The quality of your transcription is directly related to the quality of your audio, so with that in mind, here are some tips based on some common issues to help you get better recordings.
1. Choose a good location for the recorder
Think about where your participants are sitting and try and position the recorder as near to the center of the group as possible. This will help ensure that the microphones pick up as many people equally as possible.
Ensure that your recorder is not obstructed (this can cause muffled audio) and don’t place the recorder on any surface that is being used heavily. Speech can be obliterated by pen noise, paper shuffling, desk tapping, typing etc.
2. Remove or minimise external noise sources
On a recording it can be very difficult to isolate a speaker from background noise so, where possible, minimise the unwanted sounds.
This could include simple acts like closing windows if the room is near a busy street, shutting doors to adjacent offices and turning off noisy air conditioners or fans.
Of course, nobody wants to sit in a hot, stuffy room so this may not always be possible. In which case, ensure fans aren’t blowing onto your recorder and if a loud noise is heard at the same time as someone is speaking, ask that person to say their piece again.
3. Provide a clear recording of the room’s ambience
Providing just a few seconds of audio containing nothing but the sound of the room will help noise reduction software to clean the audio file, potentially reducing any continuous unwanted sounds (such as the hum from an air conditioner, for example).
4. Keep control and minimise cross talk
In person, it can be fairly easy to separate one speaker from another, to isolate a voice and hone in on what that person is saying. On a recording, this is much more difficult if not impossible at times.
Encourage your participants to only speak in turn and ask people to repeat themselves if they do get talked over.
5. Use inaudible acknowledgements and prompts
An interviewer can unwittingly obstruct an answer to a question by acknowledging the respondent’s comments with sounds and words like “hmm-hmm”, “uh-huh”, “yeah”, “okay” etc.
Whilst completely natural in speech, audible acknowledgements risk key points being missed. Instead, just nod your head to assure the speaker that you’re listening.
6. Turn off mobile phones (or move them away)
Mobile phones can interrupt a recording in the obvious manner – a phone call or text message during the middle of a speech is probably not desirable in a meeting never mind on a recording. But phones can cause problems through audible electrical interference.
This isn’t something you’ll notice until listening back and it doesn’t always occur depending on the technology your phone is using at the time (2G is particularly problematic). The only sure-fire way to avoid the electrical interference is by switching off phones (or at least switching them to airplane mode). Simply silencing phones won’t solve the problem.
If a phone needs to be switched on, make sure it is kept a good few meters away from the recorder.
7. Ensure all participants can be heard
Turning the volume up when conducting a transcription can only go so far. If a person is speaking quietly, ask them to speak up or, if possible, move the recorder closer.
8. Ensure that participants aren’t too loud
At the opposite end of the scale, people who are too loud can overload a recorder causing distortion. So, try to ensure participants don’t shout.
Sometimes, joviality can cause a similar problem (lot’s of laughter, people increasing their volume to be heard). So, after participants have calmed down, ask for any information that might have been obstructed to be repeated.
Finally, if you anticipate a loud meeting, move the recorder a bit further away from the louder participants.
9. Use an additional recorder
There are two excellent reasons for using more than one recorder in the same meeting or event.
Firstly, an additional device serves as a backup. This is particularly significant if the audio is important, where a device failure could leave you in the lurch!
Secondly, for large group meetings a single recorder may not clearly pick up all participants. Another recorder could be used at the other end of the room to capture those distant participants.
Wherever possible, use the same make and model as this will make synchronising the recordings more reliable.
10. Need speaker identification? Record in stereo and consider including a video recording
If your recorder has two microphones and supports stereo recording, make sure it is configured to do so. Stereo allows people to be placed in a space – e.g., speaker A is predominantly on the left, speaker B is very central, speaker C is predominantly on the right – which can help with identification.
Where speakers have similar voices, try to position them in the room to take advantage of this. For example, if you have two male speakers and two female speakers, put one male and one female speaker on the left; the others on the right, with the interviewer remaining central
Where groups are large or there are many similar voices making it difficult to split them up as above, it is beneficial to be able to see who is speaking. So, consider setting up a video camera in a position that captures the entire group.
Unless your camera can accept inputs from external microphones, don’t forgo the traditional dictaphone recorder. The optimal video position may not be the best placement to capture that all-important audio! (Separate audio and video files can be syncronised later).