It’s been 50 years since the Supreme Court issued a ruling that overturned state laws banning marriages between people of different races. On June 12th, 1967 the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia, and my wife and I are marking the anniversary by interviewing people in interracial marriages today to document their experiences.
We’re producing a podcast called the Loving Project, with new episodes coming out every other week throughout 2016. We’ve spoken to a wide range of couples, including a black woman and white man who married in North Carolina in 1968, just a year after the Supreme Court decision, a mixed race lesbian couple raising 4 biracial children after carefully selecting donors that would help them have children that looked like a mix of their parents and a couple where race, religion, and nationality are all part of the story.
But you’ll have to check out the Loving Project to find out what they had to say. The point of this article is to discuss the process of actually recording and producing the show by highlighting the tools we use.
We’re producing the show on a slightly-larger-than-shoestring budget, primarily in our free time. But we’ve assembled a portable recording studio that we can carry with us, allowing us to interview families in their own homes, where they’re most comfortable talking.
To do that, at a minimum, we need:
- 2 microphones
- 2 mic stands, a digital audio recorder
- a good set of headphones.
I’ve added a few extra items to the list because I like to make a backup copy of every recording in case something happens to the original, and it’s nice to have a big battery pack so we don’t have to worry about changing out batteries in the middle of the interview or finding a wall socket.
We tend to talk to our guests for about 60-90 minutes and then edit the interviews down to 20-30 minutes (on average) so that for the most part you only hear the voices of the couple and not our questions. Sometimes things take a bit longer: our longest interview to date was more than four hours.
It’s not a perfect system, but it works pretty well — especially when combined with good editing software that helps clean up audio issues recorded on the scene. And one of the best things about our gear kit: Everything fits into a single dufflebag.
We can walk into a home, unpack the contents of the bag and set up our mobile recording studio on a dining room table in a matter of minutes.
Let’s break down what’s in that bag:
Tascam DR-60DmkII digital audio recorder ($200 or less)
Tascam has been making audio gear for ages, and the DR-60mkII is a surprisingly high quality and versatile solution given its low price tag. Unlike some handheld audio recorders, this model doesn’t have built-in mics. But it does have 2 XLR/quarter-inch combo jacks for mic or line input, decent preamps with fairly clean input (not very much hiss when used with dynamic or condensor mics), the ability to supply 48V phantom power to mics, and plenty of recording and input settings to play with.
One feature that’s really nice is the ability to record two stereo tracks simultaneously, with one set at a level that’s a bit lower than the first. That way if your interview subject laughs or makes other sounds that are overmodulated on the main track, you’ve got a second, quieter track that you can use.
I typically set the second track to -6db or -8db.
This is a pretty great recorder for $200 or less… and I lucked out and picked one up when it was on sale for $135. Knowing how much I like it, I do kind of wish I had paid a little extra for the DR-70D which has 4 XLR inputs instead of two (I was recently hired for a gig where that would have come in handy). But overall I’m happy with the DR-60.
Prior to using the DR-60mkII for field recordings, I had been using a Sony PCM-D50. That recorder has some stellar features and excels at recording clean-sounding audio from high-output or low-output microphones. But it has only a single mic input, which makes it tricky to connect two external mics.
I got around that by using a splitter cable, but there was no way to set volumes for the left and right mics independently of one another. And more importantly, my Sony recorder is about 10 years old and some of the buttons have stopped working. I’m worried that the whole thing will just die on me one day in the field, so it was time to get something more reliable.
The DR-60mkII also has a 3.5mm stereo jack that you can also use as another mic input, but there’s far more hiss when I use that jack… so I just don’t use it.
Tascam positions this recorder as a companion for a DSLR camera, allowing you to add high-quality audio recordings to a video. But it also makes a pretty good standalone recorder, and there’s a bonus feature that comes in handy: since it’s designed for video production there are multiple audio outputs.
This allows me to run a line out to a secondary recorder and monitor the primary recording using headphones.
Tascam DR-40 ($170 or less)
Speaking of a secondary recorder, this is the one I’m currently using. While the DR-60 is designed for use with a camera, this is a standalone audio recorder with built-in mics and two XLR/quarter inch inputs.
The preamps are nowhere near as good as those on the DR-60 so you hear a lot of hiss if you try plugging mics directly into the XLR inputs. But running a line cable from the DR-60 to the quarter inch inputs on the DR-40 results in a pretty clean sounding backup recording that I can use if the DR-60 falls of the table and breaks or something.
