Above is one of Sholom Aleichem’s amusing railroad stories, “Hard Luck,” which I performed and produced, as broadcast on WBAI radio’s Arts Express program last night.
At one time, Carl Sandburg was everywhere: as a working-class people’s poet, a folk music populist, and an award-winning historian. He’s not as widely listened to anymore, but recently Linda Shalom and I performed some of his poems, broadcast over WBAI radio, on the Arts Express program.
We had great fun becoming familiar with, and voicing, these poems. You can listen by clicking on the grey triangle above.
In a world gone crazy, we might need to put the entire planet on the couch. Bruce Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, argues in his newest book, Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian, for the essential value of anti-authoritarians in a democracy, and questions their treatment by the medical establishment. He also dishes a few pro-tips on how resisters can survive the slings and arrows of an authoritarian society.
You can listen to my interview with Bruce Levine as broadcast this week on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
Mark Twain’s bittersweet short fairy story, as broadcast last week on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC. Performed and produced by Mary Murphy and myself.
Click on the grey triangle to listen.
Jonathan Swift’s brilliant satirical proposal regarding the dual problems of poverty and famine still feels fresh and apropos. Here’s a version I performed and produced that was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
Thanks to Mary Murphy for directing the piece.
Click on the grey triangle to listen.
Thanks to my readers here for putting up with my seemingly interminable series on producing radio interviews. But now I have compiled and updated that series into one convenient 50+ page booklet which you can download for free here:
I think it’s a pretty good way to start learning about interviewing technique, equipment, and editing for radio or podcast. It assumes you know nothing about radio and takes you from wondering about who to interview to the finished mixed audio file with bells and whistles. If you think you’d like to make a go at it, or are just curious, or would just like to see if your advice matches my advice, it’s all there in one convenient free booklet.
Go Forth and Interview.
And…we’re in the final stretch. You’ve added an intro and outro to your interview, so now you’re going to mix it down to one track. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.)
First, select each track that you want to include in the mix by Command-Clicking in the left hand area of the track (Command clicking allows you to select more than one track at once). The three left hand portions of the selected tracks will now be highlighted:
Now go to the top menu and click on Track—>Mix—>Mix and Render to New Track
What you’ll find is a new track at the bottom which is the amalgamation of the other tracks you’ve selected to mix:
There it is, your completed track!. Now all that remains to do is to export it into a convenient format for broadcast. Typically, that would be an MP3 file. So select the final mix track and then from the top menu, click on File—>Export—>Export Selected Audio. You’ll get a dialogue which allows you to rename the file and choose its destination on your computer. You’ll also see, at the bottom, a section which looks like this:
Set the File Type to MP3 Files, Keep the Bit Rate Mode to Preset, the Quality to Extreme, the Variable Speed to Standard. For saving mono files such as the ones we’ve been working with, select Joint Stereo. If you have been working with stereo files then you would choose Stereo. Click on Save and you’ll be presented with one more screen which you can ignore and just click on OK.
And that’s it. You should have an MP3 file which will pay in iTunes or any other standard music player.
I know this has been a long and sometimes technical tour, but the more you play around with this, the more you will be excited by the possibilities. It’s really amazing what you can make of your raw material.
Sometime next week I will post a link where you can download this whole series as one file.
Over and Out!
The train is rolling on. We’re now at the point where the text of your interview is basically finished. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Now you’re going to add some intro music and/or outro music by using a second track.
Before you do that, however, we’re going to even out the sound of the interview track by using the Compressor effect. Select the track (click in the left hand area of the track where it says Mono 44100 HZ or the like) and then select from the top menu Effect—>Compressor. You’ll see the following:
Ignore all the sliders and just click on OK. By simply doing this you’ll have done three valuable things:
1) All your red clipping areas will be toned down slightly so they are no longer clipping, and
2) Your sound levels will be smoothed out; that is, the relative distance between your high and low volumes will be lessened. This is particularly useful for situations with more than one voice or source, and
3) After the first two have been accomplished, your volumes throughout will be relatively increased to the maximum they can go without clipping. This process is called normalization.
I usually use the Compressor effect at this point even if I am not showing any clipping.
Now you’re ready to add your musical intro. You could conceivably just cut and paste a piece of music onto the beginning of your interview track, but it’s classier to have a separate track which will allow some overlap between the music and the interview, as if it were underscoring.
Let’s assume you have an mp3 file of music that you wish to use, or, for example, sound from an mp4 video from YouTube or the like. Your first job is to import that file into Audacity. So, select the file to Import by File—>Import—>Audio:
When the import is complete you’ll have a new track underneath your original interview track:
In this case, the track imported was in stereo, so we’ll change it to mono as we did before—by clicking on the black triangle (just right of where it says “music intro” in the photo above) and then clicking on “Split Stereo to Mono.” That will result in two identical mono tracks one of which you will delete by clicking on the “x” in the upper left hand corner of the track.
If you were to set the Play cursor to the beginning and click on Play you would now hear the music track and the interview track at the same time. If you only want to hear one track at a time, you can click on Solo on the left hand side of the track to make it the only track played (you’ll notice the other track is now grayed out instead of blue). Likewise, if you click on Mute on the left side, the track will become greyed out and quiet while the other track will remain active.
Typically, I like to have 20-40 seconds of music intro before the human voices come in, and then about twenty more seconds of music underneath the voices before I fade the music out. And on the tale end I like the music to fade up as I’m giving the closing credits and then take us out with the music fading out. So, how to do this?
To do this, we use the time-shifting cursor. It sounds much more magical than it really is. It’s just a cursor that moves things right and left. It’s in your toolbar above the tracks:
Normally, your cursor looks like the “I-beam” in the upper left hand corner above. We are going to change the cursor to the “time-shift” tool in the middle of the second row in the photo above.
Using this tool, I am going to pull the interview track to the right thirty seconds by clicking and dragging on the track. The result should be something like this:
So now, if we played both tracks, there would be 20 seconds of music by itself and then the interview and music together. Of course, the music would still be very loud and drown out the voices, so we have to lower the volume on the music when the voices come in. Fortunately, Audacity gives us a tool to do that fairly automatically called Auto Duck.
To use Auto Duck, we want to move the music track immediately above the interview track. ( It was difficult for me to get this right at first, because when I think of the “underscoring” metaphor, I think of music below. But in Audacity, the level of the interview track below controls the level of the music track above.) In order for this to happen correctly then, we must drag the music track to a position above the interview track. First, make sure you’re back to the I-beam cursor by clicking its icon on the toolbar. Next click in the left hand area of the music track right where it says Mono 44100 HZ, and drag it upwards above the other track. When you’re finished it should look like this:
Now in order to “duck” the volume of the music wherever there is voice, you are going to select the music track (not the interview track under it) and then click on Effect—>Auto Duck. Ignore all the sliders and just click on OK. The result should be something like this:
Notice that now the music volume is much lower above where the voice track is. You’ll probably want to take down the volume of the music even more which you can do with the Amplify effect, and then fade out the music over the next 20 seconds or so (you can then delete the rest of the music track).
For the outro, you go through a similar process: Import a track you wish to use, time shift it to the area at the end of the interview to the place where you want it to overlap the voice, and then use Auto Duck. Further correct with Amplify and Fade In, and then finally Fade Out as the music ends your piece.
This has been a lot, so save your work, and I promise tomorrow I’ll be back with how to make a final mix down to one track and then export your work. See you then.
