What is a good setup for recording conversations in person?
July 26, 2005 6:09 PM   Subscribe

What is a good setup for recording conversations in person?

Aside from the legality of recording conversations in person in Ontario which i have yet to determine, im thinking i need an ipod with podzilla because apparently it unlocks ability to record at a higher bitrate, and i assume i need a good quality omnidirectional mic. Im thinking the mic quality will make the difference in terms of ability to pick up both the ideal talking range and a little further. Im thinking of recording conversations for feedback on how i conduct myself, so id like to have the mic hidden if possible providing thats legal.
I basically want to know what i should get before i put down the cash. I dont see myself getting to test out different recorder/mic combos and installing podzilla :). Id much rather know what kind of spec ranges i should be within in case recording in the store seems to work but recording with wind blowing doesnt work or some other unforseen circumstance.
posted by who else to Technology (20 answers total)
It's pretty lo-fi, but I found a dictaphone in the pocket worked great! They seem to have mics designed for this purpose built in. I wonder if any of the digital ones nowadays would be any good..

I have also used a minidisc player, but this usually requires an extra mic to be wired up. You can get some small sensitive mics which can go in your clothing for a few dollars, but it starts getting to be a task.
posted by wackybrit at 6:28 PM on July 26, 2005

the ipod might be overkill. you can just get a little digital recorder and keep it in a shirt pocket or something (if you regularly wear shirts with shirt pockets).

even if it turns out that it's legal, it's definitely sketchy. if you do this in any sort of job situation, don't be surprised if you are fired.
posted by AaRdVarK at 6:38 PM on July 26, 2005

Whether legal or not, it seems unethical to me to record interactions with people who don't know the tape is running.

iPod with Podzilla will only give you mono (16 bit) audio unless you wire a stereo mic directly into several pins on the firewire port. Chances are you *don't* want an omni mic, but a lavalier cardioid of some sort. Recording through your pocket is bound to sound like crap no matter what you use. So the mic will need to be visible if you care about sound quality.

Sound quality is the issue. If you want high quality recordings, you need a 16-bit or better recorder. Edirol's R-1 is very popular (so popular it has sold out nationally in the US through the fall, for about $430.) It has built in mics and would fit in a large pocket, but not a standard shirt pocket. For good sound, though, you'd have to use an external mic. It records both raw WAV (at 24 or 16 bits) and various bitrate mp3 files. It takes a 1/8 stereo mic input. You need a CF card with it. Any technology other than a solid state digital recorder is not worth considering right now. There are lots of cheaper voice recorders (Olympus, Sony) that sync with a PC, use a built in mic, and make very bad recordings. But if you all you care about is a record of what you said for memory, that would do.

Whether it's against the law or not though, be prepared to be punched in the mouth if someone finds out you are taping and you've hidden it from them.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:40 PM on July 26, 2005

Hmm, i guess another requirement is a way to clandestinely start recording when i enter into a conversation. (Im thinking hand in pocket, press a button to record without the option of mucking something up by not having the device on hold mode).
posted by who else at 6:43 PM on July 26, 2005

firewire port

Er, docking port, whatever. I don't do iPods. But I've read about the Linux hack for audio recording on various bootlegger blogs. Supposedly with good mics wired directly in stereo into the port connector it can sound darn good. Surely the most stealth option. And you can get headworn lavalier mics that look like earphones or attach to your glasses -- quite good ones in fact.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:43 PM on July 26, 2005

The recorder would be going in pants pocket. I dont know about being punched in the mouth... things that are unexpected often play depending on how you spin it. What is ethical these days anyway. I have the right to record my personal airspace! Stop taking my rights away!
posted by who else at 6:48 PM on July 26, 2005

I'm not judging, just pointing out that a lot of people might take very great offense at being secretly taped. Having spent a good part of my life recording people talking with their permission, but occasionally having had to deal with newcomers and so forth who didn't realize the machine was running, I speak from experience. Of course you can record your soundscape experience, and you're legally entitled to record any freely occurring public sound, I expect. I am talking about what is likely to happen to your interpersonal relationships if you record surreptitiously and are ever discovered. I know I'd be inclined to a pretty cold response if a friend was secretly taping our conversations.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:19 PM on July 26, 2005

I mean heck, I even gave you advice on how to do it.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:19 PM on July 26, 2005

Not you, personally taking my rights away. Just trying to scare off the encroaching cyber-darkness...
posted by who else at 7:24 PM on July 26, 2005

Unless you have an iPod or want an iPod anyway it is far too expensive of a device to use for your recording needs. It's not really what it's designed for.

I use a Sony minidisc for on the fly recording (for me, just collecting audio for sound creation) and it works fine. If you are looking to buy something new for this purpose I am confident a microcassette recorder would work fine and you can pick one up for under $50. I use a Radio Shack stereo lapel mic that cost around $20 and it picks up conversational level speech just fine. Clip it inside your shirt or something.

