Category Archives: Audio recording

Do You Make These 5 Common Audio Mistakes?

Imagine yourself in this situation. You’ve just completed videotaping an hour-long interview. It was  nicely lit and framed. And the interview itself was fantastic! Excitedly you rush back to your editing suite,  put up your interview to screen, and then the shock. The picture looks great but the audio is terrible. There’s nothing you can do to fix it. The interview is ruined!

I know that getting flawless sound all the time is nearly impossible. But you can improve the odds if you avoid making these 5 common audio mistakes.

1. Using the wrong microphone

All microphones are not created equal. The worse choice is using the microphone that comes with your video or audio recorder. These are passable for family events but not for a professional interview.  Built-in mics  pick-up the electronic clicks and whirs of the equipment and are sensitive to any hand contact.

Don’t use wireless mics for interviews unless you plan to spend the big bucks. Inexpensive wireless mics can pick up frequency interference from a host of sources such as cell phones, TV stations, CD players, computers, and PDAs.

Your best bet for interviews is to use a lapel mic or shotgun mic mounted on a stand. This will ensure better sound quality because the mic can be placed close to the subject.

2. not eliminating Background noise

Nothing spoils an interview more than background noise. You need to have the ears of a bat to eliminate unwanted sounds..

Make certain to turn off or unplug everything that you’ve control over. This includes heating and cooling systems,  refrigerators and freezers, radios and music players,  cell and land line telephone, and ticking clocks. Also make sure to close outside windows and the door to the interview room.

Before starting the interview put on your headphones and listen carefully for any stray background noise. If you’ve done your job thoroughly, all you should hear is the faint breathing of your subject.

3. Not using headphones

If you’re not wearing headphones, you can’t adequately monitor the quality of the audio you’re recording. Over-the ear headphones are the best. Spend some money and invest in a good pair. Failing that, anything is better than nothing. Even the earbuds from your iPod will do in a pinch.

4. recording with Automatic gain control

Unfortunately,  most consumer video and audio recorders come with Automatic Gain Control or AGC. While it’s easier to record sound it also produces poor quality.

The problem is that the gain control monitors the loudness or quietness of what you’re recording and automatically adjusts the level. For example, when the interviewee pauses, the AGC raises the recording level which in turn causes an increases in the ambient sound. When the person begins talking again the recording level is lowered. This produces a pulsing effect with the ambient sound that’s difficult to eliminate without time consuming sound editing.

Do yourself a favor and spend enough to purchase a recorder that has a manual gain control. It’ll mean monitoring your audio input continually, but you’ll end up with good sound.

5. Failing to eliminate electronic hum and buzz

Electromagnetic radiation or EMR  is produced by such devices as power cables, computer monitors, radios, and TVs. Placing your video or audio recorder and audio cables next to these EMR sources can result in an audible hum or buzz.

Make sure that all your recording equipment is separated as far as possible from these EMR sources. Even a few inches can make a difference. If that’s not possible, try crossing your power cable at right angles to your mic cables.

the bottom line

Don’t push the record button until you’ve done everything possible to ensure that your audio will be pristine.

Photo by Alper Tecer

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Encore! 5 Solutions for Recording Telephone Interviews.

5 Solutions for Recording Telephone Interviews. We all know there are times when the only way to get an interview is by using the telephone. And let’s face it, telephones weren’t designed for hi-fi sound. If you’re interviewing for a book, audio quality is not as critical as for an audio or video production.  Having said that, there are some ways you can capture a telephone interview that provides adequate sound.  Remember to use  a land line telephone because … Read More

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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The #1 Secret to a Successful Life Story Interview.

Picture this. You sit down to conduct a personal history interview. You pull out your voice recorder and your client looks stricken. You reassure her that there’s no need to worry and ask your first question. She looks at the floor and gives a brief two or three word response.  It doesn’t get any better. It feels as though your “pulling teeth”. Beads of perspiration break out on your forehead. You finish the interview and leave for home tired and discouraged.

What went wrong?

Some of you will say it was the voice recorder that made the client uneasy. Nope!  Not the recorder. Today’s devices are small and unobtrusive. There might be some initial discomfort but it passes – like gas. I’ve done hundreds of hours of interviews and within a few minutes people forget there’s even a recorder in the room. So don’t blame the recorder.