The next installment is here: https://jackshalom.net/2018/11/10/radio-interview-production-workshop-13-the-home-stretch/
By now you should have a rough cut of your interview, which is approximately the desired length of your final mix. In this installment we’re going to get into some more tools of Audacity which will allow you to refine your work further. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.)
In the top menu, you’ll see a menu item, Effects. If you click on it you’ll get a long list of choices:
There is so much that can be done with Audacity, but the truth is, to produce interviews and spoken word broadcasts, you will only need to use a few of the pictured effects. Of course, afterwards you can play around with all kinds of special effects such as Echo, Reverb, Wahwah, and so on for fun, but we are just going to concentrate now on the indispensable effects that you would need in normal use: Fade Out, Fade In, Amplify, and Change Tempo.
When you click on most of the effects, there will be some default settings. The defaults generally give a good result, so I don’t recommend messing around with those settings for now. The first ones we will look at are the Fade In and Fade Out effects. Suppose you have clapping or music at the end that you want to fade out; you simply highlight the section on the track from the point where you want the fade to start to the point at the end where you want the sound totally muted. Then simply click on Effect—>Fade Out. You’ll see that you can use the effect over the same area more than once if you like. Likewise, with Fade In: often you want to fade in the music leading into or out of an interview. To do this, simply highlight an area and then click on Effect—>Fade In. Also remember you can always undo an effect with the Edit—>Undo menu item.
Next, let’s look at Amplify. An uneven sound level is a very common problem, and if the volume in general is too high or too low throughout the audio track, or variable throughout the track, we will deal with that later with an effect called Compressor. The Amplify effect, however, is most useful really for small areas where you need to bump up or tone down the volume. Perhaps someone turned away from a mic for a moment, or there was a loud unwanted background noise.
If you click on Effect—>Amplify, you’ll see that there’s a little box that says Allow Clipping. You want to make sure that that box is not checked.
Clipping means that the volume has reached such a high level that the sound is going to become distorted. Most of us have experienced that distortion when, for example, we turn up the sound to maximum on inexpensive speakers. So we want to be careful when working with sound that we keep the volume within certain limits, so that the vocal frequencies are not clipped. There are two main ways that clipping can be introduced into a mix: 1) either during recording, the source is too close to the mic and the recording volume is set too high (in which case most recorders will flash a red warning signal) or 2) using the Amplify effect in editing the volume is too high and so clipping occurs. By leaving the Allow clipping box unchecked, Audacity will prevent you from bumping up the volume too high.
How do you know if you’re clipping? Go to View—>Show clipping(on/off). Make sure there’s a check mark next to it. If not, click on it.
If the recording or the editing has introduced clipping, you will see it represented by red lines in the waveform:
While a little bit of clipping is not a disaster, in general, you certainly want to avoid adding more. We will learn how to handle extensive clipping in the next installment, but for now, we don’t want to add any more of it through injudicious use of Amplify.
Amplify, interestingly enough, not only is handy for bumping up the sound, but also for making the volume softer when it needs to be. Your main control, after you highlight the area you wish to change, will be the slider you see when you click on Effect—>Amplify. Moving the slider to the left will decrease the volume (shown as a negative number of decibels); moving it to the right will increase the volume (a positive number of decibels). The general rough rule of thumb is that every + or – 6dBs doubles (or halves) the perceived volume (it depends upon many factors including the frequency of the sound and human psychology.)
The final effect we’ll discuss is a very useful one named Change Tempo. If you look at the first picture above, you’ll notice two other similar sounding effects, Change Pitch and Change Speed. But those are not going to be of much use to us. Change Tempo does something very interesting. Within limits, it changes the duration of a selection without changing the pitch. If you think about it, normally if you speed up a recording it also starts making the voices sound like chipmunks. But the Change Tempo effect shortens duration without affecting the pitch of the voices. It does so by cleverly shortening the spaces between words. Practically what that means is that if you are fighting to cut the last few seconds from a track in order to get within your time constraints, you can do so using this effect.
Now, to be sure, you cannot shrink the time of your track by very much before it becomes noticeable; I find, however, that you can submit a 2-3% tempo change cleanly without any apparent difference in sound quality—and the elimination of those few seconds (say, about twenty seconds for a fifteen minute piece) may be just what you need to make your time limit.
So there you have the most effective effects you can apply to your track. Next time we’ll talk about adding more than one track so that you can have overlapping music, and we’ll also talk about how to prepare your final mix for export. See you next time.
The next installment is here: https://jackshalom.net/2018/11/09/radio-interview-production-workshop-12-laying-down-the-tracks/
So now that you’ve had some time to play around with some of the basic functions of Audacity such as cutting, moving, copying and pasting, let’s take a closer look at the editing process, and some more tools and strategies which will save you time and energy. (For the previous installments, begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.)
The most important strategy in editing, in my opinion, is working from big to small. That is, cut away the big useless sections first, and then start working more precisely. Again, sculpting is a very useful metaphor here: think of chopping away big blocks of stone before you start doing any polishing. There’s really no sense in beginning by obsessively cutting out each “umm” or “err,” if that whole portion of the conversation is going to be cut out anyway.
What should you be cutting? Generally, you want to be able to cut enough back so that the listener can sense a clear through line of the argument or intention. Of course this is going to vary vastly from speaker to speaker. But it’s not uncommon for a person to say something like:
“I owe my life to Jane. Jane was married to a guy named Saul who worked in a little candy store down by the Bowery. He was a tall guy who always wore plaid and never liked me. In fact he went out of his way to avoid me. Anyway, Jane was the one who taught me everything I know about poker playing. She taught me how to count cards and bet correctly…”
Now if you have the time, you can leave in the bit about Saul, but really (and the “Anyway,” is the big clue) it would be more clear and direct to edit it so it said,
“I owe my life to Jane…Jane was the one who taught me everything I know about poker playing, etc.”
It is also often the case that a guest will make a statement and support it, say, with three examples. Much of the time, you can cut out one or two of those examples.
“I was always a dreamy kid. I would sing to myself in school and the teachers would yell at me for making noise. Then at home I would lock myself in the bathroom for hours reading books. My parents were flabbergasted by that. And of course when I was sick I would pretend to be the star of my own variety series and use the bed as a stage.”
They’re all fun to hear about, but if you are fighting for time, it could look like this:
“I was always a dreamy kid…When I was sick I would pretend, etc.”
But sometimes the cuts need to be even more drastic, and need to be made based on what topic you are going to focus on. For example, I had a very interesting conversation with a woman who had written a book about the history of segregated schools in the US beginning with the Civil War. I had to make a decision to focus the edited version solely on twentieth century history, with just the briefest nod to the important 19th century era. Sometimes you will be sad about what you had to leave on the cutting room floor, but it is all about working within the constraints you have.
Let’s look more closely at what needs to be done in Audacity to achieve these edits. First we’ll take a look at what I call the “name area” of the track on the far left. There are a couple of important functions hidden away here. And also some buttons and sliders you don’t want to mess with:
The top slider button marked -…+ will change the volume level during playback. Leave this slider alone; there will be times when you want to adjust the volume levels, but you don’t want to do it from here. Likewise, the slider directly beneath it changes the output to the left or right speaker. Again leave that slider in the middle. Instead start off by clicking on the inverted black triangle at the upper right hand corner of the name box. When you do, you should get something that looks like this:
First I will name the track, by clicking on “Name…” at the top and entering a track name. In my example, I call it “penny interview.”
