Sound Practices II

More sounds for your images

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Multimedia gives your audience a chance to hear, as well as see, the subject of your picture, like this rooster in front of a pub, the Aran Islands, Ireland.

In this, the second installment of “Adventures in Multimedia,” I’ll discuss some basics about gathering and editing sound. Last issue, I covered choosing and using a digital sound recorder, whether it’s one of the dedicated units like the Olympus LS-10 or Zoom H2, or even your iPod with one of the optional recording microphone attachments that are becoming ever more popular.

At first blush, recording ambient sound and interviews may appear to be simply a matter of turning on your machine and hitting “Record.” After all, we’re photographers, used to dealing with digital apparatus and capturing the world around us—how hard can this be? Well, like a lot of other crafts, it’s a lot harder than it looks! Here are some key considerations to getting clean sound.

I mentioned recording levels in the previous column, but it bears reviewing. Just as there’s a range of visible tones that are recordable on our digital chips (and represented by our histograms), so is there a range of audible tones that most recorders can pick up.

This, too, is represented in a graph on your recorder and measured in dBs (decibels). If your sound runs off the graph on the high end, you have a sound too loud to record (as when highlights are clipped in a histogram and the light is too bright—or in this case, the sound is too loud—to be recordable). Likewise, a sound that’s too soft won’t register either. The trick is to find a recording level (equivalent to an exposure value) where the loud sounds and the soft sounds fall between the two extremes.

Not a problem, right? We do it all the time when measuring light to make our exposures. Well, there are some differences, and one of them is the fact that, short of a lightning storm or a blackout, it’s rare for our light conditions to spike repeatedly, unpredictably and pretty much constantly. Yet the same can’t be said for the sounds that surround us; they’re constantly modulating and changing. The toot of a train’s whistle, beep of a car’s horn, bang of a drum or a cymbal, a sneeze, cough, whoop, yell, ring tone—well, you get the picture. Sounds run all over the place, volume-wise.

Finding the correct recording level is a challenge, and even when you have something that’s good for 95 percent of what you’re recording, there are still those “wild” sounds that pop off the scale. Some of it’s fixable in post; some you just have to live with.

Then there’s wind. You landscape shooters know what a pain wind can be when trying to get those deep depth-of-field shots with flowers in the foreground and majestic mountains in the background. Well, wind vexes sound gatherers even more because the slightest breeze will cause pops and hisses as it crosses over the sensitive surface of your microphone, and those imperfections can ruin a recording.

The quickest way to mitigate the wind problem is to use windscreens on your mics. Most of the digital recorders with built-in mics offer, as standard, a foam windscreen. These are good, but the addition of a big furry, so-called “dead cat” sock over the standard foam windscreen is even better. To date, only Sony offers this type of windscreen (as an expensive accessory!) for its PCM-D50 recorder, but there are places that custom-make these furry windscreens for almost any type of recorder ( They’re not cheap ($30-$50), but they’re so worth it if you’ll be doing a lot of outdoor recording.

Interviews. Ambient sound, which is the natural sound occurring around the action you’re photographing, is a good first step for creating the soundtrack to your multimedia slideshow.

Getting someone to talk about what he or she is doing in your pictures—whether it’s a fisherman mending nets, a park ranger leading a hike or a craftsman making a work of art—also will add to the depth and interest of your soundtrack.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The graph displays a readout of the rooster’s call as it appears in the Audacity application.

Good, seamless audio interviews, such as those you can hear in feature stories on NPR, are another art form we take for granted because it seems so easy—easy, that is, until you try to capture them! Just as you look for an interesting face or demeanor for a possible portrait subject on the road, keep your ears peeled for the people in your photo situations who seem to be chatty and articulate; they make the best interview subjects.

Entire books have been written on interview techniques, but here are a few quick pointers. Always ask open-ended questions or questions that can’t be answered with a word or two. For instance, instead of asking, “Do you like being a street entertainer in Key West?”, you might say, “Tell me what it’s like working as a street entertainer,” or “Paint me a picture of what your life as a street entertainer is like.” Your subject will find it hard to be monosyllabic answering those types of questions.

Also, since this is a multimedia slideshow and not a radio interview, in all likelihood, you’ll edit out your own voice asking the questions. So ask your subject to repeat the question in his or her answer. For instance, if you ask, “How long have you been an engineer on this old steam train?”, instead of saying simply “10 years” (which is a useless sound bite for you), he might say, “I’ve been an engineer on this old steam train for 10 years now” or “How long have I been an engineer? Why it’s been about 10 years now.”

If you’re lucky, you’ll come across natural storytellers in your slideshows, but sometimes, you can’t get a good interview for love or money. That’s when you’ll depend on ambient sound, text slides or maybe even some narration to move the story along.

If you have a good subject, try to get clean sound by looking for the quietest, least echoey place to do the interview.

If all else fails and the surroundings are just too noisy, you always can jump in a car to do the interview; cars (with the doors and windows shut and the engines off) are very quiet and good places to get clean interview sound. Hotel rooms with drawn curtains and carpeted floors are another good choice.

You only need to do a few of these to appreciate the production values of the radio features on NPR and This American Life. I have a newfound respect for good radio now that I’ve tried putting together sound stories to go with my slides.

Putting It Together. Just as you have to process and edit your images, you have to do the same thing with your sound files. You’ll need to trim and edit them, clean up or equalize the volume, and blend them together. And just as everyone has his or her favorite image-editing programs—Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom, etc.—there are a number of choices for sound editing, too.

These can range from expensive, professional programs like Pro Tools and Cubase, which run several hundreds of dollars each, to more consumer-oriented products like Apple’s GarageBand, which is part of the $79 iLife ’08 suite, down to free open-source programs like Audacity. Since you probably don’t want to spend another dime on software at this point, and you may not even be sure you like this sound biz, I recommend Audacity. If you’re a Mac user and already have the iLife suite, GarageBand is, for me—the quintessential sound newbie—a tad easier.

However, programs like GarageBand and Audacity do take some training and getting used to. Fortunately, there are tons of free tutorials and wikis out there to help you along the way. I’m in the very early stages of basic competence with these programs, having reached that same frustrating point I was at in my early Photoshop days when, if more than a week or two went by between times spent working in the program, I’d end up forgetting a lot of what I learned the last session! Just as with your favorite image-editing program, the more you use these sound-editing programs, the better and quicker you’ll get with them. The basics, such as fading tracks in and out, normalizing volume, cutting, moving and pasting clips together, and things like that, aren’t too difficult.

When you have a soundtrack that’s working for you (and for most multimedia presentations, we’re talking one to three minutes; a professional multimedia producer friend says that a three-minute show in multimedia is roughly the equivalent to a three-hour movie or a novel like War and Peace!), it’s time to put it together with your photo story to make the package. In the next column, I’ll look at a few of the programs that’ll help you do that. In the meantime, start gathering that audio!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website,, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.