Six essentials for recording phone interviews

My Skype recording setup includes this backup, listening through the recorder.

My Skype recording setup includes this backup, listening through the recorder.

As a radio reporter, I had to record my phone interviews. When I started print reporting, I tried just taking notes, and then went back to recording. Ultimately, I found that recording phone interviews helps me:

• get quotes exactly right
• focus on the interview
• ignore note-taking mechanics, and
• avoid those awkward moments when interviewees notice my typing or, worse, that I haven’t taken notes on something they think is important.

So now I record every interview even if I’m sure I’m not going to use it for a radio piece or a podcast.

Essential to my phone-recording practices:

Obey the law. The law varies by state and country, but in the United States you are pretty much in the clear if everyone knows you are recording. Consent has its limits, of course, so I read The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide anytime I have a question. If that guide doesn’t answer my question, then it’s time for an attorney. I also always tell interviewees I don’t do “gotcha journalism” and explain that a significant pause to think about an answer is perfectly acceptable. Finally, when I start the recording, I ask the interviewee to introduce him/herself and to state that they know they are being recorded so I have a recording of the interviewee’s consent.

Record it yourself. There are a number of online services that offer to record your phone interviews for you. Some of these services require all parties to dial the same number. Others require that you have three-way calling capacity and so you briefly put your interviewee on hold while you dial the service number. Still others allow you to record every conversation to/from your phone number(s) without even requiring you to do anything but register. All of these services may be extremely useful, but read the small print: I have yet to find a service that will guarantee the recording is made and intelligible. That’s why I always record it myself.

Listen through your recorder. The only way to be sure you’re getting the recording is if you are listening to the recording through the recorder itself. This means having headphones plugged in to the headphone jack of your recorder, whether it’s a handheld device or computer. An in-ear gadget like the Olympus TP-8 allows you to capture both sides of a phone conversation, but it does not let you hear what the recorder is recording because it is plugged into the microphone jack. Only by plugging in headphones into the headphone jack can you hear what the recorder is actually capturing. I use Sony MDR-7506 earphones whenever I can, but smaller, in-ear noise-isolating headphones such as the Etymotic hf5 are great, too.

Save as you go. Whatever recording setup you use, always save as you record. Devices or software that save once you stop recording are useless if, say, a power outage happens mid-interview. Minidisc devices did this, and when they became obsolete, I celebrated by giving mine away and buying a “flash-media” based recorder (a Sony ICD-SX700, no longer available, but there are many such recorders on the market). Still, today many computers and software programs are like those old Minidisc recorders (i.e., recording to a spinning disc, such as a hard drive), useless in terms of saving your recording if there is a mid-interview power interruption or crash. So, if you record via Skype with a plug-in software program, then you can still be sure to save as you go by attaching a handheld flash-media recorder to your computer. In the end, you may have two recordings, but if the power goes out mid-interview, at least you’ll have one up until the power went out. You can always delete the duplicate.

Know your equipment. Whichever recording setup you choose, read the manual(s). I like to experiment and play with equipment, but I always read the manual after doing so. That’s because a few painful experiences have taught me that without a thorough knowledge of my equipment I might conclude an interview without a recording or capture one that is completely useless. As of the time of this writing, my 5-year-old Sony ICD-SX700 still records about 90 minutes on the radio-quality setting (44.1KHz, 16-bit), but I know that changing it to the highest compression setting (for a non-radio interview) is meaningless without a spare set of batteries: it will record in a mp3 format for dozens of hours longer than the batteries last.

If it works, stick with it. There’s always a new recording gadget, software program, and app coming on the market, with plenty of marketing dollars spent on convincing you that you have to have it. I’m constantly tempted and  often succumb, buying back-ups to my back-ups. But I’ve returned a lot of it and still go with much of the same equipment I’ve used for years:

In this preference for the tried-and-true, it appears I’m not alone: the radio people who run Transom and the Media Bistro folks who oversee the 10,000 Words blog haven’t updated their how-tos for telephone recording since 2009. Having had a peek at the initial results from our 2013 recording survey, the only post-2009 equipment that has much popular support is the LiveScribe pen and PearNote software (for Mac), but neither of those are made for recording from the phone (there are work-arounds, but they are a bit complicated). Sure, I’d much rather conduct my interviews in person. But with more and more of my work done remotely, recording my phone interviews and sticking with what works gives me the peace of mind to focus on the interview rather than on the equipment.

