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An introduction to digital audio recording Date: 09/28/07

One of the most common queries on AHCJ's electronic mailing list is "How do I record telephone calls?" We've compiled some of the answers and added some background about digital recording. This guide will be expanded to include more about recording in the field, editing audio files and using them on the Web. If you have questions that aren't answered here or suggestions about what would be helpful, please send them to web@healthjournalism.org and we'll try to incorporate them.

Editor's note: Be aware recording laws can vary by state, so consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press guide mentioned below.

Digital recorder with USB cable and flash memory cards

Digital recorder with USB cable and flash memory cards.

Table of contents
  1. About digital recording
  2. Cassettes and minidiscs
  3. Choosing a digital recorder
  4. Recording telephone interviews
  5. Which recorder to buy
  6. Where to buy equipment
  7. Some other recording solutions
  8. Sending/transferring audio files
  9. More sites for advice and help
  10. Multimedia training programs

About digital recording

Using a digital recorder - whether you are recording in person or over the phone - will allow you to upload the audio files to your computer or an MP3 player. Once uploaded to your computer, you can playback the audio and it can be edited for use on the Web if needed. You can record on a cassette recorder and then feed that into the computer (more on that), but it has to be played into the computer in real time. If you use a digital recorder, it will transfer the files to your computer much more quickly.

Cassettes and minidisks

You can use cassette or mini cassette recorders but there have been few improvements in the technology and feeding it into a computer - if that might be in your future - will be slow. Minidiscs have gone by the wayside as flash memory, used in digital recorders, has become common and less expensive.

Cord and adapter

Male-to-male audio cable and an adapter.

To transfer audio from a cassette recorder into your computer, you need a male-to-male audio cable ($4.99 at Radio Shack, catalog #42-2497). You might also need an inline adapter like this one ($4.59 at Radio Shack, catalog #274-367). Just plug that cable (and adapter, if needed) into the headphone jack of your recorder and the other end into the microphone jack of your computer. When you play the audio on your recorder, it will stream into your computer. You'll need some kind of software to capture that audio while it's playing - you can buy software or download some good free programs (look for more information on software in future installments of this guide). PCs and Macs do come with software that can do it too. Look for Sound Recorder on PCs (probably under Accessories > Entertainment) or GarageBand on a Mac.

Choosing a digital recorder

Some things to consider when choosing a digital recorder:

  • Batteries - Some devices use rechargeable, proprietary batteries. While that sounds good environmentally, be aware that you could be stuck without battery power at some point. If you choose a device that uses standard (usually AA or AAA) batteries, they're easily replaceable and you can carry extras with you.

  • Memory - Some devices have built-in flash memory, others use removable storage - such as flash memory cards. There are many names and formats for these; Wikipedia has a good chart. You want something with a good amount of memory that is easy to connect to your computer. Not long ago, the trend was to use minidisc recorders but as flash memory has gotten cheaper and more common, minidisc has gone by the wayside. The recording time will vary depending on how much memory you have and what quality setting you use for recording. For example, an Olympus DS-30 with 256MB can record 4 hours and 10 minutes at the highest quality setting (ST XQ mode); or 66 hours and 4 minutes at the lowest setting (LP mode).

  • Connecting the device to a computer - You want to be able to connect your recorder to your computer's USB port, either directly or with a USB cable. Some of the Olympus recorders (and probably others) are designed to come apart, revealing the USB plug - that eliminates having to keep track of a cable. Olympus recorders come with software that makes transferring, organizing and playing back the files fairly easy.

  • Compatibility - You'll always want to check and make sure that your recording device is compatible with your computer - Mac or PC. Some people have reported being told that the latest models are not Mac-compatible, but then trying them and finding out they work fine. The Web pages for the latest Olympus models seem to indicate that they are Mac-compatible.

Recording telephone interviews:

Remember, there are laws about recording telephone calls. Check on the legal issues using this guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

If you need to record a telephone interview, the most common practice seems to be using a recorder control that plugs into the phone line directly and connects to any recording device with a microphone input. (about $30 at Radio Shack, catalog #43-2208). Because it plugs directly into the phone line, you're going to get the best quality possible.

Other recommendations for recording phone calls involve using hybrid couplers. This site has an explanation and shows a variety of hybrid couplers. Explanations of some other products are on this site, as well. Some specific recommendations:

  • An inline device called Konnex 100 that has a mini-jack on one end for plugging into the recording device. The phone handset plugs into the Konnex, and the Konnex plugs into the phone base. It equalizes the signal between the two phones, for more even volume levels. The device connects a cassette recorder, or even the sound card in your computer, to most telephones.

  • The Hello Direct Inc. in-line telephone recorder plugs in between the phone and the handset with a dedicated line that goes to your recorder. Depending on the recorder, you may need a plug adapter.

  • If you're not using it for broadcast, you can use an Olympus TP-7 telephone pickup. Plug the TP-7 jack into the mic jack of your recorder and put the earphone in your ear. It doesn't make a great recording and it can get a little uncomfortable, but there is no special wiring needed.(Note: It appears this product has been discontinued - it shows up as "out of stock" on many online shopping sites.)

