Bad Audio Can Cost Big Bucks

While you're reading this try not to let your blood pressure rise too much:

You go to open the audio for the project you recorded on the other side of the country, only to find that the file is corrupted, or that the only thing that was clearly recorded was the facility's AC. The audio is unusable, and all the time and money spent working to get that group’s information has been wasted.

It’s a nightmare scenario. However, there is hope! We've put together some advice that can help prevent the worst from happening, and it’s not difficult or expensive.

Throughout this post, we have audio clips from a mock interview we did in our office, to outline both the problems that you might face when recording, and ways to fix them. (See footnote.)

Optimize Recording Environment 

Have a Backup

Noise Reduction

Recorder Tips

Recording Telephone Calls

Recorder Suggestions

Optimize Recording Environment

The simplest things you can do to improve your audio are also free. For focus groups, avoid crunchy foods or papers that can be crinkled or shuffled. We cannot stress how important it is to minimize background noise, especially since the microphones being used now can be super sensitive and pick up the slightest sounds; what seems like a small noise in person can drown out everything on the recording. 

If recording a focus group, try to keep the group calm and talking one at a time. Cross talk, laughter, and loud voices all mean loss of information and probably loss of focus on the topic of interest. 

To improve the chances of getting good audio, place your recording device in a central location, preferably on a surface that will not be jarred or shaken. Don’t place microphones too close to single individuals, as their voices can drown out the rest of the group. Close all the doors and windows, pull the drapes. If on location, keep any pets and/or children out of that room. 

The audio clip below was recorded about 2 feet from the respondent, but near a person shuffling papers on the table, and in a squeaky chair.

Compare the previous clip to the one below, which was recorded simultaneously, at the same distance from the respondent, but with a noise cancelling mic that was placed centrally on the table, away from any sources of extraneous noise. (We'll go into the noise canceling mic later on.)

The above scenario happens frequently. Think how costly those small noises can be.

            “The most important concept was (inaudible).”

How valuable was that missing fraction of a second? If the source of noise could be eliminated it is certainly worth the small amount of effort. By doing these simple adjustments you can save loads of money and stress.

Something we've noticed in our years of transcribing is that, in focus groups, the respondent who is shyest, and therefore the most quiet, tends to sit at the opposite end of the conference table from the moderator and the recorder. Consider rearranging seating locations after people have sat down to make sure these soft spoken people are not too far from the microphone.

Have a Backup

Another easy way to prevent losing valuable audio is to always have a backup. Invest in a good recorder if conducting a face-to-face interview or focus group, even if you are using a facility. It's extremely good practice to use a digital recorder to supplement any recordings made by a facility. Some older facilities that have been renovated since the switch to digital have poorly placed microphones. Based on some recordings, you would think they were recording from inside the air conditioning ducts. It’s also realistic to expect that at some point a file will be lost or corrupted. For the cost of a new recorder, you will not have to worry about losing valuable information.

While smartphones are frequently  used to record interviews and focus groups, with great success, they can fall short of the task. A recent real world case; a client was recording an interview with their phone and they didn't realize the recording stopped when they received a call. Only the first 10 minutes of their interview ended up being recorded. While it may seem redundant, a dedicated device might be safer than relying solely on your smartphone.  

Whatever you're recording with, something is likely better than nothing. As an example, the audio clip below was taken near an overhead duct while the AC was running, similar to how many facilities have ceiling mounted microphones. It should be noted that, in the past, we have received audio of far poorer quality from facilities than our example below.

The clips above and below were recorded simultaneously, as in the prior example. Again, the clip below was recorded using a noise canceling microphone. Give it another listen to see how big a difference the placement of the recorder makes, even within the same room. (This is the same clip as above.)

At the end of the article, we have links to a couple recorders that we would recommend. While your smart phone can record audio, the battery life on a dedicated recorder is in the hundreds of hours, instead of 10 (if you’re lucky) and the recording won’t be interrupted by texts, calls or other notifications.

It's worth mentioning that we have had clients give us files that they recorded themselves in a rented conference room, which sounded substantially better than the audio from dedicated facilities. Our clients did not have any special experience, or use any sort of fancy recording equipment; the hardware we recommend further down is equivalent. It may be simpler, and less expensive, to record the audio yourself, rather than use a facility. 

Noise Reduction

We'd like to take a moment to dispel an incorrect notion. While it is possible to use software to remove some background noise, this doesn’t work magic and is a distant second choice versus having a good quality recording in the first place. Voices that are too quiet, or loud background noise, will greatly reduce the quality of the audio and increase the chance that important information will be lost. Having an interview take place on a busy street, or while the respondent is on speaker phone, pumping gas before driving in their convertible (yes, this has happened) makes the audio much harder to discern.

