Recording what people say

General guidelines for all types of audio recording

Here are some audio recording guidelines that may be useful to you. Keep in mind that you are going to be listening to the recording you make for several hours while you transcribe it. Taking the time to get a relatively clear recording is worth it, but please note: The guidelines that follow are a "lite" version and focus primarily on analog audio recording. You can download a more complete set of guidelines here: More Detailed Guidlines pdf

How to Set-Up

Controlling EXTRANEOUS SOUND: Try to conduct the interview in a relatively quiet room. If a room is noisy, get yourself and your microphone as close to the person you are interviewing as you can. Put the tape recorder on a flat surface. If the surface is hard, place something soft under the tape recorder so you don't pick up sound from the surface itself -- a cloth, paper back book, short stack of $50 bills, etc. is fine.

POWER: Use fresh batteries or an AC power adapter -- don't trust batteries that have already been used for some other purpose to carry you through the interview.

Equipment Check: THIS IS IMPORTANT!

Check your equipment out fully before you use it in a live interview. Don't be afraid to appear foolish to other members of your household. Turn the recorder on and talk to it from the position you expect to be in during an interview. Walk around to different positions, talking at different voice levels to see how well it picks up your voice. Listen to the recording to see what you got and refine your placement/set-up accordingly. This is the single most important thing you can do to get a decent recording.

Types of Audio Recording Equipment

Digital Audio Recording

I recommend using digital audio recording whenever possible, or converting analog recordings (e.g. tape recordings, audio or video) to digital audio recordings so that they can be imported into a computer. Having digital audio files saved to a computer hard drive provides options for organizing, transcribing, and analyzing data that are simply not possible with analog recordings. For more information on digital audio recordings, check this link [Link to Digital Audio Recording]

Analog Audio Recording

PLEASE NOTE: The information in the section below is accurate, but it was put together before digital audio recorders were widely available. Some people have tape recorders and want to use them, and they should; it's a perfectly reasonable way to record an interview. However, before investing in any analog recording equipment, please review the options for digital audio recording.


Palm-size portable cassette recorders work just fine. You can also use micro-cassette recorders or other dictation devices (digital, mini-disc, etc.). However, our transcribing machines are designed for standard sized audio cassettes. If you use another format to record your interview, you'll need to make a copy from the other format to a standard-sized cassette prior to using the transcription machine.

If you are buying a tape recorder for conducting interviews or recording dictation get one designed for that purpose. You don't need a stereo microphone or playback, you don't need Mega-Bass, you don't need all-weather protection, digital ready recording, etc. And you don't need a full-size boom box. Sony, Panasonic and other companies make some decent small recorders for $30-40. Sony used to make a series called the "Pressman" that had several models, ranging from $35-$100. Unfortunately -- or fortunately -- the $100 models will not necessarily last longer than the $35 models.

GOOD FEATURES TO HAVE: An input jack for an external microphone and an output jack for headphones or an external speaker, and an "auto shut-off." None of these features is essential. However, if you want the option of using an external microphone, you'll need a tape recorder that has an external microphone jack. The headphone jack -- almost every cassette recorder has one of these -- is useful to check your system out, listen privately AND for making copies of your tape -- i.e. you can use the headphone jack as an "output" and connect your tape recorder to another tape recorder's "input jack," etc. This is VERY useful if you want to use a micro-cassette recorder for your recording and then copy from that to a standard-sized cassette using another recorder. The auto-shut off is VERY useful in letting you know when the tape has run out and you need to flip it over.

A VERY BAD FEATURE: VOICE ACTIVATION. Don't pay more for "voice activation" and don't use this feature if it is available on the recorder you are using. This is a setting that will turn the tape recorder on AFTER someone begins talking. If you want transcribe an interview in which the recorder missed the first half of every sentence, go for it. However, assuming that you want to the whole sentence, and not just the second half, keep VOICE ACTIVATION TURNED OFF.

CASSETTE TAPES: Use any decent quality audio recording tape. I have had very good luck with TDK, Maxell and Sony audio tape designed for "normal" bias. This is not hi-fi recording tape, or digital ready recording tape, etc. Just plain, good quality tape. I usually use 60 minute tapes, not 90 minute tapes. 60 min tapes have a slightly thicker base and are packed less tightly on the reel. As a result, they may be less likely to jam or to "bleed" through after they are recorded on. Remember that a 60 minute tape will stop at 30 minutes and need to be turned over. As I noted above, a tape recorder that has "auto shut off" is useful because it will "click" off when the first side of the tape is done, alerting you to flip it over so you can record on the other side.


An external microphone can improve substantially the quality of your recording, but don't rush to get one. If you do use an external microphone, be sure to check your set up completely to make sure that it is working the way you want it to. Almost any external microphone can give you some improvement over the microphones built into the tape recorder. But external microphones very tremendously in what they are good for -- some are fine for meetings but not so hot for close up interviews; some are designed to be pinned to someone's lapel; others are designed for vocal performers; still others are designed to isolate sound coming from pretty far away, etc. Always try out a microphone before using it in a live interview. And, if you are thinking of buying a microphone, make sure that you get one that fits your purpose. If at all possible, try it out before buying -- I can also make some recommendations if you are interested.


If it makes sense to you and the person you are interviewing, you can use a video recorder as a substitute for an audio recorder. The microphone and audio track on the video recorder will usually be quite good for purposes of an interview. You can even leave the lens cap on if you want and just use the audio, and not distract yourself or the other person, but make sure the camera's microphone is aimed primarily towards the speaker. If you set the camera off to one side, and aim it at both you and the person you are interviewing, it should do fine. If you place it in front of you and aim it at the person you are interviewing, it might record what they say quite clearly but miss some of what you say. REMEMBER: If you do use a video camera for audio recording, you'll need to make a copy of the audio from the video tape to a regular size cassette that will work in one of the transcription machines we have.


There is lots of neat equipment that you can use to get better quality sound recording in specific recording settings. If you anticipate doing a lot of audio recording as part of your research, there are some options worth considering, but you won't need any hi-end equipment for the work assigned for this course.

ALSO, in case you missed it the first time. . .

Do an equipment check!

Check your equipment out fully before you use it in a live interview. Don't be afraid to appear foolish to other members of your household. Turn the recorder on and talk to it from the position you expect to be in during an interview. Walk around to different positions, talking at different voice levels to see how well it will pick up your voice. Listen to the tape to see what you got and refine your placement/set-up accordingly.

See samples and illustrations of social research interviews

Back to Guidelines for Doing Social Research Interviews