Since in my example, I started with a stereo track, and I want to work with a mono track, I click on the inverted black triangle as before, and then click on the line towards the bottom that says “Split Stereo to Mono.” (If your track is already mono, you won’t need to do this.) You will now have two separate identical tracks. You are going to get rid of the bottom track by clicking on the “x” in the upper left-hand corner of the name area of the track. (Remember you can bring the track back again by “Undo”-ing the action by going to Edit—>Undo).
Okay, so let’s say now you’ve decided on a chunk of the track you’d like to delete. Highlight the selection by dragging over the area with your mouse. You can extend the selected area right or left by pointing the mouse at the very border of the selection and waiting until it turns into a finger-pointing hand icon, then clicking and dragging the border carefully with your mouse.
Once selected, you can listen to how the track would sound without the selected part by pressing the “c” on your keyboard. You will hear a few seconds of sound from before the selection and then a seamless cut to a few seconds after the selection. In other words, this is what your track would sound like after the selection is deleted. This allows you to adjust the borders before you do the deletion for the best cut.
To help you achieve accuracy, you should use the Zoom function, by clicking on the magnifying glass with the “+” inside.
The more you click, the more zoomed-in you will be. To zoom out again, click on the magnifying glass with the “-” inside it. Notice the time markers immediately above the zoomed in track cover a much shorter length of time now in one screen.You would have to scroll horizontally to see more of the track. For example, this zoomed-in track only covers 33 seconds:
This is a lot, so just one more thing about editing for now: if you want an edit to sound natural, the general rule is to cut on the breath. That is, leave the person’s intake of breath before s/he speaks. So let’s say the original audio was: “The CEO was incredibly incompetent and incredibly stupid. What’s more, he was a drunk.” If you want to edit out the phrase “and incredibly stupid,” make sure to leave in the breath before “What’s more.”
After you make your cuts, save and quit, and next time we’ll talk about adding other tracks to your interview for texture. See you then.
The next installment is here: https://jackshalom.net/2018/10/19/radio-interview-production-workshop-11-effective-effects/
A socialist revolution in the United States in 2044? In activist Mike Albert’s new fictional journalistic account, RPS/2044, you can learn how it happened. This is the second part of the interview with Albert that I produced for the Arts Express radio program. Mike talks about what a Revolutionary Participatory Society might look like, why it’s important for present-day activists to lay out a vision for the future, and how we might get from here to there.
Click on the grey triangle above to listen.
You can listen to Part One here.
(And for local listeners to Arts Express on WBAI 99.5 FM and wbai.org be advised that Arts Express has been moved to the new edgier time slot of Tuesdays at 11pm.)
It’s great that you now have your interview file ready to be edited in Audacity. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Go to the project folder on the desktop, and double-click on the .aup file to open your project.
The blue waveform is the sound of your file (if you recorded in mono you’ll have only one waveform or track, as it is called). If you click on the green arrow Play button in the toolbar above the waveform, you’ll hear your interview. The black square button will Stop the “tape,” and the double vertical line button will Pause and UnPause the tape. The black left arrow returns the cursor to the beginning of the track, and the right black arrow sends the cursor to the end of the track. The red button, which we will not use at all, is to record directly into the program.
Click on the green Play button and you can watch the cursor move along the waveform as your interview progresses. Click the Pause button to pause the sound, then click it again to re-start the sound from where you left off. Then press Stop, which moves the cursor back to where you started at the beginning. If you now click the mouse anywhere within the waveform while it is stopped, the cursor will move to that part of the track; so if you now click Play again, the track will start playing from that new cursor position. If you click Stop, then clicking either the black left arrow or the right arrow will move the cursor position to either end.
Play around with these controls for a bit to get a feel for them. They’re really no different from what you would find on a CD player or in iTunes.
If you are conversant with any of the common word processing programs like Microsoft Word, you are already familiar with the way the basic functions of Audacity work.
Think of the blue waveform as the text of your document. Just as in a Word document, you can cut, delete, copy, and paste. Just as in a Word document, you can also do multiple undos and re-dos. It’s nice to know that you can undo any step that you’ve done, so let’s learn that first!
Click your mouse somewhere in the middle of your blue waveform. Now hold down the mouse button and drag over the wave form a bit, just as you would over a portion of text in Word in order to highlight and select it. (To deselect a portion of the waveform, simply click anywhere within the waveform.)
If you hit the space bar while a portion is selected, the program will Play the audio within the selected portion. Hit the space bar again or the Stop button to stop the audio.
You can now perform one of the basic editing functions on that selected sound. Let’s try Deleting that selected portion (don’t worry, we’ll bring it back in a moment). Simply press the delete button on your keyboard, and your selected audio is gone—the waveform no longer shows that piece of audio, but the rest of the audio remains untouched. It’s just as if you had snipped a piece of tape from a tape reel and spliced together the remaining ends.
Let’s bring back the deleted part now. Click on the top Audacity Edit menu, and then click on the top line of the submenu to Undo your Delete.
You’ll see your selection is back in your waveform, highlighted.
Now let’s try moving a piece of audio from one place to the other. Select a piece of audio by clicking in the wave form, holding your mouse button down and dragging it a short distance to highlight a section of audio. Then click on Edit—>Cut. Your highlighted section will be deleted, but the contents of the section are now stored in your Paste buffer. Move the cursor to a new place in the waveform—say, by clicking the mouse at the beginning. Now click on Edit—>Paste, and you’ll find you have pasted the selected audio into its new cursor position. If you begin the player now from the beginning, you’ll hear the selected part which has been moved from the middle to the beginning.
Now, let’s Undo that by clicking on Edit—> Undo. You can undo (and redo) multiple times as long as you do not save your work. Once you save the file, the buffer is cleared out and you cannot go back to a prior step.
Okay, one last function we’ll look at, the Copy function. Just as in a text document, sometimes you want to repeat a selection. For example, it can come in handy when you want to lengthen a silence. So, select a portion of audio, and then go to Edit—>Copy. Your selected audio will still be there, but a copy of it is now in the Paste buffer. Click in the waveform to where you would like the copy to appear—let’s say, this time, right after the selected audio. Click on Edit—>Paste. You’ll now have a copy of the selected audio at the cursor, but the original selection will still be in its original place.
And…let’s Undo that again by going to Edit—> Undo, and you should be back to where you started from at the very beginning.
Remember, even if you screw up somehow and the Undo isn’t working for you, your original recorded file is still sitting in your project folder. If need be, you can always start off from scratch by importing that file into a new Audacity project.
Play around with these functions for a while to convince yourself that you can recover if you make a mistake. It will give you the confidence to proceed further.
When you’re finished, go to File—>Save, and then quit the program with File—>Quit.
Next time, we’ll learn more about Audacity, and talk about some editing strategies. See you then.
The next installment is here: https://jackshalom.net/2018/10/03/radio-interview-production-workshop-10-editing-strategies/
It’s the year 2044, and praise to the goddesses, a socialist revolution in the United States is well in progress. How did it happen? Fortunately we have an account of the 2044 revolution in this set of oral histories that journalist Miguel Guevera has conducted with many of the heroes of the revolution. Guevera (aka 2018 activist Mike Albert) talks about the workings of a Revolutionary Participatory Society and economy in this interview I produced, broadcast yesterday for the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NY.
Click on the grey triangle above to listen.
And you can hear Part Two here:
(And for local listeners to the show, be advised that Arts Express has been moved to the new edgier time slot of Tuesdays at 11pm.)
