Thursday, October 06, 2011

Recording Family Stories

My grandfather on his own milk wagon with milk from his own farm.
When I was growing up I loved visiting with my Grandad.  Even in my late teens and early twenties I would ride my push bike over to their house to be with my Grandad.  I loved talking with him and finding out what he had done in his life, although just being in his presence was good enough for me.  He died in 1981.  One thing I miss is the sound of his voice.  Sometimes I hear it loud and clear and sometimes I forget what he sounds like.  My mum has a tape of him but I need to get it digitized so I can listen to it again!  When I last visited my grandmother this year at a rocking 91 years of age, I took a voice recorder with me.  I will now never lose the sound of her voice and hope that I can covert it to whatever the next form of storage will be be next along, so my children can hear it too, long into the future!

These days more and more people come from far-away places.  Not only are people moving from India or China, Europe or Japan to work in the States, but people simply find they have to move to do what they do, or do what they love.  And as a result our loved ones are not seen as often as we might like.  I met a family from India over the summer and asked if the kids' grandmother was in America, or back in India.  She was far away.  I asked if she ever told the kids stories.  Yes on the phone.  Does she visit?  Yes she does.  Do you record her stories?  No, haven't thought about that.  So here are some thoughts that you might want to use, or share with others.

Although it is always nice hearing the voice of a loved one who has passed away, if the sound of their voice is covered with hiss and static it does not make for easy listening.  What I use is a higher end voice recorder but you can pick up very good voice recorders for a fairly reachable price.  A voice recorder that is worth it's salt will start at around $90.00, a lot less than an iPod or iTouch.  And less than going out for a nice meal somewhere.

Brands I know that have good quality products are: Zoom, Tascam and Edirol.  Zoom is the cheapest and does a great job.  The Edirol are at the higher end and Tascam falls in between.  All are comparable.  All have an on and off, record, stop and pause switch, all have high quality built-in microphones.  Almost all of them take SD cards which are easy to find.  They all record at or above CD quality which means you can play around and edit with no detectable loss of quality.  I record at 24 bits, although CDs are 16 bits.  Some of the higher end machines can take external microphones.  But adding a cheap external mic might give a much lower sound quality than the built-in mics.

You want the microphone as close to the person speaking as possible.  Sometime people get self-conscious when they see a shining, flashing object they know is recording them.  It might help to cover it up with a light weight open weave material so they can forget about it.  The open weave will allow the sound through, but try out different materials before hand so you don't end up muffling the person's voice that is so important to you.

Make sure the voice recorder is plugged in to the mains if you want to sit and record for a long time.  If you use only battery power, you never know if the batteries might die, or the machine (my Edirol does this) might turn itself off after a while.  Hit the record button and let it run.  Ask leading questions and not hard questions.  Sometimes if you ask a person what their school was like, they may say 'Just like any school' but if you ask 'what colour it was inside, what did it smell and sound like walking down the corridors,' they are more likely  to tell you more than you expected.  "Where did you hide if you had to," might get some interesting answers!  Follow a question like 'who was your best friend' with, something like: "I bet you got into all sorts of trouble" and wait for the tales to start rolling.  Show them something from the past and ask them about it.  My Gran told me the story of a tea cosy made by a lost aunt, when I saw her in January. Old photographs also make good triggers.  And then, of course, you have to ask what their favourite story was growing up and see if they can tell it.  "Remind me - what's that story about?" is much more likely to get them telling, than, "Can you tell me the story?" which might get a healthy "NO!"

You can edit the recording down using free share-ware such as Audacity - a great product with a great following, which  also happens to be easy to use!  You can cut out the long silences.  If it is too quiet you can amplify it.  But bare in mind that when you amplify their voice you will also amplify all the background noises too.  This is why you want the mic to be as close to the speaker as possible.

When you go to my own website - - and go to the FREE STUFF pages you will find audio files you can stream of stories I have recorded just this way - a simple voice recorder and a Digital Audio Workstation like Audacity. Remember that none of us live forever and to capture the voice of those close to you is a treasure indeed.

If you would like to listen to the Teller to Teller Conference call I did with League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling on Producing and Promoting a CD, one track at a time, it contains more tips and advise for recording and can be obtained by contacting Yvonne Therese Zinicola at lanesdirector@GMAIL.COM or by going to the LANES website at:

1 comment:

Carolyn Stearns Storyteller-Announcer said...

The call was very helpful and spurred me to action. I recorded my first piece and with a great deal of Thanks going to Simon.

Simon, love the milk wagon picture!