Journaling with a voice recorder

Journaling while hiking

As I’m hiking, my mind occupies itself by taking notes and composing journal entries. But by the time I get home, great ideas and would-be compositions have vanished.

I tried jotting notes on a slip of paper, but then had to rethink everything at home. More often than not, it was impossible to recapture special moments, especially when recreating them became another chore to do.

So I then brought a journal with me, thinking I’d take a break mid-hike and write a few pages. But hiking is about moving, and it’s hard to stop once you’ve started. And if you do stop, there’s no place to sit. Benches are covered with dew and the ground is dotted with ant mounds. Or there’s no shade. Or there’s something more interesting to look at than a sheet of paper.

But I didn’t want to give up. Hiking and writing are my two favorite activities, and I didn’t want to sacrifice one for the other.

Recording with a cell phone

So I tried something new. I took my cell phone with me while hiking. I already had an app on it called Voice Record Pro. I would use this to dictate thoughts and observations, and then try to transcribe the dictated files.

 It was important to me that my thoughts remain private, and that my speaking wouldn’t disturb others, since few people visit nature parks to hear others shouting into their cell phones.

I liked that I could hold the phone close to my mouth and speak quietly into it. I could speak very softly and the sound was crisp. And talking in this manner was like confiding to a close friend.

When I got home, I was amazed at the quality of the words and the naturalness of flow. I was able to transcribe the notes while wearing a Bluetooth headset, which was connected to my phone. No one around me could hear the recording and my thoughts remained private.

Problems with cell-phone recording

But there were some problems with using the cell phone:

  • My iPhone 6 was just too big and heavy.
  • The screen was extremely difficult to see outdoors. It was hard to see which button to press.
  • There was no easy way to transfer the dictation files to my PC.
  • At home, I transcribed my notes by putting the phone in front of the PC’s keyboard. I then turned it on and off by hand as I typed, which was tedious.

Dictating journal entries worked, but I needed a better system.

A new recorder

So I ordered a Sony ICD-PX470 Stereo Digital Voice Recorder, which cost just under $50. The recorder is roughly 4.5 x 1.5 x 0.75 inches and weighs 2.5 ounces when loaded with two AAA batteries. One thing that attracted me to this particular recorder was its concave record/pause button, which makes it easier to locate by touch.

I’ve used the Sony ICD-PX470 for just under two weeks, and it has worked perfectly. However, after reading the instructions, I’m wondering how it will survive various hiking conditions. The instructions warn against leaving the recorder in a hot place or in direct sunlight (I’m thinking the plastic might melt). They also warn against handling the device with sweaty hands, since it’s not waterproof. I’m hoping Sony is simply being overly diligent and that the recorder will perform under any reasonable condition.

This recorder works best when held to the side of the mouth; otherwise all P words pop a little too loudly. If a microphone is attached, it must be plugged into the red opening at the top of the device. The black opening is for headphones.

The recorder’s controls are easy to navigate, and I think anyone used to handling electronics would learn them easily. These are the settings that have worked best for me:

Under Common Settings:

Auto Power Off—60 minutes.

Under Recording Settings:

Recording Folder—SD Card
Scene Select—Interview
REC Mode—192kbps
Recording Filter—LCF(Low Cut)

Recording accessories

Since the recorder has a slot for a MicroSD card, I purchased a ScanDisk Ultra 32GB Ultra microSDHC card with adapter, which cost around $12. The adapter makes it easier to plug the tiny card into a PC, so that files can be transferred. (Note that, when inserting the card into the recorder, the gold teeth face towards the keyboard and screen).

I thought it would be nice to wear a lapel mic, so I wouldn’t have to constantly bring the device to my mouth. But since I was experimenting, I didn’t want to invest a lot of money. I ordered a PoP Lavalier Lapel Microphone for around $10.

When I took my equipment with me on an outing, I tested the quality of the recording under various conditions. With the microphone attached to my shirt collar, I recorded as I drove to the park and as I walked. I could be heard clearly whether I spoke softly, in a medium voice, or with a projected voice.

Problems recording in the field

There were some problems recording in the field.

When I moved around a lot, the microphone jack and converter (which came with the mic and allows the microphone to be plugged into the recorder) became slightly disconnected. I lost sections of recording as connection was intermittently lost and regained. My solution was to secure the connections with painter’s tape before going hiking. Taping the microphone cord to the device worked well.

The recording was occasionally interrupted by strong gusts of wind. Because of this, I ordered a dead cat, which is a fuzzy covering that goes over a microphone to break the wind. I ordered the Comica CVM-MF1 Microphone Wind Muff for lavalier microphones, which runs $11 for a 3-pack. This covering slips easily over the PoP microphone and its foam wind-muff. Although I have yet to use the dead cat on the beach, it performed well under windy conditions on the trail. It also made recordings in the car a bit clearer.

Another problem occurred when I allowed the device to record an entire hike without interruption. Because I knew the recorder was running, I felt obligated to talk. And so I rambled. On and on I rambled. Recording in this manner meant that I had to listen to many hours of background sound and random thoughts, or use audio editing software to cut out the “dead” areas. This, I found, was time-consuming. My ultimate solution was to hit delete and scrap several hours of work.

I learned a valuable lesson:  Don’t speak unless you have something to say.

Since then, I’ve started carrying the recorder itself in an unzipped belly bag. I simply reach in and hit the pause button when I’m done speaking. This makes for much shorter transcription tapes when I get home.

Converting the recording to text

I used to be a professional transcriptionist, so typing my notes has been easy to do. For those who are fast typists, transcribing conversational tapes is simple with the right equipment.

I use a program called Express Scribe Pro [$50; note that Express Scribe Basic does not allow the use of a foot pedal]. One simply drags the files into the transcription list, and they are ready to work from.

As I listen, I control the playback with an Infinity foot pedal (about $65). This allows me to stop and start playback without removing my hands from the keyboard. Note that, to use a foot pedal with Express Scribe, one must go into Express Scribe’s [Options] settings and choose the [Control] tab. From there, the foot pedal can be enabled and set up.

Playback will be clearer with a headset. Because I work from home, a headset is always attached to my computer.

Final results

These few days of journaling have been the easiest and most successful I’ve ever had. After a day’s outing, I have a condensed file to work from and transcribing it is easy. Writing is more fun and less demanding, since there is no need to invoke a contemplative  mood or struggle to find the right words. I can constantly move during my hikes, and I can even write while driving the highway. I just lay the recorder next to me and press pause and play; pause and play.

There’s another benefit too. If I ramble over an annoyance, that disagreeable moment never enters my journal. I can selectively type—preserving the best and omitting the worst. And being my own audience, I find myself grumbling less and less, since listening to my own complaints is no fun.

Recording my thoughts is causing a change for the better, which is the goal of journaling to begin with.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She is a [mostly] vegan, alcohol-free, [relatively] caffeine-free, Buddhist writer and day-hiker. Her novel, The Clones of Langston, was a Reader’s Favorite medalist and a New Century Writer Awards finalist. It tells the story of cloned workers who are abandoned to form their own society. As the facility housing them erodes, they discover a challenging new world—our own.

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