Smartphone Audio Recording – Part 3: Setup by Nigel Rumsey

A diagram showing smartphone connection to lav microphone So now you have your smartphone, microphone, recording app, some earbuds and you're ready to make amazing audio - how do you do that? The first thing to say is the scope of this post is dealing with the recording technique, not interview technique I've a lot to learn in that area - I will give some links to further information at the end.

In case you haven’t read the earlier posts: I'm not an audio expert, I'm in the early stages of learning how to do this. As much as anything this is a good way for me to consolidate what I've learnt. If you disagree with what I'm saying please chip in, I'm always interested to hear from you.

Before You Set Off

Battery: It may sound obvious but make sure your phone battery is fully charged. Also bring your charging lead with you, if you can record while plugged into mains power then even better. If you’re interested in battery backup this review by Martin Shakeshaft may be helpful.

Memory: check you have enough space in your phone's memory for your recording. Recording in WAV format is going to use approximately 10MB per minute. This is where Android users have a huge advantage, many android phones will except a mini or micro-SD card to expand the memory beyond what's built-in to the phone. I generally need to delete some music from my iPhone before recording to ensure there's enough space.

App Settings

There are many very heavy tomes on this subject but here's my brief layman's guide.

File format: Your recording app can save the file in a number of formats. Keeping it simple there are two choices you’re interested in (1) WAV: a lossless format that will give you the best quality and a greater flexibility in the edit. The downside it takes more storage space than (2) MP3: a lossy format, it uses significantly less space and playable on just about every device. Here's an interesting post that gives more info.

Bitrate and quality: The other things your app is going to ask you to set are the sampling rate, which should be 44,100 khz and the bit depth which will be 16 bit. If you want to know more there’s a good article in Wikipedia. This video does a great job of explaining what the sampling rate and bit depth actually are.

The Setup

If you're using the Rode SmartLAV+ and the Rode SC6 adaptor the image above is how your setup should look. If you're using Rode equipment the TRRS plugs are grey and the TRS plugs are black - if that means nothing to you look back at the previous post.

If you only have a Lav microphone - without the SC6 adaptor - you can still record but you won't be able to monitor your recording - which could be considered the audio equivalent of walking a tightrope without a safety net. The key thing would be to monitor your levels so you will at least know a signal is reaching the phone, if not how sweet is sounds.

Before Recording Put your phone in airplane mode. If it rings or you get a text during the recording your recording will be interrupted - from this point on your 'phone' is a recording device only.

The lav needs to be clipped to the interviewee's blouse or shirt about 150mm below their chin - I don't expect you to get a tape measure out but that's roughly what you're aiming for. If possible you want to clip the microphone so that it's not rubbing on the interviewee's clothing if they move around a little - not always easy. This video gives some tips on positioning the Lav, it also shows how much noise brushing the mic during a recording can make.

[embed][/embed] Levels: While recording you're aiming for a high enough level so that you can clearly hear everything you subject is saying, while avoiding any peaking or distortion. The rule-of-thumb seems to have been to aim for an average level of -12db. It's definitely not easy on these small displays to get an accurate idea of the level. It's best to practice a few times so you know the level on the app you're unsung that's going to give you results you're happy with.

a screen shot from Android app Field Recorder

A screen shot from iPhone app Voice Record Pro











Try to get your interviewee chatting while you're setting up apart from anything else if they're a little nervous this will tend to put them at ease. Check you're levels aren't going it to the red. If you're unsure it's best to err on the side of caution. It's easy to boost the level a bit in the edit, however once you've got clipping because the level's too high there isn't much you can do. For more info check out this Transom article.

Once you've finished recording save a copy of the file to a cloud service like Dropbox or GoogleDrive. You're probably going to want to get to wi-fi zone before you do that or you're going to chomp through your data allowance pretty quickly. The important thing is that you don’t start editing until you’ve made a copy which should, ideally, be off of your phone.

As I've said before I'm skimming the surface of what you can do - my aim is to hopefully inspire you to give this a go. The last post in this series, will give a list of information and further resources. However if you're keen to know more now is the place to go. Transom has a fantastic archive of posts on all the subjects I've covered and way more. Transom is also home to the truly inspiring HowSound podcast, it really is essential listening for any inspiring radio producer.

Next week I'll be looking at a few mics you might be interested in if you want to go hand-held and then week 5 will be a wrap up and further resources post.

Part 1: Getting Started Part 2: What you need (Budget)

Enjoy your week and don't forget to listen to some great radio.

Still riding the Inspiration Roller Coaster by Nigel Rumsey

The Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster. I wrote in my last post how I was being inspired by the podcasts of documentary radio producers talking about their work, as much as by the work itself. I'm still riding that particular inspiration roller coaster and I'm enjoying it. Earlier this week I listened to an episode of How Sound which underlined everything I'd been thinking about the power of documentary radio.

