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Making a recording for eventual transcription:
how essential are microphones?

Whatever the event you need to record, be it a conference, meeting, focus group or series of interviews, it's important to maximise your chances of making a clear recording which can then be accurately transcribed. Many recordings can be ruined by taking unnecessary shortcuts at the recording stage. This article examines why using microphones is essential, together with the pros and cons of external and internal microphones, and the different types of microphones suitable for a range of recording situations.

So, are microphones essential when recording? The simple answer is 'yes' but that would make for a very short article! To ensure that you capture a clearly audible recording, particularly for events such as interviews or conferences, it's essential to use a microphone. If you need your recording to be transcribed, the only way to ensure a clearly audible recording is to use equipment that's fit for purpose. Why waste time, effort and money arranging an event, only to blow it at the recording stage? Microphones cost peanuts in comparison with what you'll spend organising an event, so why ruin the recording for the sake of a few extra pounds?

So which microphone should you use? It may be tempting to think that the recorder's internal microphone will be up to the task of recording any situation, particularly in the new digital recorders, which give a superior quality of recording. But if you use an internal microphone for anything other than dictation, you'll run the risk of producing a poor recording. This will lead to a transcript with queries and increased transcription costs - the cost of which could have paid for a decent external microphone.

Built-in microphones in most portable recorders are of poor quality with limited control over volume levels. They're designed to be used for one voice, typically in a dictation situation where the recorder is held close to the mouth. They'll pick up sound from the nearest source, which can be the recorder itself. If, for example, you use a Dictaphone with an internal microphone to record an interview and put the recorder down on the table several feet from your interviewee, you may not pick up their voice clearly, especially if they speak softly. It's worth remembering that for every foot of distance the microphone is from the source of the sound, the recorded volume level decreases by half and the background noise doubles. If you have to use an internal microphone for an interview, ensure that the recorder is placed as close as possible to the interviewee and that the recording is done in a quiet environment. However, if you try to use an internal microphone to record focus groups or meetings, you're asking the microphone to function in an environment for which it was never designed - it simply won't work.

Using a good quality external microphone will greatly enhance the clarity of the recording, leading to a subsequent reduction in transcription time and costs. Let's look at some of the recording situations for which microphones can be used and the different types of microphone available.

Interviews: there are a variety of what can be termed individual microphones which are suitable for interview situations. Lapel (also known as lavalier microphones) or tie clip microphones can be fastened to the interviewee's clothing, but can also pick up any rustling noises from it. If you have a stereo recorder with two microphone sockets, you can use two microphones to capture both the interviewer's and interviewee's comments. Or use a microphone splitter to enable two microphones to be plugged into one microphone socket. Another option is to use a noise cancelling microphone which will cut down on a certain amount of ambient background noise. Omni-directional microphones can be used in interview situations but they do need a quiet environment. A directional microphone will pick up sound from the direction in which it's pointed which is, hopefully, at the interviewee! Handheld directional microphones are ideal for street interview recording situations, such as vox pops, where you can hold the mic right up to your interviewee's mouth.

For indoor interviews, it may be tempting for the interviewer to sit close to the recorder to check it's working, but if the interviewee is too far from any table top microphone, then the clarity of the recording will suffer. All too often, transcribers receive recordings where the interviewer's is the clearest voice and the interviewee's virtually inaudible. Since the answers are almost always more important than the questions, the microphone needs to be as close as possible to the interviewee, or at least centrally placed between the two.

Focus groups, conferences or meetings: as these events are likely to involve many participants, you need to ensure that there is a sufficient number of microphones around the room to pick up ALL the participants clearly. We recommend using omni-directional microphones or a conference mixer system which links several microphones to one central unit. The only disadvantage with omni-directional microphones is that they pick up every sound - so be careful to minimise background noise and brief your participants thoroughly. Another option is to use a noise cancelling microphone which cuts down on a certain amount of background noise.

For any type of group recording, don't try and cope with one microphone in the middle of a large table and push it towards each person as they speak. You'll only record the scraping noise as you do so! We recommend using a minimum of one microphone for every two people placed evenly between the speakers. For multiple microphones, you'll need a mixer to connect all the microphones to the recorder.

Another option would be to choose table top boundary microphones that use the table to resonate sound. These produce a good quality sound but also pick up every sound made ON the table, such as tapping pens, clattering of cups, people banging the table to make a point, etc. This is when briefing the participants beforehand coupled with effective and firm moderation during the recording comes into its own. Ask participants not to speak all at once, not to interrupt each other and to minimise extraneous noise; otherwise, their valuable contributions to your meeting or focus group will be lost.

