The essentials of audio recording are not very complicated.
For example, taking a microphone, plugging it into a camera, and holding it in front of someone's face to record them talking is not something that requires certification from any government offices. However, to be efficient and aware of all the pitfalls that might await you when you bring that audio back to the station or send the signal back to the truck takes a lot of practice and learning from other people and, likely, your own mistakes.
One of the best pieces of equipment to combat recording sub-par audio are headphones. Many people have fancy iPod earbuds that they can pull out of their pocket and use. These might work in some cases but they are far from being the best choice. Over-the-ear headphones that can block out all outside noise allow you to focus entirely on the audio you are recording. Using over-the-ear headphones or an earpiece that is fitted for your ear can let you hear hisses or hums from a bad cable, the buzzing of a fluorescent light, a leaky toilet, or anything that is not pristine audio.
Without headphones you might be able to observe an audio meter bouncing around what appear to be audio signals, when in fact that might just be the delightful bouncing of some inaudible buzzing or crackling of a bad microphone or faulty connection somewhere in your flow of audio. Without headphones, you are simply guessing that you are recording good audio. By comparison, this is like operating a camera and not looking at the viewfinder, or trying to edit with the monitor off, or typing a text message without making sure autocorrect didn't change your words, or . . . well, you get the idea. The simple rule is: wear headphones. Please. You'll thank us later.
Good audio will isolate the sound you want to record without any extra noises. If you want to hear a bat crack or a quarterback yelling signals, you will want to be able to control those noises discreetly from any other audio signal. The audio that occurs naturally in any environment is called ambient or natural sound. Often, people will simply abbreviate natural and refer to this as "nat" sound. Nat sound is a way to greatly enrich your production. For example, if you are producing a package about the new lacrosse team at your college, getting good nat sound from a practice can be a great way to transition from a sound bite of the coach to sound bites from the players.
When you record an audio signal, you will most likely and hopefully have some type of audio meter to check you are recording at the proper level. Unless you have a reason to try to mix levels as you record them, you are better off capturing audio at the proper level so you can mix it later. In a live production environment, the job of the audio mixer will be to check the level of every source using a mixer, which we will talk more about later in this chapter.
Depending on the sophistication of your audio meter, your ability to judge levels of audio can range from a decent guess on a level that is not very discretely labeled (often consumer-grade camcorders are guilty of this) all the way up to discrete and detailed digital audio meters. In any case, you should learn the proper recording level of your device and you should get familiar with the markings on your audio meter before you take it out in the field and record audio.
Different devices will label levels in different ways. Sometimes they will use colors, the top of a green area is good, yellow is possibly too loud, and red is in danger of not recording a good signal. When you record an audio signal too loud, you will run the risk of distorted audio or the signal simply cutting out altogether. Other meters might use numbers, although those are not uniform across all meters. Sometimes, the ideal level is marked as 0 db, sometimes —6 db and sometimes it is some other completely different scale. Again, you should refer to the manual or ask a fellow operator what the correct level should be before you go out into the field. (And since we have stressed the word before twice now, that must be important.)
For interviews, mic placement is one important consideration for getting the best sound. For a lavalier microphone, you want to place it about a hands-width from the speaker's mouth. For handheld microphones, the interviewer will likely be working the microphone back and forth from their questions to the interviewee's answers. When you have multiple people being interviewed—perhaps a group of players after a big game or a coach and player—the interviewer will have to be careful to keep the microphone close to the person who is talking. If you are conducting the interview yourself and asking questions, you will need to work the microphone from yourself to the person answering and allow a beat, or slight pause, for your question to end and their answer to begin.
As the interview is happening, depending on how many people are available, you might be responsible for monitoring the levels of the interview. As the speaker talks, you will need to ride these levels to ensure the recorded material is loud enough to use later. Riding the levels means you are making tiny adjustments if the speaker gets louder or softer as the recording progresses.