Sorry to say but the problem rests  with the interviewer. If you’re not comfortable with the equipment or anxious about getting a good interview or worried about the questions you’re going to ask, then your anxiety is going to rub off on your client.  Neuroscience research has uncovered “mirror neurons” which seems to indicate that if we see someone frowning or smiling, it triggers a similar internal reaction in us.

In a word  the #1  secret to a successful interview is rapport. Here’s what you need to do.

before the interview, Make your initial visit a “get-to-know” .

Nothing creates more anxiety in a client than rushing in all “business-like”, ready to record. Take an hour to have a conversation with your client. Stress the personal. Imagine you’re dropping in on a favorite aunt or uncle. Do talk about the upcoming interview but spend as much time if not more on small talk. I try to get a quick sense of people’s interests by looking at how they’ve decorated and what treasures they’ve chosen to display.  A question about a painting, photo, or figurine can unlock some charming stories. And it puts your client at ease. Find something in common – maybe it’s grandchildren, a favorite author, or similar childhood roots.

Arrive for the interview rested, mindful, Focused, and calm.

Remember that clients will pick up on your anxiety. This  in turn makes them anxious. When you walk through the door to a client’s home, you want to be smiling and aware of what is happening from moment to moment. To do that effectively, you need to be rested and focused solely on the interview at hand. How does your client look? How are you feeling? What extraneous activities or sounds are intruding on your interview space?

Before the interview begins, start with some small talk.

I never  set up my recorder or camera for an interview without first engaging my client in some small talk. It can be about the weather,  their day or week’s activities, or any other subject that’s informal. I find a sense of humor and some laughter go a long way to defuse anxiety. I’m also mindful that we’ve a job at hand and I don’t let the chatting eat up too much time.

Set up the recording equipment with Practiced nonchalance.

Don’t make setting up your recording equipment  a “big production”.  The more I consciously avoid flailing about with my recorder and microphone, the less distressing it is for my client. This means you have to know your equipment superbly. It’s not the time to begin fretting over what folder you’re recording in or why you’re not getting sound in your headphones. It also helps to keep some chit-chat going while you clip on a lavaliere mic and adjust the sound levels.

rapport. that’s the secret.

What techniques do you use to build rapport?

Photo by Chickpea

What’s The Connection Between Reflexology and Life Stories?

I visited my local vitamin shop last week and ended up sampling a free, ten-minute reflexology treatment.  My feet felt wonderful. This got me thinking. Reflexologists and personal historians face the same marketing challenge. People have heard about us but don’t really know what we’re about.

Samples help people make purchasing decisions. So I plan to include some free samples as part of my personal history marketing repertoire in the new year. Here’s what I’ve decided to do. You can try out my plan for yourself or adapt it and see what happens. If you’ve other “sampling” ideas, why not share them  in the comment box below?

The plan. I’ll suggest to my neighborhood  book store that I’d like to spend a day offering interested patrons a free, ten-minute, digitally recorded life story interview. The interviews, I’ll explain, will be conducted in a quiet corner  and will not interfere with the normal flow of customers.

The execution. I’ll have  some  ten-minute topics to suggest to a willing patron such as: Who was the biggest influence in your life? What are some important  life lessons you’ve learned?  What’s your  favorite childhood memory?

After the interview, I’ll download the recording and burn a CD on the spot. I’ll tuck it into a protective sleeve or case and hand it to my interviewee, along with a brochure that outlines the benefits  and services I provide.  Prior to the sample sessions, I’ll burn a label on the CDs that includes a title, such as Memories and my name and contact information.

How will people find me? There are a couple of possibilities. I’ll encourage the bookstore staff to mention my free offer.  If space permits, I’ll set up a chair with a sign above me that reads. 

Preserving Memories Is An Act of Love. Get your free mini-memoir recorded here.

A footnote. Because the sample interview is a free offering, I want to keep my costs and time to a minimum. That’s why I’m planning to download and burn CDs on the spot. This ensures that at a later date I don’t have to deliver or mail out CDs. Besides, the interviewees will appreciate being able to take away their mini-memoir immediately.

