Record phone conversations


As a journalist I frequently engage in telephonic interviews with industry executives, some in countries as far away as the US  and Australia. They either dial me or I need to dial in to a pre-arranged conference call session. Call bridge details such as toll-free numbers, pass codes and the call time (local) are sent to me in advance. These discussions are usually technical in nature so I often record such calls using my cell phone or a tape recorder. I am sure you will need to do the same and I offer some options in this article.

Firstly, let me tackle the legalities. Is it illegal to record a phone conversation without the other party’s consent? I might as well ask: Is it illegal to shoot candid photos of people on the street without their consent? While I am unaware of any Indian law that forbids one to do so (photos, video or audio recording), I think this is really a matter of ethics and privacy. It’s better to inform the other party in advance that you will be recording the conversation. Take their consent and offer them the option to make comments “off the record”.  Well, you could record on the sly, but if the other party becomes aware, they are likely to protest angrily and terminate the call. Phones like the Nokia E-series beep every 20 seconds when you use the default sound recorder, so the other party knows that the call is being recorded. Of course, there’s a way round this, but more on this later.

Now, on to the options and the “how-to” instructions. The simplest way to record a phone conversation is to use a speaker phone. Place your sound recording device (dictaphone) near the phone’s speaker. If the recording device is a digital dictaphone or a mobile phone, do not place it too near the phone’s speaker, as it might cause some electro-magnetic disturbance (remember how that screen image on your old analog monitor danced wildly when your ringing cell phone was placed too near?)

A Telephone Adaptor

A Telephone Adaptor

The second method is to use a telephone recording adaptor. This useful accessory is included in some digital recorder kits (insist on it). It can also be bought from a shop on Mumbai’s Lamington Road or equivalent. It’s a small device with an RJ-11 telephone plug at one end, one or two telephone sockets at the other end and a cable with a 3.5 mm headphone plug. Unplug the telephone from its wall socket and plug it into the telephone adaptor. The plug on the telephone adaptor goes into the wall socket and the headphone plug from the device goes into the ‘Mic’ or ‘Line-in’ socket in your recording device. When the phone rings, lift up the receiver and press the ‘Record’ button on the recorder.

The third option is the sound recorder in your mobile phone. But there is a problem. Some phones beep every 20 seconds while recording and that can be annoying. The way round this is third-part software like Total Recall recorder from Killer Software. Download and install on your phone. No more beeps.

Finally, a word about sound file formats and transcribing. While the Nokia phones record in the common Wav/wave format (playable in Windows Media Player) Sony Ericsson phones record in the proprietary AMR (Adaptive Multi-rate) format. So after you transfer the sound files to the PC you will need to encode these to MP3 or Wav formats that are recognized by your audio player software. This file conversion can be done using the encoder in your CD burning software (Nero) or with some third-party shareware such as QuickMediaConverter. You could also download an AMR player and play the files (natively) without the need to encode to MP3.

Lastly, a word about transcribing. This is the most difficult part!

It can take as much as 2 – 3 hours to transcribe a one-hour interview, word-to-word. Tip: Listen to the full recording once (make notes) and keep an eye on the stop watch or counter in the media player. Note down the time for certain segments in the conversation that you’d like to transcribe. It’s like watching the time counter on a DVD player and noting down the reading for certain scenes so that you’d like to recall later.

It would certainly help to jot notes during the phone conversation. Note down key terms and phrases, just in case these aren’t discernable from the audio track while transcribing.

And, do start transcribing immediately after the phone interview (while it’s all fresh in your human memory).

Luckily my Mom did not have to go through all this at work. She took the easier way out and learned Pitman shorthand!