The Secret to Recording Audio Like the Pros.

How would you like your voice to be remembered? If it’s recorded for posterity, hopefully you’d want the audio to be crystal clear, natural, and devoid of background distractions.

As personal historians we owe it to our clients to record the best quality audio interviews possible. I know some of you may be saying, “But I produce books and so the audio isn’t critical. I only use the audio for transcription purposes.”

I beg to differ. For families, hearing the voice of a loved one years after their death is a special gift. So even if you just produce books, it’s still essential to provide your clients with an archival set of well recorded interviews. Sound counts. Don’t mess it up!

I learned about producing high quality audio recordings from the sound recordist I used on my early documentaries. At first he drove me nuts with his perfectionism. But I learned valuable lessons from him that I still apply to my personal history interviews today.

Here’s how to record like a pro:

Use a top-notch digital audio recorder.

Good sound starts with good equipment and there are many choices out there. I previously wrote about some of these here and here.

Among personal historians there are those who favor the Marantz recorders – PMD661PMD 620, or PMD 660. Some like the Fostex FR2-LE . The Zoom H4 and H2 are popular with others. All are good choices with the nod going to those that have XLR microphone inputs. These inputs allow for the use of quality professional mics.

The bottom line is to use the best recorder your budget can afford.

Use a high quality microphone. 

Don’t rely on the built in microphones on your audio recorders or cameras. Trust me, they produce poor sound. Buy the best condenser lavaliere (lapel) omnidirectional microphone you can afford.  Expect to pay from $100 to $400. Quality costs  but you won’t regret it. Why an omnidirectional condenser mic? The sound quality for interview purposes is  better than with a directional microphone.

For more information on microphones check out these articles:

Which Lavaliere Should I Use?

Guide to Lavaliere Microphones

Record in a quiet environment.

Stay indoors. It’s nearly impossible to control outdoor sounds what with planes, car horns, kids shouting, loud birds, and wind. Inside a home find the quietest room. It’s usually the living room or bedroom because of the carpeted floors and draped windows. Make sure to pull the drapes closed and shut the door.  The more sound absorbing  surfaces that surround you, the better the sound.

Take a moment to listen for any unwanted background sounds – ticking clocks, air conditioner or furnace fans, refrigerator, fluorescent light buzz, radio or TV, computer hum. Ask your interviewee if you might turn these “noise generators” off. And don’t forget to disconnect the telephone! A word of caution. Before leaving, make sure you’ve turned everything back on.

Always use headphones.

You can’t monitor the audio without wearing a good set of headphones. My advice is to use circumaural headphones – ones that go fully around the ear. This type of headphone is comfortable to wear and produces quality sound.  Sony, Audio-Technica, and Sennheiser are good makes. Expect to pay between $100 and $200 for an entry level headphone.

Listen for unwanted background sounds such as those mentioned above. In addition, be attentive for your interviewee popping “Ps” or producing sibilant “Ss”.  Moving the lapel mic so that it’s not in a direct line with the subject’s mouth can sometimes help.

Run a short test of your equipment.

Before leaving for your interview check your recorder, mic, and headphones to ensure everything is working properly. Once you’re at your interviewee’s home, take a moment to test the audio. Ask your subject an easy question such as, “Tell me about a favorite meal of yours.” or “Describe the room we’re sitting in.”  Stop and replay the recording listening carefully to the quality of the sound. If it’s clear and free of unwanted noise, you’re good to go.


Poor audio is the mark of an amateur. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good recorder, microphone, and headphone. And you can quickly learn to monitor your recording environment to get the best sound possible. By following these tips you’ll record audio like a pro and leave your clients with a treasured audio legacy.

Photo by  flora cyclam

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2 Responses to The Secret to Recording Audio Like the Pros.

  1. Amen, amen, Dan. I couldn’t agree more. There is an expression that “A picture is worth a thousand words”. But I wonder how many of our members have heard the follow-on to that statement which is “A sound is worth a thousand pictures.”? Your tips about all the sound generating devices in the typical home is also right on. One tip: If you turn off a noisy refrigerator, put your car keys inside so that you do NOT leave without turning the box back on. Not that it ever happened to me, but….you know….guys talk….you hear things. ;-)

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