Interviewing for podcasts is as easy as putting a microphone in a room and asking a few questions—as long as you're satisfied with your listeners turning you off after a minute or two. If you want your listeners to hang around for your conversation with a rising star, read on. In this article, I'll share a podload of tips on conducting and recording a killer interview. In the next installment, we'll get down to the waveform level as we polish that interview up for podcasting. Although you can do amazing salvage work with today's digital editing tools, it's faster, easier, and usually better-sounding if you begin with a great recording.
To get listeners to stick around, you have to give them compelling content: all killer and no filler. That means interviewing people who are famous in their field, hot right now, or who have something intriguing and unique to say.
I recommend starting with the topic. What are people talking about? What are you talking about? Find a person at the center of the swirl and come up with three or four questions that you are dying to ask.
After that, it's a matter of persistence to get that interview. Let the potential guest know that they will get lots of exposure and that the interview will be easy and worth their time. It's helpful to know who is on a publicity tour. Right around the release time of any commercial item (e.g., a book, CD, or software) key individuals will go on a publicity tour to get the buzz going out on the street. That's the time when you can easily score an interview if you appear to have even a shred of credibility (see sidebar).
With the interview set up, you will need to choose how to conduct it—in person, over the phone, or over VoIP. I detail these different options in the sections that follow.
Face-to-face interviews are best, so try to set up something local. Then pick a spot that will have good acoustics. I can guarantee you that it's not the local coffee shop. The clink of the glasses seems like it would add ambience but it will distract from the interview. You need someplace relatively noise-free.
Many libraries have small conference rooms you can reserve for an hour at a time. If the interviewee is staying at a hotel, then ask to meet them in their room. The cushions from the couch, the padding in the bed, and the curtains will all dampen the room noise. You should also turn off any fans or air conditioning since those create a nasty periodic noise that is tough to remove.
Once you have the location set and the noise dampened you need a recording rig that you can rely on. Think simplicity and quality. You want a setup that has the least possible hardware and software. If you are running on a computer, make sure that your sound recording software is the only thing running. Every additional box and cable is one more thing to fail or add noise.
I interviewed 56 people for my book The Art of Digital Music, including such luminaries as Herbie Hancock, Phil Ramone, and Ray Kurzweil. Although my co-author Kelli Richards lined up the bulk of the interviews using her fantastic Rolodex, in many cases we had only the slimmest connection to the people we were approaching. She had bumped into Ramone at some function seven years previously, for example. No matter. We simply submitted an email through the potential interviewee's website, saying we'd like to interview them for an upcoming book.
In the message, we described our goals for the book and listed a bit of our background and sometimes a few sample questions. We also referred the potential interviewees to a password-protected, one-page website with more information. (I theorized that the password would make it more enticing.) Neither of us had written a book before, and I'd done only a handful of interviews. We didn't even have the actual title for the book. But simply asking politely and directly did the trick over and over again.
As an example, this was my pitch to Marty O'Donnell, the composer for the hit Xbox game Halo, which I sent blindly to a link on his site:
[...] introduced us briefly before the interactive audio roundtable at GDC [the computer game developers' conference]; I'm a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician and have also been on staff at Keyboard, Music & Computers, and several other magazines. I recently started Crank It Up to 1, an interview-based book about digital music production, and thought you'd be an ideal interviewee.
I've put details about the book at CrankItUpTo1.com; the password is [...]. In short, my goal is to inspire readers to get more involved in digital music. But rather than take the standard approach of spewing tech jargon and sampling theory, I'm weaving together tips, insights, and horror stories from artists and visionaries. So far I've interviewed people ranging from Ikutaro Kakehashi to Mark Isham to Steve Reich; after hearing you speak at GDC, I'm sure you could add some wonderful perspective.
If you're interested in participating, please let me know a few dates and times towards the end of this month or (better) in early April when we could do a phone interview. Thirty to 45 minutes would be ideal.
Hoping this works out,
For a podcast interview pitch, you have the advantage of being able to point the potential interviewee toward actual recorded interviews you've done, though I found that many of the people we interviewed didn't look any deeper than the initial email before accepting. I also think that including phrases like "spewing tech jargon" and "horror stories" in the pitch suggested that the interview would be informal and enjoyable.
For maximum sound quality I recommend using external microphones that are mounted in stands. Holding a microphone will introduce handling noise that comes through as big thuds. For interview recording in the field (i.e. not in a studio) I recommend using two dynamic microphones such as the Shure SM57 (see Figure 1). These are fairly cheap (under $100) and have good isolation. They are easy to use and hard to break. The similar Shure SM58 (Figure 2) includes a pop filter for voice. Shure itself recommends its SM7B (Figure 3) for podcasting, though it's about four times the price.
