Choosing the right equipment
Your recordings will be unique historical “documents” which other people need to be able to hear and understand easily, so it’s worth doing the best you can to get a good quality recording. The choice of recording equipment can be bewildering and constantly changing. Here are the considerations you should bear in mind.
There are many different makes of portable audio recorders. Choosing the right recorder depends very much on your budget and what you plan to do with the recordings subsequently. Bear in mind that audio formats and professional advice are in constant flux so it is vital to seek up-to-the-minute advice (for example from the British Library’s oral history department: email@example.com).
In recent years ‘solid state’ digital recorders have replaced the analogue recorders (such as audio cassettes) and older digital formats (like minidisc) that many oral historians used. Called ‘solid state’ because they have no moving parts and record audio directly to a memory card or built-in hard-drive memory, there is a bewildering range of makes, models and formats available.
Some recorders use ‘proprietary’ or compressed digital formats which are not internationally-recognised and may not be future-proof: these should be avoided, especially as some will record poor quality audio. Compressed files (such as MP3) can also audibly degrade when they are converted to another format.
Further guides can be found at the links below:
The Digital Omnium, website about oral history, archives and digital technology, also has useful equipment advice and features on new kit and models.
Whichever model of digital recorder you choose it should have the following features:
- Be able to record in stereo using two external microphones (preferably with professional XLR sockets)
- Be able to record uncompressed PCM WAV (or .wav) files at 44.1kHz 16 bit and/or 48kHz 16bit. This is a good standard of recording quality using a widely-recognised format. 3 hours of stereo audio at 48kHz/16bit roughly equates to 2GB of storage space on a memory card (different recorders use different types of card).
- Have a USB2 connection to allow the recorded files to be uploaded easily to a computer for renaming, security copying and long-term storage.
- Be capable of being powered by both rechargeable batteries and mains supply. Or an external power bank (c.£25-£35) is now a good alternative to mains or battery power. They usually attach to the recorder via a USB port or via an adaptor for older recorders.
As these recorders create digital files rather than physical objects that sit on shelves, it is vital that all your computer systems are capable of dealing with large audio files, and are secure and backed up. Careful thought needs to be given to naming the audio files with unique numbers so they can be easily located later. Expert advice about backing-up digital files has changed in recent years and multiple computer external hard disc drives are now favoured over CD-Rs and DVD-Rs for long-term storage.
Whatever recorder you decide to use you will generally get better results if you use an external microphone. The internal microphones built into the recorder can be OK but only if the recorder is mounted on a tripod to help eliminate handling noise and is carefully placed near enough to the speaker to get good audio levels.
For one-to-one interviews indoors, the best external microphone is a small tie clip or lapel microphone. If your recorder is stereo and has two microphone sockets you can get two microphones – one of for your interviewee and one for yourself. They can be attached discreetly to your clothing and usually give excellent results.
For interviews outdoors a uni-directional (or cardioid) hand-held microphone is best as it will pick up less unwanted noise. There are also special microphones designed to record groups of people sitting around a table.
Remember to adjust the settings on your recorder depending on whether you’re using an internal or external microphone. The best recorders have something called ‘phantom power’ which allows certain kinds of microphone to be powered by the recorder (rather than having their own batteries).
Many oral historians favour audio for its ease-of-use, portability, and intimacy; but video equipment has fallen in price and size in recent years and is becoming a more affordable option. However the long-term storage of video remains a challenge as it takes up large amounts of memory space and there are very few international standards or agreed preservation formats.
Video has the benefit that it allows us to see an interviewee’s expressions and the location in which they were filmed. But some oral historians have mixed views about the impact of a video camera on the intimacy of the interview relationship and video is not suited for all interview projects (for example where body image is an issue).
Others favour a hybrid approach: a longer audio interview followed by a short video interview, perhaps at a significant location or with something visual which really makes a virtue of use of video. Using video is a more complex and potentially expensive option than using audio and needs careful planning and up to date advice. To get the best results it might be worth working with a trained videographer or cameraman/woman.
Video-interviewing former landlords of the Vulcan Inn, Cardiff, soon to be re-erected at St Fagans National Museum of History.
The following information might also be useful:
- ‘Oral History in the Digital Age’ has some information on selecting video recording equipment.
- The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) TC-06 ‘Guidelines for the Preservation of Video Recordings’ (2018- ) is available and the Federal Digitization Guidelines Initiative Audio Visual Working Group published (December 2014) a report on ‘Creating and Archiving Born Digital Video’.
- And Witness, the human rights organisation, has produced a guide for collecting and archiving digital video: https://witness.org/resources/, which has lots of helpful information on production, advocacy, creating, transferring, storing and logging video.
What about smartphones?
Many people are used to recording conversations and videos on their smartphones these days. Mobile phones have become more sophisticated and capable. However, there are many reasons why you should think hard before using them to record oral history interview.
The British Library and Oral History Society do not recommend them for the following reasons:
Most smartphones and tablets can record audio, but they were not designed for this purpose. Most phones only record severely compressed audio, keeping as little as 1/20th of the original data, so the audio quality will be variable and the battery life and storage capacity may limit the amount of high-quality audio that can be recorded at any one time. The internal microphones are not positioned to capture audio from a 1:1 interview, therefore the balance and capture of audio is not ideal. Even if it is possible, recording an interview of any length in an archival format (such as a wav file at 16bit/44.1kHz) will require a significant amount of data storage, or will need to be recorded at a non-archival poorer quality in order to record at length.
Data security and confidentiality
We take our smartphones everywhere and they are therefore items very easily lost or stolen. Interviews stored on phones are therefore vulnerable to being lost entirely or they might be hacked and confidential data stolen from the phone.
Data file formats
Unless a special application is downloaded the default file format in which the audio is recorded will often be low resolution and/or be in a proprietary format which will be difficult to access in the future. Even what appears to be a standard wave file might include proprietary elements. It is also difficult to move audio files around securely, for example by applying checksum software to ensure data integrity. Some apps will only allow transfer of files to the internet (such as SoundCloud) which has obvious security risks.
In order to improve the audio quality (to record PCM wav files) from a smartphone or tablet it will be necessary to download a suitable application and buy a good quality microphone, plus perhaps a pre-amplifier, and in some cases increase storage capacity. You will also need a tripod to get the device off a surface and avoid handling noise.
It may simply prove cheaper to buy a mid-range recorder, rather than these add-ons – which are likely to be tied to a particular make and model of smartphone, and not work with an upgrade. See Doug Boyd’s useful posts about microphones for iPhones: http://digitalomnium.com/ios-and-iphone-recording-for-oral-history/ and http://digitalomnium.com/ios-recording-rode-ixy-l/. At September 2017 prices the Rode i-XLR interface which turns an iPhone into a digital recorder cost £130 plus over £100 for a mike, whilst a Zoom H5 digital recorder (with in-built mikes) is £250.
Mobile phones are always being updated and changed, as are the accessories that go with them. A stand-alone audio recorder will need to be updated periodically, but probably with far less frequency than a phone or other mobile device, so will give more years of service than a smartphone with extra purchased add-on kit. Apps and operating systems need regular updates and over time become incompatible and/or unsupported.
Still not convinced?
If, after all of these considerations, you do wish to record on a smartphone or tablet, we suggest following the sensible tips outlined here: https://oralhistorycentre.ca/mobile/
These tips cover:
- how to adjust the smartphone settings to ensure the recording is not interrupted by phone calls, notifications or messages
- how to assess the battery life and storage capacity required to record an interview
- how to source the best recording app for the make and model of smartphone
- whether an external microphone is needed to enhance the recording
- how to export the audio files to another device or application