October 23, 2012 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Please help me understand radio mouth noise.

Sometimes when people speak on the radio they have lots of mouth noise, with smacks and clicks - kinda like noisy chewing. It's like nails on a chalkboard for me. What's going on here? Do the people speaking know what's happening? Is it something professional radio broadcasters can work to avoid? Can it be controlled by studio equipment choices or by production? If you're going to be interviewed on NPR or something do they give you tips on how to avoid the mouth noises? (Obviously not enough tips, right? Because so many NPR interviewees do it.)
posted by thirteenkiller to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was interviewed on NPR (All Things Considered, about my book) last summer. Did not get any tips on speaking.
posted by GaelFC at 10:23 AM on October 23, 2012

It's a natural consequence of being very closely mic'd. It is almost impossible to avoid by the very nature of having a mouth, but professionals will have ways to mitigate or minimize it while on air.

In terms of production, depending on the show, they may or may not have the lead time or the production resources to go in and remove them. Some shows may take out only the most egregious, others will nitpick and try to pluck them all out.

You might also be interested in this MeFi post on Language Removal Services.
posted by mykescipark at 10:25 AM on October 23, 2012

That’s the sound people’s mouths make. You’re hearing it amplified and in isolation. This is a result of trying to make the speech clear. There are things that can be done, it can be cleaned up, but it often it isn't worth the work and time since it doesn’t bother most people unless it’s really pronounced. Some people probably even like it because it sounds intimate.

Short answer; It’s not a thing for most people.

There are much bigger problems with some NPR audio if you ask me. HIGH PASS FILTER.
posted by bongo_x at 10:27 AM on October 23, 2012

OMG I HATE THAT. Take a drink of water! NPR interviewees do it but so do some on-air staff! And they're in the same studio using the same equipment as many other people who don't do it, so it's not an equipment thing. It may be amplified on mic but it is mitigated by not having a dry mouth.
posted by headnsouth at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Related Previously)
posted by Jahaza at 10:35 AM on October 23, 2012

Depends on the person, depends on the equipment.

If someone's a professional announcer or other on-air talent, they'll have training on enunciation and a million general little things you don't think of but which will reduce the noises you're talking about. If they're not a professional broadcaster then they won't. There are still some on-air talents I can think of who do this - one in Boston in particular, but I assume she was known in some other way before she was on the air.


Do the people speaking know what's happening?

Not really. If you're in a studio, you've got headphones on and the noises you're hearing are synchronous with the noises you're making. You don't really get a sense of what you actually sound like until you hear it played back. So no.

Is it something professional radio broadcasters can work to avoid?


Can it be controlled by studio equipment choices or by production?

Some mics pick it up more than others. You could probably clean it up in post but if the noises are concurrent with the words being spoken, it's nearly impossible as far as I know, and even if they're not concurrent (a smacking of lips here and there), it's not really worth the hassle to go through it and pick them all out. You could also try to reduce the noise by futzing with the sensitivity and how far you're sitting from the mic.

If you're going to be interviewed on NPR or something do they give you tips on how to avoid the mouth noises?

They may give you general tips on some things - how far to be from the mic, how much you should or shouldn't be trying to project, oh hey take a drink of water but please maybe move away from the mic when you do, et cetera - but as far as specifically telling you how to avoid lip-smacking and tongue clicking and whatnot, the answer is almost certainly not.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:47 AM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this is explanatory at all but I did some narration work on a radio play once and on the days that, for whatever reason, the mouth noise was worse than usual the director would have me eat an apple. He said he didn't know why it worked either.
posted by XMLicious at 11:13 AM on October 23, 2012

Some "mouth noises" also serve as turn-taking cues in a conversation, and cues to discourse structure (marking things like "paragraph breaks" or changes of topic) in a monologue.

So for instance. If someone audibly lets out their breath all the way, that's a pretty clear signal for "I'm done talking now." In a conversation it means "My turn's over, someone else can take the floor." In a monologue, it can be used to mean "We're done with this topic, I'm going to turn to something else in a moment." In a more extreme version of this, you don't just exhale but actually audibly shut your mouth and open it again, which can create a suction or lip-smack noise.

