Hack 33. Record Great Interviews
Finding the right people to talk to, and having the right form, can mean the difference between a compelling story and a stifled mess. Learn the techniques the pros use.
Getting the perfect interview is a combination of getting the right guest, doing the preparation, and having the right techniques, both technically and personally. This hack will walk you through everything you need to know. And if this doesn't satisfy your needs be sure to check the Transom (http://www.transom.org) site for even more on interviewing techniques.
The best way to prepare for an interview is to do your homework. Hit the Web and find out all you can about the person you will be interviewing. Take lots of notes in a text editor or in an outliner application. Once you think you have exhausted what you can find out about the interviewee and the subject of the interview, you should organize your notes to make them easy to search through as you are developing your questions.
The next step is to find a perspective. In his book Radio Production (Focal Press, 1999), Robert McLeish gives four categories of interview that help you decide what you are looking for from the interview, and what questions to ask:
With this in mind, you need to develop a set of questions that draw the required information or perspective from the interviewee. In all cases, your job as the interviewer is to represent your listeners. This means asking the questions you know your listeners would want asked, even if you already know the answers.
For podcasting interviews, you will likely be using a combination of information and interpretive questions in your interview: asking your subject the when, where, and how of an event, then asking him for his opinion or reaction to a related event.
What questions you ask will vary widely among interviews, but the fundamentals of compelling audio remain. You want to bring your listeners into your interviewee's world by extracting as much detail about the story and about his reaction to it as you can. Avoiding the brushoff and asking questions that probe for deeper detail is a hallmark of a great interviewing technique. Try to find questions that shed new light on the topic and help your listeners understand things in a new way.
How you order your questions can make or break an interview. If you are willing to spend a lot of time in editing, you can rearrange the question and answer blocks to create the story you are trying to tell. But it's easier just to spend some time figuring out the most important parts of the story and placing them near the end, as a crescendo. In addition, you might want to take an exciting question from the middle of the interview and put it at the beginning to get your listeners involved in the story right away. This early punch, followed by some background questions leading to the hard-hitting questions at the end, makes for a very engaging interviewing style.
5.2.2. Location and Hardware Setup
If you're recording more than one person at a time, get them to gather around you, and follow the conversation with your microphone. In general, it's risky to let the interviewee hold the microphone [Hack #13]. Sometimes lavalier mics can be helpful, but they attract noise and eliminate your control. Try to interview away from hard surfaces such as walls. For example, don't record across a desk because you can get phase cancellation from the reflected sound.
If you want a quiet interview, try to get it while seated on a couch in a room that has curtains and a rug. Set everything up the way you like it before you start. Be sure to check for interfering noise, such as air conditioners, fluorescent lights, refrigerators, traffic, radios, noisy crumpling of candy wrappers in front of the microphone, etc. Get away from noise [Hack #15] 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 your interviewee up and walking around, and ask him to show you what happened in addition to talking about it. 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 the interviewee. All this will reinforce a sense of place, action, and immediacy for your listeners. Moving around also gives you a variety of acoustical environments as structuring options in your final piece: possibilities for movement in time and space.
For "voice of the people"type interviews (a.k.a. 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 recordings come from people wearing funny hats.
5.2.3. Preparing the Interviewee
Spend a few moments with the person before the recorder [Hack #69] starts rolling to let him know how the interview is going to play out. Let him know if you are going to edit the interview to clean up his voice, and let him know the kinds of things you will be editing out. If you are not going to be editing the interview, be sure to let him know that as well.
If you have some time before you get started, let him know the first question you're going to ask. This will allow him to prepare a response, but also will get him mentally prepared for the interview, and will avoid the freeze-up you get when you hit an interviewee with a tough question right out the box. Some interviewers go as far as to send all the questions to their interviewee in advance.
In addition, you should inform your interviewee about the mechanics of the interview: how long it will take, how many questions you will be asking, the type of information you are looking for, and how you will use it. Once the interview is complete, and the content is posted, you should complete the loop by contacting the interviewee to let him know the content is available.
5.2.4. Interviewing Technique
Remember eye contact. Don't let the mic be the focusotherwise, it occupies the space between you and the person you're talking to so that 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?"), and 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 askthe same thing in different ways until you get an answer you're satisfied with. Remember that you can edit together the beginning and ending of two answers, but be sure to get the ingredients. If a noise interferes with a good bit of recording, 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 that 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 to ask why, especially after a yes or no response. Don't forget the preface: "Tell me about…." 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 thingsthat 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 your listeners' innocence; ask the obvious, along with the subtle.
Save the hard, abstract, or conceptual questions until later in the interview. Lay some groundwork before getting into these all-encompassing questions so that your listeners understand where the questions are coming from. Asking "What is the purpose of your life?" as the first question out of the gate is just going to get you a blank stare.
