Recording focus group discussion is not easy. Focus groups are notoriously hard to control and manage. But crucially, you’ll have to record sound from different sources and directions. That’s not easy. Luckily for you, there’s recording equipment that make recording focus group discussion easier. And that’s my intention, to share with you the best focus group recording devices.

In a previous post, I shared a general outline of how to record a focus group discussion. I listed the 3 things you need to think about while planning your focus groups. I also shared specific recording devices for recording different types of focus group discussions. But I realized that I didn’t provide researchers with options and recommendations.

Summary: Here’s the best audio recorder for focus groups.Best Audio Recorder For Focus Group

  1. Sony ICD-ux560 audio recorder – a couple of these recorders are great for small sized focus groups. But can also be used to power two ME33 boundary microphones and record slightly larger focus groups.
  2. Olympus ME33 boundary microphone – the best microphone for recording medium and large focus groups; works well with the Zoom H1n digital recorder.
  3. Zoom H1n –  with the 2.5v plug in power output and USB charger (5v) capabilities, this is a great digital recorder for powering more than two ME33 boundary mics and recording your larger focus group.

Before I get to that, there are a couple of general tips that I want to share with you on recording focus groups. And they stem from a realization that most researchers see focus groups as a way to collect rich data in less time and with less effort. How naïve! When it’s time to get the FGs transcribed, researchers get in touch – looking to hire us to transcribe the focus group discussions for them. And there’s usually a bit of back and forth as we try to manage expectations on the quality of the data/transcripts that they’ll get from their poorly recorded focus group discussions.

If there is one thing that I’d like you to take away from this post, contrary to popular opinion, is that to conduct a good focus group, you’ll need to do a lot of planning – which takes time and resources. So here are my top 2 tips to get you started:

Visit the Venue

A preliminary visit to the room where you are going to record the focus group is a must! I can’t over stress this. Unless you are very familiar with the location where you’re going to record the focus groups (which means that it’s not a neutral location – and you should not be using it to conduct the focus groups), you should plan for a preliminary visit to the room.

Best audio recorder for focus groupsOnce you visit the room, there are a lot of things you need to check. I’m only going to touch on those that determine the quality of the recording, (but do make sure that the room puts your participants at ease and that they’ll be comfortable).

The first thing you’ll need to check is background noise. Does sound come from adjacent room, or from a busy highway? Fans and air conditioning create a lot of background noise. So you might want to move them around or switch them off or at least set them at a lower setting.

You also want to visit the venue at around the same time of the day – and preferably on the same day of week, as when you intend to conduct the focus groups. The local marching band might be practicing in the adjacent room – happened to me.

Finally you want to have at least one alternative venue where you can conduct the focus group discussion is case there is an issue with the primary venue. If you don’t, and maybe your primary room is locked, you’ll be in a bind.

Do a Test Recording

Again this is a must. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the equipment and make sure that it works. And the test recording doesn’t have to be long, 5 minutes should suffice to let you know that you can capture audio from all the participants.

When you visit the venue of the focus group discussion, you’re likely to be accompanied by your moderator and maybe someone from the venue (receptionist, librarian etc). Kindly ask them sit around the table and record the interaction whilst you monitor the recording.

Finally, most participants are uneasy about being recorded. From my personal experience, let them play with the recording equipment beforehand.  The first focus group I conducted, I was a nervous wreck. One of my key informants noticed this and got me talking about my new mini-cassette recorder. As the rest of the participants walked in, we passed it around, and they all joined in the discussion and that was a great ice breaker.

Best Audio Recorder for Focus Groups

  1. Sony ICD-UX560

Focus Group Audio RecorderThe Sony ICD-UX560 is the recorder you’ll want to get if you plan on recording small sized focus group discussions. Its greatest selling point is the ability to record high quality sound files in the .wav format and that you can visually monitor the microphones input on the screen. Great for doing that test recording I talked about.

My only concern is that it comes with 4GB of internal memory. That’s about 6 hours’ worth of good high quality recordings. You may want to get a 64 GB MicroSD card as additional memory. Here’s a detailed review of the Sony ICD ux560. For small focus groups, you’ll want to buy at least a couple of these recorders so that you can clearly capture all the participants. For slightly larger focus groups in a roomy location, get a couple of ME33 boundary mics and use the Sony UX560 to power them. Buy Sony ICD-UX560 from Amazon.