Frankly I think it is sort of a weird idea but since your purpose is apparently to examine your own manner as long as it is legal I don't think it is unethical unless you play other people's private conversations with you to others without their consent. By speaking to you they are implicitly granting you permission to hear what they have to say, so really you are just enhancing your memory of the event for personal use. Erase the tapes when you're done with them and you will have, in my opinion, discharged your ethical responsibilities. That doesn't mean you might not really offend someone if you got caught out. I'd be curious to hear more about what your specific goals are for these recordings.
posted by nanojath at 8:10 PM on July 26, 2005

Like i say, to try to impove my interpersonal skills, also maybe notice things i wouldnt have otherwise noticed. Kind of like an athlete reviewing a recording of his or her performance.
posted by who else at 8:17 PM on July 26, 2005


Recording a conversation in which you are actively participating is legal if you are living in a 'one-party' jurisdiction (i.e. only one of the participants in a conversation need be aware of the recording for it to be legal). If you are living in a 'two-party' jurisdiction, all participants must be aware that the conversation is being recorded.

Disclaimer: IANAL and I don't play one on TV but I have used micro tape recorders back in the day.


Most people would not even consider such a device unless they had a very good reason (i.e. entering into an important discussion with someone who has proven themselves untrustworthy or hostile). If you are using it solely for feedback, you should make it clear that you are recording the conversation, keep the recorder visible and stop recording if anyone is uncomfortable with it.


Get a recording device with a good microphone. I cannot stress this enough.

Good battery life, long recording time, voice activation and remote start/stop button are all good.

Anything that makes sound (i.e. beeps when the battery is low) is not fit for the purpose.


Back when most people had pagers on their belts, there was no need to hide it (throw it in a black leather pager case, cut a small hole for the mic and you were in business).

I have found that the more obvious it is, the less attention it attracts. For example, a necktie clip microphone works very well (but be sure to wear a dark colored shirt to conceal the wire).

Location of conversation:

Even with the best microphones, it will be difficult if not impossible to get a good recording in locations with a lot of background noise (outdoors, bars/restaurants, public places, etc.).


Please keep in mind that every minute recorded takes at least a minute to listen to. If there is a lot of background noise or multiple participants, you may need to listen repeatedly just to figure out what everyone is saying, who is talking, etc. In other words, if you are recording hours of your day, you will spend hours listening to it.

Is it worth your time? If it is solely for feedback purposes, wouldn't writing key thoughts/reflections in a small notebook shortly after a meeting/encounter be more efficient, less expensive (considering the value placed on your time) and carry less ethical baggage?
posted by cup at 8:43 PM on July 26, 2005

Minidisc has limits. Among various factors, the consumer models make it difficult to upload the audio to a computer as a file. You have to record in real time over an optical cable (with a professional MD deck, expensive), or redigitize analog. Of course, just for listening back from the original recording, it's fine and the media are cheap. In my trade, MD is also derided for its compression and audio artifacts. But for audio quality/battery life/stealth MD is ideal. No matter what you use you will need to get a good mic. The new flash recorders like the Marantz PMD-440/660/671 models, or the Edirol R-1, give great battery life, record in multiple formats, and some are fairly small, though not tiny. The great virtue is the ability to upload audio as a file (rather than real time), usually via a simple USB cable. For stealth purposes, learn from the bootleggers about mics, concealment, etc. Two great sites are DATheads digest and Minidisc.org .

Frankly, with anything less than a quality external mic and a flash recorder or MD, the sound quality will drive you nuts and be hard to decipher. Pocket voice recorders make anything not spoken directly into them sound like a bad telephone connection, and so do the 8-bit add on mics for iPods.

cup has a great point about the time investment. And I think you might still want to look into good dental insurance.
posted by realcountrymusic at 9:25 PM on July 26, 2005

I've used a Panasonic digital memo recorder (like this one) with good results. I relied on the internal mic, but it would be far superior when coupled with a little lapel mic, say.. a Sound Professionals model.

Yes you will pick up background noise, and will likely get handling/wind noise, but that setup would be cheap, completely usable, and very easy to transfer to a PC. A high pass filter on the mic would help cut down on handling and wind noise. These little digital recorders have limited space, but are quite efficient with the batteries, and easy to flip on in your pocket by feel.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:19 PM on July 26, 2005

Whether legal or not, it seems unethical to me to record interactions with people who don't know the tape is running.

I know you can't argue with someone's ethics, but I think this highlights an interesting difference between sound and image.

Many (if not most) amateur photographers here on the net would/do routinely take pictures of people who don't know they're being photographed. I don't see many people claiming the practice of taking pictures of strangers without their consent to be unethical. I wonder why this is so much more likely with audio.
posted by wackybrit at 12:19 AM on July 27, 2005

I've had really good luck using MiniDisc recorders and a good unidirectional mic. Interestingly, I found that for some interviews I did, a PZM mic (often used for recording guitars) worked well, but the one I used was bulky and square-ish, so it might not work for clandestine taping.