Alix Spiegel came up through the caldron of good radio storytelling that is This American Life; I'm sure some of you may be getting just a little tired of my banging on about This American Life but if you've listened to even one of their programmes I hope you'll understand my infatuation. In this episode of How Sound, called Love is a Battlefield, Alix talks about her interviewing technique, how she structures questions and the incredible amount of work she puts into her 'pre-interview', as she refers to it. What also astonished me was the length of the interviews, she says the average interview maybe 1.5 to 4 hours. At one point she says, "I don't think I've ever done an interview that's more than 5-6 hours"! While I was listening to the programme, and since, I've been wondering, aside from the inspiration, 'how can what I'm learning be applied to documentary photography'. I'm still thinking about that one, I've always liked the idea of accompanying images with recorded sounds, it's just such a tricky thing to present.

In a recent programme I heard a radio producer say (sorry, I can't remember who) that they wanted to create moments in radio where you make the listener turn to look at the radio in disbelief. I had at least one of those moments when listening to Love is a Battlefield. You can listen to the interview, which includes clips of 'Love is a battlefield' on the How Sound website or the original This American Life programme on their website.

Alix's latest project is Invisibilia.

Making Documentary Radio & Photography Inspiration by Nigel Rumsey

An old Roberts FM radioI have, I'm aware, a tendency to get a little obsessive about things I like. I'm also aware this may get 'a little' boring for those around me, as I preach on the subject of my latest obsession. Which, ironically, I realise is exactly what I'm about to do here. I can't help it. I'm so convinced that you'll join me at the heights of appreciation, as soon as you know about 'the thing', that you'll forgive the pushing and cajoling that's caused you to relent. The current 'thing' is radio, not just any sort of radio but that particular form of radio documentary for which the USA is most associated. It all started with This American Life which is a radio programme and/or podcast depending where you live. Each episode is based around a theme with generally three or four stories loosely tied to that theme. If you're intrigued let me recommend this classic episode - I've done it again, I'm like a pusher, there's no hope! Twice a week I endure a fairly long commute (about three hours each way) so I'm always looking out for new things to listen to. I can't remember when I first heard This American Life but since that first programme I've been hooked.

Towards the end of 2014 the producers of This American Life made a second show, Serial. As the name suggests, Serial, is a single story told over a number of episodes. It really is very good. It shot to the top of the podcast chart and stayed there for it's entire run. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe This American Life wasn't a one off, there could be other shows like this waiting to be discovered. Like a man possessed I googled, download and listened. I'll give a brief list at the end but trust me I've listed to a whole load of podcasts.

Somewhere at the back of my mind a thought germinated, maybe I could make a radio documentary, nothing as ambitious as This American Life, but possibly something that could compliment my documentary photography. I started listening, not only to the documentaries themselves, but also podcasts that discussed the making of the programmes. It was at this point I experienced something I'd not been aware of experiencing before. The fact that one artistic form, in this case radio, could inspire another, in my case, photography. I'm often inspired by great artists or by film and television, but they're all visual media. This was audio inspiring a visual medium. The shear enthusiasm of these people talking about the programmes they're making, the research they're doing, the craft of radio inspired me as much as any Rembrandt painting or Irving Penn photograph.

An old Roberts FM radio

Once I started researching making radio I realised we have something of disadvantage in the UK; which I can only put down to that behemoth of all things media, the BBC. Before you jump to your keyboards to complain let me reassure you, I'm a huge fan of the BBC and BBC radio in particular. I've said before, I'd happily pay the equivalent of the Television Licence for Radio 4 alone. (note for those not in the UK: the BBC is funded by a sort of television tax with the antiquated title of the 'Television Licence'). The issue with the BBC in this context is that it does radio so well and so extensively. We don't have the type of disparate local public radio they have the US, because there's just no 'need' - well, that's debatable but you take my point. The US model, as I understand, isn't so well funded and so that encourages a large number of small regional and community stations. I'm not based in the US, so excuse me if I've missed represented the situation. However, the upshot is, the US has a range of conferences, organisations, courses and groups encouraging documentary radio we just don't have here in the UK.

I have found a part-time course run at UCL, but it's the only one I've found in the UK so far. I've listed some of the US based resources which may be of interest.

Resources * This American Life have a page with lots of related links, and have produced a book How to Make Radio. * Ira Glass : the driving force behind This American Life * : runs workshops, lots of 'how to' articles, gear guides etc. * Radio Diaries : make documentaries and also produced The Teen Reporter handbook

Podcasts * This American Life * Serial : podcast by the makers of This American Life * Howsound : podcast produced by Transom, which is a mix of great audio and behind the scenes interviews * Tape : 'a radio show about people who make radio' - a subtitle which doesn't really do it justice, inspiring people talking about making good radio * State of the Re:Union : 'Telling the story of America, one community at a time'. I only mean it as a compliment when I say, it's very similar to This American Life. * Radiolab : Multi-award winning podcast which covers a range of topics. Radiolab has a particular style which I didn't get on with, but that probably says more about me than it. I know many people would have it at the top of their lists. * Invisabilia : 'A look at the world you can't see. NPR's Invisibilia – a new show about human behavior co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel.'

I'm going to add to this list over time. If you know of any UK training or resources I'd really appreciate you getting in touch.