Figure 1. The durable Shure SM57 is especially popular for recording electric guitar and snare, but its tough sound makes it a favorite of vocalists as well.
If you plan on recording to a computer, I recommend using a simple setup that includes a USB input box (e.g., Digidesign Mbox 2), two dynamic microphones in short stands, and the shortest XLR cables you can get. If you are going straight to a recording unit like a portable MP3 player, then you will likely need a microphone pre-amp or a portable mixer such as the Behringer UB1202 (Figure 4) to connect the microphone cables and boost the microphone signals to line level.
Another microphone option is a lavaliere ("lav") microphone (Figure 5). These are very small clip-on microphones that attach at the front of a shirt collar. Lavs look better on-screen, which is helpful if you are going to do a video podcast. They're also less intimidating to interviewees, because it's more natural to speak normally than lean into a mic on a stand. The downside is that these microphones are prone to noise as the wearer's clothes move.
Either way you go, you should record at the highest sampling rate your machine can handle. You can always "downsample" when you subsequently generate the MP3 for your podcast. But you can't bring a downsampled source back to life after the fact.
Figure 2 (left). The Shure SM58 has a pop filter and a frequency response tailored to vocals.
Figure 3 (right). For that "FM radio announcer" voice, Shure recommends its SM7B, shown here with its voiceover windscreen (left) and instrument windscreen (right).
Finally, you will want a set of headphones to monitor the signal as you are recording it. If you record something too soft, boosting it later will add too much noise. And if you record something too hot in digital, then you will get a hopelessly ruined signal. In the old days of analog tape, you could overdrive the signal and come up with something cool. If you clip in digital recording, you've lost the signal.
Encourage your guest to wear headphones as well. You don't want to have to worry about riding their gain while trying to listen for interesting follow-up questions. Avoid "open air" headphones, which leak sound that could be picked up by the mics. Headphones with a closed back are the way to go.
Figure 4. The compact Behringer UB102 Mixer includes XLR mic inputs (the three-hole black jacks at top left), preamps, and enough flexibility to route your audio creatively. Behringer and other manufacturers make even smaller mixers as well.
Figure 5. The Sound Professionals SP-CMC-2A lavaliere mics use cardioid capsules, which means they are less sensitive to sounds at the rear of the mic, reducing unwanted room noise. The microphones can be connected directly to portable recorders that offer "plug-in power."
When you can't make it in person, you can choose to record a phone call instead. That said, phone calls are really tough to listen to for long periods. So you need to keep your interview super focused, and edit it so that you reduce the gaps.
There are several ways to record a phone call. Perhaps the simplest is to record a speakerphone using your microphone. This method can produce surprisingly good results. Put your phone on speaker and use a microphone on a stand between you and the phone. Then use your recording software to capture the signal. You should also mute the speaker on your computer to avoid feedback.
If that doesn't get you the results you want, then you will need some hardware. The first option is a handset tap. The QuickTap from JK Audio (Figure 6) is around $60 and fits between the phone base and the handset. There is an analog audio output that you connect to your computer. In order to make this work you need a traditional wired handset. It will not work with a cordless phone or a handset with a dial pad. A new handset tap called the USB Blast R-1000 (Figure 7), about $129, connects directly to a Windows computer by USB and includes recording software.
Figure 6 (left). Inserted between your phone's handset and base, the JK Audio QuickTap provides a mono mix of the caller's voice and yours on a 1/8-inch jack.
Figure 7 (right). The USB Blast R-1000 is a handset tap that connects directly to a Windows computer's USB port. The device itself is smaller than a floppy disk.
The second option is a coupler. Couplers fit between the phone and the wall jack and record the signal on that line. Once again there is an audio output that connects to your computer. With a coupler you can use a cordless phone, though you may not want to, for audio quality reasons.
The last option for recording phones is the hybrid. A telephone hybrid is a full acoustical setup that has one connection for the phone line, then an output for the signal from the caller, and an input for your microphone signal. A hybrid is what talk-radio stations use to connect their callers into the audio system. Hybrids can costs thousands, but recently companies have been developing smaller hybrids for amateurs. JK Audio has a product called the Inline Patch ($270 list) that provides separate outputs for your voice and the caller's, although the signals aren't completely discrete, just 20dB different in level.
