A guide to oral history for schools and youth groups
Equipment for recording interviews in schools/ youth groups
Audio or video, or both?
Do you want to record audio only or do you want to film your interviews?
(You may not have the resources to record either audio or video, but you could still go through the very worthwhile process of interviewing).
It used to be the case that recording audio interviews was much simpler and cheaper than video, but the costs of video have come down considerably and many children are used to recording video on their smart phones.
Pro audio-only: Some teachers have found that children who’ve been brought up with constant visual stimuli enjoy the experience of listening intently to voices without distraction. We have provided some brief Audio Examples.
If you search online, there are long essays on ‘audio versus video’ but for teachers and youth leaders, much will depend on:
- what you want to do with the oral histories. Audio-only might be all you need to provide inspiration for creative writing. Audio with still photos might be fine for an exhibition or website. On the other hand, you may want to have a video to show to an audience or you may want to teach video-editing skills (more complicated than audio editing).
- what equipment you already possess and whether or not you have a budget/grant to buy new equipment (see more on costs and funding here).
- if you have people who know how to operate the equipment…
- …and can train others to do so, if you want to teach technical skills as well as interviewing skills.
- whether you have the time, skills and resources for film-making on top of the task of collecting the oral histories, or the budget to bring in a professional filmmaker.
Our Inspiring Ideas section gives examples of successful video and audio-only projects.
What equipment do you need?
If you are recording just audio, make sure that you:
- use the best quality recorders you can afford – or borrow.
- record in WAV format – better quality than MP3 and other file types.
- have capacity to store large files. One hour recorded as a stereo WAV file uses about 600MB.
- have plenty of battery life (or can record from the mains).
- can easily upload the audio to your computer.
- can get the microphone close to the interviewee’s mouth – around 15 cms away.
How many recorders will you need?
- Depends on number of pupils, number of planned interviews and budget.
- You may want several recorders to give hands-on experience, but if you are planning to record one interview at a time, you may only need one recorder.
Digital Audio Recorders
There are a variety of digital recorders with good built-in microphones. They are small, light and easy to use. They do more than you need for one-to-one interviews, but they are very reliable and can be used to record whole class discussions and performances. They run off batteries and some have mains cables. The audio is stored on an SD card and is easy to upload to a computer via USB or card reader.
If you have a budget/grant, look at online reviews for:
- Zoom H series – with a wide price range. Our current favourite is the Zoom H4nPro.
- Tascam DR series – again with a wide price range.
It’s almost impossible to keep up with the technology and we recently came across a tiny non-branded voice recorder which recorded in both WAV and MP3 and cost under £20.
A good review of digital recorders is Oral History in the Digital Age on Youtube
What else will you need?
- A memory card.
- Earphones or headphones for monitoring what you are recording, and for listening back.
- A wind-screen to avoid the microphone ‘popping’.
- A tripod or stand – either table top or floor – to hold the recorder in place and prevent ‘handling’ noise. Or an interviewer can hold a recorder carefully, with their arm supported by a table or the arm of a chair.
- A portable hard drive or large capacity memory stick for storing backup copies of the interviews.
Can you use smart phones and tablets to record oral history interviews?
Some schools have run successful projects with students recording interviews on tablets or phones. But others have highlighted the following issues:
- Concerns over quality of recording.
- The size of .WAV files – you need plenty of storage space on your phone/tablet.
- Limited battery life – your device will need to be connected to a power supply.
- Difficulties of uploading/transferring files.
- Should students record interviews of a personal nature on private phones?
- Difficulties of getting access to interviews recorded on students’ phones in order to monitor/listen back to these interviews.
- Playback volume not loud enough for class to hear – you may need speakers (this also goes for small digital recorders).
If you are planning to use tablets or smart phones, here are some basic tips:
- Switch phone to flight mode.
- Turn off notifications.
- Check storage capacity.
- Make sure fully charged.
- Locate where microphone is – usually at bottom near charging port – and ensure that it is not covered by hand or case.
- Download and use a recording app to enable monitoring and adjusting of recording levels.
- Point mic towards interviewee – hold around 15 cms from mouth.
- Consider purchasing an external mic made specifically for smart phone.
- Do recording and transfer tests.
You will need audio editing software on your computer to edit the digital files. There are some free editing packages such as Audacity which is commonly used in schools and may already be on your system.
Other audio editing packages recommended by oral history practitioners are:
- Sound Forge by Sony.
- WavePad by NCH.
- Wavelab by Steinberg.
Filming with your phone or tablet.
The quality of image that the latest smart phones can now capture is similar to the best DSLR cameras currently on the market. But certainly in the case of the new iPhone, the quality comes at a cost and it’s not just financial. Filming an interview requires additional skill and consideration. You will also need to capture the audio. Most devices will have the microphone on the bottom so an external mic is probably going to be required. Oral history networker Martin Bisiker suggests the type of kit you may need in order to successfully film oral histories on a smart phone would be: Rode Smartlav+ Lavalier Microphone for Smartphone, Rode SC1 extension cable, Rode SC6 adaptor, FiiO i1 Apple Lightning Amplifier – for iPhone only.
- With a phone or tablet, you’re going to need to hold the device [potentially for a long time] in order to frame your subject so you will need a tripod or clamp to hold the phone. A good example is the Inateck TS1001 tripod.
- Consider if you want to record the interview as on TV [16:9] or in portrait mode [upright].
- As with audio, you will need to consider battery life and storage capacity of phone/tablet.
- A useful site from the BBC with tips on making films on a smart phone or tablet is here.