If you are currently researching your family history and interviewing relatives for stories, digital recording makes it possible to gather material from far-flung sources. Most of your relatives would tell you that writing is not a practiced skill that they enjoy. If you ask them for written family stories, you are sure to be disappointed. If instead of writing, you ask a family member to tell a story as you record it, you will find that they are relieved and far more helpful.
One excellent method to record others at a distance is by telephone. Everyone has experience telling stories over the phone, so your subject will be relaxed at the prospect. The technology you use depends on your equipment at home. There are analog devices that can be attached to your landline, if you only use a traditional phone. The recorder is connected to the telephone line. Later, you will need to convert the analog recording to digital, but the quality of landline phone signals is superior, and result in good recordings.
If you are a computer user, call recording over the internet is very inexpensive. Be aware that this method has limits if you are doing important archival recording. Because this is VOIP, (voice over the internet), your call recording quality can be subject to odd momentary drop-outs. However, if you are simply gathering the story to be transcribed, these blips should not interfere.
When you are using VOIP for call recording, make sure the phone connection is working well. Do not allow your subject to record with a cell phone. Cell phones and the internet don’t play well together. They result in noisy, indecipherable recordings and dropped calls.
Many people download the free software Skype to call their relative from their computer. If your relative also has Skype, a Skype-to-Skype call is free. (If they have a landline, you’ll need to pay to call out from Skype to the local telephone network, but it is very inexpensive.) Skpe even has video to video, if your subject has a webcam. Not everyone enjoys that kind of eye contact as they tell a story, though, so give it a trial run befor attempting to gather a family story this way.
There are a number of call recording software programs that work well with Skpe, for tteleophone or video, that silently run in the background as you speak. We recommend MP3 SkypeRecorder. It starts up automatically, and then automatically saves the file that contains your recording.
If you are doing a large scale project, we have set up an extensive system that works wonderfully using the software Trixbox. In this case, we don not initiate the call, or interview the storyteller in a two-way dialogue. Instead, storytellers dial our toll-free number and are connected to a personal voice mailbox, where they can record as many stories as they like. They can also call when the mood strikes them, rather than setting up an interview. It is a good method for the motivated, but doesn’t work with reluctant relatives who need you on the other end of the line to encourage then to speak. Trixbox allows you to control the quality of your VOIP recording, but is requires a dedicated computer server and some effort to set up, so it is appropriate only if you are gathering digital audio recordings on a larger scale, over time.
Telephone recording may require a little coaching from you, so that your subject is willing and able to share many stories this way. Encourage them to speak casually, to tell the story as they would face to face with another person. If it can be arranged, invite another person to sit in on the recording session to listen to the story. You’re more likely to receive stories recorded in vivid, full detail if the storyteller is enjoying the experience and feels “heard”.