Note that in the United States, each state specifies whether one-party or two-party consent is required for legally recording a phone call. To be safe, just ask the interviewee at the beginning of the call if they consent to being recorded.
Another way to get an interview at a distance is to use a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service like Skype. Several articles have been written on recording from Skype on both Mac and Windows, so I won't cover it in detail here. In addition, the newest version of Apple GarageBand (v3) can record a conversation from iChat.
You might be asking yourself, "I've listened to a lot of interviews where I know these people aren't sitting in the same room, but the audio is really good; how does that work?" What you may have heard is a two-ender or double-ender. The technique is fairly simple: you call the interviewee and do a phone interview with him or her. At the same time, on both ends of the line, you both are recorded using high-quality recording setups. The files from both sides are then brought together in a sound editing program and synchronized. The telephone audio itself is never recorded.
The upside of this technology is that, when it works right, the audio quality will be better than you get with the phone. The downside is that it almost never works right. Sometimes you get disconnected; other times the interviewee's connection will go down. And when that isn't happening you will get pauses or strange audio edge effects from the signal.
Whatever setup you use, you need to triple-check the whole system before you go out into the field. Did you bring extra batteries? Did you bring extra cables? Did you do a dry run the night before? Do it. Or you will regret it when you get home and find yourself with a zero-length file that should have been a once-in-a-lifetime interview.
Before you hit the Record button, there are a few questions you should answer for the person in the hot seat: How long is the interview going to be? Will the interview be edited, and if so, how much? Just the "ums" and the pauses, or will you be editing for content by moving or deleting whole sections? The interviewee will want to know who your audience is and what they will expect from the interview. You should make most of this clear in your pitch letter or subsequent pre-interview communication.
The interviewee might also want to know what the first question will be, and for most friendly interviews that should be fine. One of the more common ways to build a killer interview is to start with a stinger question that gets right to the heart of the matter, then to reel back to some background questions and build up to a punchy conclusion. That will engage the listener right away. I don't know about you, but my eyes roll back in my head if the answer to the first question starts with, "Well, I was born in...." You want to grab the user from the get-go.
On your end, you should have a good idea about what the interviewee wants to get from this interview. Is it a plug or two for his recent masterpiece? If so, provide a softball question or two for him to hit out of the park and some time for him to insert an obvious plug. Again, ask ahead of time what topics your interviewees would like to cover—and whether there's any background material they'd like you to read first.
With the hardware set up and the guest all prepped, it's time for the main course—the interview. I like to start the recording as soon as possible. There are two reasons for this: First, it will get an ambient noise sample from the room that I can use in editing. (I'll say more on this in the second installment of this article.)
Second, it allows me to loosen up the person before asking the first official question. Talking into microphones, with the monitor headphones on, is alien, no matter how you cut it. So giving people a little time to settle in with you, your setup, and your style will take the edge off.
There are several different types of interviews:
This a fairly formal breakdown of interviews. Your interview may have components of each. But it's interesting to think about these different forms of interview and the types of results they can create. Then think about the interviews you have enjoyed to see if you can use one of these styles to structure your interview and shape the questions you will ask.
Controversy is a very good thing in an interview. It gives the listener a reason to show up. And controversial comments can be used in promos for the interview, which can drive up the audience size.
To be controversial, either you or your guest have to say something outrageous and noteworthy. That can come either from asking the guest for their opinion on a topic, or by aggressive questioning where you take an obvious side.
Of course, this comes at a risk. Here are some tips to help you walk the controversy razor without getting cut:
Try to find the controversial subjects in every interview. These topics will create compelling interviews that engage the listener and grow your audience.
In my research for Podcasting Hacks, I talked with a lot of interviewers, both amateur and professional; listened to their work; and read a few books on interviewing techniques. Here are some basic rules that I learned along the way:
Interviewing is something you learn by doing. If you're nervous about a big interview coming up then ask a friend for an interview or two to try it out. Get the full setup going and go through your whole routine. It's worth your time to practice to where you feel comfortable.
In the second half of this article I'll cover technical tips for editing the interview on a computer and give some additional tips from the pros on how to produce the killer interview.
Jack Herrington is an engineer, author and presenter who lives and works in the Bay Area. His mission is to expose his fellow engineers to new technologies. That covers a broad spectrum, from demonstrating programs that write other programs in the book Code Generation in Action. Providing techniques for building customer centered web sites in PHP Hacks. All the way writing a how-to on audio blogging called Podcasting Hacks.
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