You’ve finished the interview and you’re heaving a sigh of relief. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Well, not really, because a thought occurs to you right away–did I capture everything? Was this thing a total mess? But once I know my interview was recorded properly (I’ll save the horror stories for another time) for me this is the most fun part of the process, the editing.
If it’s true of novel writing and playwriting that it’s all about the revision, then it’s at least as true in putting together an interview. It’s akin to sculpting. You’re chipping away at the non-essential to reveal the form within. If done well, the audience never knows about it. Of course, you are not here to deceive, but there is a satisfaction in knowing that you have made the guest and the interview sound even better than they actually were.
So let’s just take this step by step to start the editing process. The first thing I do is a little bit of organization on my laptop so that I don’t drive myself crazy. I create a new folder on my computer desktop and give it the project name. On the Mac, go to the top left menu of the Finder, click on File to get the dropdown menu, and then click on New Folder. I’ll abbreviate a direction like this as File—>New Folder. (There are equivalent commands for Windows machines, but I’m going to stick here to the Mac.) Rename the folder with your project name (on the Mac, to change a folder name, click once on the title of the folder, wait three seconds, then click again on the title of the folder). Once I have my project folder, I put all files for that project into this folder so that I will be able to find them and navigate to them easily later on.
So the first file you are going to put in there is going to be the recording of the interview you just did. It’s generally best to do a recording in a high quality format if possible, such as WAV or AIF, if your recorder allows it. Otherwise the most common format for audio files is MP3. You can tell which format your file is in by simply looking at the extension of your audio file. It should be something like 121017.wav or 180716.mp3, where the part after the period tells you what format it is in.
Most of the online services like freeconferencecall.com will only generate an mp3 file. The mp3 files, which are compressed files, have the advantage that they are a lot smaller than WAV or AIF files, but the trade-off is that the sound quality is not quite as good. Also, each time you edit and save them, you lose sound quality. That is why even though you may ultimately be required to broadcast an mp3 file (as is my situation) it is best if you can edit the interview as a WAV file, and convert it only later at the end to an mp3 file. (I’ll discuss in another installment how to do that conversion through Audacity.)
So let’s assume you have the interview file in your now titled folder on the desktop (by downloading it to your computer from the online conference service, or transferring it from your digital recorder to the computer via a USB cord, and then dragging it into the new project folder). The first thing you want to do is get it into Audacity (see here for more about installing Audacity) so you can work with it. To do this, open Audacity and go to the top left menu. Then, click on File—>Import—>Audio. You will get a file selector dialog. Navigate to your project folder on the desktop, and click on the interview audio file you placed there earlier. When you do, you should get something that looks like this:
Notice in this picture there are two identical waveforms (the blue wavy stuff). That’s because this example was imported from a recorder that was recording in stereo. Ultimately, if you are in a similar situation to myself, you will end up broadcasting a mono file, which is a lot easier to work with when editing. If you were recording in mono in the first place, then you will only have one waveform, and you’re ahead of the game. Don’t worry about that now, though, we’ll deal with it later. Typically, a service like freeconferencecall.com only generates a mono track of your recording.
For now, that ‘s all we’re going to do. Next week, we’ll look at some of the basic functions of Audacity and how it’s going to improve your interview. So, go to File—>Save Project, in the chooser dialog, navigate to your project folder on the desktop, and in the “Save As” box change the name to your project name, but keep the .aup extension.
Then hit “Save” in the lower right hand corner of the chooser box. You are now going to exit out of the program, so go to Audacity–>Quit Audacity.
What has this accomplished? Well now if you go to your desktop and look inside the project folder, you’ll see something like this:
The bottom file, penny.WAV was my original interview file. When you import it into Audacity, the program makes a copy of the file, so that your original file remains untouched.
The top folder, penny arcade_data, like all data folders, you never touch. Audacity uses it internally. The next file, penny arcade.aup, is the way to get back to your Audacity work. If you click on it, the Audacity program will open up again and you will see your imported waveform again. So any file with an aup at the end means it will open up a waveform of something you’ve imported. Just like clicking on a docx file will open up a Word file, clicking on a aup file will open up an Audacity file.
Next time, we’ll talk about some of the basic editing commands and, very importantly, how to undo anything that you think might have been a mistake. See you then.
The next installment is here:
You’re at the starting gate with your guest, and the time has finally come to do the interview. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) I don’t pre-interview, because I want a sense of spontaneity during our time together.
There are a few things, however, that I remind my guests of before we begin. First, because it will be an edited interview for later broadcast, I remind them that they can stop if they need to repeat or correct themselves. I just ask them to start their sentence over from the beginning, so that it will be easier to make edits. If we are on the phone, I ask again to make sure that they are not on speaker phone. I also do a voice level check by having them spell their names slowly, asking them to speak louder or softer accordingly, as I adjust my recording equipment. (Once you have set the volume control on your recorder, don’t touch that dial!) As I’ve indicated previously, I check to see how the guest would like to be addressed. Most people are fine with being called by their first name, and that is certainly what is most comfortable for me.
When I’m interviewing guests whose ideas I may take issue with, I say nicely that I hope they don’t mind if at some points I challenge some of their ideas; I try to put it in a friendly, non-threatening way. Finally, I tell the guest I am beginning as I am about to start the recording, and say that after the short introduction he or she should feel free to respond.
There is, of course, nervousness and the whole matter of ego to deal with—both mine and the guest’s. While my interview aesthetic is not to be some faceless interviewer, on the other hand, I don’t want to be obnoxiously intrusive. As I have become more experienced, I find myself more able, somewhat paradoxically, to allow myself to stay more in the background. The ideal for me, and I think the most interesting for the listener, is for there to be an intelligent conversation between two intelligent people; but the focus has to be on the guest, not the interviewer. The interviewer’s main job, in my opinion, is to create the conditions that permit the guest to speak as interestingly as possible. I find that if I keep that goal in mind, the ego issue on my side tends to lessen.
How the conversation goes depends a lot upon the personality of the guest. Of course, you will have your interview outline in front of you. (I bold it, and print it in large 14-16 pt font, because I want to be able to scan it without fumbling.) You will soon get a feel for the guest’s speaking and conversation style. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: there will be the guest who speaks too slowly, the one who speaks too much and too fast, and the one who is just right.
The slow talker, immortalized by Bob and Ray, has thoughts and speech… which… come… at… an … agonizingly… slow… pace. As an interviewer, you are just dying to jump in and finish the sentence for the guest, but you need to have patience. Fortunately, you will be able to tighten up all those pauses when you get into the editing room. Also, those long pauses do give you a chance to re-direct the line of questioning onto topics which the guest may feel more more excited or passionate about.
The other side of the coin is the guest who talks very quickly, with barely a break for a breath. In those cases it can be very difficult to get in to ask the next question. If the guest is focused and articulate, for the most part, I do let the guest speak for a while, trusting again that in the editing room I will be able to trim back to the essentials. But still, you have to assertively find the places to jump in and get your questions asked, or the whole interview will go by, and you won’t get to ask your most important questions. It can be challenging.
For me, though, the most difficult problem is with guests who have a set script—either internally or written—from which they will not budge. No matter what questions you ask, they twist the question into the scripted response. Some guests will do it charmingly, some will do it not so charmingly. It’s kind of like a train going down a track that can’t be diverted. As an interviewer, I want to get beyond those kinds of scripted answers. That’s why it’s important here to grab an opportunity to ask one of your more unusual or personal questions. You want to gently knock the guest off course, to give them a little signal, that no, this isn’t just about formally reciting a press release, this is an actual conversation with someone who genuinely wants to know about you. Sometimes this will get them to loosen up and actually engage with you.