Photo by SciLancer Virginia Gewin

Journalist Robert Frederick primarily reports on physical sciences and economics, but will follow a good story wherever it leads. In doing so, he has reported on most sciences, health, policy, education and business. Working in multiple media, Frederick has credits ranging from Science to NPR, Financial Times to PNAS, among many others. He has held positions at Science, American Scientist, and St. Louis Public Radio. He currently freelances from western North Carolina.

13 responses to “Six essentials for recording phone interviews”

  1. Anne Sasso

    Great post, Rob. Thanks for the helpful tips.
    So, when you are wearing those cushy-looking Sony headphones, what microphone is picking up your side of the conversation?

  2. Robert Frederick

    Thanks, Anne.
    In the picture, I’m making a back-up recording for Skype, so the computer’s internal microphone is picking up my side of the conversation. To answer your question more fully, if I need a radio-quality version of my side of the conversation, then I talk through both the computer’s microphone and another microphone (attached to another recorder, and later sync the audio together). I then wear two sets of headphones — an in-ear headphone and the squishy ones on top. It’s not ideal, but it is cheap and it works.

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  4. KristofferA

    I resently purchased a combi-solution (http://www.sommer-as.dk/philips-dvt3600-diktafon.html), where dictaphone and pick-up are bought together. My point is that the pick-up has a microphone in one ear and speaker in the other, allowing for simultaneous recording and listening. Don’t know if Olympus makes one as well, but the above mentioned page doesn’t seem to have one, so they might not..?

  5. Robert Frederick

    Thanks, KristofferA — the combi-solution you referenced is a new piece of gear that combines the functionality of the Olympus TP-8 with a digital recorder into one piece, and then adds another digital recorder on top of that.

    To the advantage you mentioned, however, I accomplish the same thing by using my Olumpus TP-8 in the microphone jack of my current recorder, the headphones plugged into the headphone jack, and just wear the headphones over one ear to listen through the recorder.

    There is another advantage, however, to your new piece of gear! It adjusts the recording of your voice separately from the telephone recording. Because there is only one microphone jack, it captures your voice using the built-in stereo microphones. Of course, this means it will also capture much of the noise in the surrounding environment, but the engineers anticipated that problem and included what they describe as an “innovative intelligent recording algorithm” to optimize the recording of your voice. I don’t know how well that works, but if it works well, then it makes it a very useful piece of gear if you’re recording telephone conversations away from the studio and then need to make both sides of the conversation quickly available, say, on the air or for posting online. Thanks for pointing it out!

    For anyone reading here in the U.S., it isn’t widely available yet (not yet on Amazon in the U.S., for example, as of November 13, 2013), but here is the link to the Philips site in English, where you can find retailers — https://www.dictation.philips.com/products-solutions/product/voice_tracer_digital_recorder_dvt3600/overview/

  6. Jennifer Carpenter

    Thanks for this post, Rob. I realise you don’t want this comment stream to become a venue for journalists with sound problems that need to be solved by you, so instead could you direct me to a forum that is design for troubleshooting sound difficulties?

    I’ll explain the problem I am having so you can send me somewhere appropriate. I use a system where I disconnect the handset of my standard wired phone, and reconnect it through a small device designed to plug in to the phone’s handset socket and pass the signal on uninterrupted, while also providing a duplicate audio output line suitable for connection to a recorder (my computer, where I use Pearnote). I am using a less fancy device than the Retell 157 telephone cord splitter.

    The problem I have is that I can’t have my computer’s power plugged in at the same time I am recording because I get a terrible hum on the line. I think it is to do with earthing. I could just unplug my computer when recording, but its battery is shot. This must be a common problem with lots of solutions out there, but where to find them?

    1. Robert Frederick

      Hello Jenny, I wish there were a single go-to forum for such problems, but the causes and cures of hum vary widely.

      From your description, it sounds like you have what is called a “mains hum” or “ground loop hum.” Searching on those terms may find you an appropriate forum, but I do not have one to recommend (simply for lack of research into such forums).

      However, given that you’ve already identified a solution to your own particular problem — unplugging your computer — I’d suggest you just unplug your computer and buy yourself a new computer battery.

