Audio recording technology has come a long way since I started out in 1996. My first recorder was a small radio sized recorder (sometimes called a shoebox recorder) that used regular cassette tapes. One tape could record 30 or 45 minutes per side with two sides, but the rule was to not record on both sides as “bleeding” of voices or noises could potentially occur. The tapes produced their own white noise in the form of a mild hiss along with any mechanical sounds of the recorder which were usually recorded unless a separate microphone was used and the recorder hidden. One learned quickly how to lubricate the device to keep these noises to a minimum or buy an external microphone. Working a case would usually mean buying a handful of tapes, although I usually bought a ten pack box of TDK 90 tapes and had plenty of those boxes stacked up, my how times have changed.
Digital audio voice recorders were available in the mid-1990s, but most of them were very expensive and there was a large internal debate in the ghost field as to whether they might capture evidence as good as regular analog recorders could. The upside to these digital recorders were plentiful; you didn’t have to rely on tapes, you didn’t have to forward wind or rewind the tapes, and they had the capability of being hooked up to a computer or other recording device to transfer the audio footage for better interpretation.
As the technology became more commonplace (and prices dropped) the old technology was slowly replaced and those who argued that the new technology was inferior became the minority. As digital audio recorders are now the majority we must be aware of the shortcomings of this technology. Many of the same issues with the old technology are still a part of the new. Along with the technology itself the greatest issue with this machinery is how it’s misused by many in the paranormal field.
Many are tempted to turn up the microphone sensitivity to high in order to capture any sounds that may be too low to hear with the human ear. The big issue with turning up sensitivity is that you are making the microphone hyper sensitive to everything. This amplification can make sounds seem different than how you hear them and can create audible pareidolia, which are noises that are interpreted as words. A creaky board may make little sound when you hear it, but it will sound different on the recorder and can be mistakenly interpreted as a voice.
Another common mistake I see a lot of is investigators walking around with a digital recorder in their hand. There are two issues with this; first, walking around a location will expose the recorder to a variety of noises. These noises can be interpreted later on in a number of different ways, especially if not they are not recorded in a notebook or dictated into the microphone. Even standing still can create creaks under your feet that you may forget about later or may barely hear while you are onsite. Even an external microphone can be prone to sounds of movement. I typically wear one at all times and come to expect noises from time to time. Holding the recorder creates a whole other issue. The act of holding the recording can create an array of sounds that can easily fool someone into thinking an EVP has been captured. The muffled movement of the recorder in the hand will not be heard but can create some interesting noises. Another piece of technology close by or a ring on the hand can produce feedback on the recorder that might produce strange noises as well. Even placing a recorder on a table or the floor will amplify sounds that are unheard by the ear and can be later interpreted as paranormal although a logical explanation exists (try using an external microphone with a stand). Many still think that the act of using this piece of technology is scientific although science is a process not a tool or event.
Prior to using any piece of technology it should be thoroughly tested in a variety of conditions and determined if it will be a good fit for specific types of research. With a digital recorder, it should be used with a variety of settings in various types of rooms and be tested with varying noises at different distances to establish some sort of baseline for the recorder (if you don’t know what normal sounds like, how can you determine what paranormal sounds like?). While this can be done after an experiment, it helps if you are already acclimated to what the recorder sounds like before conducting research with it.
So, what’s the best way to use these things?
The key to investigating using a digital recorder should not just be centered on recording a paranormal voice, but finding out where the voice came from. This cannot be done with a lone recorder and in order to triangulate a noise you would need a minimum of three recorders. The more recorders you use the more likely you will be able to find the source of a noise. I recommend using more than three, but not necessarily all in the same room. Finding the source of the noise will help you eliminate contamination as a possible cause and will support your claim as long as you are documenting the scene and have even more audio to back this up. Getting a really cool voice on the recorder might be your goal, but without anything to back up your claim it’s nothing more than a subjective experience despite being recorded.
When conducting an EVP vigil it would be wise to place a recorder in every corner of the room, and again do not lay them flat or leave an external microphone close to a surface. By placing the recorder microphones in a specific direction (or using omnidirectional external microphones) you will have a higher chance of recording something anomalous, but it doesn’t stop there. The microphones should overlap in coverage by pointing up and toward the center of the room, not necessarily directly to the middle, but in that general direction. There should also be recorders running just outside of the room as well and just outside the window of a room as well. The Zoom H2 eliminates the need for multiple recorders to some extent. This recorder has the ability to record in stereo in two separate tracks at the same time. The Zoom H2 has a front and rear speaker that records with left and right channels. I have conducted a lot of experiments with this recorder in various parts of various types of rooms and while it’s amazing I still recommend using a various recorders separately versus one that records in multiple tracks.
