by Richard Porter
A variety of skills is needed to provide the high quality service for which we aim. This section will give you an idea of what our volunteers do.
Early on Thursday morning our Editor of the week gets two copies of the Maidenhead Advertiser and begins the job of deciding which articles to include on the tape. We don’t have time to read everything but the main stories are always included plus as many of the others as we can fit into around 90 minutes. We aim to cover a balance of articles with the emphasis on those likely to be of most interest to our listeners but without attempting to censor or sanitise the news in any way.
Certain items are always included. After a short musical insert at about the half-way point we continue with the family announcements, then news from around the villages, sport and what’s on.
The selected articles are stuck onto cards which makes them easier to handle and it cuts down the rustle of paper during recording. We need two copies of the paper because we will almost always need to include items printed back-to-back on the same sheet. The articles are numbered in the order in which they will be read and an estimate of the reading time is made.
The procedure for the magazine is a bit different because items are often read from books or magazines which cannot be cut up. Long pieces may be split between two or three readers, and jingles are used at one or two points. There may also be prerecorded items for inclusion. A running order and scripted introductions are therefore prepared in advance for the readers and recording engineer.
The Editor is usually the presenter and one of the readers for his or her week.
There are four readers on each team, usually including the editor. As well as being able to read fluently the reader must have a strong, clear voice and good diction. However the paper must be read as if to someone sitting in an easy chair nearby, not at the back of an auditorium! This is a skill that may need to be relearned by those with drama training. Ideally we would like to alternate male and female voices but usually the ladies are in the majority. Some teams like those from the Soroptimists and the W.I. are all female.
There are several pitfalls to be avoided when reading from the paper, which is not written to be read aloud. The reader has an opportunity to scan the articles beforehand and confer on the pronunciation of difficult names. Sometimes long sentences need to be broken up or slightly reworded if they don’t make sense. Parts of an article can be left out if it is too long, but this is usually indicated by the editor.
Amounts of money are a trap for the unwary, because the currency sign (usually a pound sign) is printed before the figures but must be read out after them. It is increasingly common to come across e-mail and web addresses (URLs), and these require knowledge of internet practice. At present very few of our listeners have internet access so URLs can be left out.
We try to make the recording in one take, but it is always possible to stop and go back if a mistake is made or if something doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, if small mistakes can be corrected in the same breath we just continue. We might also need to stop if there is a technical problem or a loud noise from outside.
At the end of an article the reader gives a hand signal so that the next reader or presenter, and the recordist, are ready for the changeover. The recordist will also give a cue to the readers when starting or restarting, and indicate when we are approaching our target time. The presenter has a standard script for the start and end of each side, and the readers introduce themselves individually at the beginning.
The recording engineer is responsible for making a good clear recording of the session on a laptop computer. Because we do not have a permanent studio he must also bring the equipment to the session and deliver it to the engineer in charge of the next session.
The engineer arrives early in time to set up for the session. The equipment must be unpacked from its flight cases, connected up and checked. After recording the tracks are converted to MP3 format and stored on a master USB flash drive. The publication date is written onto the luggage label attached to the flash drive. An MP3 player is used to blend in the signature tune but jingles and other inserts can be imported as additional tracks on the computer.
A second laptop computer is maintained as a backup and the two are swapped over periodically.
When the readers are ready they put on their head-worn microphones and read a few words to check the level. Some Lavalier microphones are available if a head-worn mic cannot be used for any reason. It may be necessary to reduce the gain slightly for loud voices, or to apply some equalisation1 to aid intelligibility. The engineer must make sure that the microphones are worn in a suitable position and not obstructed by clothing or arms, or touching the cheek.
The engineer must be aware of avoidable noise and reduce or eliminate it if possible. Background noise is much more apparent on the recording because the ear cannot filter it out, but on a hot day when the windows are open some traffic noise is inevitable. In other situations we must put up with some noises from within, but we do stop for chiming clocks. The head-worn microphones that we now use are very much less susceptible to external noises than the older Lavalier (tie-clip) mics.
When everyone is ready the engineer starts recording then the signature tune. After a few bars the engineer fades down the music and cues the presenter. The music continues at low level during the introduction and is faded completely before the first news item.
For the weekly news recording the reading goes round the table, usually but not always in a clockwise direction. On each changeover the engineer must fade up3 the next reader’s microphone and fade down the last one. There is sometimes some unscripted banter or laughter which can be "off-mic" but is usually picked up. Approaching the 45-minute and 90-minute points the engineer signals the time left to the presenter and if necessary gestures to the next reader that his or her article won’t be needed, or that only a short article is required.
On the magazine session there is much more toing and froing as the presenter introduces each item, and the engineer is guided by the prepared running order. Usually there is a time check near the end to make sure that the approximate target duration is met, although this is not a hard and fast limit because there is plenty of space on the USB flash drives. Jjingles are imported at the required points. The presenter is given a cue to continue at the end of the jingle.
We record each story as a separate track. This is easy to achieve as the engineer only has to press the space bar to start a new track. At the end of the recording the end of the signature tune can be played quietly underneath the valedictory remarks and then brought up to normal level normal level for its conclusion.
Throughout the recording the engineer must monitor the recording level using his headphones and the level meters on the mixer and the PC. The mixer is equipped with a compressors on four channels and this can be used if a reader has a particularly large dynamic range.
The engineer must also listen for faults such as a reader touching his or her microphone with a cheek or a hand gesture at the end of a stopry. If there is a loud noise such as an aircraft going overhead the engineer may need to stop the recording and go back. If a restart is necessary the engineer will cue up the track at the beginning of a sentence and then give a cue to the reader to begin.
Finally, when the session is complete the engineer creates the MP3 files and copies them to the master USB flash drive. This is then checked on a player and placed into a plastic wallet for delivery to the copying team. The equipment is disconnected and returned to its cases.
The librarian is responsible for holding the master recordings for reference if needed, and then returning them to the equipment case for reuse. We hold 20 master USB thumb drives which are used in sequence. Before returning a flash drive to the case it is reformatted using a quick format to rewrite a blank table of contents. This ensures that the tracks play in the right sequence starting with track 1, and that an old edition is not sent out by accident.
The librarian, in his other role as webmaster, will check that the recording and playlist have been uploaded to the appropriate web site, and will do this if it has not been done. The details and links for the edition will be added to this web site, and a “latest” playlist is created for weekly programmes. This is picked up by the Sonata service supported by the British Wireless for the Blind Fund.
To be continued...
So far we have only covered half the story. In Part 2 we look at how we copy the USB flash drives, get them out to listeners and log them back in again. Finally we must not overlook the other vital aspects of running the Association - fund raising, attracting new listeners and volunteers, and keeping in touch with everyone.
See Sound Advice for some tips on sound recording.
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Last updated 17th September, 2015