When the chemistry is right between you, however, and the guest wants to have a good conversation, it’s a pleasure. It may take a little while to warm up, but as the interview goes along, many guests, if made comfortable, will loosen up and play ball if they sense you have done your homework. You have to be a little careful, however, of the guests who get too familiar—sometimes when you ask them what they think of such and such, they will craftily evade by turning the tables and asking you what you think of such and such. It’s important to resist temptation. I generally reply with a quick answer of my own position, but follow up with, “But this interview is about you, not me. What do you think of such and such…” and continue from there. After the interview, I edit out my reply.
All through the interview I am scanning my interview outline, and I am mentally checking off which questions have already been answered by my guest, even if I haven’t asked them. This means that you are actually listening to your guest. Nothing worse than being a Komodo Dragon Interviewer, as per the great Bob and Ray again. If a guest has already answered a question that I had planned to ask, that’s fine. I fill in with questions on my outline around that and continue making the path.
At times, a guest will start speaking early on about something I had planned to ask about much later. If I sense that that will take us in a direction which will make it hard for me to return to my earlier planned questions, then I ask the guest to hold off a moment with that thought, re-direct them to the general order of questions I had planned, and return to that thought later.
If you are really listening and really curious about what your guest has to say, then it’s only natural that a guest’s response could well prompt another question from you. I don’t think you should jump in with every thought you have, but as a representative of the listening audience, you should ask clarifying questions when a response doesn’t seem clear, and you should not be afraid to ask the follow-up questions which you think your listeners would ask themselves or like answered. Sometimes the most powerful question you can ask is a simple “Could you say more about that?” The unplanned turn off the road can be fruitful. But do find a way back.
The goal again is to make it seems as if it’s a natural conversation with one question leading into the next, all the while directing the interview into the general shape that you had outlined.
After doing this for a while, I began to appreciate how interesting, difficult, and artful interviewing can be. After you try it for a while, you’ll never again listen to interviewers in the same way. You will begin to pick out models for yourself, interviewers whose aesthetic sounds right to you, interviewers of whom you’ll say to yourself, that’s what I want to achieve. Steal from them, imitate them, and then make your own path.
Next week, we’ll talk about beginning to edit the raw audio that you’ve just created.
Read the next installment here:
As I mentioned last time, nothing so determines the final shape and content of your interview as the questions you ask and the order in which you ask them. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Here’s how I have been going about putting together a question outline.
At first, I don’t worry at all about the order of the questions—I am more interested in brainstorming questions. Before I do any research at all, I draw on my initial curiosity about the guest that prompted me to do the interview in the first place. I’ll open a Word document just for questions and enter them. I like to keep the mindset that I probably will never have a chance again to speak to this person—so I remind myself not to hold back on whatever it is that I’ve always genuinely wanted to know about the guest or his or her work. There are some questions that I find that I repeatedly ask of my guests, because they are issues that I am obsessed about, and that I am genuinely curious about when I meet someone well known or unusually productive. I like to understand people’s lives from the inside, from their perspective, so I often ask about the guests’ working process, and what they consider to be their most important understandings about their work. I am also curious how an artist’s working life changes with age, and I am often apt to ask questions about that.
But the bulk of my questions come as a result of research into the guest’s work. As I am reading about a guest, or reading a guest’s book, I have my computer file by me, and I am typing into it both salient points that are made, as well as points I would like to understand further. I will also make note of places where I disagree with the guest, places where there could be fruitful further conversation. If I am seeing a film or a theater piece that my guest is involved with, then I have a pad with me and I am taking notes as I’m watching. At a minimum, I become familiar with the guest’s latest project. But, really, ideally, it is much better when I am able to become familiar with a much wider range of the guest’s work, and can situate what the guest is doing within the context of his or her own work, and within the work of his or her contemporaries.
I double space each question, and through experience, I know that when I have about a page and a half of 14-pt type questions, I have enough for a 30-minute interview. Once I have all the questions down, I start moving them around into the order I want. Here, for example, is the final question outline I used when I was preparing to interview playwright and actor Wallace Shawn (I’ve included the intro [which was cut considerably in the editing process] and the outro):
Intro: Hi, I’m Jack Shalom. Actor, playwright, essayist Wallace Shawn has been provoking thought from audiences for over four decades. His memorable film roles have included co-starring in My Dinner with Andre, and his comic turn as Vizzini in The Princess Bride. His work as a playwright includes the Obie Award winning Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner; and his essays include the recently released Night Thoughts.
His 2015 play, Evening At The Talk House has been released as an audio drama, with a fine cast that includes himself, Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry, and Claudia Shear. It can be found gratis on the website of The Intercept online magazine. I’m happy to be talking with Wallace Shawn. (WAIT) Hi, Wally.
Tell us about Evening At the Talk House.
The play was originally done in London, then opened in New York. Did you see a difference between the London and NYC reception?
How did this audio version come to be, and how did it land at The Intercept?
How much did you have to change the play for audio production?
Many of your plays deal with a similar theme: The dark apparatus that it takes to maintain a privileged society. How is Evening At the Talk House different from your previous plays in its working out? Does it represent an evolution in your thinking about these matters?
The characters in Evening At the Talk House keep insisting that they are just trying to have a pleasant evening. In a sense, the play is what it costs the rest of the world for those people to have their pleasant evening. Do people give up their own comfort willingly?
It’s often the self-absorbed artists in your plays who are the people who seemingly can only relate to their own needs. You seem to target artists in particular in your works. Can you speak more about that?
Because this play shows the problems the privileged have in trying to square the contradictions of their wish to appear benign, I could imagine that some might complain that this work is in some sense privileging the problems of the privileged. Is that a fair criticism?
As complex and layered as your plays are, I find your essays on the other hand, remarkably transparent and lucid. When I read your essays, I say, well of course, why hasn’t anybody else explained it so plainly? How do you decide whether something is going to become a play or an essay?
I really enjoyed reading Night Thoughts. It’s like your communist manifesto. A short simple book that anyone can understand. Rather than talking about owners and workers, though, you speak of the lucky and the unlucky. Can you talk more about that?
You are not just someone who is interested in both politics and theater, but you see the two subjects as intimately entwined. A few years ago you wrote a wonderful essay called “Why I Call Myself a Socialist: Is the World Really a Stage?” Could you talk about some of the ideas in that essay and what in your view is the relationship of acting to the necessity of socialism?
What’s the most important thing you know about playwriting?
Anything else you’d like to add, Wally?
I’ve been talking with Wallace Shawn whose play Evening at the Talk House is now available as a free podcast at Theintercept.com. Thanks, Wally. (WAIT) This has been Jack Shalom with host Prairie Miller.
By looking at the outline above you can see how I structure the order of my questions. I generally want the guest to feel comfortable, and I want to situate the listening audience, so I start off by asking questions about the guest’s most recent projects. Next, I’ll move onto other projects I’m interested in, and then I use those projects as a springboard to ask about overall process and more personal questions. If I feel that the guest is amenable, at this point I’ll bring up disagreements or questions which might be a little more challenging. How far I go with that depends on the kinds of responses I get. Finally, I’ll tend to finish up with asking about future projects and where one can obtain more information about the guest’s work. I’ll also ask at the end if there’s anything else they wish to add—surprisingly, often the guest takes a thoughtful breath, regroups and comes out with some of the most interesting material here.
