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Remote recording for Talking Newspapers – a suggested workflow during Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Remote recording for Talking Newspapers – a suggested workflow during Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Talking Newspapers are free audio versions of local printed newspapers, recorded by volunteers for visually impaired people (and others who can’t access printed material).

I helped with my local Talking Newspaper (TN) as a teenager, and learnt many audio skills which I still use to this day.

My parents are still involved in our local TN. Lots of organisations will now have to record remotely, due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Suggested workflow for remote recording

I have prepared a suggested workflow for helping you to record your Talking Newspaper, using tools which are free.

This is a guideline – adjust the steps to suit your circumstances.

It assumes that all your volunteers will be in different places, as you are no-longer able to record together in your usual venue.

There are some caveats – volunteers will need to have access to a laptop or tablet and the internet, and you may not be able to prepare the files in the same way as usual, if the specialist TN software you use is in a studio which is currently inaccessible.

It is probably worth warning your listeners that the service may be a little different from usual, but that you are doing your best.

The sections are as follows:

  1. Reader setup
  2. Recording the audio
  3. Sharing the script
  4. Editing the audio
  5. Sending the audio
    1. USB stick listeners (if possible)
    2. Digital download and web listeners
  6. Alternatives and extras

Workflow checklist

  • The script is created.
  • The script link is created.
  • Invitations to Cleanfeed are created.
  • An e-mail is sent to the readers with their personalised Cleanfeed link and the script link inside.
  • Readers open the script and join the Cleanfeed session.
  • The session is recorded.
  • The session audio is downloaded.
  • Minor mistakes are edited.
  • The audio is saved as an MP3.
  • The audio is copied on to USB sticks (if possible).
  • The audio is uploaded to the Talking Newspaper app and the TN’s website.
  • The listener listens.
  • Repeat!

Readers

Your reading volunteers will need a laptop which can run Chrome (free – download a copy of Chrome) or a tablet, or a smartphone. They will also need internet access.

If you readers have a smartphone, then they will also need another device so they can read their script (see script sharing below).

We need to make sure the sound is as good as possible.

In an ideal situation, this means that your reader will be in a quiet room.

If possible, they should be somewhere with lots of cushions or fabric – so a comfy sofa is better than the bathroom. This is because the fabric absorbs some of the room noise, so it avoids echo.

If you are at a table, then putting a towel and a table cloth down will help (make sure your laptop doesn’t overheat in this case). Make sure you shut the doors and try to stop anyone else in the house from making lots of noise if you can!

Once we have stopped the echoes in the room (if we are able), we then need to stop echoes on the recording device, and work to make you sound good!

For this, you will need to think about how your voice will be recorded (microphone) and how you will hear (headphones).

Here are some options:

  • At the bare minimum, you need to plug some headphones into your phone/tablet/laptop. This will stop recording interference. Work out where the microphone is on your laptop/tablet/smartphone and speak into that. The headphones are essential to making sure the recording sounds OK – don’t skip them if you possibly can.
  • A step up is to use the headphones with attached microphone that may have come with your smartphone or tablet.
  • Even better is a USB headset that you can plug into your laptop. The headphones are included.
  • If you have a USB microphone – use that with headphones.
  • If you already do recordings, you may be able to use a portable recorder as though it is a USB microphone. Google ‘Portable recorder make USB interface’ to see if this is possible (many Zoom models are able to do this, for example). Use this with headphones.
  • Alternatively, you may have a USB interface which you can use to plug in a normal XLR microphone (geek level) and then plug in some separate headphones.

You may need to fiddle about with the settings on your laptop to make sure that your computer/tablet has recognised your headphone and microphone combination correctly.

Recording

Now, we need to record our Talking Newspaper.

To do this, we will use some free software called Cleanfeed.

  • Whoever is responsible for recording the session will need a laptop or an Android tablet (a laptop is easiest). You will need to install the Chrome browser (see above).
  • Next, you will need to create an account with Cleanfeed. It’s very quick.

Creating a Cleanfeed account – video

  • You then need to set up Cleanfeed and send invites to your readers. Your readers will then click the link on their e-mail and will appear inside your recording session.
  • Readers may see a pop up asking if it’s OK for Cleanfeed to use their microphone. They should press ‘Yes’ or ‘OK’ if this appears.

Inviting Readers to join your Cleanfeed session – video

  • When you are ready to start the recording, start a stopwatch (your phone might have a timer app, or you can use this timer online.
  • If anyone needs to do a retake, don’t stop the recording – make a note of the timer time on a piece of paper or online document.
  • Don’t forget to keep pressing the ‘download’ button to save backups during the recording (see video).
  • One the recording has finished, download the final file.

