Using a Mac laptop to record interviews

I’m going to be doing some interviews for my project on The Life Work Blog, and I want to be able to record the conversations, to be able to capture quotes properly.

I have an old mini cassette recorder, but it’s rather awkward to use. It doesn’t even have a time counter on it – a feature I liked on the digital recorder I used when I worked as a newspaper reporter. I would usually take handwritten notes and jot down the recorder’s counter number when some good quotable material came up, so I could easily go back to that portion of the interview later and get the phrasing right.

(Note: I *never* rely strictly on a recorded interview – way too easy to lose it and lose the entire interview. I always take simultaneous notes, either handwritten or on a laptop. Plus, it saves the trouble of having to go back to listen to / transcribe the whole thing.)

I started looking at digital recorders, but soon realized it would be silly to buy another device when the phone in my pocket could do the same thing. I got a cellphone-compatible omnidirectional lavalier mic, started searching smartphone apps to use for recording interviews . . . and got bogged down in a morass of conflicting reviews and crappy apps. I got frustrated and gave up looking.

Time passed, I updated the OS on my MacBook Pro, and I noticed that I now had an “App Store” on my laptop.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “I’m probably going to be typing out these interviews on my laptop – I wonder if I could just record through the laptop, too.”

I set out to search recording apps . . . and got bogged down again in a a morass of conflicting reviews and crappy apps. Until I had a “Duh!” moment and learned that my Mac laptop comes with a recording app built in! Tadaaa! QuickTime Player to the rescue!

“File > New Audio Recording”, click the red circle, et voilà!

The computer’s internal mic worked great with QuickTime, but depending on the background noise level and seating arrangements during the interview, I decided I’d need to use the lavalier mic at times. Alas, I couldn’t get the mic to work. I had a few ports on the side of my computer, and I thought the “line-in audio” port would be the appropriate port to use. I was bringing audio signal into the computer, right?

I finally figured out, and am posting here for others who may be in this predicament, that I needed to use the headphone port for the mic. The line-in port is designed for microphones that have a power source to boost their signal, so no operating power is provided to a device plugged into this port, if I understand correctly. My little lavalier mic does not have a power source, but it does have a TRRS jack (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve – looks like it has three black lines on it), which includes a microphone contact. (See this blog post from the Cable Chick blog for more information about TRRS jacks.)

I had the “System Preferences > Sound (input)” window open when I plugged the lavalier mic into the headphone port, so I could see that the computer automatically sensed what was plugged in and modified the settings appropriately.

Here’s what the “standard” sound input window looks like on my Macbook Pro with OS X Yosemite:

Normal sound input setting for the computer

The “internal microphone – built-in” changed to “external microphone – microphone port” when I plugged in the mic:

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.11.04 AM

The QuickTime Player gives you a choice in a drop-down menu (the triangle next to the red button) between “line in” and “internal microphone.” Leave it on “internal microphone.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 2.44.07 PM

One more thing – when the lavalier mic is plugged into the computer, the computer’s built-in speakers won’t work because it’s sending sound signal to the mic. So, if you want to play back a test recording of your interview subject to make sure things are working, you’ll need to unplug the mic.

Technology problem solved! Now all I need to do is manage to snag interviews with a bunch of busy people.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw


2 thoughts on “Using a Mac laptop to record interviews

  1. mary engelhard says:

    Hi Katie

    I don’t know exactly how this works- do you get this reply directly??

    Anyway, I have been lusting after this software for a few years now, it keeps looking like it is getting better & better- maybe it would help you too!

    Another thought- if you are taking the time to write about what others think about their work life, give them the same opportunity- get a questioniare (sp?), and let them write about it, or give them the option.


    Auntie Mary


    • Thanks for your comment, Masi Mary. I get a notification of your comment, and it posts publicly on the blog for others to see.

      Thanks for the link to the dictation software. It may become very important to me, as I’ve decided to modify the focus of my interviews a little.

      When I reread the first interview writeup I did with Judi after reading some other books that describe people’s careers, I was struck by the fact that the quotations, the stories in a person’s own words, were, for me, the strongest part of the writing. My own explanatory writing in between quotes seemed dry by comparison.

      This supports my idea to work with oral interviews, rather than asking someone to sit down and compose answers to questions. The way a person writes is much different from they way they speak. I really want to capture the individual voice of each person I interview.

      As far as making things easier for a busy person, for me a written interview would take longer than an oral interview, as I’d feel the need to get everything “just right.” I also may have a bit of a bias at work – I’ve been annoyed in the past by what I viewed as “lazy” journalists asking me to respond to emailed interview questions instead of taking the time to call me and connect with me in a more personal way.

      Also, an oral interview would enable me to ask followup questions to delve into interesting topics that come up in conversation that I would not have known to ask about otherwise. A written interview would require a lot of back-and-forth to capture such hidden gems.

      Thanks for reading!


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