If you interrupt or overlap your voice with your interviewee's voice, you won't be able to edit yourself out. This will eliminate that sense of the interviewee communicating directly with your listeners; instead, your listeners will be eavesdroppers on your conversation. It commits you to a production decision. If you want to leave your production options open, don't laugh aloud, or stick in "uh-huh" or other vocal affirmations. You must let your subjects know you're with them, but use head nods and eye contact and develop a silent knee-slap and guffaw.
5.2.5. Microphone Technique
If you do want your presence in the interview, think about perspective. Do you want your voice to be very on-mic? If so, you should move the mic up to your 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 toward you, or speak up loudly.
For close-mic interviewing, keep the mic about 6 inches from the speaker's mouth and a bit off to one side to avoid P-pops (plosives). Go closer if he speaks very quietly, or further away if he is loud.
Use mic distance as a volume controli.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 your background is very noisy, and you want to tone down the noise level, mic your subject even closer (24 inches) and reset your record levels.
5.2.6. Equipment Issues
Become comfortable with your equipment. If you are comfortable, everyone else will be. Check, clean, and test all your equipment before you go out. Put in fresh batteries. Make test recordings. Be over-prepared. Be a Boy Scout. 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.
Wind, handling, and cable noise are some of the most common recording problems. Use windscreens/pop filters [Hack #12] and try to get out of the wind. With the body of the microphone, as with so many things, learn to have a light touch. Don't let the mic cable bang around or rustle on your clothes. Check that all your cables have good, noise-free connections at both ends. Monitor with headphones to check for these problems.
For recording most sounds or voices, you want the meter peaking at a little above zero, never pegging at the limit. In general, shoot for a record level between 5 and 8 on the mic input knob. Recording levels are critical. You are trying to keep your levels as high as possible without distortionby recording at a nice, hot level, you rise above hiss and electronic noise. Setting levels is a balancing act between distortion at the top and noise at the bottom. Don't use the Pause button, as it uses up the batteries. Occasionally during recording, check to make sure the recorder is actually working.
Omnidirectional, dynamic mics [Hack #13] are the best choice for all-purpose interviewing and basic sound gathering. Unidirectionals are good for noise rejection from the sides and rear and for stereo in pairs, but they are sensitive to wind and handling. Powered mics (electrets and condensers) have good response and high output, but they are sensitive to wind, handling, humidity, and dead batteries.
Try recording with headphones. They are almost essential for stereo recording. And they're always helpful for catching wind noise, handling noise, cable rustle, RF interference, P-pops (plosives), hums you didn't notice, nervous scratching, and other hazards such as forgetting to turn on the tape recorder. If for some reason you must conserve batteries, unplug the headphones.
5.2.7. Recording Ambience
Get all the sundry sounds [Hack #64], such as phones ringing, dogs barking, and clocks tickingthey 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, your interviewee will say the best 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. Record sounds from various distances and perspectives. Experiment. For example, a toilet flush sounds very different when it's recorded from five feet away than when it's recorded with the mic resting on the plumbing.
You can't record too much. Collect and catalog sound effects and ambiences. Save everything, including your notes. Don't erase. Take plenty of extras: spares of everything, depending on how long you'll be on location, including assorted microphones, cables, tape recorder batteries, microphone batteries, tapes, AC cords/adapters, extension cords, windscreens, headphones, lots of plug/jack adapters, patch cords, mic stands, shock mounts, Rowi clamps, goosenecks, duct tape, electrical tape, cleaning and de-magnetizing gear, pens, paper, and labels. Label everything. Make safety copies of precious stuff on your computer.
Remember that you can always use your recorder as 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.
5.2.8. Be a Good Interviewee
To create a compelling interview, the interviewer must ask thought-provoking questions, and the interviewee must be right there with insightful answers. Here are some tips to help you give great interviews:
During the interview, concentration matters most. Answering questions in a way that both informs and interests takes concentration. Professionals call this being in the moment, and it's important on both sides of the microphone. It's harder to get distracted with face-to-face interviews because the interviewer will be looking you in the eye most of the time.
With phone interviews, it's easier to be sidetracked by your computer, your kids, or your dog. Lock yourself in a quiet, comfortable spot with just you, your notes, and a pen or pencil to scribble notes during the interview. Turn off your cell phone.
You should consider having a library of cuts. Watch a movie actor appear on The Late Show with David Letterman to plug her movie. She will always have a clip from the movie that gets people excited about going to the theater to see it. You should do the same with your podcast, and bring along an iPod or CD with these select cuts, or point the interviewer to your site where you have a library of cuts to choose from. Each cut should have a transcript of what is in the cut. Give the interviewer a short list of the cuts that you think will fit the tone of the interview best.
5.2.9. See Also
Jay Allison and Jack Herrington