  1. Olympus ME33 Boundary Mic

While a couple of Sony ux560 are perfect for recording small focus group discussions, they are not great for medium to large focus groups. And that’s because the internal microphones cannot cover a wide area without picking up a lot of background noise.

Olympus ME33 Boundary Microphone for Focus Group Recording

I realize that this is a post of audio recorders, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the only device you can use to audio record medium and large focus groups: boundary microphones. The Olympus ME33 boundary microphones captures very little background noise, but captures distant voices very well. And you can connect up to 6 microphones using its daisy chain capabilities. All that equates to very large coverage. That makes the Olympus ME33 boundary microphone perfect for recording audio in large meeting or conference rooms. The only downside: you’ll need a digital recorder that provides plug in power. Let me repeat that. The ME33 will not work unless you connect it to a digital voice recorder that provides plug-in power.

Depending on your location and number of participants, you have a couple of options. If you plan to use only a couple of boundary microphones (covers about 40sqft), use the Sony ICD-ux560 to power them. I’ve tested this setup and it works very well. If you plan to use more than a couple of the ME33 boundary microphones I recommend the Zoom H1n.

Here is a detailed review (with a few tips on how to set them up) of the Olympus ME33 boundary microphones. To reiterate, if you need to effectively cover a large recording area, get the ME33s (at least 2 of them) coupled with a digital recorder to power them. Buy Olympus ME33 boundary mics from Amazon.

  1. Zoom H1n

Zoom H1n with ME33 boundary microphones for recording focus group discussions
Coupled with the Olympus ME33 boundary microphones, the Zoom H1n is the recorder I recommend for recording medium to large focus group discussions: whenever you daisy chain more than a couple ME33 boundary microphones. The main reason why I recommend the H1n is because it will output enough power to 6 ME33 boundary microphones without loss of sensitivity.

Not only does the Zoom H1n output 2.5v plug-in power, but you have the added advantage of being able to power it using a 5v USB charger. As opposed to batteries (which reduce power output as they discharge), you’ll be able to provide optimal power to your ME33 boundary microphones. Perfect! Now, the Zoom H1n does not come with a USB charger, that’s sold separately in an “accessory pack.” But any 5v USB charger works (my phone USB charger works great). And you’ll also need to buy Micro SD card to store the recording (here’s the one that I use on my H1n).

I recently penned a detailed review of the Zoom H1n, but let me highlight a few other great features of this recorder.  You can record high quality sound using the Zoom H1n 96 kHz 24 bit Wav format. You can visually monitor the stereo mic inputs onscreen. You can also monitor the recording, while the recording is ongoing, with a pair of headphones (great if you have a dedicated assistant to record your focus groups)… Great professional quality digital recorder that I recommend for powering more than two ME33 boundary microphones. Buy Zoom H1n digital recorder from Amazon.

That’s it for this post. I hope you’ve found it useful. If you have any questions, post them in the comment section below. I do read all of your comments and endeavor to answer all of your questions. All the best in your research.

10 thoughts on “Best Audio Recorder for Focus Groups

  1. Elena

    Thank you for such useful blogs about recording focus groups! I am nervous about the sensitivity of the Tascam and want to purchase the Sony recorder you recommend because I may not be able to control background noise in some of our groups. The problem is that I’ll be recording for a group of 12 and from your advice should use boundary mics. Is there an external power source that can be used with the Olympus boundary mics if I get the Sony recorder?

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hey Elena. No, you cannot get an external power source for the Olympus boundary mics. And yes, for a group of 12 participant I’d recommend that you use at least 3 boundary mics to record the focus group. When using boundary mics, don’t worry about the ultra sensitive Tascam built in mics – they are automatically turned off!. The Sony ICD-UX560 has a powered mic jack. But Sony does not say how much power the jack can output (I’ll rig something up and test). I know the Tascam has a max output of 1.7 volts, which is more than you’ll need. Do remember to switch on the plug in power (Home Screen > MENU > REC SETTING > MIC POWER) when you connect the boundary mics to the Tascam…

  2. Doris Alvarez

    Isaac, I am a complete newbie when it comes to recordings. I have a group of 12-20 I want to record in a series of meetings- a focus group I guess. I am not sure what you mean by boundary microphones. Where do you purchase these? I know Amazon has the Tascam. Where can I find help on setting something like this up. What kind of store?

