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   Interview recording tips

In these notes I offer some practical approaches that can help keep transcription costs down. These are based on my personal observations over many years of transcribing oral history and court proceedings. To keep transcription cost to a minimum, there is no substitute for a good, clear recording that is well-documented.

When considering this and other advice, always keep in mind the purpose and character of your project. Sometimes the guidelines must be set aside because the flow and spontaneity of your interview depends on a particular environment. Sometimes it is just not practical to eliminate all sources of noise, and sometimes it may even be desirable to include it.

Make friends with your technology so that you can get the best out of it. It will not always be possible to achieve the ideal of a separate microphone and recording channel for each speaker, but whether or not you have this option there are many additional ways to maximise the quality of your recording.

Before you begin, make a test recording. Where possible, assign a separate microphone and channel to each speaker. Once everyone is relaxed, record a segment of natural conversation involving all participants (interviewer included). Then listen back to the recording. If there is no significant background noise, each speaker is clear and there is a good balance between voices, you are ready to begin! If not, make adjustments then conduct another test. A little patience at this stage is rewarded by a top-quality recording and the knowledge that your participants' valuable information has been safely captured. Don't rely on your equipment's meters alone - a machine is no match for human ears! Instead, always listen back and adjust with confidence where necessary.

Stay alert during the course of the interview for any changes and be prepared to pause for further adjustments if needed.

Background noise

Develop your awareness of background sounds. They can seem insignificant in real life but may interfere strongly with speech when the recording is played later. Here are some examples:

  • splashing water (creeks, taps, rainstorms, waterfalls)
  • machinery (cars, trains, buses, aeroplanes, lawnmowers)
  • rustling papers (notes, maps)
  • contact with microphone (fingers, clothing, fidgeting)
  • moving air (wind, breath)
  • playing children, animals
  • ringing telephones, chiming clocks
  • crockery and cutlery
  • music and videos

 

Positioning and volume

Simple adjustments to the position of seating and equipment can be very helpful to avoid common transcription challenges:

  • volume difference between speakers, or between interviewer and others - adjust distance of participants from microphone
  • more than one person speaking at a time - seat far apart and assign to separate recording channels
  • low or high overall recording volume, causing dropouts or distortion - adjust input levels
  • speech directed away from microphone or participants moving around the room - check microphone placement
  • echo in the room (typically caused by hard, shiny surfaces) - try drawing the curtains or select a room with carpet rather than bare floorboards

 

Time-saving tactics

Good record-keeping practices will help you to maintain continuity, avoid confusion and cut down on extra research later:

  • before inserting each card, disk or tape, label with interviewee's name, date and card [etc] number
  • at the beginning of each card, announce place, date and project title
  • introduce each speaker by name
  • when interruptions occur, pause the recording and when you start again provide a brief spoken acknowledgment of the break
  • maintain notes on name and place spellings, acronyms, etc, when available
  • at conclusion of interview, write total number of items on each label (eg 'card 1 of 4')

For specialist guidance on historical collection techniques and recording machinery, it is wise to consult the experts.

Beth M. Robertson's Oral history handbook provides excellent up-to-date information on interview techniques and recording technology suitable for oral history collection. It is available from the Oral History Association of Australia (South Australian Branch) Inc, website: www.ohaa-sa.com.au.

To learn more about training workshops, access to equipment and other assistance for oral history collection in South Australia, contact the State Library of South Australia and the Oral History Association of Australia SA Branch.

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Kate Battersby July 2007. All rights reserved.
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