Last week’s blog post looked at the transcription process, and what’s involved in getting qualitative interview or focus-group data transcribed. This week, we are going to step back, and share a few tips from researchers into what makes for good quality audio that will be easy to hear and transcribe.
1. Phones aren’t good enough
While many smartphones can now be used in a ‘voice memo’ mode to record audio, you will quickly find the quality is poor. Consider how tiny the microphone is in a phone (the size of a pin head) and that it is designed only to pick up your voice when right next to your face. Using a proper Dictaphone or voice recorder is pretty much essential to pick up the voice of interviewer and respondent(s) clearly.
2. Choosing a Dictaphone
Even if you want to buy one, a cheap £20 ($30) voice recorder will be a vast improvement over a phone. Most researchers won’t need one with a lot of memory: just 2GB of storage will usually record for more than 30 hours at the highest setting. There is usually little benefit in spending a lot more money, unless your ethics review board states that you need one that will securely encrypt your data as it records. These might cost closer to £250 ($400). However, you can often borrow one from your library or department.
A recorder should always be digital. There is no real advantage to a tape one – they are expensive, have less capacity, use batteries faster, are larger, and are much more prone to losing your data with erased, overwritten or mangled tape. This is one part where the advanced technology wins hands down! The format they record in doesn’t really matter, as long as your computer and transcriber can play it back. MP3 is the most compatible, note that some of the older Olympus ones use their own DSS format which is a pain to convert or play back on a computers. Digital recorders will have various settings for recording quality, you will usually want to choose the high or highest setting for clear audio. Test before you do a full interview!
2. Carry spare batteries!
I’ve definitely got caught out here before, make sure you have a fresh (or recharged) pair of batteries in the Dictaphone, and a spare set in your bag! Every few minutes during the interview, have a quick look to make sure the recording is still running, and before you start, check you have enough time left on the device.
3. Choose a quiet location if possible
While cafés can be convenient, relaxed and neutral places to meet respondents for a one-on-one, they tend to be noisy. You will pick up background music, other conversations, clattering plates and especially noisy coffee machines that make the audio difficult to transcribe. A quiet office location works much better, but if you do need to meet at a café, try and do a bit of reconnaissance first: choose one that is quiet, don’t go at lunchtime or other busy times, choose a part of the café away from the kitchen and coffee grinders, and ask them to turn off any music.
4. Position the Dictaphone
Usually you will want the Dictaphone to point towards the respondent, since they will be doing most of the talking. But don’t put the Dictaphone directly on a table, especially if you are having tea/coffee. You will pick up loud THUD noises every time someone puts down their mug, or taps the table with their hand. Just putting the recorder on a napkin or coaster will help isolate the sound.
5. Prevent stage fright!
Some people will get nervous as soon as the recording starts, and the conversation will dry up. To prevent this, you can cover the scary red recording light with a bit of tape or Blu-Tack. However, it can also help to start the recorder half-way through the casual introductions, so there isn’t a sudden ‘We’re Live!’ moment. You don’t need to transcribe all the initial banter, but it helps the conversation seamlessly shift into the research questions. Also, try and ignore the Dictaphone as much as possible, so that you both forget about it and have a natural discussion.
6. Watch your confirmation noises!
Speaking of natural conversation, it is rare while listening for the interviewer not to make ‘confirmation sounds’ like ‘Yes’, ‘Uh-ha’, ‘Mmm’ etc. Yet these are a pain for qualitative transcription (as most people will want to keep the researchers comments, especially for discourse analysis) and it also breaks up the flow of the transcript. Obviously, just staring silently at your participant while they talk can be disconcerting to say the least! It takes a little practice, but you can communicate and encourage the flow of the conversation just with periodic eye contact, nodding and positive body language. If someone makes a request for confirmation such as: ‘So of course that’s what I did, right?’ Rather than actually verbally responding, you can nod, turn your palms up and shrug, and roll your eyes. This way, it shows you are listening and engaging with the conversation, without constantly interrupting the flow of the narrative.
7. Use a boundary mic for group discussions
For focus groups or table discussions, use a cheap ‘boundary’ microphone so that it will pick up all the voices: ideally stereo ones that give some sense of direction to help identify who-said-what during transcription. Again, these don’t need to be expensive: I’ve used a cheap £20 ($30) button-battery powered one with great results. It’s something you can spend a lot of money on for high-end equipment, so again look for opportunities to borrow.
8. Get a group to introduce themselves
For qualitative group sessions, you will almost always want to be able to assign contributions to individual participants. If you are doing the transcription and know the people very well, this can be easy. However, it is surprisingly difficult to differentiate a group of voices that you don’t know just with a recording. For voices to be identified, make sure you start the recording by getting everyone to go round the table and introduce themselves with a few sentences for context (not just their name).
9. Backup immediately!
Got your recording? Great! Now back it up! All the time it exists only on your Dictaphone, it can be lost, stolen or dropped in a puddle, losing your data for ever. As soon as you can, get it back to a computer or laptop and copy it to another location. Make sure that your data storage procedure matches your data protection and ethics requirements, and try not to carry around your interview recordings longer than you need to.
10. Finally, listen and engage!
Try not to worry about the technical aspects during the interview, shift into researcher and facilitator mode. Take notes if you feel comfortable doing so: even though you are getting a recording, some brief notes can make a good summary and helps concentration. Tick off your qualitative research/interview questions as you go, and write a few notes about how the interview went and the key points immediately afterwards.
If you need more advice, you can also read our top 10 tips for qualitative interviews, to make sure things go smoothly on the day. Hopefully, following these steps will help you get great audio recordings for your research project, that will make transcription and listening to your data easier.
Once you’ve got it transcribed, you'll find that Quirkos is the most intuitative and visual software for qualitative analysis of text data. You can download a free trial for a month, and see an overview of the features here…