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Setting Up The Recording Session (β)

     If you are planning to hire-out the interview recording sessions you may as well skip ahead to the next website topic. Otherwise ...

    There is a temptation to mount a single omni-directional microphone on a desktop microphone stand that is placed between the interviewer and interview subject, point the mike upwards (towards the ceiling), and record the interview that way. Or, you set up the microphone on a table so that you and the interview subject may sit side-by-side and share the one microphone. I suggest that you do some test recordings using those kinds of setups and then play them back. If they sound okay to you, fine, do all of your recordings that way. (be sure to get a second opinion from a friend or relative ... ask them what they think of the listenability of your test recordings)

    I think that you will find those recording techniques leave a lot to be desired, especially in a room with a lot of ambient sound (the "whooshing" of heating/cooling vents, the relentless ticking of wall clocks, the drone of a refrigerator's compressor motor, etc.). Also, the side-by-side approach becomes very awkward very fast — remember, the best interviews are the ones that become conversational very quickly; being huddled side-by-side trying to talk at a single (shared) microphone instead of speaking to each other (making eye-to-eye contact) works to the detriment of the conversational element of the interview ... providing a relaxed environment for both interviewer and (especially) the interview subject.

    As much as you would like to make the perfect recording, it will (almost) never happen. Something will usually occur that makes you cringe, but it will happen at a time that cannot be edited out without loosing something priceless from your interview subject. So, for all of the efforts that you will make (outlined below), chill out. If you make a concerted effort to do the best job possible the result will almost always please everyone else when they hear the result.

So many plugs, so few sockets!

     Before you ever leave your home to go to the interview site make sure that you have everything that you will need to conduct the recording session. Instead of traveling light, you should take everything that you have that might possibly be of use in that session — practically, this means take everything that you have, period. (unless you have such a big pile of stuff that you absolutely know that half of it will not be needed) Over the last 50 years I have amassed a huge collection of equipment that I have organized into numerous storage tubs/boxes, filling an entire walk-in closet ... typically, about half of the stuff gets left behind, but when in doubt, it all comes along. (in a crammed-to-the-roof minivan)

     If you do leave equipment behind you will run the risk of not having something that you will need to conduct the interview (that one critical equipment adapter that couldn't be found anywhere in town so you had to special order it when you first started assembling your equipment satchel). Several days before the interview, while still at home, do a dry run setup of all of the equipment that you plan to take with you; make sure that it all powers up, inter-connects properly & works as expected. You may need to put another item or two in the travel tub(s); items that you had not originally thought necessary. If some component does not work when you test it out you will still have a couple of days to deal with the problem (fix, borrow, replace it). Then, pack everything up in your equipment tub(s) so that you are not in a last minute race to assemble everything. (and forget half of what you will need)

     Do you have enough microphones? Do you have enough microphone cables, of an adequate length, with the correct kinds of connectors, to connect the microphones to the mixer? (you do have a mixer, don't you) Can the mixer handle all of the microphones that you wish to plug into it? Do you have enough microphone clips to attach all of the microphones to their stands? Do all of those mic clips have stands to go onto? (table & floor type) Do you need one or more mic booms? Will the mixer connect properly to the recording device? Got a power strip and enough extension cord? Got any blank storage media? (hours and hours worth) Need fresh batteries? What kinds — D cells; C cells; AA cells; AAA cells; 9 volt? How many of each will you need to record for hours and hours and hours? Have a small (portable) folding table & chair to set your mixer & recorder up on?

     Sound dumb? Well, how dumb would it be to drive 3 or 6 hours and realize that it was a wasted trip because a single (critical) item had been left behind at home?

Scout the site in advance — cut down on the surprises.

     If at all possible, get into the room that is the proposed site for the recording prior to the recording session (days are OK; weeks are better). Photographs and verbal descriptions may look/sound Ok, but nothing beats a good "eyes/ears/hands-on" scouting of the site. You'll find where the electrical sockets are hidden, figure out where everyone is going to sit, identify the sound deficiencies, figure out where you need to put the microphones (and what kind of mike stands + booms that you'll need). You'll have time to plan where you will need to run the microphone cables so that you do not create trip-and-fall hazards for the people in the room (this is where a good tape measure comes in handy for your miscellaneous item tackle box — measuring the distance from each microphone to the microphone mixer so that you have enough cables, and of sufficient total length). At worse, you might just realize that the proposed interview location is completely unsuitable for a recording session; you'll need to find someplace else to conduct the interview.