    1. Isaac Post author

      You can get the boundary mics on amazon – here the link to the one I recommend.
      And they are very easy to set up – just plug them into a recorder and press record. This is a great how to post.

      I don’t know of any physical stores that sell these.

      If you have any issues setting them up, let me know and I’ll be glad to help.

  3. Cheryl

    Isaac –
    First, THANK YOU for this awesome post. It’s exactly what I needed for a project I’m undertaking.
    Question: Did you happen to test the Sony with a daisy chain of six boundary mikes to see if it outputs enough to power them?
    I’m preparing to record a series of focus groups over the next eight weeks and need to make certain we get the audio recorded.

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hey Cheryl. Yes, been testing them for the last 1 month or so.
      Can the Sony power 6 daisy chained ME33 microphones? Yes it can. But the bad news is, I found there was a loss in power supplied to the mics after about 45 minutes = the mics recorded at a lower volume (decreased sensitivity). So I wouldn’t recommend you use the Sony to power up 6 boundary mics. Instead, I now recommend the Zoom H1n, which you can power up using a USB charger.
      I recently recorded a stakeholders meeting that lasted all day. I powered the H1n using my phone’s USB charger. That setup powered 6 mics the whole day! Didn’t have to worry about the batteries running out (which can be an issue when you’re powering a lot of mics).
      So yeah, get H1n and a 5v USB charger and that setup works very well with 6 ME33 boundary mics.
      Let me know if you have further questions.

  4. Sandy Bargainnier

    I am new to running focus grous and plan to use my iphone6 S–do these mics plug into phones?

    1. Isaac Post author

      Sandy, no they don’t. These boundary mics need plug-in power. Which means that they need to be supplied with power in order for them to function. They don’t need much power, but they will not work without a power supply. I don’t want to get into the reasons why they wont work (unless you want to be geeked out with ohms/impedance), but they are built to be powered by a digital recorder that outputs power via the mic 3.5mm input. As I stated in the post, depending on the number of ME33 you’ll want to use, the Sony ux560 or the Zoom H1n are your best options.
      All the best.

  5. michelle

    Hi Isaac, Thank you for this great post. I am about to embark on a research project using focus groups for the first time. I expect my groups to have (roughly) 7 to 10 people and think I will be able to find a relatively cozy space for recording somewhere on my university campus. Would you consider this a small focus group? I am a little bit intimidated by the Zoom H1n (and technology generally). Do you think a couple of Sony ICD-UX560s with Olympus ME33s will work? How many of each device do you recommend? (I don’t really understand how two of the Sony recorders would work together?) Anyways, thanks for your expertise! Best, MJ

    1. Isaac Post author

      Hi Michelle.
      Good question. I’d classify that as a medium sized focus group. But from my experience conducting focus groups, 7-10 usually turns out to be 3-6; you’ll plan to conduct a medium sized focus group, but you’ll actually conduct a small sized focus group.
      But more importantly, it all depends on where you are going to conduct the focus group. Proximity to the microphones and room acoustics are the two important factors.
      For instance, if you find a little cozy room, with some furniture in it, and fits 10 participants (and everyone else in your team), then yes a couple of the ME33 and a Sony ICD-ux560 should be sufficient. Conversely, if you conduct the focus groups in a large boardroom with a 20 ft table, you’ll probably need more than a couple of ME33 microphones.
      So I’d recommend you first find a venue, and then buy the recording equipment that suitable for the venue of your focus groups.
      And while the Zoom H1n is a little intimidating, it’s actually quite easy to use – once you figure out which button does what.

      Finally, for the Sony + mic setup, you’ll need one (1) Sony ICD-ux560 and two (2) Olympus ME33 boundary mics. If you realize that you’ll need more microphones, then get the H1n. More on how this setup works here.
      Hope that helps, and if you have further questions don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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