There should be someone listening and physically recording sounds as they hear them on a piece of paper including time, location, and duration. This person should be close enough to the room that they can hear what is happening, but not necessarily being right in the middle of the room itself. As human beings we tend to make a lot of noises from our basic bodily functions to the movement of our joints and bones. There should be at least one other investigator outside of this area that is in direct observation of this investigator. The job of this person is merely to keep on eye on the person closest to the investigation target area. This isn’t to thwart a fraud, but it provides another step in supporting claims of the paranormal. Another investigator should be set up with a similar array in a different room to serve as a control area in case outside noises (airplanes, cars, voices outside, etc.) are recorded. Why have anyone there at all? First, while many groups conduct great research in sealed rooms the concept surrounding ghosts is based on interaction with the living. Second, this living person also serves as a backup to the documentation being conducted by the recorder and the person watching the investigator closest to the room serves as an objective witness.
This point of documentation brings up an important issue to investigating which is using lights. It has become the culture of ghost groups to turn off the lights during investigations, but this practice has been imitated from television shows that do this for the thrill factor of the viewing audience and despite many varying claims it does not heighten ghost interaction or your senses. By being able to see what is in the room will you be able to quickly identify noises (oh, and EVP sessions need not be done solely at night either).
When I conduct an investigation I usually take a digital recorder and record everything I do using a lapel microphone. This comes in handy when you are in the dark (again, not recommended but sometimes necessary) or are concentrating on something and do not have the time to take written notes. I also carry some sort of set of notes and document the time, what people are doing, where they are, what noises I hear from where and more throughout the investigation. Just sitting in a room asking questions into a recorder is not enough to confirm that something that was recorded was paranormal.
The more documentation and attempt to isolate the noises within the room the better chance your evidence will stick or at least you will be able to quickly find a logical solution for. Another aspect of using digital recorders is reviewing as soon as possible. Real time recording and listening is still a new thing, but the technology isn’t where it needs to be yet. As many know there is typically a long pause between a question and answer. A device that can record and then play back audio around a minute or longer (while continuing to record) would be a significant tool. One method I use to hear what the recorder hears is to simply plug in a set of headphones on a recorder that is running. Doing so will allow you to hear what the recorder hears, but not what it is recording (paranormal noises are thought to be “imprinted” and not actually heard). This allows you to get a better sense of how noises are being “interpreted” by the recorder versus what you hear with your ears; many times I am amazed at how certain sounds can become deceiving.
By having a stock pile of recorders you can easily replace one recorder in the room with another and begin to review one that was originally in the room. Whenever placing recorders into a location be sure to audibly note the time, date, location, and area within the location on the recorder and write down what recorder and folder within the recorder is being used. Documenting where the recorder will be used along with what folder beforehand can save you time (creating an investigation plan will as well) and during this time you should also verify the batteries are fresh and the recorders are working properly (all equipment should have a pre-operational checklist). When using a lot of recorders it is necessary to label the recorders for easier documentation.
Most groups live and die with their evidence review. For many, the rule of thumb is to start reviewing evidence as soon as possible after the investigation and have it gone through within 72 hours. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work for all groups and even those with an army of people may have a hard time getting everything processed within a couple of weeks. This is one thing that has never made sense to me; why do we bother trying to communicate with something only to wait days or weeks to listen for a response and especially when we are no longer at the location? There is nothing wrong with pulling recorders to review as EVP sessions should be kept to under a half hour anyway, although I do suggest keeping a few random recorders running throughout the investigation site for longer durations. These recorders should be mainly be used to document the investigation process to confirm or deny the presence of contamination or false positive sounds, but can also be reviewed for evidence as long as the site is being documented for contamination. Just be sure to periodically state the time into these recorders and verify the batteries are still alive.
When should you pull a recorder? Whenever you are conducting an investigation and you get a response (knock, moving object, etc.) or are able to get multiple sources (subjective experience, EMF spike, etc.) that get abnormal signals it may be a sign that something unexplainable is happening. An EVP could have been recorded and this information can be the difference between an “Oh man!” moment days later or genuine connection to life after death. Of course, using a dozen recorders can amount to a lot of additional evidence review time!
No one ever said science was easy.
(Note: the photo above right is a rough diagram of how I might lay out a room with recorders and investigators. Obviously there may be more or less recorders in different spots.)
Want a better way to classify EVPs? Check out this classification system by Doug Kelley and Jari Mikkola.