     Scouting several weeks out also gives you the lead time needed to locate/order some special item that isn't already in your equipment box (microphone stand booms always seem to be the thing that people never think they'll need but wind up being essential; more microphone cables than you already have is another common followup need).

     If time or distance prevent a scouting of the site, you will need to take everything in your equipment inventory with you just in case that you need some difficult-to-find adapter that took you 12 weeks to special order from Bangalore.

As Samuel Goldwyn might have said
Redundancy is Good! More redundancy is twice as good!

     Stuff breaks. Someone shows up and wants to be part of the interview session. The distance from your microphones to your mixer turns out to be 35 feet instead of the planned 17 feet ....

     It happens.

     So ...

     Don't be caught short ... take more microphone cables than you think that you could use (twice as many and twice as long, at least). Think that you are only going to record for two hours, tops? Take 6 or 8 hours worth of blank media, just in case the subject gets talkative! Think you're going to use only 2 microphones? Take 4 or more (along with the all of the stands, cables, clips & booms that they would require).

     It's adherring to the old Boy Scout motto — "Be Prepared" — that will save a project from problems (or failure).

It's really an Eye-to-Eye Conversation

     When you are in a normal social setting you will notice that people position themselves to hear & be heard, and to have clear and unobstructed sight lines. That means that they'll select chairs that are within earshot of the person that they are conversing with. If that person has hearing difficulties, proximity and elimination of competing sound become a priority. (see the earphone page for a suggestion about the use of multiple sets of earphones for the all of the interview participants)

     Eye-to-eye contact is also important. If a coffee table separates two people to such an extent that they may see each other but have difficulty being understood across that "vast" (6, 8, 10+ foot) distance, either they raise their voice «or» they remove the coffee table and move their chairs closer (the third possibility — implementing the earphone solution mentioned above). Worse, the need to lean forward to see around an obstruction (like an overside potted plant) or rotate their torso to see someone that is to their side or more behind than in front, of them. Proper positioning of the chairs is essential for a comfortable conversation.

     If three people are speaking to each other, a triangular layout becomes the optimum setup; four people — a square; five people — a pentagon; ... as you add people the chair arrangement becomes increasingly circular in shape. You are trying to position everyone so that they do not need to crane their necks or rotate their torso to see an individual that is speaking (or to whom they wish to speak).

     Lounge-type chairs are better than non-lounge chairs (two hours in a folding chair vs. two hours on a kitchen chair vs. two hours on a padded dining room chair vs. two hours in a La-Z-Boy ... your butt will know the difference). If someone is bedridden (or wants to be interviewed while reclining on the couch), the position of the interviewer's chair becomes more restrictive.

     Once the chair layout has been optimized, then you start worrying about where the microphones get placed. First rule: keep them outside of the direct sight lines but within the general (direct) sound path of each interviewer/interviewee pair. Practically, this means that the interviewer's microphone will be positioned horizontally directly between the interviewer and interviewee's mouth/ear vector; or, it will be kept vertically just outside of that vector, above or beneath it by enough so that it becomes effectively invisible to the interviewer and especially to the interviewee, but is not so far outside of the sight/sound axis that the microphone picks up a significant amount of ambient noise along with the speaker's voices.

     Likewise, the interviewee's microphone gets positioned as near as possible to the conversational vector without being a distraction for the interviewer.

     Ideally, with the interviewer and interviewee seated four to six feet apart, a single microphone stand with a dual microphone mount holding two shotgun microphones at about 12 inches below the conversational vector, would be ideal. The microphones would be well below sight lines that are needed for someone to read lips, and 2' to 3' out from the individual's bodies means that they are outside of the normal gesturing range (in case your interview subject likes to wave their arms about as they speak — they won't keep knocking their hands or arms into the microphones, which means the mikes become increasingly "invisible" as the interview becomes a conversation that is unbounded by the objects that happen to be found in the intervening space).

