The shortest path to a story is sometimes the object you hold in your hand. What I’ve found so interesting about going through the memorabilia of my maternal grandmother (she died in Newton, Kansas, in 1980), is that she left stories with almost every item she saved. Her methods were low-tech (most often a hand-written note pinned to a piece of fabric), but they left many snapshots of her life and times.

Click on the image to read the note

Take this little square of black netting, for instance. Alone it is just a worthless scrap of fabric that might as easily go to Goodwill as to the trash. Instead, I learn from my grandmother’s note that she attended Marymount College in Salinas, Kansas, in the 1920s – and that she had to wear this veil to chapel every day, accompanying her uniform of navy wool serge with a stiff white collar and cuffs. But, she notes, they could wear a dress of their choice on Sundays (after church, that is). That’s a lot of information out of so small an artifact, and she wrote many similar notes.

Her descriptions – anecdotes, really – have made me realize two things: one, that I should start writing and recording notes for my own (and my children’s) “keepsakes;” and two, that artifacts are a great entrée to discovering new stories – or eliciting them. As you mine these bits and pieces of a life, not only will you help reluctant subjects get started, but you will often get stories that you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.

So the next time you want to get a story from Mom, grandpa or Aunt Mildred, try collecting a group of items from their desk, bedside table or box of mementos (or ask them to collect items themselves), and hand them over, one item at a time, with your digital recorder at the ready. When you ask, “Tell me about this…..,” I think you will get more than you expected.

If you are someone who’s decided it’s time to capture some stories from a parent or other family member but have realized you just aren’t going to have the time, by all means call us to schedule an Audio Keepsake. BUT, if you’re ready to do the work yourself, we have a new recommendation for a recording device. It’s easy to use and produces high-quality audio. In fact, Holly, my technology director (and husband), is quite excited about it. To find out more, keep reading!
In the last month we’ve had a few readers ask about the best way to start a recording project. One was a 50-year-old mother wanting to capture some of her father’s stories, another was an elementary school teacher planning a family oral history project for next fall. Back in January 2008 (Tip 1: Start Small) , we’d recommended the Olympus VN-4100PC digital recorder for approximately $48. Now, since the product has been discontinued, it’s actually selling for more. And to boost the sound quality, we’d suggested adding an external microphone, though now we’d recommend adding not one but two lapel (or lavaliere “lav”) microphones (one for you as the interviewer and one for your subject), as well as a splitter so you can connect both into the recorder. We’ve used this method before and the sound is OK – but not great – because its primary purpose is to keep track of notes for later transcription. At the time, there wasn’t a reasonably priced improvement, even when you added in the cost of two lapel mikes ($20 each) and a splitter (about $5), totaling over $90.
Now, there is.
The Tascam DR-05 digital recorder gives excellent audio quality without needing to add mics. The company’s tag line for the product is “Premium sound quality that’s easy to use,” and we have to agree. To get tech details and product specs, click HERE .  To listen to a user review and mini-tutorial, which was recorded using the DR-05, click HERE.
I’ll let Holly tell you about the sound details (see below), but why I like it so much is that it allows impromptu and low-key recording sessions without sacrificing audio quality. I don’t have to attach lapel mikes (and remember to turn them on), or make sure I’ve got everything in the right plug… I can just pull the recorder out of my bag, turn it on and hold it between us. Here’s an example of a recent session where I did just that, capturing the story of a woman’s husband’s grandfather as a new immigrant to our town. Click HERE to listen.
If my recording session was not impromptu, then I’d attach the recorder to a small tabletop tripod (about $20) so I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping my hand still to avoid handling noise.
The USB cable that comes with the recorder plugs into a USB port in your computer, then you copy the audio file to your desktop or laptop, and you can edit it with the free audio editor Audacity or some similar product. Though we use a professional-level field recorder and cables when we record our Audio Keepsakes, and full-size mics and mic stands, at this price and for this convenience, you can hardly go wrong. (And no, we’re not getting a kickback from the company.) OK, here’s Holly on sound quality.
CD-quality sound
The DR-05 is designed to record the full fidelity of music and voice (in either MP3 or WAV format), and has features to match – for instance, the ability to record CD-quality sound and, while recording, it allows you to monitor and adjust input levels (there’s a headphone jack). While the Olympus unit we recommended previously offered 22KHz, 8-bit sound, the Tascam DR-05 offers 44KHz, 16-bit sound (and higher), and yes, there IS a difference!

