“The human voice is the organ of the soul.”
-– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What I mean by that, first of all, is that it’s great to capture a family member telling a story, or have an old recording of them, but if it’s not accessible, and no one can listen to it, then it’s only slightly better than never capturing it at all. Second, if you record a family member in a setting where there are a lot of things going on — other voices or any number of background noises — then it not only makes it hard to hear, but diminishes the telling.

Lost in the noise…

Here’s an example. Back when my whole family still used to get together for Christmas, often at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in Vermont, I interviewed my father about running track and cross-country in school. I didn’t know anything then about proper recording techniques and I used a Sony Walkman Pro cassette recorder with a tiny mike on the table between us. We sat amidst the hubbub as adults prepped food and kids ran around and yelled. I asked my father to tell a story he’d told before, of getting polio in high school, and being afraid he would never walk, let alone run, again. His brother had been a track star, and it was hard enough to follow in his footsteps, even with two good legs. He worked hard to get back, though, and trained and trained and trained. And when it came time for the big race in the spring, when no one was paying attention, he won it. He cried when he got to the end of the story, and I (having inherited my father’s crying gene) cried too. I have all of this on tape — BUT, the emotion and the importance of that story to his life and to us, his family, is lost in the noise recorded along with his voice. Our ears can be selective when we’re sitting with someone, but the mike is not -– it records everything. If only I had moved to the back study and shut the door! If only I had used a lapel mike or a mike stand so his voice was most prominent! Here are a few suggestions about finding and creating a quiet space that will do justice to your stories and your storytellers for years and the listeners to come.

1. Go for cozy. Find a small, cozy space, like a bedroom, an office, or the corner of a carpeted basement. The goal is to have soft furnishings that will absorb sound waves (like rugs and curtains), not hard surfaces that will reflect them(like bare walls, high ceilings and lots of windows). Additionally, you might cover the table you’re sitting at with a blanket or some other fabric –- the heavier the better. Oh, and don’t forget the chairs. If they squeak when you shift position, find something else.

2. Noises off. During the actual interview, turn off phones, even cell phones (or at least put on vibrate). Turn off heaters, fans, and air conditioners. You can make your interview space comfortable before the interview. Don’t forget gurgling fish tanks, ticking clocks, humming computers, and if you have a faintly buzzing fluorescent light, turn it off and use natural light or a lamp that doesn’t make noise. Kitchens and rooms open to the kitchen should be avoided, because in the middle of a great story the refrigerator motor often kicks on.

3. Send them away! When possible, send away all those not being recorded. If you can’t send them away, then set them up with quiet activities in another part of the house or apartment.

4. Get close. To the mike, that is. Ideally, place the mike about a hand span from the speaker’s mouth. A clip-on lapel mike (as low as $20) is one option. If you don’t have a mike stand, or if you’re using a digital recorder, prop up the mike or recorder on a pillow or a box so it’s stable but close to your speaker’s mouth. Do a quick sound check with your subject, then play it back and adjust.

These are all small adjustments, but they can make a big difference. By paying attention to audio quality, you honor your storyteller and your listeners.