Recording Qualitative Interviews: Mobile Phone or Dedicated Voice Recorder?

Recording Qualitative Interviews: Mobile Phone or Dedicated Voice Recorder?

Obviously a dedicated voice recorder. That’s been my default answer. But I recently got this comment from a reader of this blog:  “Have recently finished about 20 qualitative interviews and used a ‘Voice Recorder’ app downloaded to my phone. Everything was crisp clear except for one interview in a ‘quiet’ restaurant that later became noisy – so yes I agree with you about location.”

And so I set out test a few recording apps on my android phone and compare them to recordings made using the Sony ICD-ux560 voice recorder. My main concern was the quality of the audio recording – from my previous experience, I expected the audio from my phone to be poor.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to get a very good recording from my phone. It wasn’t as good as the ux560, but it was more than adequate for transcription. But that was in a quiet room. In an interview conducted in a café, my phone failed me. There was too much background noise and it was difficult to hear us.

Recording Qualitative Interviews: Mobile Phone or Dedicated Voice Recorder?

The ux560 performed marginally better, with a clear separation of the foreground and background, but to capture great sound in the café, I required clip on microphones. Would I still always recommend a dedicated voice recorder over a mobile phone? Yes. And that’s mainly because of the other features that come with a dedicated voice recorder – for instance, the ability to monitor my recording.

Mobile phones

While using my phone to record a couple of interviews, there were distinct advantages over the ux560 that I quickly realized.


Easier File Management and Sharing

The main advantage of a smartphone over a dedicated voice recorder is the easier file management and sharing. With the ux560, you’ll have physically connect the recorder to your computer to transfer the files. I tested 3 Android apps and found that sharing the recordings via email was very easy. Some recording apps were also integrated with cloud storage services, dropbox, google drive etc, that enabled you to instantly upload your recording to these services. You’ll need a good internet connection, but they work seamlessly in the background to upload your recording to the cloud.  


While I don’t always carry my smartphone with me (it’s bulky, runs out of power, very distracting) I realize that I lot of researchers can’t leave the house without their smartphone. And if it’s always with you, it’s very easy to take it out, open the right app, hit record and start recording your qualitative research interview.


And while your smartphone is not cheaper than a dedicated voice recorder (the ux560 costs $80), you have already paid for it. You may need to cough up a little bit of cash to buy/upgrade get a voice recording app that suits your needs. Most of the free apps have annoying ads, or need you to upgrade to access premium features – for instance the ability to upload your recording to dropbox.


Limited Features

The lack of recording features, that I’ve become used to, was the biggest disadvantage of using my smartphone to record interviews. Most voice recorders come with a red LED light that turns on when you are recording. I couldn’t tell if my phone was recording or not. I had to reach over, and turn it on every 5 minutes to check if it was still recording. Not ideal.   

The other feature I really missed was the ability to monitor my recording via a pair of headphones. I could see that the phone was recording, but I could not tell the quality of the recording while recording.

And finally, I love tweaking the mic sensitivity setting on my ux560 to find the best setting for every location. I couldn’t monitor and change the mic sensitivity setting on my phone. But, one of the apps I tested had an auto boost gain that worked very well to automatically change the mic sensitivity setting on my phone.

Sound Quality

While the sound quality from the onboard phone microphone was adequate in a quiet location, I found it impossible to improve the quality of the recorded sound in a noisy café. My only option was to attach clip on microphones to the phone – but the giant squid clip on microphones did not work with my phone (because they do require power from the phone).

Since there’s only a single microphone on my phone, I was only able to record mono audio. The ux560 recorded stereo audio, and you tell the difference from listening to the recorded audio – it sounded more natural.


When recording using my phone, I realized it was important to make sure that I set it on Airplane mode. Any notifications that you get are going to interrupt the recording. However, if someone wants to urgently get in touch with you, they can’t.

Voice Recorders

I always use a dedicated voice recorder for all of my sound recording and that’s because there’re certain advantages to using a voice recorder.


Great Sound

With a dedicated voice recorder, you’ll record great sound – with the internal or external microphones. And you’ll also have lots of recording options, from mp3 audio to broadcast quality lossless files. While I found the sound from my phone to be adequate, I was able to record better sound using the ux560 voice recorder.


And this might just be me, but I found that I was less worried while using a dedicated voice recorder than while using my smartphone. Because the ux560 is built for voice recording, I was confident that it would record the interviews and record them very well.

Lots of Features

Voice recorders have a lot of features that are specific to voice recording that are not available on a smartphone. For instance, the ability to monitor the recording, change the internal/external mic sensitivity, hold button, stereo microphones, recording LED light… all these are features that I use a lot when recording interviews and are not available on my smartphone.


Sharing and File management

I really wish there was an easier way to transfer the recorded files from my recorder to my computer or dropbox. Didn’t realize it before I tried to use my phone to record an interview, but this is a feature I’ll keep an eye out for in my future purchases.


You can get the ux560 for about $80, and you’ll probably need to pay $5 for a professional recording app. That’s a steep price difference.


Is it possible to record your research interviews using your smartphone? Yes, you can. If you want to use your phone to record your qualitative interviews, get a recording app that records in lossless wav format, and can send the recorded files to your cloud storage. The free one I used had intrusive ads and wanted permission to manage my phone calls! After testing it, I uninstalled it.

And you’ll also need to make sure that you record your interviews in a quiet location and make sure that you and the respondent are, at most, 2 feet away from your smartphone.

However if you use a dedicated recorder to record your qualitative interviews, you’ll get more versatility in your recording options and get a better recording. Period.   

That’s it for this post. Hope you’ve found it useful. If you have any suggestions, comments or questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below. And keep us mind for all of your qualitative interview transcription needs.

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Raji Omolara Nafisat
Raji Omolara Nafisat
4 years ago

Hi Isaac,

Read through your post. Could you recommend the recording app you used for the research ?