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Hints for recording audio stories

Choosing an interview location

Pick the quietest place possible. A carpeted room is best. Avoid kitchens, which have reflective surfaces and noisy appliances. Be sure to turn the volume off on any TV, radio, or stereo. Close the door and listen for anything else making noise: buzzing fluorescent lights, ticking clocks, air conditioners, etc. If possible, turn off or move any noisy electronics out of the room. OK, that might seem a little extreme but you get the drift: quieter is better.

Equipment

If you want to make sure you get a good quality recording, use a quality recorder. We use digital voice recorders to capture stories. A selection of these can be found here.

You however can also use tape recorders, or even your iPhone if you wish.

Set up

Your recorder should be as close to the person as possible, pointing directly toward them, and set to an appropriate volume. Sound volume is governed by what’s known as an inverse square ratio. As distance is increased, sound volume is decreased by the square of the distance.

An easy way to think of it is for each foot of distance a microphone is away from a sound source, the recorded volume level is decreased by half and the amount of background noise doubles.

Because sound volume degrades so quickly over relatively short distances, I cannot stress enough that for good recordings, microphones and recorders must be placed as close to a subject as possible and that the recording be done in a quiet setting.

Test the equipment

Make sure you are comfortable using the recorder before recording your stories. Practice setting it up, starting and stopping recording, checking and changing recording volumes etc.

Before you start, record your storyteller answering a few throwaway

questions, such as, “what did you have for breakfast?” or “what did you watch on TV last night?” When doing a sound check, make sure to speak at the distance from the mike that you will be at during the entire interview and be sure to check all participants. Stop, rewind, and listen to the sample recording to determine if everything is working.

Remember to press RECORD again when you begin the actual interview. Keep an eye on the red light to be sure it’s still going. Sometimes the battery can die mid interview.

Recording

Start recording well before you ask the person to recount their experiences. Engage them in some idle chit chat, to get them used to being recorded.

Pay as little attention to the audio recorder as possible and give full attention to the storyteller

Keep the background noise down. Background noise is often more apparent on recordings than it seems during the interview and voices can often disappear when people are softly spoken. Some common sources of background noise include:

  • Paper shuffling
  • Machinery running in the background (i.e. laptops fans, heating or air conditioners, TV or stereos, even vacuums and dishwashers)
  • Cell phones
  • Traffic, airplanes, and other noise coming through open (or even closed) windows
  • Pets or other animals in the area
  • Miscellaneous nervous habits (i.e. tapping of fingernails on tabletop, clicking of a pen, etc.)
  • Food and beverages (i.e. crunchy apples, ice clinking in glass, slurping of coffee or chewing of gum)

Human ears filter out a lot of extraneous noise where microphones tend to pick up sounds that are closest and loudest to them. While you may hear a speaker clearly from the other side of the room, a recorder will be hearing someone yawning, paper shuffling, a cell phone vibrating, the air conditioning kicking on and off, and so on.

Keep recording after they finish their story. You never know what they will say after they relax and then there is plenty of space to edit the ending.

Good luck with collecting those precious stories.

January 6th, 2011 by Shawn Callahan
Filed in: How to, Recording
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