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Audio: How to make a tape log and WHY:

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Quick guide to an essential tool for radio journalists, produced for Dr. Dana Sajdi's HST 1806 class at Boston College.

Making a tape log to organize and transcribe your recorded sound is one of the easiest things you'll ever learn, as well as the most helpful. Up there with salting your pasta water (DO IT). But in true recipe blog form, I hope you'll forgive a wandering, metaphorical story about WHY you should do this. To skip to the recipe, click here.

Okay, so once upon a time I was taking an "Intro to Data Journalism" continuing ed class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The room was full of journalists of all stripes, learning how to write Freedom of Information Act requests and turn public databases into hard-hitting news that makes a difference and actually changes things.

When people hand me their babies, I teach them about tape logging too.

At some point, the trainer explains that in investigative work, it is CRUCIAL to tape record every interview. Not only does it ensure that you quote lawsuit-happy evildoers accurately. But it saves and protects those tiny little early details from your first pieces of tape that don't quite make sense until you put the whole story together. Record EVERYTHING, he boomed. You MUST.

One of these seasoned journalists raised her hand, and said something along the lines of, "But if I record an interview, it takes three times as long to go back into the tape and find everything. I end up needing to transcribe everything they said! It is SO annoying!"

Now, the majority of the class were mid-career newspaper reporters and largely in agreement. I was a scrawny 22-year-old from a local public radio station, trying to act like I knew things. At the risk of sounding like an insufferable know-it-all, I asked, "can't you just tape log?"

Heads turned. My heart stood still. I tried to explain.

A Zoom H6 with a levels monitoring window, complete with time code.

Every audio recorder has a window telling you how long it's been recording, right? If you take that time -- known as a time stamp -- and add it to your notes every minute or so, your notes will have a secret code that shows you where everything is. You'll end the conversation with the ability to go look at your notes, pick a topic, and see exactly where it was covered in your tape. If there was a particularly good section, you'll know where to find it.

A chorus of 'ohhhh's ensued. I'm not one to brag, but... I like to think that many, many hours were potentially saved that day.

Tape log transcription is one of the easiest, oldest time hacks that's never taught in school. It's an audio reporter's trick that actually works for everyone.

Tape logging will make this assignment (and any future audio work you do!) ten zillion times easier, you have my word. It's a small step that can save you time, prevent fact errors, and help you think critically about how to build your segment.

There are a plethora of computer-assisted logging systems online, and they're used by some of the top podcasts out there. But when it's your first pod, nothing beats an old fashioned listen. You've gotta trust the process. Happily, there are a few different strategies you can use, depending on your time constraints and recording setup.

Option #1: The classic log

Well helloooooo gorgeous!

Just look at this. The corrected misspellings and double-checked proper nouns. The evenly spaced time stamps, about a minute apart. And! *chef's kiss* the sections of the best, emotional tape are highlighted, for your esteemed perusal!

Ayy mi amore, this is Trint. These are the transcripts we pay good money for, or strive to emulate on our own. When you use it in your podcast, it feels like pulling out the freshly ironed linen napkins and special plates when company arrives. Let's appreciate it from another angle, just for one sweet moment.

This is probably what your computer looks like, when you're making it. Put your log and your tape side by side. Make a cup of tea. Type as you listen. This might take a while.

Ok that was nice. But in reality -- the vast majority of the time, you don't have to do this. We do it when we have the resources, and the time. More often than not, you'll use something like this...

Option #2: The mostly - there

Sloppy yet practical, this log hits the sweet spot.

I use this log when I'm interviewing someone in English, and over the phone. This means both hands and at least part of my brain are free to type out notes while they're still speaking. I type as fast as I can, ignoring mistakes, and I add a time stamp every minute or so. Here's one that I made up for a story on the rehabilitation of Istanbul's Prinkipo Orphanage:

Sometimes I add little stars, or switch to ALL CAPS if there's a piece of tape I know I want to use for a quote later.

At the end of the conversation, before the interviewee hangs up, I check the transcript to see if I missed anything or need to clarify something. My favorite last questions, which you are also free to use:

"Is there anything I've missed, based on my line of questioning?"


"Is there anything on this subject that people often misunderstand, that you wish they understood?"

A relatively small amount of podcasting happens in front of the mic. The key is spend your time listening.

After the conversation, I might go back and put sections that I want to use in boldface, or highlighted. If it's a long term project, I'll write down some key takeaways at the end. What was the most memorable part of the interview? What surprised me? How did the speaker sound, as they spoke? Anything to glean about their character or perspective?

Doing this gives me enough of a transcript to follow the arc of the conversation, remember the main points, and quickly find good quotes or sections of tape. If I keep all of my logs for a project on the same Word Document, it's easy to do a keyword search to find tape on a particular detail or plot point.

I don't recommend using this this one if you're interviewing someone in person -- because lugging a computer to an interview and focusing on it instead of the person you're supposed to be listening to can come off as fairly rude. Instead, make the log after the interview. It's a small time commitment that pays off in the long run.

Option #3: She gets the job done

paper notebook with notes and time codes.
A tape log I made during an interview this year. Note that I only remembered to time code after 10 min. Oopsie.

This, in all honestly, is the tape log that works.

You sit down to an interview, you set up the recorder. And you pull out a notebook.

As you ask your questions, you focus on your subject. Listen, not just to what they're saying but how they're saying it. What is their body language telling you. What kind of a follow-up will elicit the most candid, honest response?

When you hear something helpful, check the time on your recorder and write down a buzzword or two. Not much more.

Same story, different interview.

If it's REALLY good, circle it.

This is the notebook tape log, and she's all you need. Low-maintenance, forgiving. Best suited for those non-technical, emotional and personal interviews. Focus on the person first. You can transcribe it later!

Now, if you have MULTIPLE interviews for the same project, you can do that too. Here is a log I made with different interviews recorded in one day on the Ukrainian border. Notice that the column on the far left denotes the name of the file. (286th audio file on my recorder, 287th, etc). The time stamps are in the next column -- I highlighted them in red for you.

The spellings of names are things to get down first, and accurately. I've deleted my interviewees' phone numbers for this post, but put those on the tape log too.

The log can include ambient sounds, spoken words, and just general details to help jog my memory. In this particular case, I collected basic tape logs of everything I recorded on a trip, and then picked out different interviews to feature in different segments. This is a helpful process if you're working on a series, or gathering a lot of tape in one place. Find the best speaker for each angle, and work off of that.

That's all, folks!

I know you'll be spending the next weeks deciding how to build and script each episode. Consider using a tape log to track each recorded conversation, interview or ambient sound that you might include in the segment. Note for yourself where those moments of joy appear -- the insights you weren't expecting, interactions that feel candid and natural. Build your story to highlight your best tape. Your listeners will thank you.

Questions, comments, concerns? Throw 'em in the comments. Or email me, my contact info is on your syllabus. I'm really excited to meet you all and go over interviews, audio gathering and story structure in person. You've got an exciting semester ahead and I'm here to help!

a calico cat sitting in her bed, with an affronted look on her face as she sits next to a small pile of treats.
In closing here's a picture of my cat, looking very affronted because the cat sitter brought chicken not beef.

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