      That’s because I understand you split your time between Canada and the U.K.. Less expensive than a new battery is a “hum eliminator,” but you’ll need one for each electrical system. In Canada, you can use this –
      http://www.ebtechaudio.com/humxdes.html
      – which costs about $60, at least here –
      http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/365781-REG/Ebtech_HUM_X_Hum_X_Ground_Loop.html

      Some shopping will help you find an equivalent product for the U.K., but it will likely cost around the same.

      (Note: in your shopping, you may come across something called a “ground lift” that is less expensive. Avoid it. Using one of those removes the grounding safeguard and so puts your equipment at risk. A ground lift is an extremely helpful tool for folks who run large sound systems — like for a rock concert — but those folks have other, much more expensive protection systems in place to safeguard their equipment).

      So, if you’re going to buy two of the ground-hum eliminators — one for Canada and one for the U.K. — you may as well just get yourself a new battery for your computer.

      (In case you have an older Mac, like I do, and think it is too old to get yourself a new battery from Apple (because Apple does stop carrying older batteries), try Other World Computing — http://eshop.macsales.com — and if they do not have it, search the model number of your battery on Amazon.)

      All that said, if you have more time than money, you could instead filter out the noise using a free program like Audacity — http://wiki.audacityteam.org/wiki/Noise_Removal — but I’m guessing the hum is so annoying that you don’t want to listen to it during the telephone call, either, never mind dealing with filtering it out of the recording.

      I hope that helps.

      For anyone else reading, it’s important enough to say again that there are lots of possible causes/cures of hum.

  7. Stephanie

    Rob, this is good stuff. The managing editor for my publication records and then personally transcribes all her interviews. I’d like to see her hand over the transcription to some other source so she can spend her valuable time doing other things. What are your suggestions for transcription options, do’s and don’ts? Thank you!

    1. Robert Frederick

      Thanks, Stephanie.

      Regarding transcription: unless you need to post the interview as a transcript, I recommend (and do myself) what the radio people call “logging.” You can read more about it here — http://www.airmedia.org/PageInfo.php?PageID=240

      For me, logging just means listening to the interview again — in real time, no stopping the recording playback — and making notes as to significant content, good quotes, and emotion (and the times in the recording those moments happened so you can go back to the recording as needed, later, when writing the story). I try to do the logging right after the conversation because it helps cement in my mind the content of that interview.

      But if you (or your managing editor) really need a transcript, then absolutely hire it out to a professional transcriptionist, who has tools to slow the recording down (or speed it up for slow-talkers) and so can transcribe a recording faster than seems humanly possible.

      That said, do reserve time to review the transcript and compare it to the recording (or, if you have to post it immediately, then put in something about how the transcript was generated and that it was not checked for accuracy).

      Another way to put that last sentence: Don’t expect to lift quotes straight from the transcript without checking them against the recording. So, you may want the transcriptionist to occasionally note times (e.g., to note “15:21″ for 15 minutes and 21 seconds in to the interview) when there’s a moment between statements as this can help in reviewing the transcript against the recording just for those quotes you want.

      Why review the transcript? Because of the tools transcriptionists use to speed up their work and/or because they do not have the context of the interview or may not know the subject, it can be very difficult for transcriptionists to get all the words and punctuation right. All those funny spelling and punctuation errors that happen when people write (“Eats, shoots and leaves” — may describe a gun-slinger — vs. “Eats shoots and leaves” — may describe a panda… and there’s a book on the topic with that as title, as you may know) get multiplied in transcribing audio.

      Sure, you can pay the transcriptionist to review the transcript with you providing interview context, any special words, knowledge, etc. to help the transcriptionist in making that review, but you shouldn’t expect that kind of review service automatically and should still review quotes anyway to avoid misquoting your interviewee.

      I hope my reply helps you and your managing editor out, speeds things up for you all, and so saves you valuable time. Thanks for your question and nice comment on the blog.

  8. SUSAN CINGARI

    GREAT POST THANKS SUSAN

    1. Robert Frederick

      Thank you, Susan!

  9. Josie

    Thank you! I’ve been stressing about phone interviews because the recording app I used on my phone failed me last round. Time to upgrade!

    1. Robert Frederick

      You’re welcome — so glad you found it useful.

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