most alive? What were you doing? What did your body feel like?

Denton said these sorts of questions end up getting more specific anecdotes that you can use in storytelling.

You can send your source a cheap recorder to use or they can use a voice memo app on a smart phone. Regardless of what method you choose, Denton said you should talk beforehand with your source about what you want the piece to be and you should be considerate of the best way to communicate with them.

If they’re not as comfortable with a list, you could also have them record themselves while you do an interview over the phone, Zoom or Skype. But be sure to remind them to get the location sounds you’ll need for your story, including room tone, which you still may need for editing.

Denton said audio diaries have the advantage of resulting in very intimate tape because the person is often alone when recording and as time goes on, they get used to recording themselves and will likely become more comfortable on mic. She said audio diaries can end up being very sound rich, depending on the source. Some will go the extra mile to record sounds for you.

But keep in mind: audio diaries do have some drawbacks. Because they can take months to do, you often end up with hours upon hours of tape to go through. And then there’s the ethical question: Since it’s taking a lot of your source’s time to do this, do you pay them? You’re asking a lot of your source.

“If it’s several months of them periodically making these recordings, they’re doing you a huge favor, basically. And so I think that is an important question to ask,” Denton said. She said that they typically do not pay their sources, except for one exception: a story in the Netherlands where the source took a bigger editorial role and so it was more like a collaboration than just an interview.

To watch the training in its entirety, click here

The second way you can gather audio without leaving the house is through remote tape syncs.

Tape syncs have been a standard in the public radio industry. A show or outlet sends an audio producer to record an interview in person, while the reporter conducts the interview over the telephone. The idea is to come away with studio-like audio quality.

Some reporters have used fishpoles, or in one case, even a mic taped to a hockey stick , to continue to conduct in-person interviews, but it doesn’t need to be that extreme. You can ideally have the source record the conversation on their end, basically tape syncing themselves without sending a reporter.

To do this, your source needs four things: headphones with a mic (such as earbuds that come with iPhones), an internet connection, a smart phone and a computer with video software such as Zoom, FaceTime or Skype. You will interview the source via the video calling or conferencing software while they record on their end with their smart phone. You will also record on your end with your recording gear or with your smart phone.

Beforehand, you should discuss with your source quiet locations where they can record. Ask them if they are flexible to move.

An ideal room is one that has lots of soft surfaces. This means both bedrooms and clutter are great because beds and things absorb reflected sound. 

Steer clear of square, empty rooms with no soft surfaces, like dining rooms, bathrooms and kitchens. These surfaces reflect sound and produce echo.

Obviously, ask them to tell you if they hear any leaf blowers, loud refrigerators or other obvious sounds. Also, brief them about mic handling sounds, so they are aware.

Have them plug their headphones into their computer or laptop so your questions don't bleed onto the tape. They will then use their smart phone to record themselves in the room. When it’s finished, they will send you the audio via email, Dropbox, Google Drive or WeTransfer.

Some producers prefer to stop every few minutes to start a new file to make multiple smaller files rather than one large file. It’s a good idea to record a backup file, if you can. Zoom and Skype have built-in recorders of their own, which are lower quality, but good if you have a recording emergency.

As the recording gets underway, remind them that the mic is on bottom of their phone. Denton says they should hold the phone upside down, placing the mic at “ice cream cone” level.

Another way to do this is to have them stack up books at a desk and place the smart phone on that, so the source can free up their hands. This also reduces chances of mic handling noise. Aspen Public Radio detailed that method in an online video that it sends to sources. There’s a sheet circulating in radio circles that you can send to guests, which also details the method.

When using this self tape sync method, it’s still important to get 30 to 60 seconds of room tone. 

“When you’re getting your source to record room tone, remind them to stay still while they’re doing it,” Denton said. “A lot of people in that instance would be tempted to start checking their email and moving around and typing and things like that. And, of course, that would be captured in the recording and the room tone would not be as useful.”

Independent audio producer Will Coley suggested asking your source, “Do you have anything else you'd like to add?" and telling them that you're going to give them a minute to think before they answer. You can use that time to get the room tone you need.

Other audio producers have had luck using smart phone apps for recording, such as Cleanfeed , Squadcast and Zencastr .

Photo credit: KCRW.

Emtman likes to think out of the box about remote sound. For one recent episode , he digitized old cassette tapes to craft an audio story of blackout poems and proverbs. In the past, he’s also created his own music by playing simple notes on a keyboard.

Emtman suggested creating moments with your audio that illustrate your story. Moments refer to something happening, which can also sometimes be called active tape. So for instance, if your source is talking about singing while doing the dishes, ask them to record themselves next time they sing while doing the dishes. And don’t feel like you have to narrate all the time.

Also, pick a palette of different sounds and things that you want in your piece. And Emtman said find noisy things that you can use to design audio stories. You can find them anywhere.

“There’s so many things that we have around us that are just so easy to forget,” Emtman said, “How much sound is around us, even in our homes. Find the interesting sounds in your home and don’t be miserable about sound because sound is really wonderful.”

To watch the training in its entirety, click here