On the other hand, an audible intake of breath tends to mean something like "Oh, hey, I have something to add here." In a conversation it can be a floor taking move by someone who's listening ("I have a response to what you just said") or a floor holding response by the person who currently has the floor ("Hang on, I know it sounded like I was wrapping up my turn, but in fact I have one more thing to add to what I just said"). In a monologue you can use it to mark new items in a list ("...oh, and another thing..."). You can also use it to mark a sort of rhetorical contrast; when that happens it's almost as if the speaker is 'interrupting himself' with a 'respose' or counterpoint to the point he just made. And finally, it can serve as a sort of nonverbal apology for going on too long. ("Oh, sorry, I've got just one more thing I should say.") Recently I've started hearing computerized voice-response systems that have little inhalations programmed in towards the end of long scripted sequences; like for instance if you've just recited your credit card number, and it needs to ask you to turn the card over and find your security code on the back, the computerized voice will do a little fake breath-catching noise at the beginning of the request, as a way of "acknowledging" that this might be getting kind of tedious and "reassuring" you that you're almost done.

Too, lot of "mouth noises" have uses in backchanneling. So for instance, you get "tutting" and "tisking" noises for sympathy or disapproval, gasps of surprise, sighs and snorts of derision, a long slow audible exhalation for resignation, "silent" laughter (a kind of quick ragged inhale or exhale) to acknowledge a joke, and so on. All of those signals have a secondary purpose, in conversation, of saying "Yes, I'm still listening, I'm still reacting appropriately to what you said, please keep going." And conversely, if someone stops backchanneling, it tends to mean something like "You've gone on too long, your story isn't having the effect you want it to have on me, please give up or cut to the chase." So good interviewers actually do a lot of backchanneling, as a way of encouraging their subjects to talk more.

On NPR, you'll hear a lot of this sort of communicative "mouth noise." I suspect it's deliberate: they're giving you extra cues to help you follow the structure of a long, wordy, structurally-complicated story. You do also hear a lot of mouth noise that doesn't have an obvious communicative purpose. But that could be a side effect of capturing the communicative noises: if you mic someone closely enough that the audience can hear them catch their breath before speaking, you'll also get a lot of swallowing and whatnot.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:37 AM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

I've recorded a lot of commercial voice-overs. It's mouth noise. Everybody does it to some extent. It gets worse if your mouth is dry. Therefore, you should keep a bottle of water with you. It also gets worse, however, if your mouth is too wet. Knowing when to stop swigging the water is something you can only learn through experience and feedback from your friendly engineer.

It also gets much much worse if you've eaten anything within an hour or so before speaking into a mic. Your mouth is still generating saliva, and any food particles remaining change the internal dynamics of your mouth, and continue to make you produce saliva. This makes the noise extra-squishy.

The apple trick doesn't really work. If it worked for you, more power to you, but I would never recommend it. Food is food. If you get a piece of apple stuck in your teeth it'll squeak. Also, only water. Sugary drinks can coat your tongue, juice can have an acidic effect that will change the lining of your mouth unpredictably, dairy will make it sound like you're speaking Hebrew...

You can't stop the 'click' when you first open your mouth to speak (unless you're Orson Welles - I've never heard a recording of him that had any mouth noise at all), but you can minimize the rest of the sounds coming out of your mouth. Unfortunately, microphones tend to be more sensitive to any any sound coming from your face that isn't your voice.
posted by Devoidoid at 11:40 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

They'll typically have you do levels, where you talk into the microphone before they actually start taping you. (They'll ask you to describe what you had for breakfast or how you got to the studio or something.) They do that both to figure out how loud to have you turned up and also to see whether you're situated okay in relation to the microphone, and whether you're so close that you make too much noise is certainly one of the things they're listening for. Ideally, as long as you're not too close and you have a proper pop filter (the screen thingy over the microphone), you won't pop your Ps, and that's actually the thing they (in my experience) listen for the most. They may well ask you to do a round of "Peter Piper" for just this reason. (I am not any sort of audio expert; I say this as a non-expert who has sometimes talked on the radio.)