Listed below are possible interview scenarios, with the first number being how many interviewers are involved and the second number being how many interview subjects are involved. Clicking on each scenario will take you to a separate page that will show the simplest chair & microphone layout for that scenario. The pages will assume that the chairs are arranged for optimal sight lines for all participants and that condenser lavalier microphones may not be available or appropriate for some or all individuals that are present. Scenarios involving more interviewers than interviewees are also not presented. The equipment demands for even the two on two interview setup are substantial; beyond that it really gets too much for the usual individual's budget to do on their own. At that point, hire professional sound personel. And, having more than two interviewers tends to make the direction of the interviews wander & loose focus (one good interviewer will be more successful than two average interviewers).

The following table will give you a very rough idea about how much equipment will be needed (more detailed tables appear with the descriptions of the various interview scenarios).

1 on 110101113
1 on 220221217
1 on 330321339
1 on 4404212311
2 on 2424213113
2 on 3
2 on 4
Employing lavalier microphoness would make more sense for these scenarios if individual circumstances permit. They would also eliminate numerous stands and reduce the number of mixer channels significantly.
The number of microphone stands is based upon multiple microphones being mounted onto a single stand, depending upon position in relation to subjects being recorded.
     The above circumstance, a one-on-one interview, requires only two microphones — two microphones per mutual sight line. What about a one-on-two interview ? (Uncle Fudd and Aunt Mabel wish to be interviewed together)

     Now you have two mutual sight lines between the interviewer and an individual interviewee. Plus, Fudd & Mabel will turn and speak to each other. Now you've got three mutual sight lines that need to be miked. What are you going to do about that?

     Well, first of all, you're going to need six (6) microphones (shotgun or otherwise). Two on each mike stand between you and Fudd and you and Mabel. Then, on two regular mike stands, you'll mount shotgun mikes to pick up Fudd talking to Mabel and Mabel talking to Fudd, but not placed in between them like the other microphone setup! These last two microphones will need to be "outside" and "behind" the two respective individuals sight line, but again sufficiently in-line to easily pick up the person that they are aimed at without also picking up a lot of ambient sound.

     As the number of interviewers & interviewees goes up, the complexity of the mike placement in lounge chairs gets ridiculous - at some point, just put everyone around the dining room table with a single desk stand-mounted mike in front of each of them. However, be sure to place the dining room table's tablecloth down — hard surfaces act as reflecting surfaces, adding to the apparent room noise. Anything that can deaden a hard surface that is near a microphone will improve the recording.

     If someone is reclining (in a chair or on the couch) ... their mouth is aimed upwards. You are going to need to switch to a regular microphone, mounted on boom, that is horizontally in line but above the speech/hearing vector. (shotgun mikes are way too heavy to be mounted on your typical microphone boom)

     If you have read the microphone section you should be familiar with the little lapel/tie clasp lavalier (condenser) microphones; you are probably wondering why I haven't recommended using one (or more) of them, considering all that they bring to the process. There are several reasons — their cost of acquisition & body noise. The small lapel or tie-mounted lavalier type microphones are great at picking up a speaker's voice, assuming that you have them properly powered with an adequate phantom power supply (this is what makes their cost of acquisition significantly more expensive than the mike's initial $75+ used purchase price on Ebay; the 24 to 48 volt phantom power supply boxes can add another $75 or more to the equipment budget). At least, many of them of them may be powered by a 1½-volt AA battery — this is cheap, but the lower voltage means lower sensitivity (and some won't take the standard AA battery — they require a half-length version, the "N" battery ... try finding those around town)

     The other failing that these mikes have in this circumstance is that they pick up too much sound: not just the speaker's voice but the rustling of the wearer's clothing; the growling of their stomach; the wearer's labored breathing.... If a cat hops up upon the interview subject's lap or tummy and starts purring, the mike will pick it up. Plus, the cat may lay down on top of the microphone itself and muffle the sound that it was meant to pick up. Small children may sit on grandma's lap or the arm of the chair and proceed to fiddle with the mike (or mike cable) while granny is talking — all of that fiddling (and the mechanical noise in the microphone housing that it produces) will drowned out the old woman's voice. As wonderful as those microphones are, they should only be used under a limited (controlled) set of circumstances, such as when worn by an experienced interviewer (it cuts the number of sight-line microphones on the interviewer to zero) or when the interview subject has already been interviewed in the past using a lavalier microphone for some other purpose (such as a tv news interview) — people tend to remember having done so, what with the snaking of the mike cable through their clothing and out the back of their shirt, coat or blouse. Under those circumstances the little lavalier microphones become the best possible choice of microphone, and they interfere the least with the sight lines or the chair layout of the interview or the ability of speakers to change their physical orientation without the recording engineer having placed secondary pickup microphones into the alternate conversational vectors.