Recording in Cleanfeed – walkthrough

Anytown TN full recording session

Sharing the script

Your readers will need to be able to see the script, and so will whoever is doing the recording, so they know who is due to speak when.

An easy way of doing this is to write it in Google Docs. This is free and you can use it on your laptop, tablet or smartphone.

You can add in text for people to read, and also add photos – so you could take a photograph of the news story you will be reading, or copy and paste the story if it has been published online.

Creating and sharing your script in Google Docs

Adding a photo to your script

Editing

If you usually record into an audio editor, ignore this section and do what you would normally do.

However, I am assuming that you are not able to use your normal TN software.

The Audacity editor is available for free.

Install this on your machine, and then import the newest version of the recording that you downloaded in the Cleanfeed session (this makes sure you have the version that had the full TN recording, not the backup ones you did as you went along).

Now get the notes you made where there were mistakes. Go to the end of the file (not the start!) and find the rough time when the last mistake which was made.

Listen out for the mistake. You can highlight the audio which was wrong and press ‘delete’.

Then go to the penultimate mistake time, and edit the mistake out.

Keep going up your list until all the mistakes are edited.

The reason you do it newest – oldest is that the times you wrote down will roughly line up with where the mistakes are. If you go from the top of your time list and work down, the editing will be out of sequence and you will take ages to find where the mistakes are.

Finally, you need to export the audio file as an MP3, so it is ready for copying and uploading.

This video takes you through the whole process. If editing in this way is new to you, don’t worry too much – we are in an emergency situation and your listeners will forgive you if it’s not perfect.

Basic editing in Audacity

The Audacity help files are also useful if you get stuck.

Just for fun, here is the whole Anytown TN final recording

Anytown Talking Newspaper

Distribution

USB

It may be that copying onto USB and sending out the TN as usual is not possible, because you are unable to collect your USB sticks, or you cannot access your copying equipment.

If you are able to divert the sticks to a volunteer’s house, then you can use this software made by Hamilton Sound Talking Newspaper to turn their laptop into a USB stick copying machine.

USB copying software from Hamilton Sound.

Digital

If you haven’t already, now is the time to contact British Wireless for the Blind and add your Talking Newspaper to their app.

This means your listeners can listen to your Talking Newspaper on their smartphone or tablet.

The British Wireless for the Blind team can also help you stream your Talking Newspaper on your Talking Newspaper website, which means that listeners who have a laptop but not a smartphone or tablet will also be able to listen.

If you can’t get USB sticks out, it might mean that only listeners with internet connections will be able to hear your service for a while – but that is better than nothing, and having your service available on your website and in an app is a useful option anyway!

Alternatives and Extras

Zoom

If you don’t want to use Cleanfeed, then it is possible to use Zoom (different company from the one which makes portable recorders!) to record your Talking Newspaper remotely. Officially, there is a 40 minute cut-off on the free version, but this might be waived for a short time as the Coronavirus outbreak goes on.

How to record a Zoom meeting (needs a laptop).

Track Markers

If you are used to adding track markings to your recordings so that your audience can skip between stories, it is theoretically possible by following these steps (Audacity), but is a bit of a faff.

Adding track markers in Audacity.

Exporting audio with track markers in Audacity.

It’s totally fine to keep it simple, though!

Example e-mail to send to readers

Here’s an e-mail you can adapt so that your volunteers have the right information for the recording.

Dear <NAME>,

Thank you for helping to volunteer at <TALKING NEWSPAPER>.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we will be doing a remote recording for this week’s session.

You will need to have a laptop with the Chrome browser installed, or a tablet or a smartphone.

1) Please download and install the Chrome browser before we start if you do not already have it. It’s free: google.co.uk/chrome

Here are some instructions on how to install Chrome if needed: https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/95346?co=GENIE.Platform%3DDesktop&hl=en

2) You will also need a pair of headphones to plug in to your laptop, tablet or phone.

If you have a pair of headphones with a microphone attached, or a USB-headset, please use that (and if you have a proper microphone and headphones you know how to use with your computer, please do!)

When we are about to start recording, please click this link (or copy and paste it into the Chrome address bar) to enter the virtual studio <PERSONALISED CLEANFEED LINK – THESE WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR EACH READER>

OR

Just before we are about to record, you will get an e-mail invitation from a company called ‘Cleanfeed’. Please click on the link (or copy and paste into the Chrome address bar) in that e-mail. You might need to look in your spam folder. Cleanfeed will only use your e-mail for the purpose of sending you the invite <ADD REFERENCE TO YOUR GDPR POLICY IF NEEDED>.

Make sure you give Cleanfeed permission to use your device’s microphone if prompted.

You will also need to click on this link so you can see the script we will be reading. <LINK TO GOOGLE DOC – WITH EDIT RIGHTS IF NEEDED>

Here is a video to help you with Google Docs if you are using it on your laptop: https://www.loom.com/share/07279d14895a4f0b8677688623582fb6

If you get stuck, my number is <CONTACT DETAILS>.

I look forward to recording with you on <DAY>.

Best wishes,

<NAME>

<ROLE, TALKING NEWSPAPER>

Example letter for volunteers

Good luck!

Thank you to everyone who volunteers to keep their local Talking Newspaper running.

If you have any questions or need clarification, please add them in the comments below rather than e-mailing me, because that way we can all help each other more quickly and easily.

Please share this with a TN that you feel might find it helpful. It might seem complicated at first, but once you have a few remotely-recorded editions under your belt, you will feel much more confident.

Note: I have not been able to test all the systems listed against Accessibility requirements. If any visually impaired volunteers have alternative software suggestions, please add them in the comments below.


Postscript: Notes from our first recording

We recorded an edition of our Talking Newspaper using this method (although with the Pro version of the Cleanfeed software).

Here is what we learned:

  • You need a volunteer team with a sense of humour, patience and a spirit of adventure! (Thankfully, we did.)
  • Take your time to make sure everyone is set up – have a practice run with each reader if needed.
  • We used Facetime to help one reader get their laptop set up correctly (Skype video calling would be an alternative).
  • If volunteers don’t have Chrome as their default browser, it’s easier to copy and paste the Cleanfeed link into the browser than trying to click on it from the e-mail, as that can lead to confusion when Cleanfeed doesn’t open as expected.
  • It’s important to make sure the readers have got their microphones connected correctly – the ‘Settings’ cog in Cleanfeed lets them choose which device to use. If you can’t hear someone properly and they are connected, make sure their computer is looking at the correct microphone (so their USB headset rather than the laptop internal mic, for example).
  • One reader started out using their laptop mic, but it sounded awful – swapping to the headphone and mic that came with their phone sounded much better!
  • One reader’s browser crashed, so we had to wait for them to rejoin us.
  • Keep an eye on the ‘Record’ status button. We adjusted a microphone setting and that meant the recording was paused – don’t forget to restart it!
  • Once you get to about an hour, you might get a warning to start a new recording. Just pause the recording you have at the end of a story, download the file, and press the ‘Record’ button in the top-left corner to start a second recording session. You will then need to join the two recordings together in the edit afterwards.
  • Don’t forget to keep downloading your backups as you go along.
  • Having everyone looking at the same script was really helpful but the formatting was a learning curve – it’s easier if you can build your script during the week rather than an hour before recording!
  • Having to do the editing afterwards made the workflow a bit longer than we are used to – we did the copying the next morning.
  • The Pro version of Cleanfeed is great if you have it because you can record in multitrack, which means you can adjust people’s levels more easily in the edit. The record button also shows a timer, and there is the option to play in clips. This meant we could add our theme music. Cleanfeed has confirmed it is possible to pay for the Pro version monthly, so you can cancel at any time. If you do this workflow a lot and understand how to edit in multitrack, it’s worth having a look at – but if you don’t understand what any of this means, keep it simple and stick to the free version!
  • All the volunteers said they would be happy to work in this way again and that they knew it would be easier next time.
  • They also said that in this time of reduced social contact, it was really nice to be doing something together with other people.
  • Have a glass of something you like to drink afterwards – well done!

Need to work out a workflow for your radio station or podcast? Suddenly presenting from home and not sure what equipment you need? I can help – workflow is my speciality! Contact me to book a consultation.

Disclosure alert: Cleanfeed gave me a free copy of their Pro software and sponsored some bursaries at Radio TechCon, which is a conference I organise. They have not asked me to write this article – all opinions are my own.

5 Responses to Remote recording for Talking Newspapers – a suggested workflow during Coronavirus (COVID-19)

    • Hi Tony – Thanks for visiting! I don’t think a PDF version will be very useful, as most of the post has video explainers and users will need internet access to make the workflow work. If you have a particular reason you need this in PDF, then I give you permission to do it for your own / Talking Newspaper’s use only, so long as you credit me and my website as the source.

  1. Hi. I have only had a very quick look at Cleanfeed but one facility I saw was for recording separately on left and right channels – which I think would allow error marks to be recorded visibly as handclaps or clicks? (We only need a mono mp3)

    • Hello – yes, I’ve checked the settings: it’s called ‘Stereo Split’ and means the host is recorded to the left and the guests all to the right, although I haven’t used it that way myself. You choose it when you press the ‘Record’ at the top left of the screen.

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