And in a pinch, I could also plug in the external mics or use the built-in mics to record audio using this recorder if anything happens to the primary recorder.
I’m not sure I’d want to use the DR-40 as my only recorder. But it’s a decent low-cost device to have as a backup. It probably helps that I got one when it was on sale for $127.
Update: About halfway through the year, we switched to using Audio Technica AT2010 mics. See below for the explanation.
The AT8010 is an omni-directional condensor mic that can either draw power from a single AA battery placed inside the mic itself or from any source that provides 48V phantom power over an XLR cable.
I already had one of these mics lying around for use as a handheld interview mic in situations where I might want a microphone that has louder output and which is less likely to pick up radio signal interference than my usual handheld mic, the ElectroVoice RE-50.
Since it’s an omni-directional mic without much proximity effect, it does a pretty good job of picking up the voice of a person sitting nearby, even if they move their heads a bit or have a habit of sitting back or leaning forward in a chair. This happens a lot when speaking to people who are not used to being interviewed.
In a perfect world, I’d love to use dynamic studio mics like the EV-RE20, Shure SM7B or the Sennheiser MD421 II mic that I use in my home studio. Those mics tend to do a better job of blocking out background sound, which is useful when recording in rooms that have not been acoustically treated to diminish echos, reflection, or noise from other sources.
But those mics are also a lot more expensive and need to be positioned properly. So I bought a second AT8010 and I think it’s worked out pretty well.
While I still think the AT8010 mics sound great, after doing about a dozen interviews I decided they might be a little too sensitive, so I decided to look for an affordable alternative with a narrower pickup pattern.
The Audio Technica AT2010 microphones have a cardioid pickup pattern, which means they should be able to pick up the voice of a person who’s a little off mic, but they won’t pick up as much sound from someone sitting on the other side of a table.
I considered purchasing dynamic microphones, but they have a habit of picking up interference from nearby electronics, and since we couldn’t always control the environment we were recording in, I decided to spend $200 on a set of AT2010 condensor microphones instead. We used them to record every interview conducted in the second half of the year, and I think they sound great for the price.
The only down side is that they require phantom power and do not support AA batteries. So you can only used them with recorders that supply phantom power. Since both the Tascam DR-60MKII and Tascam DR-40 can do that, we were good to go.
Stage Rocker SR610121B Lo-Prifle Mic Boom Stand (about $20)
These tabletop mic boom stands let you adjust the height and position of the mic, and reach far enough to get the mic properly positioned for a person sitting at a dining table.
We actually bought two of the SR61021C versions, which are chrome colored. But those seem to be out of stock, and they’re pretty much the same as the B version, other than the color (C is Chrome, B is Black).
There are times when I think it’d be nice to have mic stands with longer booms: we’ve done a few interviews on couches and coffee tables rather than at dining tables, and it can be a bit tricky to position these mic stands in those situations. And since these mic stands rest on a table, they can pick up a bit of noise if people who talk with their hands frequently hit or tap the table.
If I were doing things over, I’d consider just taking two full-sized boom stands to each interview (I’ve only got one in my kit at the moment), but those wouldn’t fit in the dufflebag.
Sony MDR7506 and Sony MDR-V6 headphones ($80 – $90)
These headphones are similar in that their large, over-ear headphones that do a pretty good job of providing neutral audio (there’s no boost in the bass or other frequencies like what you’d get with some headphones designed for listening to music). The MDR7506 headphones are aimed at professionals and the MDR-V6 are more consumer-oriented, and some folks with better ears than mine can hear some subtle differences. I like them both and usually buy whichever is cheaper.
I had a set of MDR-V6 headphones that were working just fine, but the earpads were starting to peel off, so I paid $10 for some replacement pads. But since both my wife and I are doing the interviews together, I picked up a set of MDR7506 cans when they were on sale so we could both monitor the recordings.
RAVPower 13,400 mAh portable charger ($24)
This battery pack is out of stock as of the time I’m writing this article, but it’s just one of many portable power banks offered by the company.
The key is that it has two full-sized USB ports. Both of our Tascam recorders run on AA batteries, but they also both have mini USB ports that allow the recorders to draw power from an external source. That means you can plug them into a computer, a wall jack, or a battery pack like this RAVPower model.
It has four LED lights that indicate the charge level, and even after powering both recorders for 3-4 hours at a time, I’ve never seen the charge drop below three LED lights in the field.
