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Capturing Critical Interviews: Under the Gun of Broadcast Television

By Kendall Scott

There is no pressure in the world like knowing that the next interview that you have been granted is a one time shot, with no chance for a retake. Weeks of persistent phone calls and constant maneuvering have led you to a once in a lifetime opportunity that is sure to keep you on your toes in an effort to make sure everything runs smoothly. This pressure is magnified when an entire broadcast network is counting on you to get it right the first, and usually, only time.

As we touched on last month, Raphael Gorham has, among other things, acted as head field audio engineer for many high profile one-off interviews for broadcast television. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain, Barack Obama, Christopher Dodd, Bill Richardson, Nicolas Sarkozy, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Pervez Musharraf, Kofi Annan, Bill Gates, Keira Knightley, Will Smith, Ben Stiller, and Christian Bale are but a few of the many personalities he has captured for both live and prerecorded network presentations. We asked him a few questions about recording that all-important interview without loosing your head.

ABC News Nightline post- interview, Raphael Gorham, far right

What time constraints do you have to deal with? I am sure that some interviews happen like a whirlwind, while others allow for a more leisurely preparation.

Regardless of how long you have to prepare for an interview, the most important information you'll need is:

(1) What type and how many cameras will be used

(2) The location of the interview: in or outdoors?

(3) How many guests will there be.

Almost anything else is a variable and can be adjusted as needed. As the soundmixer, you make the gear decisions (hardwired or wireless microphones?) based on what the situation calls for. A producer may request an isolated audio recording of the interview, but the medium of the recording is almost always negotiable these days.

How important is it for you to know the characteristics and limits of your microphones and other gear?

Believe it or not, for me a critical interview is the best time to experiment with different lavalier microphones. Obviously you must test the mics beforehand to make sure that they work correctly, but important interviews are usually in somewhat controlled environments so you can really hear the nuances of a microphone's characteristics. Some lavs have boosted mids that are targeted to the frequency range of the human voice. I prefer a microphone that has a flat response such as my current favorite, the Sennheiser MKE-2. Choosing whether to use wired or wireless microphones is really a personal preference. Do you feel confident that you won't experience any interference at your receiver's operating frequency, or would you rather deal with 60hz hum from the 22 lights that have been set up just before the interview?

Are there ever times when you need to halt a broadcast to fix a problem, in order to save the entire production, and who is making the final call on the quality of your signal?

The audio setup for network interviews is not usually very complex. Your primary job as a professional soundmixer is to take responsibility for recording and interview that's "airable". Producers are looking at video monitors and judging the look of the shoot in realtime. The soundperson is the only one who must know that the guest is wearing a gold chain that's making annoying noises, or the the interviewer's stomach is growling out of control. Whenever there is ANYTHING that could interfere with an important soundbite, you have to make the producer aware of it. If something happens that's audibly distracting you absolutely must interupt the interview. Doing so won't make you immediately popular, but it's why you're listening in the first place.

What can you do if the talent's voice is a bit difficult to capture?

I'm usually hesitant to use LF cutoff filters when recording an interview. I'll try a -10 or -20db pad first. Eq'ing is sort of taboo in critical interviews because you don't want to change the character of someone's voice, you just want to keep their audio at a strong level without overmodulating. Adjusting the location of the microphone on the clothing of the guest is the simplest way to compensate for a boomy or overly nasal voice.

Do you ever need to have alternative plans up your sleeve, and is a single backup plan enough?

It's crucial that you have several backup microphones at hand in any critical interview. There's usually a short window of time that the guest is available, and there is no allotted time for the soundmixer to repair his lavs should they suddenly developed a short circuit. Spring for backups, and use the opportunity to try unconventional choices.


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