Recording an audio conversation

Woman in window (detail), Richard Caton Woodville, War News from Mexico, 1848, oil on canvas, 68.6 × 63.5 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas)

Woman in window (detail), Richard Caton Woodville, War News from Mexico, 1848, oil on canvas, 68.6 × 63.5 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas)

Selecting your object

As you decide on an object or site to make a recording about, consider the following:

  • Is it on view/accessible?
  • Can you take or find good images of it?
  • Is the space around the object/site noisy?

A conversation, not an interview

Keep in mind that Smarthistory-style videos are unscripted conversations and not interviews (we do not ask one another questions). Both people are looking and responding to the object and drawing on their experience and knowledge.

Doing your research

We have found that it’s valuable to seek out the most recent research, even when you’re recording on an object you’ve been teaching for years. And if the object is not in your area (but it is for the person you are conversing with), ask them for a short bibliography so you can hold up your end of the conversation. Feel free to bring your notes along for reference, but don’t read from them. Keep any quotes to a bare minimum.


We recommend using a small, handheld, professional audio recorder that fits neatly into your hand. We have found that larger equipment attracts unwanted attention. We currently use a Zoom H2N audio recorder.

Tip: Always test and prep your equipment first.

  • Before you go out into the field, always test your equipment at home. Make a recording and play it back, and make sure you understand the different options on your recorder.
  • Make sure that you have enough storage space and battery life for your recording.
  • Make sure you can export the file to your computer and import it into your audio editing program.
  • Bring a backup recorder, if possible.
  • We recommend that you reformat your memory card before each use.

Ensure a good recording

When you arrive on site, make sure you have a way to check the volume of your recording (your “levels”), either by making a quick recording and playing it back to check it, or by using headphones to listen to yourself as you record (many audio recorders automatically adjust levels in the first few seconds). Keep in mind that this is both a function of how close you hold the audio recorder, but also the settings on the microphone.

We recommend that you hold the mic no closer than 10 inches from your mouth, or your “Ps” might pop! You do not want your voice to be too loud (resulting in distortion), or too soft (resulting in too much background noise). When recording, make sure each person is close enough to the microphone to be heard equally, either by standing equidistant from the recorder, or by “working” the microphone back and forth. If the audio recorder allows, we prefer the most narrow “cone” setting to include both speakers, and to record in stereo.

The conversation

We usually record for about 10-20 minutes for a 4-8 minute edited audio. Smarthistory conversations are between two people. (We do not recommend using more than two voices. It can be confusing and difficult to edit.)

Tip: No one person should talk for too long. We find that 2-4 sentences is often enough.

Think of your conversation as a friendly tennis volley. Do your best to set your partner up for saying something interesting and relevant, and hit the ball back and forth at a good pace.

Tip: Use non-verbal cues

In normal conversation, we often use verbal cues in a conversation when we are enthusiastic about what the other person has said. Unfortunately, when we do this, our voices often overlap, making editing difficult. We’ve found that it’s useful to offer non-verbal cues (like nodding or offering a “thumbs up”) instead.

Background noise

Our conversations take place on-site, in front of the work—often when a museum or cultural site is open to the publicThis means there will inevitably be background noise. That’s okay! It gives listeners a sense of being there with you. Still, listen closely as you record. If there is increased or distracting background noise (such as an alarm going off or a school group passing by), stop talking and wait for it to subside.

If you misspeak, say your whole phrase again. This makes it much easier to edit. It is also a good idea to record a little “room tone” or “natural sound” from the background to use in the editing process.

What should we talk about?

Like any good art historical analysis, the conversation should flow directly from the work itself. Alternate between referring to the visual aspects of the object with discussing other historical, biographical, stylistic, or cultural issues. 

Your content should be comprehensible to a beginner. Do your best to briefly define any specialized terms that you or your partner use. Assume that your audience is bright and interested but may know very little about art history or history more broadly.

Tip: You don’t have to make it flawless.

Your conversation will not be perfect—don’t expect it to be! Imperfections make your audio more authentic, interesting, and relatable. Things will get left out; you won’t be able to make every single point you want to make in the time allotted. You can make up for this to some degree with annotations in the video, and you can always add links to further reading.

A strong end

It is always a good idea to plan a good conclusion to your conversation. Ideally, your audio should not trail off or end on a random detail.

Cite this page as: Dr. Naraelle Hohensee, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Recording an audio conversation," in Smarthistory, June 14, 2018, accessed November 25, 2020,