For the odd moments I can manage to think of something.

How radio leaves you breathless

Radio does leave you breathless – maybe that’s a sensational headline, but I promise it’s true in a very literal sense.

Working with audio often means hours of transcribing and editing after the excitement of recording a nice interview. Don’t get me wrong, I also like the creative aspect of audio – problem solving such as getting as much value out of a recording to fit into the time allotted for broadcast or in some cases – when editing for news programs – trying to summarise a strong interview in under three minutes. (Much love to bulletin producers who manage to cut down to under a minute for the top of the hour!)

There’s usually something you wish you could leave in because it is amusing or interesting, but sometimes the hatchet has to come down hard and you cut out things that are off topic or edit where the conversation starts to meander.

One of the things I learned when getting my water wings for audio editing was to cut out the filler first. So when faced with a tape, I’ll chop through removing ‘um’s and ‘ah’s and indeed leaving you breathless. When you learn to edit, you also learn that people’s breaths can be taken out more often than not and you get used to making sure that they don’t sound odd in the process.

Once you have taken out that content which does not add to the information you need, you can then start to make the editorial decisions about what you need to cut or save.

Many years ago I used to work with an old edition of an audio editing suite called DART. Dart was okay, not hard to use and you could be pretty darn quick turning around tapes to replay in a news bulletin once you were up to speed.

The program had an interesting aspect to it though. It had a line of audio – basically it looked like magnetic tape represented digitally – and you made cut points and turned off the areas you would edit out. Those parts would not disappear from the gui, they’d just change colour on the display and skip the parts that you had marked to edit out.

The cute part was that this could be reversed with one button. So instead of the content you would want to broadcast, you could play back the things you cut out. The example below is similar to what you might hear in this case….

As you can tell – as well as the ums and ahs, I’ve taken a lot of breaths away. I was chatting with the extraordinary composer and inventor of the MIT Media Lab, Tod Machover. When you get to chat with someone else who nerds out about sound, it’s a fun conversation.

Tod is working on a symphony for Edinburgh which makes use of sound contributed by the general public. Combining found sounds and musical training is very potent – take a look – and a listen – to his work here.

I particularly like Tod’s work because I love the sounds of cities. It’s one of the reasons why I love to live in London. I live near a fire station, not far from a busy enough road and a high street. When I work from home, I can hear life all around me and I value that a great deal.

Contributed sound is a lovely thing to work with. There’s a great deal of trust involved and it pushes you to think your way through audio to include something that is new to you.

I have my own experiment – here – where I asked online for any sounds anywhere, likely recorded on mobile. I got responses from all over the world and could not have predicted at all what I would end up writing to accompany the sounds or what the end result would be.

Going back to the reverse interview – the filler content in interviews is something that we digest in common conversation without really taking notice . Can you remember a conversation with a friend and when they paused to think? That’s likely when they might ‘um’ or ‘ah’.

There are some stereotypical fillers that turn up a lot in my work. There are natural ‘ums’ that turn up more often when I interview someone in English and it is their second language. It’s not hard to guess why that might happen if someone is simultaneously translating while they speak.

There are also pauses that are often found with nervous speakers and more practiced ones. Have a think as to whether you remember a radio interview where the person responding starts their answers with ‘Absolutely!”. That’s happens often with people who broadcast fairly frequently.

Nervous speakers take a lot more breaths in interview. You can hear this more clearly at the end of a recording. I always let people know when I have stopped recording and people can relax – the first thing they do is a big exhale and a bit of a laugh – that’s some tension escaping.

There is nothing whatsoever wrong with these habits, in fact, I like it a lot more because it means the conversation is not scripted and an unscripted conversation often comes up with far more interesting answers.

I have my habits too. I tend to write my questions down to shape an interview and then refer to them if things slow down. Often I am asking questions in response to the conversation though. I find this to be more natural as a listening response, rather than a barrage of questions.

I do have a repeated filler phrase though – I start questions with “..and so…” It doesn’t add to the interview at all, but it often gives me that unconscious think space that I need to get my thoughts in order.

You might hear the odd ‘and so’ in past tapes. I try to take them out though, I’ve been known to use it several times in one conversation – more usually when the interview is not live.
In some cases, there are idiosyncrasies that need to be left in. I have edited interviews with people who have a tic or in some cases an illness where it would be unfair to cut this all out and sound very unnatural to others who know that person and recognise the way they speak.

There are many things we hear but don’t consciously acknowledge when we listen to people on tape. One of my favourites is a reaction to hearing someone’s voice when they are smiling as they speak – more often than not, I end up smiling too.

So, that’s how I leave you breathless for radio, hopefully in a comfortable and natural way. Not to change what you are saying, but to make the information clearer and edit down to fit as much of what you say into the time available to me. Sometimes I’ll also edit the odd sniff and snort too – especially with people kind enough to chat with me when they have a cold – it’s a surprisingly detailed sound over a microphone and into your headphones!

If you have a verbal or filler habit in audio – let me know in the comments.

5 Responses to “How radio leaves you breathless”

    • jemimahknight

      Thanks Mark! You’e probably so familiar with this you could have written it! It’s funny the things we leave behind 🙂

  1. Ian McDonald (@DrIanMcDonald)

    That’s a real insight. Simply knowing you take out all the breaths – recently, I’ve been erring on leaving them in. But I’ve got some very close mic’d breathy guests in the doc I’m editing right now (half an hour of animals in sci-fi) so I’ll give it a go.

    I don’t de-um first, partially to save myself the trouble of de-umming the bits I don’t use, and partially so that the clip joins show me where the “paragraph” breaks are.

    RE that hatchet – is it easier to wield on broadcast work, or on the stuff that doesn’t have a deadline? I find without one, the hatchet simply wavers over tape for longer :).

    • jemimahknight

      Hi Ian,

      Your method is also very good – especially when you know what you want to take away straight off. I tend to record to a ballpark time when I can – so the minor edits; de-umming and breaths can sometimes be all I need to get things into the right shape and time. When working on Outriders, or making packages for radio, I have fairly strict timing to fit into.

      With really breathy speakers I also take some breaths out so that it doesn’t become a distraction. Audio can feel very close and personal (especially through headphones!) I’d rather listeners enjoy what my guests have to say than focus on breathing in their ears.

      Trying to stick to a vague time when recording helps when meeting the deadlines too – I can plan how much time I have left to get the work done.

      Almost everything I do is to a deadline – apart from maybe grocery shopping and getting enough exercise 🙂 More clearly though, setting myself a deadline means that I get things finished. I’m a bit of a slave to a deadline in that way – it’s a threshold that pushes me.

      Without a deadline – say with my degree homework, where the deadlines are really long in comparison to my work – I tend to leave things a little late, which makes things harder in the end. (Hark at me…if only I took my own advice the last time I was in education!)

      Deadlines and patterns give me a structure for planning, recording and editing. When something starts and there are no rules initially, I tend to put a deadline on it 🙂

      Animals in sci-fi!? That sounds very cool. Be sure and let me know when you publish!

  2. Alan in Belfast (@alaninbelfast)

    I seem to make a clicking sound with my tongue on my top palette before I speak which causes a spike in the audio – along with inserting “kind of” into sentences at kind of random intervals. And that’s before I find the verbal ticks in the people I’m interviewing.

    Related to editing the audio is editing the transcript of what people have said – particularly if the text and the audio will sit alongside each other in a blog post. Some people’s utterances are nearly impossible to punctuate in any meaningful way!


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