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HOW TO RECORD BROADCAST QUALITY CRANK PHONE CALLS
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Please check with Federal, FCC and state laws prior to recording crank calls. This information is provided for entertainment purposes and to those who wish to record legal calls. This page should not be construed as encouragement to actually make prank calls or record phone conversations nor should it be relied upon as legal advice. Always consult with an attorney prior to making any prank call or attempting to record calls as it may be illegal in your jurisdiction.
This manual is for aspiring crank callers who demand better than those Radio Shit devices, which from my experience have 2 MAJOR problems. First is the annoying 60 cycle ground loop "hum" that won't quit, and even worsens during pauses in conversation. Second is the volume ratio between your voice and the other person's voice on the other line. It heavily favors YOUR voice. So I shall reveal just one of many configurations you can use for a recording setup.
Get yourself a phone hybrid (which is what radio stations use). This is the backbone of your setup. I recorded most of the TTT calls with a Gentner SPH-3A phone hybrid. YOUR recorded voice will sound best if you talk through a microphone rather than talk into the phone like you normally do. Furthermore if you want to use a harmonizer to alter your voice you MUST talk into a microphone. If you get an old Gentner SPH-3A please note that in order to DIRECTLY hook up a microphone to the SPH-3A you must unfortunately modify (at the repair shop) the SEND XLR to accept a MIC level rather than the LINE level input (that you are stuck with when you open it up brand new out of the box). In layman's terms MIC level is much louder than LINE level. Of course you could avoid this modification by using a microphone preamp or a mixer with a LINE level output. But preamps are more expensive than the cost of a simple modification. There are other manufacturers of phone patches such as Radio Systems, JK Audio, etc. I don't reccommend the newer digital hybrids for taking inbound calls because when powered up they pick up the incoming call. By the time everything is calibrated the caller has often already hung up. So stick to the older analog machines like the Gentner SPH-3A. Try to find a hybrid that will accept a MIC level input (rather than line level) at the SEND XLR (your voice input) . Otherwise you will have to pay to have it modified or buy a preamp. Expect to pay around $500 and up. HELPFUL TIP: It is not worth paying extra for a hybrid that has this feature that automatically turns down the callers voice when YOU are talking. You will NEVER use this feature, which is really designed only for talk show hosts who want to automatically "step over" callers.
The volume ratio (between your voice and the caller's voice) varies from call to call. You need to control this. You only get one chance to record a prank call. Having a phone hybrid can save the day when you get a bad connection and can't hear your call subject too well! As you know the phone line contains BOTH your voice and the caller's voice. With a phone hybrid you can at least toy around with that volume ratio so that it favors THEIR voice. You will never have to worry about YOUR voice getting drowned out in the mix because you will record a 2nd track with JUST your voice. A later mix down can balance the two voices perfectly. You will speak through a microphone. Anything from a Shure SM-58 to an expensive Neuman tube mic (as Roy D. Mercer uses) will work fine. I use the Sure SM-58 (about $100). Use a popper stopper between yourself and the microphone (I have found this to be a must). Once you are talking through a microphone you will split the signal coming from the microphone. You will record one track that comes ONLY from the microphone. The 2nd track will be the tapped phone line (which contains both your voice and theirs). Now when it comes to to master the recording you can raise up the track that has JUST your voice, and everything gets balanced perfectly.
If you are making OUTBOUND calls the recorder device that is definitely preferable is a hard disk recorder such as the AKAI DR4, with tons of giga byte disk space. By the way prices on DR4 units are falling through the floor...like $500 as of 1997. There's also the Darwins by E-Mu...there's Roland, Mackie, Tascam have some, etc. Unfortunately hard disk recorders take up to 15 seconds to warm up! If you are recording INBOUND calls you will be better off with a simple cassette deck like a Tascam 302 which warms up in about 2 seconds. This gives you enough time to turn on your equipment before the caller decides to give up on getting through. Recording on cassette actually sounds perfectly good. I recorded most of my inbound calls (off Customer Service Disasters and Customer Service Crackpots) using a Tascam 302.
Another very important part of your recording system is a compressor. Why a compressor? The volume differences between calls can vary greatly ...and distortion on a digital recording is BAAAADD! Don't go there. Take your caller out XLR from your phone hybrid and route it through a line transformer to a high quality compressor (such as a DBX 166X). Then you connect out of the compressor to the recorder. Use compression between the microphone and the recorder as well (that track that I spoke of above which contains ONLY your voice).