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  –Lao-tzu

After last month’s newsletter, we received a few queries about how to convert audio tapes to a digital format on the computer. One person had reel-to-reel tapes he’d recorded at a concert many years ago. Another had tapes of doing a radio show during college. Whether your tapes are old reel to reels, cassettes or microcassettes, the process is pretty much the same, and if you still have the player, it will probably only cost you the price of a cable. So if you or family members have any old recordings with content you’d like to save – and perhaps edit –read on!

  1. First you need to locate a player for your tape. If you don’t still have a working reel-to-reel player or cassette or microcassette recorder, ask your friends and family. If that turns up nothing, try a local school. Cassette players are pretty easy to come by, perhaps even at your local Salvation Army or Goodwill store. Reel-to-reel and microcassette players will take a bit more digging. But you can find all online, whether a used machine for reel to reel (from eBay) or a new one for cassettes and microcassettes (from Office Depot, Radio Shack, etc…).
  2. Next you will need a double “male” cable to connect your tape player to your computer. One end of the cable goes into the headphone jack on your tape player. The other end goes into the microphone jack on the back or side of your computer. This cable is sometimes called a “male-male mini phone plug,” or a “male to male stereo cable.” The good news is that it’s cheap – between $2 and $4 – and easy to find from a local electronics or big box store. If you order online from Amazon, for instance, you could get a 6-foot-long “3.5mm male to male stereo cable” for $2.11. You can buy a longer one if you need it.
  3. The third element you need is the software to do the digital recording. Since it’s free and relatively easy to use, we recommend Audacity (available for both PCs and Macs). Just google Audacity and download it or click HERE. If you have not used Audacity before, you will probably want to watch a tutorial or two. Try this one, or check out one of the many available on YouTube. The default audio settings on your desktop or laptop might be fine as they are, but if things don’t work as expected, you’ll need to go through a tutorial more closely and make adjustments.
  4. Another helpful item is a pair of headphones, especially if you have an old player with built-in speakers that makes a lot of noise as it’s playing. Our old Wollensak reel-to-reel machine sounded like a tractor as the tape played through and made me wonder if it was worth transferring the tapes to begin with. But when I listened through the headphones, the audio tapes themselves were fine. It also helps to listen to the tapes first and take notes with counter readings of when sections you want begin and end — unless you plan to record a tape from start to finish.
  5. OK, ready to get started? Plug one end of your male/male cable into the headphone jack (output) of your tape player; plug the other end into the microphone jack (input) of your computer. Get your tape cued up roughly where you want it to start. Click the RECORD button on Audacity, then hit the PLAY button on your tape player. If it’s working, you’ll see a wave form show up on your computer screen. If it’s not, recheck connections, make sure volume is turned up enough, and refer to your player manual and/or tutorials.
  6. You should see a meter on your screen that shows recording levels — watch this meter to make sure the level doesn’t exceed zero and go into positive numbers. To reduce the input volume (measured in decibels (dB)), either turn down the RECORD volume in Audacity (a slider near the top of screen), or turn down the volume of the tape player. If the wave form is very low, turn up the RECORD volume in Audacity or turn up the player volume. Ideally, you want the wave form to nearly touch the top and bottom of the frame without “maxing out.” If the level goes beyond zero you will have some distortion.
  7. Make sure you do a test recording (say, 10 to 30 seconds) before recording your entire tape, then stop and rewind and play back what you’ve recorded on your computer. Make sure your speakers are turned on and working. If you have controls on your tape player beyond volume, such as TONE (bass, treble or balanced tone, for instance), try different settings to see which one sounds the best. We found significant improvement in the audio quality when we tried different settings.
  8. If you’re satisfied with the result, restart or finish your recording session, then save to a “.wav” file. In Audacity, for example, under the File menu, select “Export to wav.” As a wav file, you will be able to play it on your computer by double-clicking it, burn it onto a CD, or edit it. You can edit directly in Audacity (still free), or in a video editing program such as Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio (not free). Of course other editing programs are available, but besides being free, Audacity has a large user base, so you’ll stand a good chance of getting your question answered if you google for a solution.
  9. Editing not only lets you cut out what you don’t want, and adjust volumes within the recording, but you can also add a voiceover and/or music. Our favorite site for free music (royalty-free, but not copyright free, so you need to give appropriate credit for what you use) is Kevin MacLeod’sIncompetech site.
  10. And finally, if you’re comfortable with Audacity, you can try the various “effects” to remove or lessen background noise such as hiss and hum, or compression to even out volume levels. A word of caution, though. When it comes to these “tweaks,” a little goes a long way. Be careful you don’t remove all hum just to find that your Dad’s voice no longer sounds like him. When it comes to sound, there is a lot to learn!

