One of the many cool things about IP-based soft phone technologies like Skype is that they make it easy to record phone calls to an MP3 or WAV file on your computer. It's a useful capability. How many times have you forgotten exactly what was said in an important phone conversation? If you do interviews by phone, it's invaluable.
There are ways to record analog phone calls to your computer, but most are complicated, require additional equipment and/or deliver inferior results. Recordings of Skype calls are almost always freer of noise and distortion.
We checked out three Skype-based call recording tools recently.
- The Free.2, a USB Skype phone from Taiwanese maker Ipevo, comes with PC-based call recording software and lets you start recordings by pressing a button on the keypad.
- Skylook from Netralia Pty, an Australian company, is a Microsoft Office plug-in that integrates Skype and Outlook in a number of useful ways and also provides call recording and voice mail.
- And Pamela from Pamela-Systems is a Skype add-on that offers call recording and other features, including a Skype answering machine.
Free.2 The Ipevo Free.2 is a nice little USB phone with excellent wideband sound. It features the stylish industrial design typical of this companyangular and European looking. The Free.2 sells for about $US45. Like other Skype phones, it lets you see your contacts on its built-in monochrome LCD screen. The screen is on the small side, thoughonly big enough to display one contact at a time.
The dial pad includes number keys, soft keys, answer and hang-up buttons, a rocker switch for scrolling menus, dedicated keys for retrieving contacts and switching from Free.2 to PC for Skype calls. There's also a dedicated record button, prominently placed just below the LCD. Pressing it at any point in a call launches the Ipevo freeREC software on the PC and starts recording both sides of the conversation.
You can record in MP3 or WAV format, set the sample rate between 8 and 44.1 KHz and set the bit rate at 64 or 128 Kbps. The software interface has Record, Pause, Stop, Play and Instant Replay buttons. Instant Replay jumps the recording back three, six or ten seconds (depending how you set it) to make transcription easier. The main window shows you the status of the recording, lists completed recordings, and lets you copy, paste, delete and rename them. Recordings are stored in a My Documents sub-folder.
In our tests, the recordings were clear enough, but the volume on the incoming side was often markedly lower than the outgoing side. In fact, on my Dell laptop, I couldn't in some cases turn the volume high enough on the built-in speakers to hear clearly. It was always just loud enough when turned up full blast to hear clearly through headphones, but then my own voice was too loud.
The software also appears to be a little buggy. It crashed a couple of times during testing on my plain-vanilla Windows XP laptopthough never while I was recording, only when I was changing settings. The software also mysteriously reset to factory settings a couple of times. This included switching the menu language to Chinese, which made it difficult to find the Options dialog to change it back to English.
Skylook Skylook, an Outlook plug-in with a Skype voice mail system, is an impressive, but not cheap, product. The latest version, Skylook 2.0, introduced last October, sells for $US100. An earlier version, 1.5, is still available for $50. I tested Skylook 2.0. Netralia also has a stand-alone call recording product, CallBurner, for $50.
Skylook installs a toolbar in Outlook that lets you launch Skype-to-Skype and SkypeOut calls and Skype chats from within the familiar Outlook interface. To make a SkypeOut call to an Outlook contact, for example, you highlight the contact in Outlook, click the Phone Call button on the Skylook toolbar and select the telephone number field you want from a pop-up menu.
Skylook feeds the number to Skype, which pops up on your screen, and places the call in the usual way. One tiny problem: If the phone number field for the Outlook contact includes an 'x' (for extension) or other non-standard phone number character, as many of mine do, Skype will reject the number as non-valid. (Outlook ignores these characters.)
You can synchronize Outlook and Skype contact lists or just add Skype contacts to Outlook. Skylook adds an e-mail sub-folder in the Personal Folders section where it stores a record of Skype conversations as messages with embedded linksand an audio attachment if you record the call. You can also set the program up to automatically add conversations as Journal items to contacts.
Skylook will record every call automatically, starting as soon as you place it, or you can start recordings manually. It will record either just your side of the conversation or both sides. Whenever you place a call using Skylook, a dialog appears with Start, Stop, Pause and Hang Up buttons and an audio monitor. You can start the recording manually from this dialog if it didn't start automatically, and then monitor it.
When the call is over, you can immediately play the recording by clicking Play. Or you can play it back later by opening the Skylook Conversations folder in Outlook, selecting the conversation and then clicking the Play arrow on the Skylook toolbar. Or open the conversation in the Skylook folder or Outlook Journal and click the Play recording link.
The recording quality using my standard Plantronics USB headphone was better than with the Ipevo Free.2clearer and louder. This may have had more to do with hardware than software. You can choose MP3 or WMA (Windows Media Audio) format and various levels of recording quality depending on which codecs you have installed on the PC.
Netralia adds a nice touch. You can click a button on the Skylook toolbar to send your recording to a transcription service the company operates. It charges anywhere from $US2.50 to $5 per minute of audio depending on turn-around time required and quality of recording. Skylook sends the transcript back by e-mail.
It has nothing to do with call recording, but Skylook offers one impressive piece of Outlook integration that even Outlook can't manageor if it can, I don't know how to do it. When you're in Outlook Inbox and highlight a message, if the sender is already in your Outlook contacts list, his or her name will appear on the Skylook toolbar. Clicking the name gives you access to the Skylook call menu, which lets you make a SkypeOut call to that person, or a Skype-to-Skype call if they're also a Skype contact.
Pamela Pamela, which functions as a supplementary interface to Skype, while good, is not quite as impressive as Skylook. On the other hand, it's quite a bit cheaper at $US13 to $37, depending on which version you purchase. Note, however, that the free Basic version, which I tested, and the $13 Standard version limit the length of recordingsto 15 and 30 minutes respectively.
Pamela does offer some nifty and useful features besides the call recording and voice mail. For example, it will automatically change your Skype status when you're on a call to indicate you're not available. If somebody tries to contact you anyway, it automatically generates a chat message saying you're busy and will return the call later.
It is not a complete replacement for the Skype clientas Skylook can be. Because it doesn't import your Skype contacts, you still have to initiate new calls from Skype. When you do, the Pamela client pops up, if it isn't already active, and a dialog appears asking if you want to record the call.
If you click Yes on this dialog, Pamela will by default play a warninga text-to-speech message audible on the call that tells the other party you're recording. For most purposes I can imagine, this is obtrusive and unnecessary. It's much easier just to ask the person if you can record before clicking the Yes button. Luckily you can turn off the warning in Options.
Once you're on a call, you can manually start or end a recording. You can also end the call from within Pamela. When the call is over, the recording appears in the Skype recordings folder, accessible from the control panel on the left of the Pamela main page. You can come back later and select it (it's automatically selected right after you hang up the Skype call) and play, stop or delete the recording. You can also initiate a Skype call or chat to the person from within Pamela.
The recording quality was excellent in my tests using the Plantronics headset. Pamela is also pushing the program as a tool for podcasters. It provides a Custom recording function that allows you to record your own voiceit's absolutely noise free. You can make custom or call recordings in uncompressed WAV format, or MP3 at sampling rates from 8 to 24 KHz and bit rates of 24 or 32 Kbps. Pamela also includes sound level adjustments for the microphone and speaker.
Need to record calls? One of these products should deliver what you need. If you're a heavy user of both Skype and Microsoft Outlook, you should definitely download and try out Skylook.