Recording an interview, meeting, focus group or brain-storming session (from this point forward I will use "meeting" to represent all of these) is a great way to ensure you have an accurate record of everything that was said by the participants. However, you need to do more that just stick the microphone on the table. A little forethought will make the difference between being able to hear every word or people were too quiet or drowned out by background noise, especially if you're planning to do a transcript of the recording.
1/ CHOOSE THE ENVIRONMENT CAREFULLY
The first rule is to try and ensure you have a quiet atmosphere to hold the meeting. Obviously, an empty room is going to be better than a busy café, but, whatever the location, there are things to take note of.
You have booked an empty room, but at the time of the meeting you find it is really warm, so windows are opened meaning the noise from the road floods in. Heavy traffic, blaring horns, roadworks, people shouting all may be picked up by the recorder and possibly drown out what is being said by participants.
If possible do some tests in the room beforehand. Rather than opening windows, get a couple of fans in the room (but place them far from the position of the interview). If windows are likely to be open, arrange the seating so it is as far from them as possible. Even then, some higher pitched noises (like a pneumatic drills) can carry quite a distance so still may be picked up.
If the interviewee has decided the venue, for example, a café or tea-room, arrive at least 15 minutes early, so you can check out the location before they turn up. Almost all cafés have the coffee machines that make a lot of noise, especially when the server (or "barista") bangs out the old coffee from the filter. So, if possible, find seating as far from the counter or bar as possible. The same goes for other venues serving food, etc., you don't want the recording drowned out by the clinking of plates as they are stacked up, or the clash of cutlery and its thrown into a tray.
Another tip for a bar, café, etc.: pick seating up against the wall (and away from the doors leading to the kitchen or toilets). This will lessen the chances of other customers or the staff needing to get past you regularly and ensures interruptions are kept to a minimum.
2/ CHECK YOUR EQUIPMENT (AND CARRY SPARES)
There can't be anything more embarrassing as when your equipment stops functioning unexpectedly (oo-er).
You need to be certain you will be ready for anything - especially if the interview runs for significantly longer than planned. Up to now, interviews have lasted 30 minutes to an hour, but what if the next one goes for twice as long? You don't want to miss the last 15 minutes, which also turns out to be all the most important information.
Make sure you carry spare batteries, and maybe even a spare recording device. Most smart phones have voice recorder apps so, if you have a smart phone, download one of these and perhaps have it recording as well as the main device, just in case there's a problem. If using rechargeable batteries then ensure they are at 100% charge just before the interview. (We did have one recording to transcribe where the final 20 minutes got ever s.l..o...w....e.....r as the last bit of charge seeped away.)
Do a test run just before the meeting to ensure you have everything set up correctly. When you come to play back the recording, you don't want to find nothing had been recorded because the microphone plug has been put into the speaker socket by mistake.
3/ KEEP BACKGROUND NOISE TO A MINIMUM
Similar to the first tip, but you want to make sure you do not unwittingly introduce any noises that could drown out what is being said.
It's a warm day and you put a fan on half way through the meeting. Although positioned a short distance away, you don't realise every few seconds the fan blows air across the microphone. Perhaps you have decided to lay on drinks and maybe even a snack. There will be the sound of cups scraping on saucers, the stirring of teaspoons in the cups, knives and forks clinking on cutlery, even the scrunching or rustling of a biscuit packet. All of these noises, if close to the microphone, will drown out what is being said. If you are using the clip-on microphones, they can pick up the sound of the wearer chewing their food (not a pleasant sound to listen to).
It is far better to ensure everything is kept far from the microphones. Perhaps have the food and drink set up at a different table. You can get the drink and snack before the start, or put the biscuits on a plate. If the interview is going to be long, perhaps have a scheduled break.
If you have gone to someone's office or other area to record them, try and make sure that device is kept away from computer fans, telephones etc. (although, admittedly, the "tower" unit of a PC is far less likely to be on the person's desk these days). Just do a quick test before you start the interview proper to ensure the recorder isn't picking up a noise that you're not aware of.
Remember, our brains are amazing at filtering out noises we don't need to be aware of at that moment - but a microphone will pick them all up. The last thing you want it to find much of the important information was obliterated by other noises.
4/ PUT THE MICROPHONE CLOSE TO THE PARTICIPANT(S)
Obviously, the most important information is going to come from the interviewee(s), so you want to make sure what they say is picked up. You don't need to worry about recording the questions you ask, as you probably have a note of them anyway. It sounds obvious, but you will be surprised at the number of people who, when recording a meeting, click the "record" button on their device and then place it in front of them - sometimes several feet from the person they're interviewing!
Therefore, especially if in a noisy environment, make sure you get the microphone as close to the interviewee as possible. Perhaps invest in clip-on microphones.
Don't assume that because the microphone is sensitive, it doesn't matter if the interviewee is a little far away, remember Tip 3. For example, what if you're in a café and the waitress, asking the people at the table next to yours, what they would like to order, is closer to the microphone than the interviewee? How will you feel if, when you play the recording back, you find yourself listening to someone ordering "the full English with extra toast and a mug of tea" rather than the information you had been waiting to hear for months?
So, make sure the microphone is as close to the interviewee as possible.
5/ LAY DOWN GROUND RULES - (ESPECIALLY FOR MULTIPLE-PARTICIPANT INTERVIEWS)
If several people are involved in the meeting, then it will be best if you lay down some ground rules for everyone to follow from the start. Otherwise, it is far too easy for the loud participants to dominate, and the quieter, shyer ones get missed, or even some members of the group start having separate conversations.
Often, when taking part in a meeting, some participants are so eager to have their say they will interrupt and speak over the top of others. This means it will be their voice dominating the recording, and any thoughts, opinions or views of the others will get lost. (And, with over 20 years' experience with transcribing focus groups and brain storming sessions, we know that if the quieter participants keep being interrupted they will soon stop bothering to contribute at all.)
In larger groups you may even find occasions where participants will have conversations between themselves while the main meeting still goes on. If these "side conversations" are happening close to the microphone they can drown out what is being said by others. These conversations may have nothing to do with the point of the interview and so will be completely useless.
Depending on the subject of the meeting, you may find two (or more) participants vehemently disagree with each other and start arguing. Again, this can then dominate the recording, so should be stopped quickly. (In one meeting about the effect of climate change, an older male disagreed completely with a young woman's ascertain that trees "take in" carbon dioxide and "give out" oxygen - which is true. The older male kept referring to it several times during the focus group, with sarcastic statements like "If we are to believe that trees..." )
So, before the start, it is probably a good idea to state something like "Obviously, we want to hear from all of you and everyone's opinions are important to this interview. Therefore, please respect each other, do not interrupt or talk over people, let people finish what they are saying." If you then find people are starting to forget the rules, it doesn't hurt to remind them.
Finally, again, do your best to have the microphone in the middle of the group, so you have the best chance of picking up what the quiet ones say. If you are involved in doing a lot of focus groups, or interviews with a large number of participants, it might be worth investing in more expensive recording equipment, which can handle two microphones.
REMEMBER: If it is important enough to be recorded, then it's important to ensure that what is said is picked up on the recording. A few minutes following the above tips will give you the best opportunity to ensure that happens.