And that’s it. Now that we’ve transferred the reel-to-reel tapes from my childhood (see the January newsletter if you missed it), next on my list is the microcassette of my husband interviewing me on the way to the hospital while in labor with our first child. If you’re guessing I was in no mood to be interviewed, you guessed right! The audio quality is poor because we’re in the car and we didn’t use an external mic, but the content is irreplaceable (if not unrepeatable).

If you’ve tried a tape transfer, let us know how it went and what you learned. Good luck!

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” – Maya Angelou

Two weekends ago I flew to Kansas with my mom to attend a family wedding in Wichita. At breakfast the morning after the wedding, we sat with my mother’s sister (Aunt Jodie), and looked through old photos of my grandfather in high school. That got us to talking about his early days, starting out in business with a young family. We debated the details of a little sundries store that he purchased on Murdock St. in Wichita, and whether or not my mom had been born yet. I knew the answer because my grandfather had written a personal essay about the Depression for me for a high school history assignment in which he talked about this store. (The next day my cousin John drove me down Murdock and we wondered if this house was the store.)

But as we sat there, at breakfast, recalling Grandfather’s dry sense of humor and taciturn manner, I wished I’d had the chance to record him, or that there was some recording of his voice, telling his own story – even though I have this great six-page essay about his and the family’s trials during the Depression.

But since I can’t go back in time, here’s something I can do, and something you can do too. Next visit to Kansas, I can ask one of my Wichita cousins, with their Midwestern drawls, to read our grandfather’s essay, and I’ll record them. It won’t be the real thing, but it will go a long way. Like Maya Angelou says up top — it takes the human voice to infuse words with deeper meaning. Then I can make CD copies for my family and/or break the essay into several mp3 files and post it for them to download.

His work is done

Here’s another grandfather (not mine) who covered all the bases. Joe Shannon, of Shrewsbury, Mass., wrote an autobiography for his kids and grandkids, so they’d know what life was like for him, but he also wanted  me to record him so his family would have some stories in his own voice. Joe tells about living in England in 1939 as a teenager at the start of World War II as one of the most challenging times of his life. He also answers the curious question: “What do you call senior citizen sheep?”

To listen, click HERE.

Get out those cassette or digital recorders — if possible add a mic — find a quiet place and go!

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  –Miriam Beard

Have you ever taken a trip that was so full of new experiences, sights, sounds and tastes, that you felt like you were gone a month instead of 10 days, or a week instead of a weekend? A trip where there was so much new to take in, prompting new thoughts and emotions, that the details bubbled at the surface, hoping for an outlet? But after being back in the rush of regular life a few days or maybe a week, it almost seemed like the whole adventure never happened? That’s happened to me more times than I can count.