Hardware odds and ends
That’s pretty much it for the recording kit. We also carry a bunch of AA batteries in case the power bank has problems, XLR cables of varying lengths for connecting the mics to the DR-60 recorder, a 3.5mm to dual 1/4th inch stereo cable to connect the DR-60 to the DR-40, and USB cables for connecting the RAVPower battery to the recorders.
I also recently picked up a Yamaha MG10XU 10-track mixer that I use as an audio interface for my computer. We do not currently use this in the field, but in addition to allowing me to plug mics into my PC for voiceovers, it provides a higher-quality audio interface than the 3.5mm jack in my PC, allowing me to hear more detail when editing the audio.
I find that if I try editing by just plugging headphones into the headset jack on my PC and then go and listen using the Yamaha mixer at a later time, I can hear mistakes I made when using the built-in audio. So now I try to use the mixer whenever I edit.
Reaper and Izotope RX 5 (Audio editing software)
Reaper is a powerful cross-platform digital audio workstation that supports multi-track editing, plugins, and just about anything else you’d expect from a tool that you can use to edit radio news stories or music.
You can download a free trial of Reaper or purchase a discounted license for $60 or a full commercial license for $225, making it more expensive than some options (like Audacity) and much more affordable than some other (like Pro Tools).
What I like about Reaper for a project like the Loving Project podcast is that it allows me to place each guest on a separate audio track and then use additional tracks for voiceover introductions, music, ambient sound and other items. Reaper also supports tabs, allowing you to open multiple projects at the same time and copy and paste between them.
So I typically keep the original interview with all the audio in one tab, and create a new project in a second tab for the episode I’m working on. Then I can copy and paste raw tape into the episode tab for editing, and if I need to go back to the original it’s all still there.
Izotope RX 5 has also been a great tool for this project. Since we’re often recording in noisy environments, the RX 5 dialogue noise reduction tool helps minimize background sounds such as electrical hum from appliances, hiss from HVAC systems, or other minor noises.
The RX 5 suite also has tools for reducing reverb, clicks, and other more specific sounds. And while I generally just use the RX 5 plugins with Reaper, there’s also standalone editor that offers far more powerful editing tools that I barely know how to use.
The full RX 5 Audio Editor license costs $349, making this plugin more expensive than Reaper. But it’s cheaper than acoustically treating every room you plan to record in.
There are cheaper options though. The RX Plug-in Pack is just $129 and includes some of the most useful tools from the full suite. And some folks have had luck with the $100 Acon Restoration Suite, but I find it’s much harder to get good results with that set of tools than with Izotope’s.
The editing process
This could be another very detailed blog post. But the short version is we:
- Transcribe the full interview by making an MP3 of the recording, copying it to our phones, and using an app to play it back a little slower than full speed so our fingers can try to keep up.
- While transcribing, we mark the parts of the story we definitely want to use, might want to use, or which might be important, but which should probably be mentioned in the intro rather than said in the guest’s own words, since it might not be clear or concise. Our goal is to produce “non-narrated” stories, which means you only hear our voices at the beginning and the end. The rest of the show is the guests speaking in their own words.
- Working from the transcript, I choose the chunks of the interview we want to include and edit them down for length and content to make the stories flow smoothly. Then we try to figure out what order to put those pieces in so that they make sense narratively.
- After doing a rough mix, my wife and I listen to the first draft to decide what’s working, what’s not, and whether there are parts of the interview that weren’t include but should be… or vice versa.
- We might go through that a few times before getting things into a shape we’re happy with. Then I adjust the volumes to make sure everything is relatively consistent. Sometimes voices get louder or quieter, and that’s fine… but we don’t want you to struggle to hear anything, and we don’t want to hurt your ears with unexpected explosions of sound.
- We add incidental music (which usually means something I’ve played on an acoustic guitar into a mic in my home studio… I’m not a stellar songwriter or performer, but this seemed easier than finding appropriate podsafe music for every mood we needed. I’ve decided to be OK with the imperfections in my playing. For one episode featuring a professional musician, he was kind enough to share music that we used in the episode).
- When we’re happy with the finished product, I save a WAV file (for archival purposes) and an MP3 (for uploading to our podcast host, Libsyn).
If that all sounds time consuming, that’s because it is. It takes probably around 20 hours of work to produce each episode — and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually arrange, travel to, and record the interviews themselves.
So how does it sound?
Check out the podcast to find out. You can hear the latest episode right here:
Or check out the Loving Project website for more episodes.
You can also subscribe to the show in:
Or follow the Loving Project on: