Studio recording news and tips
Recording Dialogue and Interviews

I see a lot of different people during my days running a recording studio. Recently I’ve had a couple of folk contact me in regard to mixing or producing audio projects that involve dialogue which have been recorded in the field, rather than in the controlled environment of the recording studio.

I’ve had to work with a couple of recordings which have been recorded in a large room in which an air conditioner was running in the background, providing a convincing hum right through the interviews. The recording device had evidently been placed on a table, and the people being interviewed were quite a way ‘off mic’. It was hard to get this material to sound good and do justice to the subject of the interview itself.

Here is the rub. Recording dialogue in the field isn’t always as easy as buying a portable recorder, putting it on a table under a tree, turning it on and hoping that you’ll get fabulous (or at least passable) audio recordings. To get a good recording, you need to know a few tricks of the trade.

Before you start recording, it pays to make some preparations:

  • Borrow, hire or purchase a reasonably good device: Your mobile phone or iPod isn’t going to cut the mustard. Roland, Tascam and Zoom all produce recorders that for a modest price can create entirely usable recordings.

  • Get familiar with your recording device first: Learn how your device works before you find yourself in a situation recording someone to whom you’ll only have access for a limited amount of time, with no chance to re-record. Figure out how to set the recording levels so that the machine won’t distort, and spend some time recording your friends or family (anyone you can find in fact) and listen to the results.

  • Brief the people you’re going to interview in advance: It’s best that you explain what is entailed prior to meeting your subject(s) to do the recording. Expectations are a powerful thing, and if the person you’re interviewing is expecting that you may need some time to adjust your audio equipment and the space in which you’re recording, they’ll probably be quite happy and helpful.

  • Give yourself enough time: Try to get to the site of the recording early so you can plan where and how you wish to record. Ideally, allow enough time so that you can do a practice run before you launch into recording people who you may not be available again. If possible, try an inside and an outside recording, listen to both, and then choose the environment that sounds better.

If you’re recording inside (rather than outdoors), there are a few specific tricks that will help you create a quality recording:

  • Avoid putting a table between you and person or people you’re interviewing: Get rid of the table and move the chairs into a corner of the room. (Just don’t forget to move the furniture back again before you leave!) Face the subjects into the corner, and sit yourself in the corner with your recording device.

  • Use dampening materials, if possible: If there are curtains or any softening materials available, spread these out to take the edge off the sound.

  • Get rid of all background sound: Air-conditioning and fridges have to go, so ask politely if you may turn them off (or just quietly go and do so). If there’s any background noise you can’t eliminate, such as trucks or buses passing by on a busy road, do whatever you can to reduce this noise (such as closing doors and windows, shutting curtains, or moving to a back room).

  • Position your recording device and microphones carefully: Place the recording device on a stand between you and your subjects, and try and get the people you are recording to position themselves reasonably close to the microphones. (Proximity to the mics will help reduce background noise.)

  • Be prepared to ask people to repeat themselves: During the recording, if there’s a loud sound somewhere in the building, compression braking from a truck outside, or the person being interviewed breaks down in a coughing fit, politely interrupt the speaker and ask them to repeat what they were saying. You don’t have to stop recording, as all this coming and going can be edited out after the interview. The thing that’s most important is that you end up with a clear recording.

Recording outside is a more challenging environment. However, if you’re interviewing a person who is the leader of say, an anti-coal-seam mining group and you can only meet this person in a paddock during their lunch break, you may have no other options. Here are some things to remember:


  • Give yourself enough time: Similar to recording inside, it’s a good idea to get to the recording location early and have a think about what you’re going to do. If you have time, you may want to consider visiting the site the day before.
  • Think about where the wind is coming from: It doesn’t have to be a howling gale to ruin your recording, as even a small amount of wind can diminish quality. Use your environment to help you. If it’s windy, look for something you can stand behind, such as a tree, tractor, or an old tumbledown shed. If there’s nothing to get behind, put your back to the wind and try and get the subject into the wind shadow that you have created.
  • Use a wind sock: Wind is the main enemy, as it can get into the microphones of the recorder and make your recording unusable. All good recording devices come with a wind sock. Use it!

  • Make sure your subject is close to the microphone: Proximity to the microphone will help reduce background sounds or wind noise.

  • Be aware of what is going on around you: Similar to inside recordings, if there are loud sounds concurrent with the speaker, such as cars, planes, cockatoos or trucks, you need to interrupt the speaker and ask them to repeat what they were saying.

One last important point is to wear headphones, at least initially, as you can’t make a good recording if you don’t listen to what you’re recording. Be prepared to adjust the subjects so that they sound good. If someone speaks softly, get them to come a little closer to the mic. If someone speaks loudly, get them to move further away. These adjustments may be subtle and only involve a few centimetres here and there, but the more attention you pay to this kind of detail, the better your final recording.

Don’t feel sheepish about wearing headphones, moving furniture around or asking people to repeat themselves. This is your project, and if you end up with a badly made recording, you’ll find it’s very difficult to fix later. All that will happen is that someone will spend a lot of time later on trying to repair your recording, using up valuable funds out of your budget.

Remember, the most important thing you can do is listen. If you keep listening at all times and make adjustments so that what you’re hearing sounds great, then you should end up with a recording you can be really proud of.

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