Audio Production

Steps to great audio

Follow the steps below to achieve fantastic audio.

Step 1 – Planning

Creating great audio is not only about sound levels. Planning what you want to produce is the first vital step, and you should revisit your plan throughout the process of making the audio, to make sure that you are still working towards what you had planned.

Your plan should answer the following questions: Who is this for? and What is it trying to achieve?
Identify your audience. What is the key message? What do you want listeners to learn / feel / do? What are the barriers to this audience hearing this message?

Step 2 – Choosing a format

Choose the right format for your audience and message. Here are some common formats for you to choose from:

  • Panel discussion – an interviewer with two or more contributors
  • Phone-in – recording of contributors on the phone; usually used in studio-based context. Note: be careful about legal restrictions about recording people in the phone, this is illegal in some countries, even if the person has given permission.
  • Single interview – with an interviewee and interviewer.
  • Feature – with voice, background sound, narration and other elements mixed together.
  • Dramatic – this is a broad category and can include theatre, music and other entertaining formats.
  • Informative/docmentary – a piece that primarily conveys information, in the same way as a public service announcement or advert provides educational information.
  • Endorsement – using a well known person to convey a message, such as a leader or a celebrity.

Step 3 – Choosing a style

Choose a style for your audio piece that suits your audience and your
o Formal or informal – do you want to use humour and familiarity as tools to reach your audience, or do you want to convey information by invoking authoritative sources and “experts”? The most obvious
example of the formal style is a news item, in which the emphasis is put on the authority of the information.
o With a narrator or without – do you want to let the voice of your contributor(s) be the whole audio piece, as many ‘oral history’ productions do, or do you want to incorporate a “presenter” voice to
draw the pieces together for the audience?

Step 4 – Setting up the recording

Whether you are doing an interview or capturing raw sound, you need to take time to test the sound levels before you actually start recording. Background sound, such as the hum of an air conditioner, might not have been noticeable before you started recording, but once you have your headphones on it can suddenly sound very loud.

Some background sound can add to the atmosphere, but some can be purely distracting. If the noise is a problem, ask it to be switched of or silenced, or if necessary move to another location. There is nothing
worse (and it happens a lot) than to come back with unusable recordings simply because the person making the recording felt too awkward to do anything about it at the time.

If you are doing an interview, take the time to test your contributor’s voice for loudness and clarity, and make any necessary changes – such as adjusting the sound levels, repositioning the microphone, or changing the seating arrangement or general environment.

You can also use this test period or “sound-check” as a way to break the ice – people are often nervous about being recorded and uncomfortable speaking into a microphone, but you can take steps to ensure that they are as relaxed as possible. Welcome them, perhaps make a joke, and then tell them that you will ask a few ‘trailer’ questions that won’t be recorded. ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ is a standard first question to break the ice, and also to test voice levels.

For some sorts of interviews, you may want to prepare the interviewee(s) in advance by discussing what sort of questions you are going to ask. Especially if the recording is being played live, or if you hope to use the interview without much editing, this is time well spent.

Step 5 – Reviewing your material

One of the most important steps in producing audio is to listen back to your recording and make notes or a full transcript of what was said and where the good sounds are located. If you do this in shorthand, it
is called a “log.” This step takes time, and a frequent mistake made by audio producers at all levels of experience is hasty logging. This can result in a great deal of wasted time. Time spent reviewing and logging your content is time well spent.

A log can take a number of forms depending on what works for you, but at minimum, be sure to record the time of each new paragraph or new sound (make sure to start your playback at 00’00”), and then
additionally the time when there is a good bit of speech or background sound. Note the start time, the first few words, the last few words, and the end time for each section that you like.

For example:
INTRO (00’20”): “I believe the most important aspect is ……
OUT: …………………everyone should know this”. (00’50”)

If your recorder does not have a counter button, you can use a stopwatch to capture these times. You might also want to write notes to yourself such as “overview” or “part 3 – significance” to help you remember what part of your story each particular sound connects to. If you set up your log as a table, you can make a column for such notes, and if you do a fuller transcription you can just insert them in the
text with a consistent flag. However you choose to do it, think of this step as identifying the building blocks that you are later going to go back to when you edit or mix.

Step 6 – Editing & “packaging” content

Once you have your building blocks identified, you can go back and start putting your piece together. This may entail recording additional clips of narration to bridge certain themes. Even if your piece has only three sections – for example: a three sentence intro, a two-minute interview, and a conclusion pointing to where listeners can learn more – you still want to have identified these three pieces and thought through how they are going to fit together. At this stage, it is important to refer back to the priorities you identified in Step 1, in order to keep yourself on track.

Step 7 – Usage & distribution

If you create an interesting and engaging audio piece, you can make it available to radio stations as well as to online distributors – for example advocacy websites. The Internet enables online audio to be used and accessed around the world, usually at no extra cost to the distributor or user. This makes it a powerful media and advocacy tool that is difficult to block or censor. An audio piece can have a long shelf life, particularly if it is not dated by a reference to a time or event.

The ability to reuse an audio piece is a strength of this kind of resource. Audio work can be archived in an online audio database, and it can be repeated on radio shows in new and different configurations. In order to successfully distribute content to both online or on-air sources, advance research and relationship-building work is necessary.

Step 8 – Evaluation

It can be a major challenge to evaluate the success or impact of an audio piece. You can obtain data about who listened online from programs that tally website hits and downloads, and radio stations also have tools to assess audience size. But evaluating the impact and effectiveness of the content of your piece requires focus groups, questionnaires and other methods that are applied to groups of listeners, if these can be identified and such data collection arranged. You could prearrange for a number of people to listen to the audio and give you their feedback, or ask for feedback at the end of the piece, providing a web contact.