Jay Allison’s Tips for Gathering Tape in the Field

Jay Allison is a much admired independent radio producer. Among his honors are PRNDI’s Leo C. Lee Award and the CPB’s Edward R. Murrow Award. These tips were originally published online by AIR.

Note: Although many of these notes apply to any interview situation, they focus on talking to people in their own environment, people who are not accustomed to being recorded.

One of the advantages to working in radio is that you are low-impact. When setting up interviews by phone, remind your interviewees that you are not a film/TV crew. It’s just you and a tape recorder…non-intimidating. They’ll still ask you what channel it’ll be on.

Make using your equipment second-nature — if you do, it will disappear. Know your tools well enough so the technical details won’t get in the way of communicating. Become comfortable. If you are, everyone else will be.
For Vox Pop, go where people are waiting. If it seems appropriate, walk right up with your sentence about what you’re doing and attach the first question to it. I’ve heard it suggested that the best tape comes from people in funny hats.

Have everything set up before you walk in. Sit in the car (or the subway station, or the bushes) to load and label your first tape, prepare your next tapes for fast changes, set your levels, etc. You might even want to walk in with the machine running, if it’s appropriate.

Close-mic…about six inches from the speaker’s mouth and a bit off to one side to avoid P-pops. Go closer if they speak very quietly, or further away if they are loud.

Use micing distance as a volume control, i.e. move in for whispering and out for loud laughter. Don’t change the volume at the machine for this kind of quick change. You can use the built-in limiter or automatic gain control (AGC or ARL) in very changeable level situations. If you are in a very noisy background that you want to reduce, mic your subject even more closely (2-4 inches) and re-set your record levels.

Try to record away from hard surfaces…walls, etc. Don’t record across a desk because you can get phase cancellation from the reflected sound. In general, it’s risky to let the interviewee hold the microphone. Sometimes lavaliere mics can be helpful, but they attract noise and eliminate your control.

If you’re recording more than one person at a time, get them to gather around you and follow the conversation with your microphone.

If you want a quiet interview, try to get on a couch in a room with curtains and a rug. Set everything up the way you like it before you start. Be sure to check for interfering noise, like air conditioners, florescent lights, refrigerators, traffic, radios, noisy crumpling of candy wrappers in front of the microphone, etc. Get away from noise or have it turned off. A musical background is very difficult to edit. Loud hums are annoying, because they add nothing and don’t make sense.

Often a noisy environment is exactly what you want. And be sure also to get the noise by itself without any talking over it.

I often like to move around during interviews. Get people up and walking — “Show me”. This can relax people and take their minds off the recording. Have the person describe where you are and what you’re doing. Refer to objects and sights around you. But try to keep the mic close to them. All this will reinforce a sense of place, action and immediacy for the listener. Moving around also gives you a variety of acoustical environments as structuring options in your final piece… possibilities for movement in time and space.

Let people talk. Allow silence. Don’t always jump in with questions. Often, some truth will follow a silence. Let people know they can repeat things — that you’re not on the air — it’s ok to screw up. And remember to offer something of yourself. Don’t just take. Think of the listener’s innocence; ask the obvious, along with the subtle.
If you interrupt or overlap your voice with your interviewee’s, you won’t be able to edit yourself out. This will eliminate that sense of the interviewee communicating directly with the listener; instead the listener will be an eavesdropper on your conversation. It commits you to a production decision. If you want to leave your production options open, don’t laugh out loud, or stick in “uh-huh” or other vocal affirmations. You must let your subjects know you’re with them, but use head nods, eye contact and develop a silent knee-slap and guffaw.

If you do want your presence in the interview, think about perspective. Do you want your voice to be very on-mic? If so, then you should move the mic up to your own mouth for your questions. Do you want to defer the primary focus to the interviewee, but have your questions legible? Then, pull the mic back half-way to yourself or speak up loudly. Practise these choices and use what approach is best for a given piece.

Remember eye contact. Don’t let the mic be the focus — occupying the space between you and the person you’re talking to so you have to stare through it. I usually begin by holding the mic casually, as though it’s unimportant. Sometimes I’ll rest it against my cheek to show it has no evil powers. I might start off with an innocuous question “Geez, is this as bad as the smog ever gets out here?”, then slowly move the mic, from below, into position at the side of the person’s mouth, but not blocking eye contact. You’ll find your own way of being natural with the mic, but it is important.

Don’t be afraid to ask the same thing in different ways until you get an answer you’re satisfied with. Remember you can edit the beginning and ending of two answers together, but be sure to get the ingredients. If a noise interferes with a good bit of tape, try to get it again. You can blame it on the machine, but it might be better just to wrap the conversation back to the same place so you don’t get the quality of someone repeating himself.

For repeat answers or more enthusiasm, try: “What?!” or “You’re kidding!” or “Really??” Remember the question: “Why?”, especially following a yes or no response. Don’t forget the preface: “Tell me about…”

Make idle conversation when you must turn over or change the cassette, so you don’t break your flow or re-attract attention to the recording gear. But don’t take that moment to inspire a wonderful response.

Sometimes I make a list of questions before an interview and half-memorize it. I don’t follow it during the interview, but keep it handy to check before the end to pick up anything I forgot.

Get all the sundry sounds, like phones ringing, dogs barking, clocks ticking, etc. — they can be useful for editing. Leave the machine running for stuff that seems irrelevant…it might not be. Yes, leave the recorder running. If you turn it off, they’ll say the most perfect thing you ever heard. Don’t pack up your stuff until you are gone. Allow people the chance to say things in conclusion. Ask them who else you should talk to. You might want to record them saying their names and what they do. Get room tone at the end.

Remember you can always use your recorder like a dictating machine, either for on-location narration or for note-taking. Don’t forget to look as well as listen. Note specifics about what you see and feel. Immediately after an interview, make some notes about what you remember…what mattered.