But while my primary job isn't in radio at all (meaning I only do radio occasionally, though I do a podcast every week), I can certainly tell you this is the kind of thing they care about and try to minimize and notice when it happens, and yes, good equipment certainly helps. But when I've been recording and I've had a lip-smack or something -- or popped a P in spite of all precautions -- they've noticed, and they've made me go back and do it again, so I don't think they can fix it in the production process easily, if at all.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:58 AM on October 23, 2012

OH AND ALSO: If you ever do live radio for any reason, make sure they introduce you to the cough button ahead of time. It is good for more than coughing. It is good for "I kind of have to clear something out of my throat and I'd rather not broadcast that part."
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:03 PM on October 23, 2012

Pre-recorded interviews aren't always done in a full radio studio either. The long ones tend to be, but many radio stories are built from portable field recorders where the conditions are more variable and there isn't a professional engineer listening in (not that the engineer can often do a ton besides get you to drink or adjust the mic). Editing it out later can be a hard to impossible problem, especially when the noises are on top of other sounds, and cleaning up an "acceptable" quality clip to perfect standards is a low priority given deadlines and high workloads.

NPR edits pretty aggressively (languagelog), but other programs and stations have different standards.
posted by zachlipton at 2:19 PM on October 23, 2012

I agree, this is the most annoying thing to have to listen to.

If you watch video of traditional DJs doing their show, you'll notice that they often have elaborate ways of avoiding these things. Sometimes this is where the "radio voice" comes from: avoiding doing all these things turns into a weird bastardization of a normal speaking voice.

Other things they do is keep the microphone right at their face, but speaking across it rather than right into it. This lets the various plosive sounds waft over it rather than right into it.

Fixing these issues with the speaker is something that takes a lot of work. It's basically speech therapy. So telling the author of some book to quit lip smacking for a 10 minute interview is just going to make them mad or frustrated.

As for production fixing, there is a lot they can do, but it takes time to tailor a filter to someone's individual oddities, and again, it's probably not worth the effort for a one-off interview.

The final problem is that the processing on the broadcast side has compression filters that will raise the volume of quiet talkers to get a good smooth waveform for broadcast. Unfortunately, this also amplifies all the clicks and buzzes. Double unfortunately, NPR seems to not encourage people to talk loudly. They probably aren't used to speaking on the radio, and hearing their voice amplified into their headphones quiets them down.
posted by gjc at 4:13 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

It very much bothers me. It's not lip smacking, it is the sound of the internal mouth membranes and structures pulling away from each other, presumably resulting from dry mouth. And I don't even have misphonia, where eating noises drive one mad.
posted by Morrigan at 4:17 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

For the amount of programming they have to create, and with the variety (and usually inexperience) of the people being interviewed, it's probably not economic to do clean up on the recordings. The main issues are of volume and volume matching, and it's a tiny fraction of the listening audience that it even hear it, and a smaller bunch who object.

If you spend any time in front of a mic, you learn to avoid ssssss-ing, popping P's, and lip smacking. You learn to breathe, you learn to modulate, and you learn to position your mouth consistently relative to the mic. Casual folks interviewed on the radio don't usually even get the grammar correct and there are only so many things you can do to improve what you collect in the field, or in the studio, for that matter. Instructions to someone being interviewed are usually seconds in length, and they are nervous, and they have bad speaking habits anyway.

Crank down the treble on your tuner and bump the midrange and bass and you can moderate some of the worst stuff, but the best thing is to understand where it's coming from and train yourself to ignore it.
posted by FauxScot at 5:04 PM on October 23, 2012

To avoid the tongue click when I open my mouth, I tilt my head back; I think it shifts my resting tongue position backwards where it doesn't make the noise.
posted by RobotHero at 9:16 PM on October 23, 2012

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