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How to Salvage a Damaged Audio Cassette.

audio tape brokenThis article was inspired by a personal history colleague of mine  in Victoria.  She wondered if I knew anyone who could fix an audio cassette that no longer seemed to work in her recorder. I confessed that I didn’t have any recommendations. So I got to thinking, “How difficult is it to repair an audio cassette?” I did some research.  Then I took apart a cassette  and amazingly put it back together again!  It requires patience and a steady hand but it’s not an impossible job. A word of caution. Tapes that have melded from prolonged exposure to heat and humidity are not something you’re likely to fix on your own. This will require a professional conservator and be a costly undertaking. But if your problem is a tape that has become mangled inside its case or the cassette mechanism is broken, then here’s what you can do. My advice would be to  practice first on another tape before tackling the one you want to repair.

Broken Cassette

  1. Purchase a cassette shell from an A/V supplier or find a good cassette that you’re no longer using. Open it up and remove the original tape.
  2. Find a clean table and place your cassette flat with the screw side facing up.
  3. Take a small Phillips screw driver and carefully remove the five screws. Place them in a small container.
  4. Carefully lift the top off, noting how the tape is threaded in the mechanism and the placement of the components. The picture below should cassette 2
  5. Lift your tape out of the old shell and thread it carefully into the new one. Make sure to keep the tape untwisted.
  6. Place the top back on the cassette, making sure that all the pieces fit and that nothing is pinched. Insert the screws and tighten.

Mangled tape

  1. Open the cassette as described above and survey the damage.
  2. If the tape is crinkled, just leave it. The sound may not be perfect but cutting out the offending piece or trying to smooth it out will only make the situation worse.
  3. If the tape is broken, you can purchase a splicing kit or do it yourself with some sharp scissors or razor blade and Scotch tape. Not perfect but it’ll work.
  4. If the edges of the broken tape are ragged, trim just a fraction off each end. Remember that whatever you cut off will also cut out some of your recorded audio.
  5. Cut a piece of Scotch tape exactly the width of your tape and about 3/8″ long. Trim off any overhang. Failure to do this will cause the tape to stick to the internal mechanism.
  6. Place half  of the Scotch tape on one end of the audio tape and press it down firmly. Make sure your tape is straight. If it isn’t, the tape will run unevenly and may be damaged further. Now attach the other half of the Scotch tape to the remaining half of audio tape making sure to form a seamless joint. Don’t overlap the ends. Press down firmly on this remaining segment.
  7. Carefully rethread your tape and seal up the cassette as described above.

One final word. Once you’ve made your repairs, plan to transfer your tape to a digital format as soon as possible. You can find out how to do that here.

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5 Solutions for Recording Telephone Interviews.

telephoneWe all know there are times when the only way to get an interview is by using the telephone. And let’s face it, telephones weren’t designed for hi-fi sound. If you’re interviewing for a book, audio quality is not as critical as for an audio or video production.  Having said that, there are some ways you can capture a telephone interview that provides adequate sound.  Remember to use  a land line telephone because cell phone reception is  poor. You should also make sure that you are familiar with the laws in your jurisdiction pertaining to the recording of telephone conversations. For US laws click here.

Here are five options that you might consider for your next telephone interview:

  • Olympus TP-7 Telephone recording device. About $19.00. A simple and inexpensive device. The TP-7  picks up both sides of a conversation. Just plug the TP-7 jack into the “MIC” jack of your recorder, and put the earphone side into your ear.
  • JK Audio QuickTap. About $56.00. A  passive telephone tap features a mono mini output which can be used to send a mix of both sides of the conversation to recording devices, amplifiers, etc.  Cell phones and telephones with keypads in the handset are not compatible. The JK Audio QuickTap is lightweight and portable, requiring no external power.
  • JK Audio Broadcast  Host. About $470.00. This is for the serious professional. The JK Audio Broadcast Host “...connects audio signals to a standard analog telephone line without the transmit/receive crosstalk common to analog hybrids. The Digital Signal Processor (DSP) continuously monitors both the phone line and audio signals to deliver excellent separation. This proprietary, dual-convergence echo canceller algorithm can achieve excellent separation, typically exceeding 50 dB, without any setup and without sending a noise burst down the line.”
  • Skype. For a long series of  interviews you can save money by using Skype. It’s a free computer to computer service and comes with its own down loadable recorder. Skype’s computer to telephone rates are competitive and average between $.02 and $.03 a minute for many long distance calls. One of the advantages of Skype is that it doesn’t tend to record the same kind of line noise that you get on a standard phone.
  • and Free conference calls are simple and easy to use,  requiring only a name and an e-mail address to receive an instant account. If you want to include other family members in your interview or just interview one person, these services might be just what you need. And the calls are recorded for later retrieval. Those you interview will have to pay  long distance rates.

