Making an audio piece

Creating effective audio content is not only about sound levels. The vital first step is to plan your production, and you should revisit your plan throughout the process of making your audio piece, to make sure that you are still working in the right direction (Read more about designing your strategy).

Who are your audience/s? Once you've identified your audience, ask yourself what message you want them to hear. How do you want listeners to learn and feel? What would the barriers be to this audience hearing this message?

Choosing a format

Choose the right format, or type of audio piece or programme, for your audience and message. Here are a few common formats for you to choose from:

  •  Panel discussion – featuring an interviewer with two or more contributors. 
  •  Phone-in – live or pre-recorded; usually used in a studio context. Note: be careful about legal restrictions on recording people via telephone lines; this is illegal in some countries, even when the caller has given permission. 
  •  Single interview – with an interviewee and interviewer.
  •  Feature – with voice, background sound, narration and other elements mixed together.
  •  Drama – this is a broad category and can include theatre, music and other entertaining formats.
  • Informative/documentary – a piece that primarily conveys information, in the same way as a public service advertisement or announcement provides educational information.
  •  Endorsement – using a well known person, such as a leader or a celebrity, to convey a message (which may be quite short). 

In radio programming, mixing audience participation with pre-recorded audio is a powerful way to engage and involve people in your campaign or advocacy work. Your target audience can be encouraged to call in to a live programme and have their say, and if well-planned this format can be combined with, and enhance, pre-recorded and studio-based segments.

Choosing a style

Choose a style for your audio piece that suits both your audience and your message.

  •  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. An informal audio piece might be an audience discussion or a vox pop, where members of the public give their responses to the issue under discussion.
  •  With a narrator or without – do you want to let the voice/s of your contributor/s speak for themselves, as many oral history productions do, or do you want to incorporate a presenter's voice or voiceover to pull together a clear story for the audience?

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 noise, such as the hum of an air conditioner or the buzz of a mobile phone signal, might seem insignificant because our ears tend to discount such noise, but once you have your headphones on you may realise that it's very intrusive when recorded.

Some background sounds can add to the atmosphere, but many are distracting. Remember that listeners won't be able to see the person speaking, so they rely on their ears for all the information that they receive. If the noise is a problem, ask for it to be switched off (if possible), or else move to another location. It would be a shame 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 the raw material is not well recorded, the quality of the whole project will be compromised.

If you are doing an interview, take the time to make trial recordings to check your contributor's voice for loudness and clarity. Then listen to the trials and make any necessary changes, such as adjusting the sound levels, repositioning the microphone, or changing the seating arrangement or general environment – then check again!

You can use this sound-check as a way to help contributors; 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. ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ is a standard first question to break the ice and 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. This is time well spent, especially if the piece is going out live, or if you hope to use the interview without much editing.

Reviewing your material

One of the most important steps in producing audio work is to listen back to your recording and make notes or a full transcript, or log, of what was said and where the good sounds are located. 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. You can play back your recordings on the machine that you recorded them on, or put them into a computer (converting the data from analogue to digital if necessary), and log them from the computer sound files.

A log can take a number of forms depending on what works for you, but as a minimum, be sure to record the time of each new paragraph or new sound (make sure to start your playback at 00’00”), and the time of each good bit of speech or background sound. Note the start time of the parts you may want to use, the first few words, the last few words, and the end time. For example: INTRO (00’20”): IN: “I believe the most important aspect is …… OUT: ……everyone should know this” (00’50”)

If your recorder does not have a time-counter, you can use a stopwatch to capture these times. You might also want to include notes to help you remember what part of your story each particular sound relates 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 the notes 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.