A local photographer/family therapist and frequent traveler to Asia wanted her two girls (then aged 14 and 11) to experience some of the world outside their protected existence growing up in a Boston suburb and now the Pioneer Valley. She took them out of their private schools for five weeks in the dead of winter and they went to Nepal to live and work in an orphanage ( for three weeks , followed by two weeks of travel in India.

She had to push them into it – at least at first – as they had a number of fears and anxieties about the trip. Whether or not they would enjoy it in the end, she was pretty sure it would be an incredible learning experience for them – and she was right about that. But she also feared the experience might dissipate as they reentered their regular lives, blowing away like a bucket of ashes in the wind. She was right about that too.

Instead of just letting it go, though, she did something to save it. She asked us to help them record their thoughts about the experience. Now the importance of that trip – the emotions, the tastes, the lessons learned – have been saved and can be shared with family and friends. In the present, it’s a wonderful way to honor and acknowledge those special weeks spent together. In the future, it becomes a snapshot in time that can’t be recaptured.

To listen to some snippets of what they learned about Nepal, themselves and each other, click HERE.

A few weeks before Christmas we received a flyer in the mail about a local firm offering digital conversion services (Memory Magic). The quite reasonable services included conversion of reel-to-reel audio tapes. I thought, finally, here’s a way to listen to my Dad’s old tapes, now sitting on a shelf in the basement. I had rescued his Wollensak reel-to-reel recorder from the early ’60s – an inordinately heavy silver machine –and three tapes that went with it.

My father, who died five years ago, had used the recorder to practice speeches for his DuPont sales job and his Toastmasters’ class. But I also remembered he had recorded my older brother and I as kids reading passages from a book. How cool it would be to hear our little kid voices. A few years ago, my husband had tried to get the thing to work, without success, but this time, with the help of the slim instruction manual, he got it to play.

Not only did we find the sales meeting practice sessions and a humorous Toastmaster’s speech about my Dad’s life, but his recordings of my three siblings and I at sporadic holidays and birthdays spanning 1961-1967 (when I was aged 3 to 9), including cameos from my mother and grandparents.

A gift through time

In the end, we did the digital conversion ourselves, and I burned the recordings to a CD for my mother and siblings for Christmas. It wasn’t the sound of my own voice, though, or the voices of my siblings (none of which I recognized) that so moved me, but my 30-something parents’ voices and their accompanying personalities.

Though he was mostly just introducing each of us, or asking his four kids what they wanted or had received for Christmas, my Dad’s relentless humor shone through. And it was the strong, capable voice I’d heard most of my life, not the feeble voice of his later years. It was so good to have that voice back in my head. Just thinking about it chokes me up. My mother is mostlynot on the recordings, as she, no doubt, was caring for the youngest child or cleaning up, but it makes her short bits even more special.

When we first started doing our Audio Keepsakes three years ago, I admitted to a friend how great it would be to have a recording of my Mom talking about her life as a mother of four young children, or my young father expounding on his career aspirations. Here, at 31, in an awestruck “Mommy” voice brimming with emotion, was my mother describing her best Christmas ever. And my father, at 37, jazzing up even the simplest of tasks (identifying my brother and I before we each read a passage). To listen to both, click HERE).

This wasn’t everything I’d wanted, but even with so little substance, it was a lot. And it confirms for me the value of getting something. If you want advice on how to do that, check out our blog post “A story worth saving is a story worth hearing” (click HERE).

When Christmas day came, we sat in my sister’s living room — our two families and my mother — and listened to nearly 50-year-old found recordings from my family’s past. It was the best gift I could hope to get. The moral of the story? Plan ahead. Because the only way to give such a gift to your children in the future is to record yourself in the present. Now there’s a new year’s goal worth doing!

“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.

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