Use headphones to listen to your phone calls. If you are using a harmonizer it is a must to get CLOSED type headphones (the one's that cover around your ears). Otherwise your PROCESSED voice will bleed out of the headphones and recycle a signal into the microphone, creating a strange sounding doubling of your voice. Also turn DOWN your headphone volume as much as possible to decrease sound bleed through.
Want to detune your voice (to sound like Junkyard Willie, etc.)?? You need to a rack mounted effect processor like they sell at music stores. There's lots of models that have the patch you're looking for called "pitch shift" or "harmonizer" or "pitch transpose". Not all models will sound "NATURAL" though! It takes a LOT of processing power to do pitch transposition. Cheap processors will make your voice sound like it's going through a vibrato effect. Glitches can be heard on some models too. So basically you get what you pay for. Digitech's harmonizers sound like crap! I thought Lexicon was a good name until I bought an MXP-1. For $750 the harmonizer sounded like crap! Intermittent drop out is what I got! The good brand names are Yamaha and possibly Eventide. Eventide is VERY expensive though. The only name that I personally have tried and trust is Yamaha. You can actually buy an old used SPX-90 or SPX-90 II for probably $200 to $300. They have held their value well and are still found in major studios today. When the SPX-90's were the shit back in 1990 they went for $499 new. The new Yamaha SPX 990's are probably like $1,000. They also have too much extra features that you don't need to pay for. All you need is simple pitch transposition with QUALITY processing power. The Yamaha SPX-90 ( or SPX-90 II ) is probably your best bet. Or you can spend about $1,000 for the current SPX-2000.
NOISE and HUM PROBLEMS
Unfortunately phone connections and phone lines in general have relatively high noise levels that can't be controlled. Rainy days are especially bad for recording prank calls. Nevertheless if you still have what you think is an excessive noise problem, I HIGHLY recommend going to the phone box located outside your house or apartment (Just follow the phone wires to the building). Open up the little door, take your phone and a short cord and connect it to the jack. Make a call and listen to find out if there is any less noise. If the noise is still there then it's coming from the phone lines beyond your house. However if the noise is GONE then you've got a noise problem within your house! You've isolated the problem. If the noise only occurs when you hook the phone up to your equipment then you should isolate the noise coming from your equipment. The more equipment you hook up, the more hum and noise you add to your system. FIRST connect all of your equipment to ONE wall outlet (ex.-with a power strip). Never use those 3 prong to 2 prong "ground lifters" to eliminate noises. This is a potentially dangerous hook-up. Also make sure that your power strips, power cords and wall outlet (check circuit breaker amperage) can handle the sum of combined wattage used by your equipment (otherwise you risk tripping the circuit breaker or even start'n a FIRE). Having done this you should NEXT balance all of your volume knobs. For example...if your Gentner caller volume is only turned up a "hair" you would have to OVER compensate with your compression volume or recorder volume. This can create a lot of noise and distortion. With your volume levels in check you should next ISOLATE any possible ground loop "hum" source. To do this you must unplug all of your equipment and then re-hook up each piece of equipment one at a time. As you reconnect each piece, check and listen for noise. When a piece of equipment is identified as a source of noise, try connecting an ISO Patch (made by Furman) between audio lines. Often this will fix the problem. Also don't bundle audio cables with power cables. Bundling the two can create a whistling noise. Another source of noise can simply be the metal rails of an effects rack (with several units attached to the rack). If you buy an ISO Patch, a detailed discussion about ground loops is included and is good learning material.
It's a hassle to set up this microphone configuration....but you wind up getting a much higher quality sound for YOUR voice, AND you can control the balance between their voice and your voice AFTER you've recorded the call. There's no one single way to rig up your equipment but hopefully you can get some ideas here. And by the way don't blame me if you blow up your house, your equipment or yourself because you followed my instructions on this page or if you get arrested. You're responsible for yourself and your actions pal! That's my disclaimer.
Encoding Your Calls in MP3 for Your Website
There is absolutely NO point in leaving prank call audio files uncompressed. People who are in 56K modem hell don't have the time and patience to wait 20 minutes to listen to uncompressed files. We're not talking about music here. Low quality compressed files of prank calls sound perfectly fine.
Get yourself a software program (like WaveLab) or freeware Audacity ( audacity.sourceforge.net ) which allows you to convert wave files to MP3 at "56K friendly rates." The best rate is in mono at 16 Kbps / 11,025 Hz. At this low quality rate someone with a 56K modem will be able to listen to the file immediately and as it's downloading. No waiting!
At this compression rate a 34 second clip takes up only 67K of space.
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