DIY Toolkit: Fundamentals Of Field Recording

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YT Evan Childress field recordingSOUND IS EVERYWHERE. From the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep, our days are filled with noise. Even so-called “silence” is actually full of sound — the hum of an air conditioner, the distant rush of traffic, the whoosh of our own breath. By collecting and weaving together high quality recordings of our interviews and scenes, we can bring the story closer to listeners — their ears and imaginations allowing them to enter entire worlds of sound.




Teaching your students how to set up their equipment isn’t just essential to their ability to field record — it’s also a great hands-on way to introduce them to reporting! No matter what equipment you’re using (see section on options below), you’ll want each student to be able to demonstrate the following skills:

Each student can:

  • Complete set up (headphones on, cables and microphone attached)
  • Turn on recorder
  • Set recording levels to mid-range*
  • Proper mic placement (fist-width distance from mouth, slightly off to side of mouth)
  • Start recording
  • Gather room tone (ambient noise)
  • Turn off recorder
  • Complete break down (headphones, cables and device stored properly)

*A note on gathering levels: rather than asking your interviewee to say something artificial like “check check 1 2 3,” have them answer a basic descriptive question like “what did you have for breakfast?” This will make sure they’re speaking within their normal range of volume.

Field Recording Graphic Illustration
Graphic Design by Teresa Chin/Youth Radio


When you head into the field to record, what exactly are you listening for? From interviews to interactions, here’s a brief rundown of some of the types of sound you’ll want to gather.

Scene – In audio, a scene takes you to a place where some sort of action is happening that relates back to the narrative. A scene is comprised of elements such as characteristic sounds, room tone, interaction, and emotion. The goal is an audio soundscape that allows your mind to recreate whatever is going on.

Characteristic Sounds – These are sounds that help transport the listener to a particular place. Examples include the buzz of a drill at a dentist’s office, a moo at a cattle ranch, the late bell at a school, the gavel noise of a court room. If possible in a scene, any action that creates sound should be recorded closely to bring the listener into the moment.

Room tone (ambient noise) – Even if you think you are recording in a silent space, every room has its own brand of quiet. At the beginning or end of each scene/interview, record between 30 seconds and 1 minute of room tone during which you and your source do not talk.

Stand-up – A stand-up is when a reporter does a brief, live description of what is going on and/or what they are doing in the field. Stand-ups often address the 5 W’s or reporting — who, what, where, when and why. They may also include narrative elements, such as how the reporter is feeling or thinking.

Interview  – This is when a reporter/interviewer asks a source a series of questions. When recording an interview, you want to try to gather the “cleanest” sound possible, meaning minimal background noises. Seek out a quiet space, even if it means asking someone to turn off music or devices.

Levels – Levels represent the sensitivity of your recording device — in other words, it sets the amplitude of the sound you gather. When setting your levels (which you should do before each interview or scene), you want to make sure the amplitude of your sound stays in the mid-range for your device. If your levels are too low, you will not capture the sound you may need. If your levels are too high (“peaking”) the sound will be distorted.

NOTE: If you are planning to use smart phones to record your audio, check out Youth Radio’s guide to gathering high quality audio using your phone.



Youth Radio producer Teresa Chin leads a workshop on how to use a recorder with students from Oakland International High School.
Youth Radio producer Teresa Chin leads a workshop on how to use a recorder with students from Oakland International High School.

ACTIVITY: Interview For Two (Introduction to Equipment Technique)

This activity is designed to get students comfortable with their recording equipment — and each other. Students will practice proper audio set up and close out procedure with their devices, including setting levels and recording ambient sound. Using a basic set of questions (included) they will get a chance to conduct short interviews with each other, and then reflect on the experience as both an interviewer and an interviewee. (Note: you will need an audio recording device for this activity, see notes on equipment above).

Note that when it comes to field recording, recording interviews is just the beginning—micing scenes is more complicated. We’ve included an extra activity idea below, but stay tuned for a more in-depth toolkit on scenes in the future.

For examples of interviews created using this lesson plan, check out the Walk In My Shoes project by Oakland International students.

downloadLESSON PLAN: Interview For Two


EXTRA IDEA: Making a Scene (Introduction to Characteristic Sounds)

Have your students create an audio scene by gathering characteristic sounds from a particular place, action or event. Play back the audio for the class and have them describe what they “see” in their head when they listen. Some Examples: blowing up a balloon and tying it, making scrambled eggs, lifting weights, getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist, etc.


MarianneMcCuneQ&A: Making News Stories Good Stories (Marianne McCune via Third Coast Audio Festival 2014)

Check out this audio from the Third Coast Audio Festival 2014 Session on Making News Stories Good Stories. Veteran radio reporter Marianne McCune (NPR, Planet Money, WNYC) uses examples from her past stories to share tips on how to ensure your audio drives the narrative forward. From making sure the mic is always rolling, capturing the “in-betweens,” and using creative techniques (ahem, voicemail follow up) to “turn the page,” McCune’s tips will make sure you don’t miss any important moments when you’re gathering audio in the field.



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