I'm going to disagree somewhat with realcountrymusic about the lavalier mics-- I've had an awful time with them when the person wearing them (me or an interviewee) moved around a lot. I do fidget more than I thought I did, and found that the lavaliers often made it sound like I was in a performance of 'Stomp.'
posted by yellowcandy at 2:47 AM on July 27, 2005

I don't see many people claiming the practice of taking pictures of strangers without their consent to be unethical. I wonder why this is so much more likely with audio.

In my experience (and just to contextualize, I've published many articles and one book full of the recorded conversations of others and their photographs), many people take offense if you just point a camera at them without permission, certainly from as close as you would need to be to record their voices. How are they supposed to know if you are taking a snap for your album or shooting for a news story? And the questioner seeks to record *secretly.* That's not the same as pointing a camera in plain sight. It's more like carrying a hidden camera in your briefcase. It is unethical in either case unless you have a legitimate (legal) reason for the stealth, as for example when you are an investigative journalist working undercover. If you took a secret picture of someone and published it, depending on the jurisdiction and the context they might well be able to sue you for not obtaining a release. And they are still likely to punch you in the mouth.

I recommended a lavalier as a way for the OP to record his (?) own voice, since that's what he claims to really care about, and also because lavs are stealthy compared to any handheld mic. A single lav on the collar or tie is not going to record anything much beyond that. You'd need to convince your interviewee to pin one on as well to make it work. Properly used, a lav gives you more isolation and less background noise than any other option. That's why lavs are the universal choice for interview shooting for pro videographers. Good lavs start at around $100 *per mic head.* Anything less and you might as well hold an ECM907 in your hand. A PZM mic requires a reflecting surface, like a table. Almost useless for mobile recording unless you bring a table with you as you walk around.

Just think how you would feel if a friend secretly recorded all your conversations and you found out. You would be weirded out, at a minimum, I guarantee it. You'd feel the same if you discovered he had secretly photographed you. Now imagine it's a stranger with whom you do business. I don't think the ethical question is a stretch at all. It's obvious. Among other things, the poster is very likely to get tagged as a narc.
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:37 AM on July 27, 2005

One thing you might not have considered is that since you know that you're being recorded, you're probably going to alter your speech somewhat. It could feel like a performance, so it may not be the best situation for getting feedback on what your interactions are typically like.

This comes up a lot in linguistics research, since we want "natural speech" and not awkward "oh crap, I'm being recorded by a linguist, better watch my grammar!" type speech, or in your case, "okay, this is recording. Self, please don't be awkward!" type speech. There are a few ways to get around this, and one is to get consent for recording conversations but not tell the person when you'll be recording. Say "this week" rather than "Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:00" and record at random times.

You could ask a friend to help you out with this and do the recording for you. This way you have consent from both parties, you're not going to get punched in the mouth, and if you get them to record you without telling you when they're doing it, you'll hear what you sound like in natural conversations.

As for recorders, the research project I'm on right now is using the Sony MiniDisc and it seems to be working out just fine. We do try to record in low-noise situations though (i.e. in the person's home with the stereo/TV off, rather than in a park with cars driving by).
posted by heatherann at 5:39 AM on July 27, 2005

Hey Heather, if you're a sociolinguist or an ethnographer (me too), you'll thank me for recommending moving away from MiniDisc and embracing flash recorders like the Edirol R-1 or the Marantz PMD440 (which is pocket-sized, sorta) or 671 (which is larger but better). Everyone I know in the trade is making the switch from DAT and MD to flash recorders, and fast.

And you bring up a crucial point. When either party knows a tape is running, you won't get naturally occurring discourse at first. The recorder needs to be in plain sight, repeatedly and for a long time, for it to fade into the background for BOTH the recordist and her/his subjects.

If you do use minidisc, be sure to read the reviews at MiniDisc.org. Short of the pro units made for journalists and fieldworkers (HHB makes one for about $1200), the consumer models are a nightmare of non-standard cradles, battery sleds, and connection protocols. There is a new high-capacity MD format out there, but may not be fully backwards compatible with older units or media. The mic preamps and jacks are cheesy as hell on the consumer MDs, which are made for dubbing mp3 connections via USB (download only on most units, no reupload to computer via USB, which is the worst thing about them) and not for mic-based field recording. Many make it hard if not impossible to override AVLS. And some of us in the archiving trade have serious doubts about the longevity, forward compatibility, and audio quality of the medium. You can get superb results on MD with something like the HHB MDP500, but that's an over-the-shoulder behemoth and expensive. The little pocket-sized Sonys are a real obstacle to quality.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:14 AM on July 27, 2005

Thanks for the leads, folks!
posted by who else at 8:58 AM on July 27, 2005

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