  • To use the audio for broadcast - radio, Web or TV - radio people recommend a Gentner hybrid coupler. Plug the hybrid to your phone, then run another cord out to your recording device and have your conversation. It's best to have a phone with a "mute" function so you can mute your end of the conversation while the other person's talking. (Update: This product may not be available any longer.)

  • DynaMetric makes "Telephone Logger Patches" that let you record both sides of your phone conversations. The product Web site says "They work with virtually any corded phone - analog, digital, IP, single-line or multi-line handset or headset."

NCH Swift Sound has software, with links to hardware you'll need and how to set it up, to record phone calls into your computer. Evaluation copies of the TRx software is available; licenses start at $38. Their call recording adapters start at $29.

Where to buy equipment:

So which recorder should I buy?

Olympus digital recorders were recommended by several people and are among the gear recommended by University of Florida Professor Mindy McAdams - though she notes that not all Olympus recorders are created equal.

Some other recording solutions:

Other people suggested using the Belkin TuneTalk device with an Apple IPod, with the caveat that you must have your iPod charger. The iPod tends to run out of juice quickly when recording. Using the TuneTalk and iPod combination, you can record in high-quality stereo (great sound, larger file size) or low-quality mono (great sound, monophonic, smaller files). (See some notes about mono and stereo recording.) It works with both PC and Mac and the voice memos are automatically downloaded to your computer each time you plug in the iPod.

Another person weighed in on using the iPod for recording: "I have several digital recorders, (and quite a few of the old microcassettes), but I have found that my favorite is my iPod. I do a lot of dictation of notes and the iPod works great. The voice memos can be downloaded into iTunes (or I'm sure any other media software) and organized into files. You have to buy a special adapter that fits on the bottom of the iPod, cost about $50. You can record with or without a mic. Playback then can be via on the computer or on the iPod. I love it. The sound quality is great."

O'Reilly Digital Media tested iPods with three popular add-on mics: the Belkin TuneTalk Stereo, Griffin iTalk Pro and XtremeMac MicroMemo.

Another person recommends the Marantz PMD 660 for professional recording, but it’s about $400. "My Marantz uses a flash card – which is nice. I can plug it via USB directly into my computer to download sound – and I can clear off recordings from the flash card so that it can be reused easily. The downside is the price, and the other downside is that it is still fairly new and some kinks haven’t been worked out. The batteries aren’t rechargeable – so I always carry extra. But of course it can be plugged in."

Audio Hijack Pro will let you record iChat/Skype or from a microphone directly into your computer ($32).

Audio Acrobat is a service allows you to record your phone calls into digital files. Using your three-way dialing feature, you call in to Audio Acrobat, punch in a PIN code and then flash over and call your source to conduct the interview. The interview is then recorded and stored as an MP3 file, which you access via the Web (with a user ID and all that). After a 30-day free trial, it costs $19.95 a month. You don't need any equipment and the company says the recording are the best quality possible using the phone. There are some possible downsides to this option:

  • You have to have access to your computer (PC or Mac) and access to the Web (broadband preferred)

  • You have to initiate the call so it doesn't work for someone calling you on the fly

  • Having interviews stored on the Web (even if it's supposed to be secure) may bother some.

A couple of things to know about recording in stereo

  • stereo takes up more memory than mono
  • if you're not recording with a stereo microphone you're negating any benefit. A mono mic (which many are) hooked to a machine set to record in stereo is just going to record a mono line of audio onto the left and right channels.

Sending/transferring audio files
YouSendIt.com has a free service that lets you move files up to a gigabyte or so. Note that once you sign up for the free service, you will get marketing messages urging you to upgrade. To use YouSendIt, you upload your file to the Web site, which notifies the intended recipient by e-mail that the download is waiting and provides them with the link to click on to download the file.

If you have access to an FTP server - usually through your news organization - that will let you upload the file and let another person download it. Check with your Web site staff or IT staff to find out if that is an option for you.

More sites for advice and help

Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida has put together some great resources with practical tips on equipment and software. Her resources are geared toward doing multimedia stuff for the Web, but her advice works well for any journalist. With many news organizations expecting reporters to provide Web material, her tips might be the best thing for you.

Richard Koci Hernandez of the San Jose Mercury News has a "starter kit" of gear he recommends, including audio recorders, on his MultiMediaShooter.com site. He also outlines what gear he carries.

Transom.org has a tools page that offers equipment reviews as well as tutorials on how to use it.

Ron Sylvester (AKA Multimedia Reporter) is chronicling his journey as he moves from print reporting to a multimedia reporter for Kansas.com.

Five Steps To Multimedia Reporting, from UC-Berkeley. This site, designed for reporters learning to do multimedia stories, offers some strong step-by-step tutorials. Use them to learn the basics or build your skills. Sponsored by the Knight New Media Center.

Good intro to what a compact flash recorder is and basics on using one.

BBC's online courses - free modules originally designed for BBC staff covering everything from using microphones and editing audio to shooting video.

Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive - A digital literacy guide for the information age

Multimedia training programs

These universities and journalism organizations sponsor multimedia and convergence seminars and training sessions.