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Homebrew phone recording solutions

IN REPLY to our appeal for advice on the best way to record phone interviews, we've had reports of some techniques that are surprisingly low-tech, improvised and "homebrew" but seem to have worked well for ages for the people who have used them for many years. If a low-tech recording method has worked for you for so long, there might not be any need to change it, however eccentric it may seem to the outside world.

It's becoming clear from replies that recording as a back-up to your written notes and recording for broadcast quality are two totally different things; and that maybe you shouldn't try the latter until you're really confident you know what you're doing.

While it's worth looking into using Skype and mobile phones as voice recorders, it's noticeable how many home recording solutions involve a low-tech, user-friendly landline, even though fewer and fewer of us still actually use a landline for anything except an internet connection.

Thanks to all those who've contributed so far, and keep them coming!

I don't have any specific extra equipment for recording phone interviews and have never had any problems - I use a standard Sony digital voice recorder in combination with a second telephone extension. Wedge the mic of the recorder against the earpiece of the phone - phone handset on table, recorder propped up on a CD cover so it's at the right height - and talk on a second extension. Works a treat. It's nearly as effective simply putting the telephone on loudspeaker, but there is more potential for background noise, especially when the cat's around!

The speakerphone trick doesn't work as well with the mobile because there's too much interference. This can be reduced by separating them by a couple of metres, but of course this then reduces the quality of the recording. However, on occasion I've hooked up the BlackBerry to the car's handsfree system, which means the recorder and the phone don't have to be as close to each other, minimising interference.

I have been a print and broadcast journalist for over 30 years now. For a good 25 years of that time I searched for the best way of making audio recordings of speech, either for interviews, or for notes because I don't have shorthand, or to record phone calls. Mostly I have recorded openly, and sometimes not, but I found that unless circumstances were tightly controlled there was always something lacking about audio tape, including a pretty good Marantz audio cassette player/recorder, Sony Walkman Professional, and Digital Audio Tape, regardless of the types of microphone, whether independently powered or not. There would always be some bits you could never make out on playback.

Then came the recording facility on my mobile. Never have I used any medium that was half as good. The Sony Ericsson V600 I used to have and the SE K770i that I now use have extraordinarily sensitive microphones and a codec for speech-recording that cancels out a vast amount of background noise. I expect other brands are similar, but I have not tried them. An added advantage is that the storage space required is extremely small. I once left a phone on record in error and later discovered I had recorded eight hours continuously. Not only had it not stopped recording, but the space taken on the phone was no more than about 10Mb (though I cannot recall precisely).

The range is extraordinary too and the clarity on playback incredible, though it is not suitable for music. Having made the recording, I copy the file to the computer and play it back on Quicktime, although I am sure other media players will do the job.

During the making of TV films I now use the phone to record a separate audio track in case I need to make a transcript of an interview. Otherwise I would have to dump the soundtrack into a file for later playback, and having the phone recording thus saves on time in the edit and avoids tying up the camera during the sound dump.

As for recording phone calls, I have not tried to do this consistently. It is fairly easy to use the inbuilt recording when recording phone conversations I have initiated, but harder on incoming calls. What I normally do in these circumstances is to use a landline, put that phone on speaker, and use the mobile to record the sound out of the landline phone speaker. That would have been a completely pointless exercise using previous recording methods but even this roundabout, sideways method of recording has never let me down. Sorry I couldn't be briefer about this, but you did ask and I have been singing the praises of mobile phone sound recorders for years now, especially as I find so few people know about their awesome capabilities.

I've been using Skype on a netbook, with a free programme called Pamela to record and Windows Media Player to play back. Does the job.

Olympus WS-110 digital voice recorder plus Olympus TP7 Telephone Pickup earpiece, powered by a rechargeable AAA battery has worked for me in phone interviews, face to face, in the audience at presentations and discretely a group discussion with the device inside the breast pocket of a jacket.

The USB connection transfers the .WMA file direct to my Mac which plays it back through QuickTime.

I hate recording interviews but it is a sensible back up to short-hand.

I use a homebrew device that I bought on Tottenham Court Road (London's leading budget electronics retail district) that goes into the phone socket on the wall. The telephone plugs into that and a cable with a stero mini jack on it allows me to make a recording. It's fine if you intend to transcribe the interview, but significantly below broadcast quality - which is annoying.

For Android phones (and maybe other operating systems) AllCallRecorder (Android Labs) is excellent. Starts recording automatically as soon as the phone app starts so it catches anything said before the call is answered and catches every call - you don't have to remember to start it. Filenames are date+time+number (if known). On the phone it shows the name if it's in the address book but annoyingly doesn't attach it to the file. Excellent quality - and free.

I used to have various black boxes that plugged into a landline socket and would start a cassette player automatically but they've all died now. I'd prefer to cut the cassette out of a system now and just go straight into the audio input of my Mac Pro. I'm sure that there must be something around to do that. Hope you find it it and tell us!

The internet telephony program Skype plus a program called "call recorder" automatically reproduces high-quality sound files in QuickTime format, which I actually also use for radio programmes. For print this allows transcription on the computer without stopping and starting a recorder since the QT programme is on screen.

For radio, it needs monitoring for transmission problems, but the quality, especially if it is a Skype-to-Skype call (rather than Skype-to-phone) is better than a landline plugged into the board.

  • Your experiences of recording phone interviews, please, to editor@londonfreelance.org. The inclusion of a product name should not be taken as an endorsement by the Freelance
Posted: 13 Jul 2010; last modified: 27 Aug 2010 - © 2010 contributors
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