     Now then, all of the above blather applies to indoor, fixed-location interviews, employing wired microphones & mike stands, etc. As mentioned elsewhere, the setup of an outdoor, on-the-move interview just boggles the mind (as well as the wallet — check out the wireless microphone technologies page). We've said that doing one of these is absolutely INSANE ... but then we turned right around and used it as a more desireable alternative when pitching the possibility of doing an interview to someone that just didn't want to do one indoors but really fancied doing one outdoors, on the move, walking along the beach at Lake Michigan, at sunset, barefoot in the surf, .... blech, what an acoustic nightmare (on-shore wind noise, the splashing of feet in the shallow water, the breaking of the nearby waves, ...). But, it closed the deal on someone who otherwise was never going to consent to be interviewed. And, as soon as that one got off the ground (and the equipment acquired to make it happen) a bunch of other potential interview subjects went "Gee, that sounds like fun, I'd like to do an interview that way too!" Drat, what else could they (recalcitrant interview subjects) expect of me? (or you)

     These projects can run amok really fast if you start consenting to things that you know might not be the best idea to start with. At least, for me, there are a number of other uses to which I put my equipment — recording Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan convention speakers, event presentations, authors & historical presentations, ... all of the recordings digitized and posted to the internet or burned to audio CDs. Those other project uses made the acquisition of wireless microphone equipment a more rational investment and did expand the range of events that I would be able to capture.

     As you become more experienced doing recordings you will find some shortcuts that will save you some work (in most cases). However, the intelligible sound of your subject's voice is always the priority that drives everything that you will do — a "distant" voice, being drowned out by background noise is what you are attempting to avoid. That avoidance is achieved by careful planning and proper (and adequate) microphone selection & placement.

     At least your efforts will be made recording the likes of Aunt Mabel and Uncle Fudd — hopefully a genial and forgiving pair. I "cut my teeth" for WKAR radio doing remote recordings of the likes of authors Jim Harrison & Joyce Carol Oates. Try convincing world-class authors of the need for them to wear a big, heavy (12 ounce), wired lavalier microphone, hanging around their necks on a cord and trailing microphone cable behind them, as they roam about speaking before a packed auditorium full of college literature and humanities grad students and faculty ... I felt like such a doofus. What I would have given to have had one of my present-day Lectrosonics wireless microphone systems available to be used instead. Well, now I can mike an author and get a pretty good recording of their presentation ... especially when that author prefers to step away from behind the podium (and it's fixed-location wired microphone) and roam about the front of an auditorium or on a stage (my Bath School Disaster recordings have the promise of being priceless audio documents ... or not).

Sound Filtering: Passive and Active

     There are going to be situations where there will be a sound source that can not be turned off / disabled / removed, and it will impact the listenability of the recording. What to do?

     A passive form of filtering (removing or diminishing the offending sound) is to employ much more directional microphones that pick up sound from a limited cone of direction — if your interview subject is seated away from the bad sound source and a directional microphone is placed between that source and the interview subject, it will be aimed at the subject (the "good" direction) and the offending sound source will be in the opposite ("bad") direction, (hopefully) in the microphone's region of poor sound pickup.

     There are times when the offending sound is everywhere. The low rumble of an airflow system is a classic example; usage of directional-pickup microphones will not help in minimizing or removing that sound. So, you will need to employ an active form of sound filtering. There are several methods of accomplishing this: some microphones have embedded switches that will engage filters that diminish specific frequency bands (such as sounds below 100 cycles or over 10,000 cycles). Likewise, your mixer or recorder may both have a built-in filter to accomplish the same task. Lastly, your computer editing program will usually permit you to filter various frequency bands.

     Earlier suggestions to get into the room to listen to the ambient room sound may pay off in a big way — you will get the necessary heads-up about the problem in time to address it before it becomes a serious listenability problem.

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