I hope these suggestions are of some help. If you’re using other methods that have worked for you, please let me know by sending a comment.

Photo by Daniela Vasconcelo

Part Two: How to Find an Audio Recorder That’s Right for You.

Olympus WS-321M

Olympus WS-321M

Last week I wrote a post about my search for a new audio recorder and some good options in the $600US to $300US range. You can check it out here. This week I’ve focused my research on recorders under $30oUS. Just click on the product for more information.

  • Tascam DR-1: About$300US to $250US.  “The Tascam DR-1 is a very good, affordable, fun-to-use recorder that sounds good too.” And Musician’s Friend writes, “The TASCAM DR-1 brings innovative portable recording to a size and price that make it the recorder you can’t leave behind. This hand-held portable recorder lets you record live gigs, rehearsals,  samples, songs, podcasts, or news events in MP3 or 24-bit WAV format. The DR-1 recorder’s built-in stereo condenser microphone can be arranged in variable angles to fit different recording scenarios,  such as desktop or shirt-pocket recording. A huge 1GB card is included for hours of recording.”
  • Tascam DR-07: About $280US to $200Us. ” The TASCAM DR-07 Handheld Digital Recorder lets you record to SD or SDHC Card Media. A stereo pair of electret condenser microphones captures great-sounding performances as 24-bit WAV or MP3 files. A 1GB SD card is included with the portable recorder.The TASCAM DR-07 is powered by AA batteries and files can be transferred to your computer using a high-speed USB 2.0 connector. All of this recording power is contained in a compact, sturdy case that has a mic stand mounting hole. Includes windscreen.” Musician’s Friend.
  • Zoom H2: About $180US. “The Zoom H2 is a very convenient small recorder, and can give remarkably good sound when using its internal microphones. It’s especially good at picking up musical performances or collecting stereo ambiences of events that are at least moderately loud. Internal noise resulting from turning the input gains all the way up make it ill-suited for recording very quiet, delicate events. And using external microphones, as would be preferable for most interviews, gives poor results overall. So this machine can be a valuable tool in the recordist’s kit, but won’t be suitable for all circumstances. But its price, size and flexibility make it attractive as a recorder to carry at all times, in order to capture spontaneous moments, or to dedicate it to specific tasks, such as recording ambiences, demos and musical performances.”
  • Yamaha Pocketrak 2G : About $200US. “…the Pocketrak 2G is a solid — albeit pricey — choice for interviewers, students, and business types who need a tiny, large-capacity voice recorder that handles both MP3 and WAV files. In fact, with a built-in USB terminal and swappable battery, it is the ideal recorder for the backpacking ethnographer.” Review by O’Reilly.
  • Sony ICD-MX20:About $200US. “Reviewers are satisfied with the recording capability, software, and clear audio quality although there were issues with the tiny user interface and user manual. If you can overlook the user interface and user manual, it’s a decent option.”
  • Olympus WS-321M: About $100US. “The WS-321M is a voice recorder first, and it does this well…All in all, the 321M offers enough advanced recording options to make it ideal for professional use. The 321M, however, is far more adept as a recorder than it is as an MP3 player..”

Choosing an audio recorder is a very individual matter. So, I’m not going to tell you what you should buy. You have to work within your budget and decide what will be your primary use for the recorder. Are you going to record interviews that will be transcribed and turned into a book? If this is the case, audio quality doesn’t need to meet  broadcast standards. Are you recording interviews to edit and transfer to CD?  In this situation you’ll want the best audio audio you can afford.

What did I finally choose? I went with the Olympus WS-321M, not because it was the cheapest  but because it met my needs right now. I work primarily  in video and only occasionally have clients who wish a book or audio memoir produced. I didn’t want to go with a more expensive recorder that wouldn’t see much use. I  budgeted no more than $200 so that ruled out a good many of the recorders on my list. The Yamaha and Sony were possibilities as was the Zoom H2. The H2 has had a lot of good press but there are serious questions about noise when using an  external mic. And because I like to use a lavaliere mic when conducting interviews, this made me nervous about the H2.