Below are two clips, one from the AC recording above, and the same clip run through a quick background noise reduction.

In the above clips, you’ll notice that while the noise reduction may lessen the sound of the AC, the overall quality of the audio also suffers.

Of course, we could have done more work to improve the audio in the example above. However, doing noise reduction is exactly that, work; it is time consuming, especially with longer, larger, or multiple files, and there is no guarantee of success. Ultimately if the respondent was overwhelmed by some sound, nothing can bring it back.

Recorder Tips

So you’re using a recorder, or your smart phone, as a backup. Fantastic! But, what else can you do?

This might seem biased coming from a transcription company, but it is never a good idea to use voice activated recordings. While it may seem like this would be a simple way to save on the cost of transcripts, at most you will save a few minutes over a long recording, if that, but at the cost of potentially losing the first syllable of every sentence. If the connection is poor for a TDI, or the respondent is soft spoken, the voice activation may not be triggered. On numerous occasions we have gotten files where the recording consistently failed to start, or shut off in the middle of the respondent's reply, losing a great deal of information in the final transcript. Trying to save a few minutes’ worth of audio is not worth the risk of losing an entire interview, or even a few valuable points.

If you already have a recorder, or use your smartphone, there are still ways you can improve your audio quality! A unidirectional microphone is almost a necessity for large round table discussions, to cancel background noise and pick up speakers on the far end of the table. If you are recording the audio with your smartphone, or a digital recorder, the Olympus ME-52W Noise Canceling Microphone can greatly improve the quality of your audio. This is the exact microphone that we used in our above example.

With its ease of use and portable size, and its very affordable price of about $12, the Olympus ME-52W should be an essential for your audio backups. All you should need to do is insert the microphone into your recorder or smartphone's 3.5mm headphone jack and start recording. (Check your particular device to be sure) The improvement in audio quality will be worth the small investment.

The microphone also comes with a lapel clip and an extension wire. 

If you want to compare, all the audio clips we've mentioned previously are below. These recordings were taken at the same time, and we’re not altered beyond trimming the length. 

Recording Telephone Calls

There are numerous tools for recording phone calls digitally. Skype for Business (formerly Lync) has built in recording tools. Google Hangouts also has plugins to record calls. Besides those default apps there are numerous 3rd party tools for recording a VoIP call on your computer.

While it may seem easier to put the phone on speaker and place a recorder next to it, this is not a good idea. We highly discourage doing this!

Recording from a speaker phone unavoidably reduces the quality of the audio; first based on the quality of speaker, then the distance the sound must travel to the recorder, and then finally by the sensitivity of the recorder itself. Recording directly removes this problem entirely. 

Below we have two examples of the exact same call; the respondent was speaking on their cell phone and the moderator was using a computer. Again, neither file was edited, except for length.

Listen to this first file, recording the speaker phone:

Compare that to the file recorded directly from the computer:

While the noise of the squeaky chair may seem dramatic, we have regularly received files with literally this problem! Small things that, in person can be barely noticeable, can ruin a recording, like squeaky chairs, fans, crunchy foods, and papers, to name just a few common culprits. By recording directly from the computer the resulting audio does not have the ambient room noise added on top of, and therefore obscuring, the respondent. 

If the respondent's audio is difficult for you to hear, it will not be easier for us. If they are, themselves, on speaker phone or using a headset the audio quality may suffer. More than once a conscientious moderator has asked the respondent to turn off speaker phone, or remove their headset, and the audio quality improved dramatically. It may be worth having them call back on a different device if their connection is poor.

Recorder Suggestions

One of the best recorders we can recommend is the Etekcity Voice Recorder which retails for about $40. We recommend this recorder because it allows you to connect to your computer and download MP3 files directly; many recorders require proprietary software and file formats which can make converting and subsequently transcribing files difficult.

For a higher end recorder with truly outstanding audio capturing ability we recommend the TASCAM DR-05. The quality and features of this recorder can’t be beat, especially at a price of less than $90.

Footnote

The recordings we made for our mock interviews were done simultaneously, and we did not edit the audio beyond trimming for length, so you are hearing the actual difference these suggestions would make.

The audio was recorded in two sessions.

Audio 1:

  1. Recording Example - Loud Respondent
  2. Recording Example - Poorly Placed Mic
  3. Recording Example - Noise Canceling Mic

Audio 2:

  1. Skype - Speaker
  2. Skype - Direct Recording