A while ago, I wrote a post where I said that using Skype for interviews was a bad idea. I still stand by the premise of that piece – that Skype-to-Skype connections should not be used in most situations – but a few things have happened in the last few months to change my mind about the blanket statement “Skype is bad for recording interviews.”
The first thing was pretty simple. The telephone hybrid interface I had been using stopped working. This box took the sound from my studio mic (through a mixer) and fed it into the phone line so my interview subject could hear me. At the same time, it fed just the caller’s audio into a different channel of the mixer – allowing it to be recorded independently from my voice. These devices are usually very good at what the do (they are what professional radio producers use to put phone calls on the air), but I was suddenly without mine, and I needed to decide if it was worth it to get another one.
At about the same time, Skype announced a new option for their SkypeOut service: Skype Unlimited. For $30 a year, you can get unlimited calling to anyone in the US and Canada. That’s unlimited calling to real phones – in other words, an inexpensive digital connection between your computer and your interviewees’ in-home recording systems (AKA their telephones).
These two developments prodded me to look into Skype as a way to record phone calls, and I was impressed with what I found: with some inexpensive third-party software, I get better sound quality using SkypeOut than I did with expensive dedicated hardware.
Since I use a Macintosh system for my recording and editing, I downloaded a trial copy of Ecamm Network’s Call Recorder ($15, includes lifetime upgrades) to test out. Call recorder adds a small recording window (complete with level meters) to Skype, and is very easy to use. It adds a “Recording” tab to your Skype preferences, giving you full control over recording quality and compression (including an uncompressed option).
In my opinion, Call Recorder’s killer feature is the ability to have each side of the phone call output as an independent AIFF file. If you edit your interviews (or even apply any processing to them after the fact), this is a tremendously useful feature – it’s one of the main reasons people pay hundreds of dollars for a telephone hybrid. Because the whole phone call happens inside your computer, there is complete separation between the two sides of the call, allowing you to edit the interview as two separate recordings that can be spliced together into one smooth final product.
I don’t use Windows very much, but I did find a piece of software that seems to duplicate Call Recorder’s functionality for that platform: it’s called CallBurner ($50, trial version available), and what I have seen written about it so far seems good.
What’s the Catch?
There isn’t much of a catch, as long as you have a moderately fast, reliable internet connection. However, this could be harder to achieve than you think. When I started this experiment, I tried calling over a cable internet connection and (quite surprisingly) the results were terrible! After some research and experimentation on my part, I figured out that the connection was fast, but it was only fast in little spurts. Even though the average throughput was high, the speed dropped almost all of the way to zero many times a second. [I've gotten a number of question about this, so I want to emphasize that this was just my specific experience. Most people have no problems whatsoever using Skype with a cable connection.]
When I tried another test on a T3 connection, the results were much better. Don’t let that “T3″ speed scare you, though – switching to DSL at home fixed my connection problems even though the speed is lower overall.
So You Want to Do a Phone Interview…
Now that we have this inexpensive tool for recording phone calls, it is far easier for individuals to capture famous or faraway voices for their podcasts or other audio projects. If you want to take advantage of this new access, here are a few tips:
- Don’t use a cheap mic on your end.
Use a good USB mic, or plug your mixer into the computer to get your sound as good as possible.
- Always call a “traditional” landline unless cellular or VOIP is the only option.
Cell phones are inherently flaky, and while VOIP calls are pretty reliable, there is the potential for some digital weirdness there – it’s better to divide the chance of this by two by only doing the VOIP thing on your side where it is necessary for the recording.
- Don’t let the guest use a speakerphone or cheap headset.
You can tell when someone is using one in a normal phone conversation, so your listeners will be able to tell as well.
- Ask your interviewee to close the door, turn off their cell phone, and give you their undivided attention.
You’ll be able to hear rustling papers, typing, and office noise in the recording – just like in a regular phone call.
- Treat it like an interview, not a phone call.
The phone is your recording system, not an excuse to have a casual chat (unless that’s what you are looking to record). If you need help with interviewing, read my Interview Basics post to get you started.
If you want a sample of what a Skype-to-phone recording sounds like, listen to the segment below.