Olympus has had a long history of producing good quality voice recorders and the reviews for the WS-321M were positive. I also had the opportunity of “test” driving a model and felt the audio quality was suitable for my purposes. There are some drawbacks to the WS-321M. It doesn’t record in WAV or MP3 but in WMA (Windows Media Audio). This means using free downloaded software to convert to  WAV, MP3 or AIFF format. It’s not a big deal but it’s another step you need to go through. The recorder has only one external mic input which doesn’t allow the interviewer to be on mic. Again, not critical but it’s nice to hear the interviewer’s questions as clearly as the subject’s response. But for the price, I’m not complaining.

I hope that my research has been of some help to you. Do you have a favorite recorder that I didn’t list? Let me know what you use and what you like about it.

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Part One: How to Find an Audio Recorder That’s Right for You.

Marantz PMD 620

Marantz PMD 620

It’s time for me to upgrade my audio recorder and I’ve been doing some research on what’s out there. I thought you might find what I’ve discovered of some value  if you’re planning on getting a new recorder.  This week I’m concentrating  on solid state field recorders which range in price from about $600 US to $300 US.  Next week I’ll tell you what I found in the under $300 price range.

Solid state recorders contain no moving parts and record audio directly to memory cards. The advantage of these machines is that there are no moving parts to wear out or jam. The recorders I’ve listed here all produce high quality sound, ideally suited for creating legacy quality audio memoirs. I’ve used one of my favorite sites, to do my research. You can find out more information by clicking on each recoder listed.  Next week I’ll tell you what machine is right for me.

Marantz PMD 661 : About $600 US. “There are new, smaller, less-expensive recorders from Zoom and Tascam that feature XLR inputs and phantom power, but the sound quality and ergonomics of the 661 set a high bar to leap over. If the size is not a problem, and the approximately $600 pricetag is affordable, the PMD 661 is worth considering.”

Sony PCM-D50 : About$500 US. “Overall, the Sony PCM-D50 is a very well-built recorder, … The internal mics sound great, and most impressively, external mics do as well. It comes with 4 gigs of built-in memory, which will provide a lot of record time, even without buying any removable Memory Sticks… among all the small handheld flash recorders, the Sony D50 certainly is near the front of the pack. It does most things right, with only a few minor problems, and no tragic flaws.”

Marantz PMD 620 : About $400 US. “With its small size, easy operation, and relatively clean sound with popular reporters’ microphones, the PMD 620 is almost an ideal choice.”

Olympus LS-10 : About $400 US. ” For simplicity, size, and ease of use, the Olympus LS10 is near the head of the pack of recent flash media recorders. Its small size, quiet mic preamps, compatibility with external mics and long battery life make it very attractive to reporters and field recordists.”

Zoom H4 Digital Recorder : About $300 US. “The Zoom H4 is an extremely versatile machine, perhaps a little over-complicated, but if left in stereo recording mode, can be easily operated without too much menu navigation. The excellent built-in mics and combo XLR/1/4″ jacks for external inputs make it able to work in many circumstances.”

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Are You Ready To Make Thanksgiving Memorable?

If you’re like me traditional holidays can sometimes feel like an obligation – the true meaning lost amidst crass commercialism and forced conviviality. Thanksgiving in Canada is only a week away on October 13th and in the United States it falls on November 27th.

Why not put thankfulness back into Thanksgiving by planning to record some favorite Thanksgiving memories along with the turkey and pumpkin pie. Arrange ahead to interview Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, or an ancient aunt who has so many wonderful stories to tell. Have a voice or video recorder handy and find a quiet part of the home were you can capture some wonderful memories of Thanksgivings past. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • What was your most memorable Thanksgiving? Where was it? Who was there? What was happening?
  • What do like most about Thanksgiving?
  • How has Thanksgiving changed over the years?
  • What does Thanksgiving mean to you?
  • How was Thanksgiving celebrated when you were a child?

Make this Thanksgiving memorable by taking the time to unlock and record remembrances of Thanksgivings past.

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving memory? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo by Marlene