Recording your interview will give you a record which you can listen to afterwards and analyse in detail.

If you’ve prepared in advance and ideally practised, then you should get much better results.

A portable recorder [Image: edvvc under CC-BY licence]
Portable tape recorder [Image: edvvc under CC-BY licence]

To help you get started we’ve gathered together some of the top tips for beginners:

Recording Medium

These days there is a whole range of media on which you can record your interview. You might have, or be able to borrow, something that can record to one of the following:

  • Compact Audio Cassette – it may be old technology (introduced in 1963) but having been around for so long, lots of people have tape decks at home.

    Obviously you’ll want something portable, but many ‘personal stereos’ and ‘ghetto blasters’ have the facility to record.

    If they have the ability to use an external microphone then that will almost certainly offer better quality than the built in one.
    If you have a choice, equipment with a counter is preferable to one without.

  • MP3 recorder – in the past few years MP3 players have become hugely popular, and some of them come with the facility to record as well.

    Check that you have enough space to record about an hour of audio though.

  • Camcorder – you might not have thought about using a camcorder, but it’s worth considering.

    You might be better leaving the lens cap on though, as you don’t need the picture and it might make your interviewees more comfortable if they know you are only recording the sound.

    If you want to get the best possible sound quality then you might like to try using an external microphone.

  • Laptop – many modern laptop computers have a socket to connect a microphone to it, and often come with basic software to record sounds.

    However, you might wish to think carefully before using this medium; you’ll need to allow plenty of space on your laptop’s hard disk drive as your interview could easily use up as much a 1GB of space.

    There is a variety of free and low cost software that will enable you to record audio, but Windows based PCs come with a basic sound recorder built in.

    By default it only records 60 seconds, but Microsoft’s website explains how to extend this.

  • Digital Audio Tape (DAT) – excellent audio quality make this the professional’s choice, but it isn’t a domestic product so you night not have come across this before.

The Microphone

An omni-directional microphone is often a good sort of microphone to use for an interview.

This type of microphone picks up sound from all around, so they are good for capturing the voices of your interviewees. You can either hold the microphone in your hand or secure it in a holder rested on a table.

You might find holding the microphone to be a bit tiring for a full hour’s interview, so we’d recommend using a holder – it’s also less obtrusive this way.

However, if you're interviewing a large group then holding the microphone does allow you to move it into the best position as each person speaks, rather than having to choose a compromise position.

Try to set-up the microphone so that it is equally spaced between you and the interviewees. Ideally you want to place it so it’s on a level close to the interviewees’ mouths, so their words are clearly picked up by the microphone.

Try and set it up so that the interviewees are speaking across the microphone, pointing at them but also at the same level for you, so that your questions can also be clearly picked up.

Don’t position the microphone too close to the interviewees’ mouths or you will get a distorted sound - try and position the microphone roughly 30 cm from the interviewees and try and position yourself the same distance next to them. That way your questions can also be clearly heard.

If you are holding the microphone, wrap the flex or lead around the bottom of the microphone and hold any remaining flex around your hand.

This prevents the lead knocking against the base of the microphone, which will make a bumping noise and will come out on the recording.

Don’t forget to check in advance of your interview that the microphone will work with your recording device.

For example, there are different sizes of plugs which are used – typically portable devices use 3.5mm plugs, but some microphones use different sized plugs – so you might need an adaptor to convert the microphone plug to a size that will fit your recorder. Another easy mistake to make is to plug the microphone into the wrong socket.

Cables [Image: Andres Rueda under CC-BY-ND licence]
Make the right connection... Cables [Image: Andres Rueda under CC-BY-ND licence]

Some of the typical socket options are “Line In” “Line Out” “Headphones Out” and “Mic In” – the last one is the one to use, and will often be marked in red. You may have to set a switch so that the recorder “listens” to the “Mic In” socket, rather than from the “Line In” socket.

As ever the best advice is to practice in advance with enough time for you to fix any problems before your interview.

Recording Levels

In the same way that you would adjust the volume when you listen to the radio, so it is loud enough that you can hear it clearly, but not so loud that it is uncomfortable, you may need to adjust the recording levels.

Not all recording equipment will offer this facility, but if it does then it is worth spending a minute or two to get them right. Usually there will be a meter which shows how strong the sound is, and a dial to adjust the level.

The aim is to set the recording level at a midway point, if you have it higher then the recording tends to distort. If you have it low, you won’t be able to hear the interviewees clearly.

To help you set the level, ask your interviewees to answer some simple questions, for example “what did you do at the weekend” or “where are you going on holiday?”

Whilst they are answering the question you can adjust the level. Remember that speech is full of pauses so don’t be surprised to see the meter jump up and down, the aim is to set the recording level so that the meter peaks around the halfway point.

Getting everyone talking at the beginning is also useful to help people warm up a bit – it can also to break the ice if the group doesn’t know one another very well.

Of course, not all recorders offer you this option; they may record at a fixed level, offer a choice of ‘High’ and ‘Low’, or might be sophisticated enough to set them automatically for you.

If the levels are fixed then your only option will be to adjust the sound reaching the microphone. You could do this by either asking people to speak more loudly or more softly than usual, or by moving the microphone closer or further away from them.

It’ll be a bit hit and miss, but listening through headphones, if available, will give you a rough idea of whether it’s too quiet or becoming distorted.

You'll have to judge whether to just use headphones as you are getting started, or keep them on throughout.

Given that this is supposed to be fairly informal and fun, we'd suggest it might be more comfortable for you and your interviewees if you take them off after you start.

Locations

One of simplest ways to get a clear recording of your interview is by choosing a good location where you can control the sound. For a start, stay indoors where you don’t have to worry about traffic, planes, lawnmowers, birdsong, and so on – and you won’t have a problem if it starts to rain either!

It’s worth spending a few minutes when you arrive at your location listening to the background noise in the various rooms that are available to you. We’re used to all sorts of background sounds that we tend to ‘tune out’ but things like ticking clocks, humming computers and air conditioning units will all get picked up on your recording.

Try to look out for potential sources of noise, even if they aren’t making any at first – fridges and freezers often make a lot of noise, but only from time to time.

You won’t be able to turn all these things off, but it is worth trying to limit noise as much as possible by recording in the quietest place available to you.

Background noise isn’t the only issue to think about, the size of the room can make an impact too. Big rooms with tall ceilings make the sound echo, like a swimming pool, so if you have the option do try to conduct the interview in a reasonably small room with a lower ceiling.

These things should help you get the best from your recording, but it will rarely be possible to do everything for the most technically perfect interview, but don’t worry too much about that.

Above all, don’t forget that the room and equipment needs to be comfortable for you and your interviewees - after all this is meant to be fun!