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Tricks Of The Trade: Radio's Surprising Low-Tech Tools

If you caught him in the act – say in a McDonalds parking lot in Whitefish – you might not know what he was up to. Lying in the back of his car, head inside a cardboard box, repeating the same phrase again and again.

“It definitely gets weird looks when I bring it out and sit in a parking lot and people just see me talking into this box.”

That's Corin Cates-Carney, MTPR's Capitol (and former Flathead area) reporter. Despite all the high tech equipment he relies on everyday – microphone, computer, smart phone, digital recorder – that cardboard box ranks as one of Corin's most important tools for producing good radio while he's on the road.

“This is both my mobile and my home studio," Cates-Carney says. "When I'm at home, I put it on my desk and speak into it. But it's just as easy to take it off my desk, put it in my car and make radio on the road. This really helps get a studio-quality sound anywhere I am, doing a story.”

It's nothing fancy; a square cardboard box lined with thick bed foam that overflows from the box's one open end. A microphone sits in the middle, surrounded on five sides by foam. The reporter sticks his head into the open end of the box and talks into the mic.

Like a miniature recording studio, the box helps isolate the microphone and block-out background noise. The foam helps dampen the sound and give it “a nice bed to lie on,” as Corin puts it.

Recordings made outside of the studio often become muddied with background noise, and the reporter's voice can lose some of its intimate quality.

“You kinda have to work with what you have, and this does a pretty good job of that. It's simple, and it's kinda sketchy,” Corin adds.

Of course, you can by a commercial version of the same thing, if you want to spend upwards of $300. Corin estimates he spent around $12 to “build” his. And it gets the job done. Here's what a recording in his cardboard studio sounds like:

[Sound: Corin Cates-Carney Montana news story]

Like most radio stations, MTPR has state-of-the-art recording and production studios. They're mostly soundproof, and full of high-tech hardware and software that let us edit out the slightest imperfections, or place just the right music – or even silence – into a story. But when our reporters and producers are away from the studios on assignment, they have to find some pretty creative workarounds to get that studio sound.

And if $12 sounds too pricey, there are other low-tech ways to approximate studio sound outside of a studio.

“I'm Chérie Newman, and I'm talking in the development house of Montana Public Radio. It's noisy out here, so I go in the closet.”

Chérie Newman records a voiceover for her show, "The Write Question" in a closet at MTPR's development house.
Credit Josh Burnham
Chérie Newman records a voiceover for her show, "The Write Question" in a closet at MTPR's development house.

Once inside the closet, the difference in recording quality is like night and day. The background noise is gone, the ambiance changes, and her voice stands out. Newman uses this low-tech trick to record voice-overs for her show “The Write Question” when she's on the road or can't get into a studio.

“I'm Chérie Newman and I'm in a closet recording a voice-over for a program that will be broadcast to radio stations all across the Western U.S., and all across the World Wide Web.”

Hear the difference?

Montana Public Radio reporters and producers spend a lot of time worrying about sound quality. They work hard to connect with listeners by creating an intimate, visual experience with audio. And it turns out, even in the 21st century, sometimes the best way to do that is from inside a closet or cardboard box.

Josh Burnham is MTPR's digital editor. He works on the news team and as a content strategist managing the station's website, podcasts, email newsletters and social media.
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