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iReport boot camp: Painting pictures with sound

By Nicole Saidi and Steve Kastenbaum, CNN
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iReport Boot camp: Getting audio
  • Audio is often overlooked in production process, but effort is worth it
  • Many news events in history defined by sounds, words of era
  • Simple techniques can help you make the most of your equipment

Audio is a fundamental part of multimedia production. For this week's CNN iReport boot camp project, we take a look at the best way to get quality sound. CNN Radio's Steve Kastenbaum shared some expert tips to help you record the best audio possible. Take a look at what he has to say, and then try out his tips with our audio guessing game.

(CNN) -- It was The Buggles who decreed that video had killed the radio star and ushered in the era of MTV. True to form, the visual display of information has never been more important or more skilled.

And yet, audio still has the power to make or break a video. Poor audio can even render a piece unusable after all the work you've put in it, notes CNN Radio's Steve Kastenbaum.

"It's no good if you've got a good story but we can't understand what [story subjects] are saying in your piece," he said.

Kastenbaum's top tips for better audio include checking your audio while making your piece, using an external microphone, measuring your distance from your subject, being careful of ambient noise and painting a visual picture using sound.

Challenge: Tell us where you are using only sound

Audio equipment isn't always easy to find, but the good news is, you don't need to get too fancy with it. Microphone adapters for the iPhone can be purchased in the neighborhood of $20. A simple external microphone hookup like this can produce infinitely better audio, particularly in crowded places.

A simple trip to music stores or specialty electronics shops is usually enough if you want to buy more advanced equipment, and many things can be purchased online. Be aware that many large electronics chains may not carry the equipment you are looking for, and don't get discouraged.

For journalists, audio is an imperative element of the newsgathering process.

There are plenty of cases in which audio has shed light on a major news event in a way that the visuals never could have. During the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007, student Jamal Albarghouti used his phone camera to capture the scene going on. That device now sits in the Newseum in Washington.

Watch Albarghouti's footage Video

The footage Albarghouti got was grainy and difficult to discern, a product of the chaos taking place on campus. But when CNN listened to the audio track on it, something remarkable emerged. You could actually hear the commotion and what sounded like gunshots.

Here, a quick-thinking student who pulled out his camera on a whim during a tragic and scary event had managed to document something that no one else could have. Certainly, no news reporter arriving on scene after the shootings had long since ended.

It is audio's ability to capture the intangible experience of a moment that makes it challenging and important. From the ambient sounds to the emotion behind human words, recordings can capture powerful moments for eternity.

Before there was TV, and even CNN, there was radio. Reporters armed with microphones and audio recorders were on the front lines of news events, reporting with sound and letting minds fill in the visual details.

Radio theater challenged viewers to listen and imagine, and lush audio and sound effects brought audiences into the story.

Throughout history, audio recordings have formed some of the most iconic impressions of key events in the global timeline.

Visual presentation shows what's going on through the eyes, but audio still accompanies it, and it's still important.

Even in the information age, people have explored the meaning of great audio. Music downloads via iTunes remain popular, and an online sound project called One-Minute Vacation encouraged people to submit 60-second bursts of atmospheric sound from exotic locations.

When Apollo 11 reached the lunar surface in 1969, it wasn't the grainy footage people remembered. It was the words of those who would later inspire MTV's moon-man campaigns, the real astronauts:

"It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."