Tape Syncs: What Are the Expectations?

by Robin White

Once you become established in the public radio field as a good sound recordist, you may get calls from people asking you to do a tape sync. These are also sometimes called double-enders or occasionally mic-syncs.

What this means is that someone, perhaps a reporter with National Public Radio, or the host of Living On Earth, or another producer, needs to interview someone else who lives close to you. Sometimes it is possible for them to get the interview subject to come to a radio station and the tape sync is recorded there. Often, however, the client (NPR, Living On Earth or whomever) will hire a producer (you) to travel to the interview subject's home or office to do the recording there.

This is a work-for-hire situation. You are there as a technician to make a good recording and to send the tape to your client. You don't own or have any rights to the material you record unless you come to a special agreement with the person you are working for.

HOW TO DO A TAPE SYNC

Your job is to show up in plenty of time to assess the acoustics of the building or room where you have to do the recording. Find the best possible location with a telephone, since you are going to be recording your subject talking on the phone.

Basically you are looking for a place where you and the interview subject will be comfortable, and where the acoustics are quiet enough to make a good recording. You will need to make sure that all noise-making devices are turned off. There is much written about this in How to Mic a Field Interview, and you should familiarize yourself with that information before setting out.

You are acting as a representative of another organization or person, so you should pay particular attention to the way you present yourself. You should establish a gentle professional manner with the interview subject, but you don't need to establish the kind of friendly rapport you might want to achieve if you were doing the interview yourself. Your job is to be there, but to take up as little space and to be as quiet as possible. You may find that the interview subject will look at you as she or he is answering questions over the phone and you should maintain eye contact if this is the case because it will result in a better recording.

Once you have got your subject sitting comfortably by the phone and once you yourself are comfortable, make a one minute recording of room tone - the sound of the room with no talking. Explain to the subject what you are doing and ask them to sit quietly.

You should slate the recording by speaking into the microphone. Say something like, "this is a minute of room tone for the interview with..." Then sit quietly for a minute timing the recording. Then say, "That was room tone for the interview with...

When you are actually doing the recording, you will find that there are long periods when the interview subject is listening to questions over the phone and the room is basically quiet. You may think to yourself, "Why did I bother recording room tone, when so much of the tape is quiet anyway?" If you listen very carefully to tape recorded in these dead periods of the tape sync, you will find that you can actually hear, very faintly, the sound of your client asking questions through the telephone receiver.

Sometimes, as with Steve Curwood, the host of Living On Earth, the goal is to do a recording of such high quality that it sounds as if Curwood and the interview subject are in the studio together. This is a literal "tape sync," in the sense that they roll tape at their end of the interview in Boston and you roll tape at your end. They record Curwood asking questions and you record the interview subject giving the answers and when they receive your tape by Fedex, all they have to do is synchronize the two tapes together and the audience doesn't know that the interview was not conducted in the studio, but was done by telephone over a distance of thousands of miles.

To achieve success with this, you need to use DAT tape and an above-average microphone. You will need a lot of control over the acoustic ambience of the room because you have to imitate the kind of quiet that Living On Earth will have in their studio.

They will tell you exactly when to start and they might ask you to note the time on the counter that you start the tape rolling. You should let them know if for any reason you have to interrupt the interview. For example, if a dog pushes through the door and starts nosing around your equipment, you will need to stop the interview and sort it out. Ask the interview subject to explain to your client what the problem is, and let them tell you whether or not to turn your tape recorder off. They may just let it run while you deal with the dog or other problem.

Not all tape syncs involve such elaborate procedures as this. Many times, if the tape sync is requested by a reporter, he or she will want your end of the interview recorded and will not record his or her own voice. This is a little less elaborate, but you should still maintain standards as high as possible.

Once you have finished the interview it is best to deliver the tape to the Fedex office immediately and have the job over with. If it is an extremely valuable recording you may want to make a backup copy before you send it off, but this is not expected.

Most clients will ask you to use Fedex, but you should check ahead of time which priority service they want you to use (Priority Overnight or Saturday Delivery etc). Most clients will also give you their Fedex number so that you don't have to pay for the postage. If you do end up paying for postage you should claim the expense back on your invoice.

The key to developing a good relationship with the people who might use you again for tape syncs is communication. When someone hires you, they will ask you what kind of tape recorder you have and what kind of microphone you will be using. They will hire you based on that information. If following that conversation your DAT breaks down and you can only bring along the old Marantz cassette deck, let your client know. They may want to make other plans.

BILLING

Depending on the distance you have to travel, a tape sync usually takes a minimum two and a half hours of your time, if you include time you might spend on the phone setting it up, time traveling to the interview, the interview itself and the time it takes to get to the Fedex office and home again afterwards.

You should establish a rate for tape syncs and stick to it. Find out what other producers in your area charge to do the work and set your rate accordingly. Don't undercut other producers. Different client organizations might have different budgets and expectations, but the amount of work that you do won't change that much, so your rate shouldn't either.

You should charge for DAT tape and if you are expected to travel long distances it is reasonable to bill by the hour for travel time and to invoice for milage at the current IRS milage rate (currently .31c per mile). Establish an hourly rate for yourself, bearing in mind that you are acting as a skilled technician. Also bear in mind your own skill level and the quality of equipment you are using but don't undervalue yourself. Television sound recordists do basically the same job as this for $100 per hour. To do the recording at the local radio station would cost about the same.

This is one place where independent producers are in a sellers' market. While it may be difficult for you to get your feature stories on the air and while you might find yourself always trying to get "them," to call you back, this is one situation where "they" call you for your services. Sometimes show producers are in a bind and need someone to turn something around fast. In this kind of situation, it's not unreasonable to charge more money.

If you do quality work; if you are available to work at the drop of a hat and if you are willing to work on weekends, you will find that clients will call to use your services again.