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A Sound Education

The Sound of a Lockdown


"In radio, you have two tools. Sound and silence."

Ira Glass

As the world holes up in their houses during this coronavirus, as we absorb media like never before, as we listen to the news coming out of our television and radio speakers, we see and hear just how serious most of us are taking this. Journalists are broadcasting from their backyards, their sources are interviewed over Skype or Zoom, and the news now looks and sounds less-than-polished. It's like Sunday afternoons on FaceTime with the family three states away. These are the choices we are having to make these days: quality of content over quality of sound and video.

This past Saturday after a short hiatus, Saturday Night Live aired their "At Home" version of the program made up almost entirely of host Tom Hanks and cast members and delivering their laughs from their homes. Most of the video and sound quality was what you'd expect over video conferencing software, but I think SNL scored big points for adapting to keep the humor coming to Americans. Here at Dynamix Productions, we are still producing our weekly public radio show EASTERN STANDARD in the studio, but instead of face-to-face in the booth, all interviews are done over the phone or internet, sometimes from host Tom Martin's home studio. This definitely changes the "sound" of our show, but like NPR, the BBC, and every other news service, it's the new normal.

I admit that I'm a bit of an audio perfectionist, so I've been coping with this sudden "downgrade" of quality the best I can. For interviews, we're trying to connect to guests using broadcast equipment when possible, recording FaceTime audio for better quality if available, and reminding listeners that this is our version of "social distancing." But one thought that has eased my anxiety over this sea change in broadcasting is, "What if this were two or three decades ago?" We don't know how good we got it.

When I started my professional career in the mid-1980s, digital recording and transmission was in its infancy and unavailable to most. Broadcast news outlets were hobbled by distance back then, so telephone interviews were common. If we had time, better quality could be achieved by having the guest go to a studio in their town for a "tape sync." The host would record their microphone on one track of a reel-to-reel, and the phone patch of the guest on the other track. The guest would record the same way on their end and then mail or overnight the tape to the host. The two reels would be synchronized and edited to play back only the studio portions. But if this pandemic happened in 1985, going to a studio would probably be out of the question.

Twenty years ago, getting interviews immediately had improved. But keeping social distancing in mind, video transmitted from site to site via satellite dishes would be out of the question for someone locked in their home. If someone had a home studio or video camera, they could record the interview and overnight the tape to the news department. Video streaming from a PC existed about 20 years ago, but the quality was crude, even by the day's standards. For sound, most folks just didn't have studio quality equipment in their homes. Sometimes they had a home PC with a cheap pencil-neck microphone, but these were not broadcast quality – they sounded like a gas station intercom. So back to phones for immediate news coverage.

As the decade went on, technology got better, computer video got smoother, and then the iPhone dropped in 2007. It changed everything from that point on. Ten years ago, the iPad was released, FaceTime chat was introduced with the iPhone 4, and then everyone had a video camera with them at all times. Today, the video quality in your pocket is astounding. The audio is passable, but it's much better than it used to be. Active noise reduction, frequency filtering and boosting, and better microphones are helping the average user get understandable audio despite the microphone being a few feet away. Getting interviews this way is better than nothing.

But...a microphone in a quiet studio can't be beat. I, like every other human on this planet, am hoping for a quick end to this pandemic and a return to "normal." With all these recordings from people's kitchens and basements, I almost fear that we'll just accept the "Zoom sound" as normal and drag our feet getting back to studio recordings. So, I keep taking deep breaths and telling myself over and over, "It could be 1985, it could be 1985, it could be 1985..."

Jeff Townes has written a must-read article at Transom called Recording During the Coronavirus Pandemic. He includes a link to a video produced by Aspen Public Radio for the guest on how to record and send an interview on your iPhone.