When the interview actually happens, do I stick to this outline?
But that’s for next week, when I talk about actually conducting the interview.
You can read the next installment here:
You’ve made it this far and now you’re ready to prepare an outline. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) An outline is not a hard and fast script, but it is a road map. It’s what allows one the freedom to improvise during an interview, knowing that there’s a safe place to return to if the conversation wanders about or goes South. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine doing an interview without an outline. It would be like trying to navigate in a strange city without a GPS. An interview outline will determine—more than anything else—even more than your audio editing—the final shape and content of your interview.
The three parts I have in my interview outline are the intro, the questions I want to ask, and the outro. Let’s take each part, one at a time.
In the intro, I want to intrigue the audience, introduce the interviewee with his or her project, and begin my first interaction with the guest. To begin, I also always first want to introduce myself to the radio audience. While it’s very important to be able to hang up your ego as an interviewer (more about this in future installments), I don’t believe in the aesthetic of a faceless, generic questioner. As the interviewer, you are in some sense a proxy for the curiosity of your audience. It’s important for them to know who you are, so I get that out of the way at the very beginning. For me, it’s just simply, “Hi, this is Jack Shalom,” at the top of the segment. Others do it more artfully, pulling a teaser quote first from the guest, for example, and then working in their identification, but I believe that if you don’t do it, or wait until the end, the audience will be left with an annoying unanswered question.
After introducing myself, I try to give a hook and teaser for the audience, setting up my introduction of the guest. Here’s an example of an introduction I did for an interview a while back:
“Hi. I’m Jack Shalom. Public education in the United States has historically been a segregated affair, and today that segregation has taken on a new and sometimes disguised form. Author Noliwe Rooks explicates that history and analyzes that new form in her new book Cutting School. Ms. Rooks is the director of American studies at Cornell University and for ten years was the associate director of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is also the author of White Money/Black Power and Hair Raising. I’m happy to be talking today with Noliwe Rooks. (WAIT)”
So you can see here, I’ve first introduced myself. Next, I’m setting the context by talking about public school segregation, and then I segue into introducing my guest and her book. I also include some of the guest’s most interesting or well-known credits.
Sometimes people jump into an interview and record the introductory material at a later (or earlier) time than the actual interview. I like to speak my introduction while the guest is with me, or on the phone, because I want the guest to know up front that I am not some berserk maniac. When they listen to the intro, they know I have done my research, and I am appreciative of their work. While I often ask my guests challenging questions, I don’t want them to think that the interview is going to be some kind of confrontational set-up. I want them to feel that I am on their side. Part of my job is to build trust.
You’ll see in the intro above that I have the word WAIT in caps in parentheses. That is because I am an idiot and I always need to remind myself that at that point in the intro, I need to…well…WAIT for my guest’s reply. It’s the guest’s first chance to speak, even if it’s just “Hi,” or “Thanks,” but you don’t want to step on that by talking over them. Sounds silly, but I’ve messed that up many times. Don’t worry if you have to wait a while while the guest figures out that it’s their turn to speak—you can edit out the pause later. Typically now, just before I start an interview, I’ll tell the guest that I’ll be doing a short intro and that they should answer after I say, “Hi, [guest’s name]” or “Welcome to the show.”
By the way, the other thing I ask my guests beforehand is the proper way to pronounce their name, and how they would like to be addressed e.g. Noliwe? Ms. Rooks? Dr. Rooks? Professor Rooks? I think every guest I’ve spoken to has always opted for first name, but I think it’s an important courtesy to extend beforehand. Again, it helps to build trust and to relax the guest.
The introduction should last no more than 45 seconds. The listeners are waiting for the guest to speak, not you. You don’t want to lose the audience before the interview even begins. I’ll often read out my intro out loud beforehand, watching a clock to time how long it goes. If it’s over 45 seconds, I will ruthlessly cut some of it from my outline. I never wing the intro. The intro and the outro are the one thing that I read verbatim from my outline. I want to make sure I get all the details correct.
The next part of my interview outline is the list of questions. The most interesting questions to me are those that the interviewer genuinely does not know the answer to, and has a curiosity to know more about. I think it’s very important that an interviewer does research beforehand. I know there are interviewers who feel that they should be as blank a slate as their audiences are with regard to the guest and his or her project, but I feel that is a mistake, and for me, at least, unsatisfying. I think it always shows when the research has not been done, and the guest will not be as open to someone who is not familiar with the guest’s issues. Moreover, without research or prior knowledge the interviewer becomes subject to the guest’s agenda, and the guest ends up controlling the direction of the conversation. With a brilliant, dynamic speaker that might be okay, but the more likely result is that the guest will be repeating the same canned words that s/he has given to many other interviewers before. I think if an interviewer is doing the job right, in the best possible case, both the interviewer and guest are surprised and happy about the spontaneous turns of conversation that result. That is very unlikely to happen without a fair amount of preparation.
I see the interviewer as bridging the gap between the audience and the guest. My interviewing stance is that I am an intelligent layman who enjoys knowing more about my guest and my guest’s work, and I want to get my audience to join me in my exploration. That requires that my questions set up an introductory context and then lead into more interesting areas. All of that requires familiarity and research.
More about questions next week. See you then.
For the next installment, click here:
You’ve determined who you want to interview, you’ve made your contact, you have your equipment, and your sound editing software, so now you need to prepare for the actual interview. How much time should you ask for? You need to ask for an explicit amount of time when making your arrangements. It’s very bad form to extend an interview past the time to which you’ve both agreed. If you go over on time, there’s the chance that your guest or one of their assistants will unceremoniously cut off the interview, and you may never get the opportunity to ask a lot of what you wanted to ask. Of course, you can ask your guest if s/he would like to go over the allotted time during the course of the interview, but especially with more famous people, that may be met negatively. Often when a person is promoting a project, they have one press interview lined up after another, and the time is tight.
Because of that, in the initial email contacts, I always specify how much time I would like up front. I used to think the more time the better, but I’ve since learned that that is a big mistake. It really depends upon the amount of time your finished segment needs to be. The longer the interview in relation to the final cut, the more editing that will have to be done. And when that interview to final cut ratio is large, the editing becomes very difficult and time consuming. It becomes harder to match material from one part of the interview to another. It becomes harder to remember what was said when. It becomes harder to follow the thread of an argument. It becomes more tedious reviewing all the material each revision. And besides the tedium of wading through the irrelevant material, the regret factor also increases with a long interview. Necessarily, there will be more tape left on the virtual cutting room floor, and while that can be some of your favorite material, it may not fit into the limited time available.
I’ve found my ideal ratio is about two to one, that is, I gather about twice the material that I’ll ultimately use. So if I’m preparing a 15-minute segment, then 30-35 minutes is a good interview length for me. That allows me to pick out the most interesting and essential parts of the interview without getting overwhelmed by the mass of material. Sometimes if the rapport is very good with a guest, and the conversation goes long, the best solution is either to make the produced segment longer, or to break up the interview into two separate segments. Of course, in commercial radio, interviewers are more strictly bound to their time constraints and this probably won’t be possible, but I am lucky that in my situation my time limits are more flexible. Presumably, if you are producing your own podcast, you will have that flexibility as well. But don’t take that flexibility as a reason not to edit tightly, or to gather too much material. I have learned from experience that that is not a good idea. Like a sonnet or short story, form and limitation are your friends. They give you the container into which you can shape your story. Time in a bottle. Two to one has been a realistic and very useful guide for me.
Once you know how much time you’ll have with your guest, you’ll be able to prepare your outline of questions. Preparing an outline really deserves its own post, so next week I’ll talk about what I do to prepare the framework for a good radio conversation. See you then.
You can find the next installment here:
So now that you’ve got your equipment (see here and here), it’s time to get out there and find a guest to interview. The first person I ever interviewed kind of happened by accident. My wife and I were at a small casual screening in upstate New York of an independent film which was trying to make it big on the festival circuit. I was very taken by the film, and I felt it would be great if the movie got more exposure. After the film, the director talked with the audience about how he had made the film and so on, and I found it fascinating. When we left, I expressed regret to my wife, Linda, that only a handful of people had turned out to this screening. As we were about to get into our car, Linda asked me why didn’t I try to interview him.
Well, I was then a volunteer at listener-sponsored public radio WBAI, and I had done a bit of work for the news department such as it was, but I had never done a feature interview. But Linda’s words had struck a chord in me, so I turned back, and found the director, and asked if he would like to do a radio interview. I didn’t really know how I was going to do this at the time, but he said yes. It turned out he was flying out to Europe the next day. He said if I liked, we could have a conversation over Skype in a few days. So I did, and that was the first interview. While I was waiting to interview him I asked the host of Arts Express, Prairie Miller, whether she would be interested in running such an interview, and even though she knew I was a rookie, she took me on.
I tell this story for the following reasons: 1) One of the best ways to interview people who intrigue you for broadcast or podcast is simply to ask them. Many times people are flattered and see it as a real opportunity to promote themselves and their ideas. 2) You don’t always need to know everything from the beginning—just enough to get you to the next step is often what will help you carve out your own path. I did lots of things that first interview that I would do very differently now, but it was important to take that first step.
So going directly to the source is an important way to get guests. But of course, in the commercial world, there are often layers of middle-level people when trying to contact an artist, especially the more well-known someone is, so direct contact at first is not always possible. In that case, if there’s a book I’ve read, or play that seems interesting, I will do a bit of research and see who the publisher’s PR person is, or see who is handling publicity for a given event. PR people are possessive of their clients and they can sometimes be a pain to deal with, but on the other hand, if they feel you’ve treated one of their clients fairly in the past, they can be a source of future contacts, and eventually, they will start reaching out to you. PR people can be dismissive if they don’t feel the media you represent is powerful enough; but on the other hand, you can often make a case for your outlet as being one that would have a special targeted audience for that particular guest.
The ideal interview situation, in my opinion, even with an edited interview for later broadcast or podcast, is face to face. If it is at all possible, that’s what you should ask for, assuming the two of you are in the same city. Of course, you will offer to go out to a place they deem suitable, and you will simply bring along your digital recorder and microphone. Or, if the guest is amenable, s/he can meet you on your home turf. In either event, you want to make sure that there’s some way of controlling the ambient noise in the room you’ll be doing the interview in, although in a pinch, a bit of ambient background sound can add to the authenticity and charm of the interview. Less desirable, but probably the circumstance I encounter the most, is that of a phone interview, because the guest is in another city, or scheduling does not allow an alternative. I like face to face interviews because it’s easier to create rapport when making eye contact with the person I’m interviewing, and the back and forth between the guest and myself is more natural. It’s also a matter of sound quality—the sound is generally an order of magnitude cleaner and clearer in person as opposed to over the telephone.
That said, as I mentioned, many of the interviews that I do are, necessarily, over the phone. What’s the best way to do that? I can’t say that I’ve found a fully satisfactory answer, though I have found a “good enough” solution. I’ll mention a few things I’ve explored that haven’t been satisfactory for me. I’m not saying that someone with more expertise than myself couldn’t make them work, just that I wasn’t able to figure out how to get clean sound from them.
First, is what I tried in that first interview I mentioned above—Skype. My understanding is that there are plenty of broadcasters who use Skype for this purpose, but for me it was not a very good solution. If you have each side talking into a laptop on their side while Skype is running, there are all kinds of echoes, sound drops, and volume problems. There are apps that automatically record both ends of the conversation, but even with the visual feedback, people just naturally turn their heads away from the built-in computer mics at inopportune times unless they are wearing headsets. Unless you can guarantee some headset on your guest’s side and an external mic for yourself, it’s probably better to try something else.
Another possible solution is to attach an external recording device to your phone. Theoretically this is supposed to record your voice and the incoming voice on your phone. I bought a device like this from Radio Shack once, which came with a little rubber suction cup that you were supposed to apply to your phone. I could never get the thing to work at all.
The solution that I use now, imperfect as it is, is a service called freeconferencecall.com. It is a free website which provides a call-in number which both you and your guest call in to. Through a webpage interface you can then start recording the call, and after you’ve finished you can download an MP3 digital recording of the call. In order to get the most out of it, you and your guest should be on landlines and neither of you should be on speakerphones, otherwise the sound quality is going to be too degraded for broadcast. And before the interview you should instruct your guest to talk directly into the speaker of her or his phone.
The recordings that are made through freeconferencecall.com are recorded at 96kbs which is not the greatest quality, but it will do for two people just talking. I wouldn’t attempt to record music in this way, however. Also, a quirk of this system is that I find inevitably the sound quality is better on one side of the conversation that the other. Strangely enough, I can never predict which side the better audio is going to turn up on. It seems pretty random. Nevertheless, with some post-production massaging with Audacity, you can end up with an acceptable sound quality on both sides.
I’m sure there are other ways of recording off a phone conversation in this kind of situation that I know nothing about, and would welcome suggestions.
But now that you’ve set up the interview and know how you’re going to record it, you’ve got to prepare to do the interview itself. I’ll talk more about that next time, in a week from now. See you then.
You can read the next installment here:
If you’ve gotten together your digital recorder, headphones, and microphone as recommended in last week’s post, you’re ready for the most important resource in putting together radio interviews for broadcast or podcast: an audio editing program for your computer.
In the old days, radio folk used to cut and splice reel-to-reel tape just as the old time film editors used to do. But now, of course, with the wide availability of digital editors, the power to accomplish necessary tasks is so much easier. As I said last week, a good audio editor can help to forgive and solve a multitude of radio sins, and make your segment far more polished. A good audio editor can help you, at the minimum: 1) clean up background noise; 2) remove uninteresting portions of an interview; 3) re-structure the order of an interview; 4) remove verbal tics, hesitations, stumbles, and interruptions; 5) allow for mixing in intro and outros; 6) improve overall sound quality; 7) fit segments into predetermined time limits; 8) add underlying music and sound effects tracks; 9) convert from one digital format to another; 10) select the best parts from a group of different takes; 11) fade in and out, and smooth out contrasting volumes within a segment.
In short, an audio editor is to audio what a red pencil is to a draft of a manuscript. It is your way to revise, shape, and find out what the meaning of your piece is really about. There are many interviews I’ve done where I’ve been more proud of the work I’ve accomplished as an editor than with the actual interviewing itself. The audience will, of course, not see that part of the work, but to me, editing is the most enjoyable and satisfying part of the process.
There are many audio editors on the market and some of them can be quite expensive. One of the most popular is Adobe’s Audition, which has a very clean and intuitive interface, and does just about everything that you would want such a program to do. The problem with Audition, however, is its cost. Adobe has moved to a vampire squid-sucking rental model for its headline products such as Photoshop, Audition, and Premiere Pro. That is, you can no longer buy these products outright, but you pay a monthly fee for their use. In the case of Audition, the cost is $240 a year.
