One recent morning, as I was fiddling under my desk to connect my tape-recorder to my phone line, I was hit by a sudden brainstorm.
I noticed that the jack on the device that connects my tape recorder to the phone looked like it would fit perfectly into a slot on my computer's multimedia sound card.
"I'll bet I can record interviews directly into the computer," I thought. I plugged the unit into my sound card, and sure enough, it worked. Within 15 minutes, I was interviewing a source and recording our conversation digitally.
While it would be an overstatement to say that digital recording changed my life, it has certainly made my job a lot easier. For one thing, I am no longer burdened with boxes and boxes of 90-minute tapes. Except for in-person interviews, I don't use tapes at all. I plan to buy a digital voice recorder, which will eliminate tapes from my life altogether.
Digital recording is easy and efficient: An hour-long interview saved in MP3 format takes up roughly 14 megabytes -- about the same amount of space needed to save four songs as MP3s. You can save more than 46 hours of interviews -- the equivalent of 30 90-minute tapes -- on a single CD-ROM.
Another benefit to digitally recorded interviews is that they are easy to transcribe. Many programs allow you to slow down the playback, so that you no longer have to suffer through the play-type-rewind grind of conventional tape recording.
Also, since your interviews are in a digital format, with a click of the mouse you can move to any point in the interview, skipping right to the quotable parts. (Keeping a log during the interview of possible quotes and their timing can cut your transcription time dramatically.)
Finally, recording your interviews directly as digital files is particularly valuable to Web journalists and other writers who post material online. The recording becomes a great stand-alone piece of content that can be added as a sidebar to your story, allowing readers to hear the source for themselves. Out of respect to your source, though, you should ask for permission before you hit the upload button, or, better yet, before you conduct the interview. He or she will probably want to make an extra effort to be articulate, and it wouldn't hurt if you did the same.
Now that you're sold on the idea of digital recording, let's set you up. Here's what you need:
1) A telephone
2) A telephone-recording unit
3) A computer equipped with a sound card (PC or Mac)
4) An audio-editing program, such as Adobe Audition or Goldwave.
Part 1: The Hookup
Here's how to connect your phone to your computer using Radio Shack's Telephone Recording Control, Model No. 43-228A, which sells for $24:
The unit has one cord with telephone-like connectors on each end and a cord with a headphone-style jack.
1) Plug one end of the phone line into the recording control device. Plug the other end into the telephone.
2) Plug the jack into your computer's sound card (see arrows on illustration above). The sound card may be located on the back of the computer near the base. On laptops, it may be on the side. There should be three holes on the sound card, one of which is marked with a tiny icon of a microphone. Plug your jack into the microphone (audio in) hole. Your hardware is now ready.
Part 2: The Setup
Now you need a software program that records and stores digital audio. There are hundreds available for purchase or download. Feel free to use any program with which you are already familiar, or follow my lead.
I use Goldwave Version 5.06, which you can download here for free. Goldwave is shareware, which means you can try it for free and buy it later -- for $46 -- if you decide you like it.
After you've downloaded and installed Goldwave, you'll want to adjust the settings to make it more user-friendly:
1) Under the Options menu, choose Control Properties.
2) This will open the Control Properties dialog box. Select the Record tab. Under the Record Mode heading, select Unbounded. Changing this setting means the program won't stop recording if your interview exceeds the length you specify when you create a file.
3) Now select the Volume tab. Click the Select box on the line for Microphone. Set the slider to somewhere in the 70-80 range to ensure good sound pickup. Click OK.
5) Bring up your Control Window by selecting it from the Tool menu. You'll use the Control Window to press record, play, rewind, etc.
Part 3: Making It Work
With your hardware and software set up, you're ready to record interviews. But before you call your source, you'll need to create the file you'll record into:
1) Under the File menu, choose New.
A New Sound dialog box will open. Click the arrow under the Preset Quality Settings heading and select Voice. Click OK, and your recording timeline will appear.
2) Pick up the phone. If everything's connected properly, you should hear the dial tone. Call a friend to test the line and your recording program. When you've got your friend on the line, click the Record button (the red circle) on the control window. You should see a vertical line on the file moving from left to right. You should also see movement in the control window, perhaps bars moving up and down, or flames dancing in sync with the sound on your telephone. Those are a good sign -- they mean your recording setup is probably working.
3) When your test call is completed, click the Stop Recording button (the red square) on the Control Window. Now press Play (the green triangle) to hear what you've got. When you're satisfied, hit the Stop Play button (the blue square).
Make sure to turn on your speakers when you're listening to playback, otherwise you won't hear anything. When you record again, turn off your speakers to minimize interference.
Part 4: Saving Your Interview
1) To save your interview, click the File menu and choose Save As.
2) PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THIS STEP! Many people spend many frustrating hours searching for lost files because they don't pay attention to where they save their files. Do yourself a favor and get organized before you begin: Create a new folder where you will save all your audio interviews. When you are ready to save your interview, be sure to click on Save In -- this will allow you to put the file in a specific folder.
3) Next, type a file name in the box conveniently labeled File Name. Consider using a naming convention that will make it easier for you to figure out where the file is later on. For example, you could start all your file names with the year, month and date, then a keyword. If you forget what you called a file, you could always look it up by date. So an interview with Lou Reed on Christmas would be 03.12.25loureed. Do not use spaces, slashes or other symbols in your file name.
4) Next, choose a format by clicking the dialog box arrow next to Save As Type. You should save your file in either the MP3 or Windows Media Audio file format. Both work well, but WMA will produce a much smaller file.
You will not be given the option to save as a WMA if your computer doesn't have the latest Windows Media Player. To download the most recent version, go here.
If you save the file as a WMA file, choose these settings: 28.8 FM Radio Mono, 22050 Hz, 20kbps, mono.
If your system won't allow you to save MP3s, you need to download and install the LAME MP3 Encoder. Click here for directions.
If you save as MP3, use these settings: 16000 Hz, 16kbps, mono.
You're done! Now you can play back the file in Goldwave or with any audio program, such as Windows Media Player or Winamp, and transcribe the interview.
One caveat: As with all computer data, your interviews are subject to a host of threats, ranging from viruses to hard-drive crashes. Be sure to back up your interviews somewhere, such as a zip drive or a CD-ROM, so that you have an extra copy in case the originals get wiped out. Back up often. Hard drives and other computer equipment are replaceable. Your hard-won quotes are not.
Note: Be sure to tell the person you're recording that you are taping them. In many places it is illegal to tape a phone conversation if all parties aren't told that the conversation is being recorded.
Jordan Raphael, a former OJR editor, is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He is the co-author of "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book."