For conferences, we recommend that all speakers and members of any panels have individual microphones, either a lectern microphone or an individual lapel or tie-clip mic. While the speaker is giving their presentation, make sure all the other panel members' microphones are turned off so you don't capture all those off the cuff comments! If you're in the audience of a lecture or conference and need to record the presentation, balancing a Dictaphone on your knee will not pick up the voices from the platform. All that will be recorded is the noise nearest the recorder. You may be able to hear a speaker clearly from the middle of an audience, but your recorder will pick up other noises - you scribbling down notes, your neighbour coughing, or the person three rows back having a sneezing fit. None of that will produce a recording that's possible to transcribe. It may be best to contact the organisers for a transcript afterwards, but if time doesn't allow for that option, the only way you'll have a chance of recording anything is to put a microphone on or near the podium. Even then, there will be issues over feedback from the sound system and distance from the speakers, even with digital equipment. Be prepared for a less than clear recording and therefore an incomplete transcript.

It may be useful to run through a few general tips which are common to the use of all microphones in most recording situations. Microphones are not as selective as the human ear. We can filter out extraneous background 'babble' such as traffic, other voices or equipment noise. A microphone will hear the lot, from all directions and give equal 'weight' to every sound on the recording. Whichever microphone you use, don't place it near the recorder itself while recording. Particularly when using analogue recorders, the microphone will pick up noise from the machine itself. This is less of an issue with digital equipment, but you should still ensure that the microphone and recorder are placed as far apart as the lead will allow.

Try and minimise background noise, which includes not having crockery near the microphones. It's tempting to have refreshments to relax your interviewee or focus group participants but if you have this on the table where the recorder also sits, the clattering of the crockery will be the loudest sound on the recording, and you'll deafen the transcriber! Similarly, ask people not to shuffle papers near the microphone. This may seem an insignificant noise to our ears but as it may be the sound nearest to the recorder, that's what the microphone will hear and it will drown out whatever is being said. Try and avoid writing near the microphone. We've often heard recordings where the scribbling of a pen is the loudest sound heard throughout the recording.

Before you purchase any microphone, check that it's compatible with your recorder and, indeed, that your recorder has a microphone socket (advice on the features to look for in a recorder are covered in another article). It's worth remembering that buying a cheap microphone for your expensive recorder is like putting a Reliant Robin's engine in a Jag! Good quality microphones are not that expensive. Most of the microphones mentioned above can be obtained from suppliers such as Ndeva, Voice Power, SpeakIt and DictateIT. You can also buy them from electronic retailers like Maplins and Cybermarket.

A final thought - you can invest in very expensive recording equipment but still scupper your chances of making a good recording by not using a microphone. Simply using a good quality recorder on its own is not enough. A microphone will make the biggest difference to whether your recording is clearly audible and swiftly transcribed, or barely audible and impossible to decipher.

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We specialise in digital transcription services including MP3 digital transcription, WAV digital transcription, WMA digital transcription among many other digital audio file formats. We also provide standard audio cassette tape transcription covering micro cassette or micro tape transcription, plus mini tape or mini cassette transcription which is also known as audio transcription or audio typing services. This can be extended to include minidisc or minidisk transcription services. Extensive experience in conference transcription services allows us to offer transcription of conference proceedings including keynote speaker and plenary session transcription, lecture transcription, seminar and symposia transcribing, Q&A session transcription and transcription of breakout sessions, roadshows, roundtable discussions and workshops. Interview transcription services form a core part of our service and include one-to-one interview transcription, as well as multiple participant interview transcription. We are pleased to offer discounted transcription services for charities, students and universities for their research interviews, particularly qualitative analysis transcription compatible with Nvivo and Atlas Ti. Support for oral history interview transcription projects can include both digital transcription services and audio tape transcription. A niche specialty is our podcast transcription services which also covers webcast transcription. Transcription services for authors, writers and journalists can include anything from digital dictation for article transcription and manuscript typing through to research interview transcription. Also offered is focus group transcription, forum transcribing, market research and vox pop interview transcription as well corporate or group meeting transcription services. Word processing services and digital dictation for correspondence is also included. Teleconferences and telephone interviews can be transcribed from digital and analogue formats. Analogue video tape transcriptions are offered along with digital video transcription services. Different transcription styles are available including Intelligent Verbatim Transcription, Complete Verbatim Transcription, Edited Transcription and customised transcription styles for Oral History projects and Focus Groups.

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