Are you baffled by the technology needed to make a radio report? Do the processes of editing leave you bemused? Teacher Claire McDermott, who works for the Verbal Arts Centre in Londonderry, gives her top tips on how to go about it and offers her suggestions on the equipment to use.
The BBC does not endorse any of the products below and the views expressed in this article are solely those of Claire McDermott
PRODUCING RADIO NEWS
If you are producing radio news for BBC News School Report, at some point you are going to have to use recording and editing equipment and software.
If you are not technically-minded or familiar with the equipment, then finding your way around this software and hardware can be quite daunting.
It helps if everyone involved in the project has as much hands-on experience as possible using the equipment before News Day itself.
At the Verbal Arts Centre, we have found digital audio recorders called Marantz PMD 660 recorders are really easy-to-use. They are brick-sized devices with simple "rec", "stop" and "play" buttons.
External microphones offer high quality audio
Each time the "rec" button is pressed, the recorder automatically records onto a new track. It is impossible, as far as I know, to record over content on the machine.
The quality of the recorded audio is very good, and, although this model comes with an internal microphone, it is possible to plug in an external microphone as it has a mic input (XLR), which allows for even better quality audio.
It is also a very simple process to transfer audio from the recorder to a PC or Mac using a USB connection.
You will also need to get a CF (compact flash) card to record onto. Machines may come with a 256MB card but I would recommend that you get a 1GB card - approximately £25 - as that will store up to three hours of audio in wav format and 36 hours in MP3 format (more about formats later).
All in all, the PMD 660 is a user-friendly piece of equipment. The bad news is that this equipment does not come cheap and will set you back about £400.
If it is a little pricey, there's a smaller member of the family which is a bit easier on the pocket. The PMD 620 costs around £280, and still has a mic input (mini jack) for external microphones. The recorded audio quality is still very good on this model.
Even cheaper is the Zoom H2 Handy 2 track recorder. Retailing at approximately £150, it is small, easy-to-use and produces good quality audio. It comes with a 512MB SD memory card, which should be big enough for recording purposes.
I recommend that the cards are cleared regularly to ensure that users have enough space to record their interviews. Try and instil good file management and organisation practices among students. Inform them that cards will be regularly cleared and that it is their individual responsibility to transfer their audio to the PC or Mac for storage as soon as possible after the interview has taken place.
RECORDING FORMAT AND RECORDER SETTINGS
I mentioned recording formats earlier on. When you record audio, you will mostly be interested in recording either PCM files (I'm going to call these wav files from now on) or MP3 files.
Wav files are best for broadcasting on radio (for example, if you're hooking up with your local BBC radio station).
MP3 files are great if you are podcasting or streaming on the internet.
MP3 files are much smaller than wav files (about one-tenth of the size) so they take up much less space than wav files on your computer.
The downside is they are smaller because they are compressed audio files and, as a result, the quality is slightly compromised.
Don't worry though, as MP3 is the standard format for the internet so this is acceptable.
You can set up your recording device to record in either format quite easily by following the instructions in your user manual. Change the settings to the following:
• PCM (wav) files - 16 bit linear; 44.1 kHz sampling frequency; you can choose to record in either mono or stereo (please note that you only need to record in mono if you are recording voices)
• MP3 files - 128kbps bitrate; 44.1 kHz sampling frequency
All of the recorders mentioned above allow the user to monitor recording levels during recording. I cannot stress enough how important it is to check your levels throughout the entire recording!
As a rule of thumb, audio should be recorded as close to 0db as possible without going over 0db.
If it goes over and into the red (usually a red light appears on the display or somewhere on the recorder when this happens) then the audio will be distorted.
This means that it will sound fuzzy and unpleasant which means that people will be less inclined to want to stay tuned to your programme. And you don't want that to happen!
So, I normally advise students to record at around -6db as this allows interviewers and interviewees to speak louder on occasion (eg, at the start of an answer) without the audio distorting.
If the audio is recorded at too low a level, then it will have to be boosted however - and doing this will also boost any background noise and will sound unpleasant.
When it comes to editing, schools may be on a limited budget. If you have no money to spend, then allow me to introduce you to Audacity, which is free and works on both PCs and Macs.
Audacity is quite straightforward to use too - just spend a bit of time getting to know it. Play about with it and familiarise yourself with the interface.
With a bit of practice, you'll be able to edit your radio news stories with ease and export them.
When you have finished editing a file, just export it as either a wav or an MP3 file (choose 'File/Export' from the menu at the top of the software).
However, if you are fortunate enough to have a bit of cash at your disposal, then I would recommend Adobe Audition. You can pick up an educational version for about £140 online.
It has a very user-friendly interface and allows the user to edit and multi-track quickly and easily.
Other audio editing software includes Cubase, Logic, Protools, Cakewalk pyro Audio Creator and Soundtrack. There are loads of them on the market to choose from.
TIPS FOR EDITING
When students transfer files to the computer, ask them to rename each file with a name that will make it easily recognisable (eg, principal_canteen.mp3). Students will eventually have a lot of audio files to work on and it will make things easier if they name files as soon as they can.
Ask students to make a back-up copy of their audio files and then edit the original. Although doing so takes up extra storage space, it is easier than having to re-record interviews if something goes wrong during the editing phase. The back-up files can be deleted once the audio has been successfully edited.
Remind students to save work regularly as computers have been known to crash.