Practical Considerations in
Recording "Natural" Speech
Presented by:          Jean Andruski, Wayne State University  
Project / Software Title :       Practical Considerations in Recording "Natural" Speech  
Project / Software URL:  
Access / Availability:        

In making recordings, the goal is always to get a clear, undistorted speech signal with as little noise as possible.

To get a clear, undistorted speech signal you need:
  • A good microphone and connection to tape recorder
  • A good level of loudness from speaker (neither too soft nor too loud)
  • A speaker who maintains consistent loudness level & distance from the microphone
  • A good sampling rate and bit depth in tape recorder and computer sound card
  • No loss of signal quality during transfer to computer
Noise that will detract from or ruin signal quality for acoustic analysis can include:
  • Any kind of environmental noise
  • Speaker movement, especially if movement impacts the microphone or an object close to the microphone
  • Voice overlap between speakers
  • Noise from the computer system during transfer to computer
The best way to minimize environmental noise is to record in a sound-proofed or sound-treated room. To reduce the effects of noise in an ordinary room:
  • Choose a quiet location
  • Cover large reverberant surfaces with blankets or cloths
  • Unplug electrical appliances
  • Close doors and windows
  • Turn off lights and fans or air conditioning
  • Remove anything that ticks, buzzes, bangs, rattles, squeaks, hisses, or otherwise makes itself heard
When recording citation form texts (e.g. word lists or sentences) it is usually possible to satisfy all, or most of the above conditions. However, to record speech in "natural" situations, speakers often must be allowed to move around and interact with other people, with objects, or with their surroundings. This makes it substantially more difficult to get optimal recording quality.

In natural speaking situations, speakers are much less likely to maintain a consistent distance from the microphone or consistent loudness levels. They may bump equipment and make noise while interacting with their surroundings, or their surroundings may generate noise. If the objective is to conduct different types of acoustic analysis, a portion of speech recorded in natural situations may not be useable. However, with digital equipment it is nevertheless possible to get very good overall recording quality in natural situations – i.e. speech that is not just clearly intelligible, but that can be analyzed for its acoustic properties.

To get the best possible recording quality, you need to match your equipment (especially the microphone) to the recording situation. The equipment listed below is equipment that I have used in different situations, so I know that it works. Any other, equivalent piece of equipment should work equally well..

Questions to ask yourself when choosing equipment for digital recording:

1a. Can your speakers’ position relative to a microphone be fixed, or will that adversely affect the kind of speech you’re trying to       elicit?

1b. Will you be recording single speakers, or do you need to record speakers in conversation?
      — adult speakers recording word lists?
      — adults speaking to infants?
      — children or adults conversing with each other?

      — If there is only one speaker, and that speaker will sit still, use:
          – a cardioid (directional) microphone in a mike stand.
      — If there is only one speaker, but that speaker will move side to side or back and forth (e.g. an adult talking to an infant),
          – a pressure zone mike on the floor, wall or table
              – requires a relatively hard. flat surface to get a good signal
          – a headset mike
      — If there is only one speaker, but that person will move around a lot (e.g. a child or adult engaged in activity) use:
          – a lavalier mike
      — If there are multiple speakers, but they will stay relatively still, use:
          – an omnidirectional mike with boom
      — If there are multiple speakers who are likely to move back and forth or side to side, use:
          – a pressure zone mike
          – multiple mikes of an appropriate type

2. Can equipment be in open view, or does it need to be unobtrusive?
      — Sony DAT Walkmans are very small and unobtrusive, esp. used with a SoundGrabber mike
      — Tascam DA-P1 is portable, but about 3 times the size of a DAT walkman.

3. Does equipment need to be easy to carry?
      — Sony DAT Walkman is very small and easy to carry. (An advantage if it’s you doing the carrying - a disadvantage if it’s a
      — Tascam DA-P1 is portable, comes with a good carrying case, but is larger and more likely to be noticed if someone tries to
          walk off with it.

4. Does equipment need to be able to withstand some abuse, either during recording sessions or during general setup and
      During recording sessions:
      — Might speakers kick or tap on a table with a mike?
      — Could the mike be knocked over or dropped?
          – Pressure zone mike can be placed on a wall or on the floor and speakers can be grouped around it.
          – Most other mikes can be attached to a floor stand or boom.
      In general:
      — Condenser mikes are much more delicate than dynamic and pressure zone mikes.
          – In comparison, dynamic and pressure zone mikes will put up with a lot of abuse.

5. How will all your equipment and software work together? Will buying one piece of equipment necessitate buying other pieces of
      — e.g. Sony DAT Walkmans are much less expensive and less obtrusive than Tascam DA–P1 portable, but you will need a
          proprietary cable for direct digital transfer
      — Kay Elemetrics’ CSL 4300B is very expensive, and requires a special module for direct digital transfer
      — Different recorders use different types of batteries, and go through them at different rates

Things you need:

DAT recorder with:
      16 bit, 48 KHz sampling
      Recording level meter & adjustable input level
      Jacks for microphone AND headphones.
      Also nice:
          adjustable sampling rate
          takes analog or digital input
          works with both battery and plug–in
          remote control
          phantom power source for mikes that require it
      Examples of DAT recorders:       Sony PCM M1 DAT walkman   (~$800)
                                                      Tascam DA P1 portable   (~$1700)
DAT tapes                                      (~$4 to $10 a tape)
      DAT tapes are more delicate than analog tapes, and cannot be spliced like analog tapes.
      Compatible with tape recorder
      If doing any recording outdoors, you should have a windscreen for the mike
      Examples of microphones:
              Shure KSM27   (~$500)
              AKG Acoustics’ model C–410 headset-type miniature condenser   (~$300)
              [N.B. You may need to buy a good carrying case separately for a condenser mike; condenser mikes require a power
              Shure SM48   ($125)
          Pressure Zone (= Boundary microphone )
              Crown SoundGrabber   (~$150)
          Lavalier (= clip or lapel microphone)
              Shure TPD Wireless Lavalier   (~$250)
Microphone stand or boom (not needed for pressure zone microphone)
Headphones for monitoring input
Speaker (& amplifier?) to play back recordings to speaker groups
Computer with good sound card, plus appropriate cable to connect DAT recorder to computer
Backup cables, if you are going to be out in the field
Bags to keep all equipment & supplies dry
Software for transferring from DAT recorder to computer, editing and analyzing sound files, and / or downsampling files, e.g.
          Kay Elemetrics’ CSL 4300B   (~$9000)
          Syntrillium Cool Edit   (~$70-$250)
          GoldWave   (~$40)
          Praat    (free)
Media for saving and backing up computer versions of sound files
          Hard drive, CD, USB disks, zip disks
Software to change file formats, e.g.
           – AIFF, AIFC, WAV, Next/Sun, NIST, NSP (Kay Elemetrics)
          UNL Speech Perception Lab Resources: (use "Convert16" program in conjunction with SSFEdit16)
          – (free)
          – STM (Indiana), ADF (CSRE), AIF, WAV, BIN, DAT (Sensimetrics), PC, NSP (Kay)
          – 16-bit binary offset and 12-bit binary offset

Program Readings Participants
Instructions for Participants
Workshop Homepage
Local Arrangements
Emeld 2001 Emeld 2002 Emeld Homepage