Not all interviews are created equal. Some sound great while others are riddled with distracting noises. The great sounding ones allow viewers to really absorb what the interviewee is saying. The bad ones create a sense of confusing unease that result in the viewer losing attention.
Below is a guide for the emerging director or producer in steps that should be taken to ensure you have the best sound for your interview.
Choosing a location:
By far, choosing a quiet location is the most important task standing before you. The production sound mixer can only record the best audio that’s available in the space that the interview takes place in. A general rule of thumb is that if you can hear a distracting sound with your own ears then it will most likely be intensified when recorded through sensitive microphones. Having a hum in the background won’t necessarily ruin your interview but it could possibly make your life more difficult when you reach the editing stage. Don’t ever think to yourself, “we’ll be able to fix it in post”….the truth is, you really don’t know that for sure.
Here’s a checklist of questions that you should ask yourself prior to confirming your interview location.
Will you “own” the space? Will you be able to turn off refrigerators and air conditioners? Will neighbors likely be mowing their lawns and if so, are you prepared to either pay them cash to take a break or at least plead with them to stop? Are you in an office building where HVAC systems are controlled for the whole floor instead of room by room? If so, have you coordinated with the location’s owner or manager ahead of time so that you can speak to a facilities worker while on set? Does the office building use white noise machines to create privacy as some law office building do? If so, can they be turned off? Say your interview is with a chef in or near a kitchen? Is the chef willing to temporarily turn off the coolers, ice machine, and grill hood? Are you near a busy road or highway? If so, does your interview take place during rush hour? Is your location in a flight path and if so, how consistent are the planes? Are you prepared to stop frequently for the planes and will these pauses disrupt the flow of your interview?
I think you get the idea. The main thing to ask yourself is whether or not the location can be controlled. If you can’t get 100% confirmation on this then it may be best to choose a different location.
Creating a non-distracting environment:
You will often find yourself interviewing someone who’s never been in front of a camera. They won’t know where to look, might not be able to sit still, and in general feel uncomfortable in the setting. This is especially true when the content and subject matter of the interview is personal and emotionally sensitive. How does this relate to sound then? Creating a quiet, non-distracting environment is just one way that you can help put your interviewee at ease. Putting up dark sound blankets can work to both absorb sound and block distracting views. It’s also important to ask that non-essential crew members leave the room or at least move away from the interviewee. Keeping crew members away from the subject’s line of sight will also help retain a person’s attention. A general rule of thumb is that the more sensitive the subject matter, the less people you want to have sitting around listening.
Problems that could affect editing:
From an editing perspective, one of the biggest interview faux pas is when the question and response step on each other during a single-person interview. A video edit will happen at a single frame. If the end of an interviewer’s question overlaps the beginning of the subject’s answer then the beginning of that edited frame will contain an unintelligible sound from off camera. Editors will often cut off the very beginning of a word in order to work around this, which causes choppy and poor sounding audio. This problem can be avoided by simply reminding the subject to wait about 1 second before answering. This can be useful not only for sound purposes but also to give the subject time to think about a response. I’ve seen directors use subtle hand gestures to cue someone when to respond that seem to work well. Ideally, your conversation will flow naturally without overlaps and you won’t need to think too hard about this aspect. Your sound mixer should inform you when there’s overlap and then it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’d like to keep moving forward or run the question again. Another tip, which is more editorial based and not audio specific, is to make sure the subject begins their response in a full sentence. If you ask “What is your favorite color?” and they respond “Blue”, all you’ll have is a single word out of context during the editing process. They need to respond by saying “My favorite color is blue.”.
All this of course assumes you’re working on a single-person interview. For “60 Minutes” style interviews you won’t need to worry about overlap as both people are on camera. The viewer can see and hear the question and the overlap won’t be out of place.