Yes, it’s ridiculous. If you happen to have access to a computer that uses it, fine. But otherwise, you’ll want another solution.
It’s a little tricky, because some of the other commercial sound editing and mixing software programs do not necessarily have the functionality you’ll need for producing radio. Some software programs, instead, are more oriented to producing and mixing music tracks.
Fortunately, there is a wonderful open source program called Audacity, which is free and available for both Mac and Windows computers. It is truly a great gift from the software programmers who have designed it, coded it, and kept it up to date. The trade off is that the interface is somewhat less intuitive than say, Audition, but if you can use a word processor like Microsoft Word on a computer, then you should be able to learn the basic functions you’ll need on Audacity fairly quickly. And once you do learn those functions, you’ll find that if you wish to explore it further, Audacity has more features and power than even many commercial programs.
Audacity is constantly being updated, so it is important to download the most recent release for your particular computer. The official download page is here:
As of this writing, the latest version of Audacity is 2.2.2 for both Windows and Mac computers. If you have either kind of computer made within the last 10 years, that’s the version you want, unless you see a later version posted after this was written. It’s easy enough to click on the download and install it onto your computer.
The one annoying part about installing Audacity is that due to patent issues, there are two separate small support programs that you should also download in addition to Audacity, which are not included in the Audacity program itself. These support programs will allow you to import, export, and convert from one digital format to another easily within Audacity. You won’t need their functionality until you need them, and then you’ll be glad you have them; so although they are a bit of a pain to configure, it’s best to do it now, once, and you’ll never have to be bothered with it again.
The two support programs you need are called LAME MP3 encoder and FFmpeg import/export library.
Once you’ve downloaded the main Audacity program, you can download and install those two support programs by following the directions on the following page of the Audacity online manual:
Focus on the sections entitled “How do I download and install the LAME MP3 encoder?” and “How do I download and install the FFmpeg import/export library?” Follow the directions there, depending on what kind of computer you have. When you get to it, follow the directions that say “Recommended installer package.”
In future posts, I’ll talk about how to use Audacity, but now that you have all your tools, in the next post of the series, next week, I’ll be talking about how to begin preparing for an interview. See you then.
I’ve been producing, editing, and conducting interviews on the radio for a number of years now, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about how I go about creating a radio segment from start to finish in a weekly series of posts here. It’s my intention that after this series is over, you should know pretty much how to do what I do. For examples of the kinds of interviews I do, simply put the word “WBAI” into the search bar of this blog, and you should come up with a fair sample.
Let me set the scene here: I do most of my work for a weekly radio show called Arts Express on a listener-sponsored, non-commercial public radio station based in New York City, WBAI 99.5 FM. We are part of a larger network across the United States, Pacifica, which has five flagship stations. There are also scores of much smaller affiliate stations which from time to time also pick up content from the network.
Pacifica has been around since 1960, and because it is non-commercial and listener funded, the scope and depth of what we do is quite different from commercial radio. We are freer to pursue avenues that commercial radio ordinarily would not follow, and there is often a strong political aspect to what we broadcast. Part of the Pacifica Foundation’s mission is
“to engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all of such groups; and through any and all means compatible with the purposes of this corporation to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.”
On our weekly show, Arts Express, we tend to focus on the intersection of where Arts meets Politics, although from time to time, we’ll talk with a guest who has nothing directly to do with politics. But we generally do 15-minute segments with novelists, actors, directors, poets, musicians, dancers, comedians, artists, playwrights, academics, and anyone else who we think might be engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
It should be clear that the kinds of radio segments I am talking about here are those which are pre-recorded and then edited for later broadcast. I have many colleagues who do live on-the-air interviews during their shows, and that is a very different talent and skill. While I much admire those who can do that, I much prefer to work in a situation where I know I can edit the conversation down to its most essential and interesting parts.
I should add that I am pretty much self-taught. So what follows—even when I seem to be dogmatic–is just how I do things, what seems to work for me, in my situation. I am by no means expert in any of this, and I’m always trying to learn more. Take what you like and leave what you don’t. If you are in a similar situation to me, or thinking about putting together a podcast, or just curious, I hope you’ll find something useful in this series.
So with that background, let’s begin.
First off, what equipment are you going to need? I am very rough and ready, and do most of my work away from the actual radio studios. Fortunately, the medium of radio is pretty forgiving, and the three main essentials for doing this kind of work are:
1) A digital recorder and headphones
2) A microphone
3) A sound editing and mixing program for your computer
That’s really about it. With just that, and an outlet to broadcast your work, you can achieve quite a bit. And later on in the series, I’ll talk about how you may not even need the first two items on the above list!
1) There’s all kinds of money one can spend on equipment, but I have just very basic but serviceable equipment. The digital recorder I have is a Sony PCM-M10 Portable Linear PCM Voice Recorder, which cost me about $225 in 2014; there are certainly equivalent recorders on the market for a similar price today, though for some reason now this particular recorder is much more expensive. You probably want a recorder that can record natively in WAV and MP3 formats, and one that has built-in stereo mics and a playback speaker. Also make sure the recorder is compatible with the kind of computer you have, either Mac or Windows, though I suspect most recorders on the market today will work with either. Make sure that the proper cable is included in order to transfer your recordings to your computer. Typically, this will be a USB cable. Headphones which plug into your recorder are also important, so that you can monitor what is actually being recorded by your recorder. For now, we won’t worry about anything too fancy.
2) Microphones are a tricky subject, but generally you want to make sure you have a mic that is compatible with your recorder. It should be capable of capturing in stereo (even if your segment eventually ends up in mono). Microphones tend to be omnidirectional or unidirectional. I find that for the kind of work I do, the omnidirectional mics are best, although they tend to pick up more stray noise. The mic I use is an Audio-Technica AT8010 Omni-Directional Instrument Condenser Microphone which cost me about $150. A table mic stand and a ball-type foam windbreak for the head of the mic are useful as well. Important is to have the proper cable for the mic that will also be compatible with your digital recorder. Typically the cable does not come with the mic. This may take you a bit of research. The mic cable I use for my equipment is a LyxPro – 3 Ft – 3.5mm (1/8″ TRS mini input) to XLR Female Star Quad Microphone Cable. It is no longer made, but if you look up the specs you’ll know you want something similar to that if you have the other two items I have.
But in a pinch, you can—and I have—used the built in mic on the digital recorder, and I’ve even used just the voice recorder function on my Smartphone in an emergency. Fortunately, with the use of editing software, you can recover from a multitude of sins. So next week I’ll talk about editing software, and begin to talk about how to prepare for the actual interview itself.
Hope this starts to inspire you!
Here’s our radio version of the little sketch, Gun Shy, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI, during the Arts Express radio program. Many thanks to The Mighty Arts Express Players, composed of Pearl Shifer and Mary Murphy, and thanks again to Prairie Miller for all the encouragement.
Click on the triangle to listen.
Yesterday, WBAI’s Arts Express radio show broadcast my interview with Noliwe Rooks, author of the new book, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and The End of Public Education.
Ms. Rooks argues that the current charter school movement is just one more scheme in a long history of school hustles which go back to the 19th century. What these schemes have in common, she says, is the transfer of education and tax dollars from minority and oppressed groups to the pockets of white entrepreneurs, in a process she calls segrenomics.
You can listen to the interview with Noliwe Rooks by clicking on the grey triangle above.