I do hundreds of interviews. I try to get out a few times each month to talk to artists and keepers of traditions. I have recorded family members and strangers, young folks and the elderly, the gregarious and the standoffish. I learn something new with every interview that I do. So, though I am an experienced interviewer, I am always looking for new ways to hone my craft. In my work with college students who want to learn to do interviews, I often share my thoughts and observations about recording gear and the interview process before they go off into field. Over the next few weeks, I want to write about some of the various aspects of recording and interviewing people. This week, I write about basic recording setups.
I have used several recorders over the years. My first interview that I did was with a big boom box that I took to record an interview with Louis Henderson an old-time fiddler from near where I grew up. I really didn’t know about recorders or what to think about way back then. Over the years, I have used various cassette tape, reel to reel machines, DAT (Digital Audio Tape, mini-disks, and even CD-R recorders, but today I use several different types of digital field recorders that record to hard disks or compact or SD flash cards. These recorders have become the standard for field recording.
Nevertheless, cassettes are still a good option for people who are worried about the short-term preservation of their materials; but quality cassette recorders are getting difficult to find and also produce inferior sound quality, compared to digital solid state recorders. Since digital recorders are easy to use and tend to be smaller and quieter and produce cleaner audio than their predecessors, they will probably be the tool most of you will choose to use.
However, not all of these digital recorders are created equal! Having taught undergraduate classes where students had to interview people, I have heard commercial CD quality sounding audio as well as noisy and lo-fi recordings. There is no reason to produce poor quality recordings today, because it is easier than ever to capture good audio with inexpensive digital recorders.
To make an audio recording, you need a microphone, recorder and storage media. Some machines combine all of these elements while others do not. Portable field recorders, which have become popular in recent years, usually have built in microphones and record to reusable flash media (SD and compact flash cards). Since they have no moving parts, they operate quietly and produce good sound with their built in microphones. I am going to refrain from recommending any specific brands, but in general these can be found for between $100 and $1000 depending upon their features and brands.
Do not use a small dictation recorder for archival field recordings. Usually these lesser expensive units have inferior built-in microphones and lower bit-rate recording quality. Also they record in compressed file formats such as mp3 or a proprietary format. Compressed files can be noisy and thin sounding. In addition, they can produce audio artifacts when edited. So if the fidelity of the recording is important to you, the business class portable recorders are not recommended. However, if you just want to capture information and the audio quality is not important, these are a great choice for print projects where the information will be transcribed, quoted or referenced.
If you are going to use a hand-held field recorder I have three things to keep in mind: (1) The audio you capture is only as good as the source. While you can filter your audio with software such as audacity, nothing replaces getting the cleanest sound possible. Don’t record in noisy spaces if it can be avoided. (2) Keep the recorder close to the sound source. The farther the microphone is from the sound you aim to capture, the more room noise it will pick up and the quieter the speaker will sound. Use headphones to monitor sound and/or watch the meter on the recorder to make sure you are getting enough volume. (3) Record in at least 16 bit uncompressed formats (ie.e, wav or aif formats). Most of the digital recorders allow you to change the recording format. Mp3s are intended to be a derivative format. That is, you make an mp3 from a higher quality format. Even the best mp3’s are compressed so they do not edit well. Also, remember proprietary formats such as wmv’s are not supported on all machines.
In closing, I will list a few of the popular brands of recorders that are popular with ethnographers and oral historians, but keep in mind that new information and products are becoming available all the time and the odds are that this list will be out of date almost as soon as I create it, but it will give you some ideas about brands and features. In the next installment, I will talk about microphones for recording interviews. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this post.