10 Ways to Make a Clearer and More Reliable Digital Court Recording

Courts have had digital technology in their courtrooms since the mid-1990s.

While the core concept has stayed the same, the last decade has seen a huge evolution in tools and processes that are available to a court of record.

Working with two of FTR’s leading courtroom technology specialists, Jeremy Millar and Ben Paterson, we’ve compiled this list of helpful advice for courts.

1. Test recording systems every day

Jeremy recommends this as a primary best practice for the digital court as it establishes not only functionality of the system on a daily basis, but also keeps the court in tune with their digital environment.

“Daily testing allows court users to validate the recording environment against the base level readings that were established at the time the courtroom went live and against its ideal acoustical levels,” he says.

To test the system, first, assess the area where your recording PC sits.

“Unintentional interference from an environmental and operational perspective is very common in court environments. While unintentional, these interferences can still have a major impact. For instance, FTR has seen numerous occasions where recording machines have been unplugged by cleaners who used the power outlet for their vacuum cleaner after court the day before.”

Once the recording area has been inspected, start a test recording, walking from microphone to microphone, checking each microphone is connected.

Speak into the microphone from a normal speaking distance as an attorney or court party would, announcing the position of the microphone. Make sure there’s nothing obscuring or obstructing the microphone.

Play the recording back and isolate each channel, listening for any audio issues. A microphone or cable that is not in good condition or has been damaged will often demonstrate degraded sound in the recording, for example you may hear a lower volume on a single channel, strange audio artefacts like hissing, humming or crackling.

Any of these signs should be considered a risk and the offending device replaced or repaired immediately.

Jeremy believes “These simple system checks will identify many problems before the court is in session, allowing court to sit without delay.”

2. Make sure your microphone signal levels are just right

Establishing the correct gain structure in the audio mixer is critical to capturing a high quality audio record. Too much gain (sometimes simply referred to as volume) and you’ll distort the recording, making it difficult for a court reporter or audio transcriber to prepare a transcript. Too little, and speech is likely to be difficult to differentiate from background noise.

3. Minimize intrusive ambient or environmental noise where possible

Environmental noise levels in the courtroom are comprised of the noise from building systems –– such as air conditioning, electrical, lighting and audio visual systems –– as well as noise from external sources, like a nearby road.

FTR courtroom designer, Ben Paterson advises “although every courtroom has some level of ambient noise, this noise directly competes with speech and can make it difficult to hear and understand what is being said – both in the courtroom during normal communication and later, whilst reviewing the audio record.”

To be able to communicate naturally and effectively within this environment, the spoken voice level needs to be louder (ideally by at least 15dB) than the courtroom ambient noise level.

“As it’s not practical to simply have participants ‘talk louder’, any reduction that can be made to intrusive environmental noise will yield the best results.”

These improvements can be as simple as replacing an old and noisy printer or window airconditioner, through to engaging a specialist in acoustic treatments who can help isolate the courtroom from the noise source.

4. Understand the impact of power on your recording system

It’s not uncommon for a courthouse to occasionally experience brown outs or black outs (a reduction in, or restriction on, the availability of electrical power). Having seen several court sessions impacted by sudden loss of power (either to the whole courthouse or a specific outlet(s) in the room, Jeremy recommends including an Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) with at least 4-6 hours backup power available in your digital recording installation. Where possible, minimize the use of power boards, where the audio equipment is attached.

5. Ensure the users of the room know they are being recorded

It sounds simple, but this one thing can improve recording results demonstrably. A great way to do this is by creating and laminating a simple card near the microphones for each witness, attorney or participant, explaining the ideal distance to speak from the microphone and the do’s and don’ts – eg don’t handle the microphone, don’t hold paper over it while talking, don’t knock the stem (if a gooseneck). Beginning each session with the Judge reminding everyone they are being recorded reinforces the effect.

6. Give each participant their own microphone and channel on the recording

While the initial outlay may seem more expensive, ensuring each participant has their own microphone and their own channel on the recording will make listening to, transcribing from and processing the court audio recording far simpler and cheaper down the line.

Ben Paterson says “Minimizing the number of microphones combined on each recording channel will result in improved audio quality, the ability to isolate a talker from obtrusive background noise and, most importantly, it will greatly improve the accuracy and speed of which a transcript can be produced from the recording.”

When utilized in conjunction with good gain structure and other recording best practices, this approach also mitigates the risk of overtalk – where two or more speakers talk at the same time.

“Overtalk on the record was a valid concern many years ago due to the need to combine multiple microphones onto each channel of a dual or, at best, a four channel recording. Today, with the ability to assign discrete recording channels to each key speaker, the impact of overtalk on recording intelligibility has been significantly reduced.”

7. Integrate teleconference and videoconference equipment into the recording system

“Using a microphone to record a Polycom speaker phone was something we used to see a lot of,” says Ben Paterson, “and I get that – it was simple to setup and made sense from a budgetary perspective in the nineties. But the audio quality for local and remote parties was poor and, particularly in modern courtrooms where remote participation via teleconference is an increasingly frequent requirement, it creates more problems than it solves.”

Connecting conferencing equipment into a mixer with echo cancellation capabilities significantly improves the audio quality “not just for the people local to the courtroom, but also for the remote party – who can now hear, and communicate with the court naturally and without echo impacting the call”.

8. Use your recording machines as a ‘for purpose’ device and lock it down

Dedicating a PC to perform the sole task of capturing the proceedings provides several benefits for a nominal cost.

Minimizing the installed software, reduces the risk of software conflicts, condenses patching/update testing, and dedicates the PC’s resources for the capture of the record. The recording software can be controlled by authorized staff, from within the courtroom, or a centralized location. The dedicated device allows the PC to be securely stored within the AV rack, typically out of sight and off the desk.

9. Take a high availability approach to digital recording

“I have a very simple goal when managing technology within courtrooms: don’t lose a single second of audio”, says Jeremy.

Having a secondary recording machine receiving an independent feed from the audio mixer can give you added peace of mind by halving your chances of losing a recording. Real-time replication of the audio from the primary to a secure location, without impacting the network is essential.

This design also allows the technology team to “test” security patches and updates on the secondary recorder before deployment to the primary.

“I’ve been in IT for over 20 years, and the reality is, technology can break. When that happens, what is important is minimizing the impact,” says Jeremy.

The cost of the additional PC vs the cost of a retrial or a mistrial?

10. Have a ‘crash cart’ ready at all times

Having an emergency system ready for those occasions when the unheard of occurs is a reasonably low-impact risk mitigant.

Jeremy, who used to oversee daily IT operations for hundreds of courtrooms around Australia, thankfully hasn’t seen them required very often, however, on the odd occasion when a PC’s hard drive failed, the easy availability of the crash cart saved the day.

“A simple to use, lightweight, portable crash cart per court house that doesn’t require an IT degree to use is paramount.”

The upside? A portable system that can also be used for offsite recordings.