To lav or not to lav? The standard micing set up for an interview is to use both a boom (overhead) mic and a lavaliere mic. You’ll only use one or the other during your post mix. Your sound mixer will most likely pan the boom to the Left channel and the lav mic to the Right channel (or vice versa). You never want to leave it like this in post. You also never want to just pan both tracks to the center and leave both on. Amateur editors will make this mistake because they feel they’re getting a louder signal by having both channels on. In reality, they’re causing a terrible “phasey” sound as the waveforms of the two channels aren’t exactly aligned. They may not be completely out of phase but they’re almost never in phase either. That said, however, it’s ideal to have both present while recording. In general, the boom mic will almost always sound more natural and fuller, especially if you want to have the lav mic concealed under clothing. The lav mic may be the best choice when you’re in a noisier environment and the subject’s clothing hasn’t presented unwanted fabric noises. Also, if the subject shift’s positions dramatically or even stands up the lav mic will still be present. The camera may be able to follow the action where a boom mic on a stand is in a fixed position. For this reason, you’d favor the lav mic. If you’re doing several interviews with different people throughout the day you may notice that while the boom track sounds consistent regardless of who is being interviewed the lav mic varies in sound quality. This is mainly because different clothing fabric have different thicknesses, all of which play into how a concealed mic may sound. In general though, a professional production sound mixer will understand the best way to conceal the lav mic to optimize the sound regardless of clothing choice.
Beating on your chest. Another thing to look out for is when your interviewee is excessively tapping their chest to emphasize a point. This, of course, is a very natural action. However, if you are hoping to use the lav mic you’ll find that the audio file is going to have what sounds like a distorted drum on it every time there’s a tap. General rule of thumb is that if the subject matter isn’t sensitive or emotionally intense then it’s ok to remind the person not to do this. If they keep doing it then check in with your sound mixer to ensure that the boom track is clean and free of background noises. You’ll always get better results if you allow the person to be themselves. This just strengthens the notion that a quiet location is the key to everything.
Jewelry. Pretty simple really, if the person on camera is wearing jewelry that clangs, chimes, jingles, or makes any kind of noise it could possibly make your interview sound bad. Remember, if you can hear it with your own ears it will only be intensified through a mic.
The need for room tone:
What is room tone and why do you need it? Put simply, room tone is just a recording of the sound of the room during your interview. Its purpose is to provide your post team with audio content that is used to smooth out edit transitions. It can also be used to fill in small chunks of audio that need to be removed because of an unwanted noise in the background. Noise reduction software can use the room tone to create a noise profile that can be applied over the interview, which decreases the overall sound of the room without (ideally) negatively effecting the sound of the voice (when done correctly). Traditionally, room tone is gathered at the end of an interview for about 30 seconds. However, it is actually much more useful to grab shorter clips of room tone at the beginning, halfway point, and end of an interview. The sound of any given room changes over time, much like sunlight through a window will change your lighting set up over the span of a few hours.
When to allow background noise:
The show must go on, right? Sometimes things are beyond your control and you are forced to shoot in a non-ideal situation. You only have the subject for a short amount of time and can only shoot in his/her office….their staff is busy and refuses to quiet down, they won’t or don’t know how to turn off the HVAC….the office is cramped leaving little options for lighting and there’s a parked car outside whose alarm keeps going off in random yet frequent intervals. Yet, you have to get great sound for this interview. It’s the keystone of the story you’re telling…what do you do?
This frustrating scenario is a typical day for a production sound mixer. Apart from recording the highest quality audio that the location will allow, a lot of our job is to inform you of what noises to worry about and what noises to ignore while on set. It’s only the experienced production sound mixer that will really be able to gauge whether or not a particular background noise is a problem that can be “fixed in post.”
My work in both production and post-production audio provide great insight into how to communicate these variables to a director. Directors and field producers have enough to worry about and sound is often the last thing on your mind. That’s totally fine, that’s why you hire us. However, the information above is a great resource of items to consider prior to stepping on set for the big day.