Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

Thoughts on Equipment and Media

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5. Thoughts on Equipment and Media

People have been collecting and learning from oral information for thousands of years.
Saved either in written form or handed down orally, this information contributes to our understanding of history and culture. In the late 1940s, as voice recorders became more commercially available, historians at Columbia University, followed by the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA, started to realize the potential for recording firsthand knowledge as a way of collecting and preserving it. Although the term "oral history" actually was coined earlier, this was the formal beginning of oral history as a process or tool for collecting primary source information.

Oral history is technology-based, and equipment choice is regularly discussed. Whether you are doing one interview or a multi-interview project, good equipment is a necessity. What are some of the key factors to consider? Good sound quality is one of the most important. And while many people also look for immediate access to the recorded information, preserving it for future users is another important issue.

Rapid changes in technology complicate the equipment choice. While some types of recording equipment are easy to use and have great sound, information recorded on them may not be accessible in a few years, much less in ten or twenty years, because of the rapid pace of format obsolescence. Repositories charged with caring for recordings and making them accessible to future users are usually not equipped to collect and provide ongoing access for every type of media on the market today. So the choice of equipment is an important one that involves thinking through not just the immediate need of capturing the interview itself, but also the long-term issues related to helping keep the information as accessible as possible in the future. Meeting these needs is not easy. The following information will help you sort out some of the basics.

Analog or Digital?

How does recording equipment work? Recorders convert sound and light into audio and optical signals that are then stored on the media (such as a tape or disk). The equipment, signals, and media all come in either analog or digital formats.

  • Analog machines use electronic signals to record sounds and images as wave forms (analogous to the way sound and light exist in nature, thus the term "analog"), which are saved generally on magnetic media in a linear, continuous fashion.

  • Digital machines record sound and images by taking samples of the signal and then storing it on the media as bits of data, just as computers store information.

Your first decision is which type to use when recording the interview (making the interview master). The following table provides additional background to help you think this through:



 Equipment is generally universal. It does not use software to record and access information. Some equipment and media are increasingly difficult to find.

 Equipment uses software and hardware to record and access information. This software and hardware may be proprietary; that is, their compatibility may not be universal. Sound and images are stored as bits of data.

 Recording has a lower signal-to-noise ratio
(relationship of strength of signal to unwanted noise).

 Recording has higher signal-to-noise ratio, giving it better sound. Recording media include CDs, DVDs, DATs, computer chips and hard drives.

 Media can deteriorate over time, but can last from 20-40 years if stored and used properly.

 CDs can experience physical degradation, and the stability of other digital media is as yet unknown. Transfer processes, such as refreshing, reformatting and migrating to current media, are recommended on a five-year cycle to help preserve access to the sound files.

 Copies (dubs) deteriorate in quality with each generation made.

 Copies (clones) may be made without degradation for many generations.

 Signals are not compressed.

 Depending on media and formats, the signal may be compressed. If so, access must be obtained through a CODEC, a program that compresses digital files to save storage space.

 If the media is damaged, it may be spliced and repaired without full loss of information.

 All information is usually lost if the media is damaged.

 Less easy to manipulate for programming

 Easily edited, indexed or manipulated for programming.

 Some equipment and media record broadcast-quality sound.

  Most equipment and media record broadcast- quality sound.

 Reel-to-reel tape is considered an archival standard, though players and media are increasingly difficult to find.

  Does not yet meet archival standards.

With changes in technology occurring so rapidly, archivists and sound technicians often recommend using both analog and digital -- recording in one, copying to another, and storing in both. But this requires extra equipment, funds, time, personnel, and storage. Interviewers and project leaders often talk with representatives of the repository that will ultimately house the interview materials to find out what they recommend before making a decision.

Audio or Video?

Besides deciding on analog or digital formats, the interviewer or project manager also has to decide on the exact format of equipment and media. Do you want to record in audio or video, or are you interested in using both? Once again, a review of the basic issues can help you think this through.


Audio is the most-used oral history recording format and is the least complicated to use and arrange for. It is the least invasive or disruptive and the interviewer can generally run the equipment. It is readily available in both analog and digital versions.


Video, of course, includes an audio signal but adds the visual component. While it offers the opportunity to increase the amount of information collected, its use needn't be automatic. Interviewers and project leaders generally use video to record scenes, settings, photographs, and other types of information that can't be picked up with an audio recorder. Consider the use of video if the interview will likely include visual triggers or enhancements to the narrator's stories (like showing photographs or objects, or moving around a building or other place), or when planning exhibits or programs based on the interviews after they are completed. You can also consider recording the interview in audio and then adding needed visual components later.

Planning for video takes additional time. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Check on the need for extra sound and lighting equipment.

  • Make sure you have access to a trained videographer. Unless you have a highly skilled interviewer and specialized video equipment, the interviewer should not also try to run the camera.

  • Carefully organize the visual aspects of the recording, including the interview setting and the correct and respectful framing of the narrator on camera.

  • Check in advance to make sure the narrator agrees to being recorded on video.

  • Always make sure the video camera or recorder adequately picks up the audio signal. This may mean having a simultaneous audio recording to assure good audio information.

Like audio formats, video formats are also readily available in both analog and digital versions. And again, when choosing a format interviewers and project leaders often talk with representatives of the repository that will ultimately house the interview materials to find out what they recommend before making a final decision.

Are there some basic equipment recommendations?

Yes. Although the choice of recording equipment depends a great deal on budget, project-planning needs, ease of use by the interviewers, and the capability of the repository to care for the types of recordings you make, there are some standard factors that you always should consider. They are:

When using audio equipment. . .

  • Use the best quality equipment you can manage. The type currently used by broadcasters is often best -- check with your local radio or TV station for help with this. The better the quality of your recording, the more the you will maximize the sound quality and extend the life and usability of the interview. While adding to the initial cost of the interview or project, it is one of the most important decisions you will make.

  • Use equipment that takes standard size (not mini) cassettes or CDs (see information on recording media below)

  • Do not use a voice-activated recorder. Their sound quality is poor, and the automatic start-stop feature disrupts the interview.

In general, it is best if your recorder has these features:

  • A connecting jack for plugging in an external microphone, to assure proper placement and so you will not pick up the sound of the recorder's motor on the interview.

  • A connecting jack for a set of headphones. This is useful to make sure the sound of both the interviewer and the narrator are being picked up by the recorder.

  • A counter.

  • A meter or meters that indicate if sound is being recorded and at what level. These are often called "volume units" (VU) meters.

  • An AC adapter so that you will not need to depend on batteries.

When using video equipment. . .

  • Use the best quality equipment you can manage. The type currently used by broadcasters is often best -- check with your local radio or TV station for help with this. The better the quality of your recording, the more the you will maximize the image and sound quality and extend the life and usability of the interview.

  • Determine whether the equipment has progressive scan or interlaced format. This refers to the way the recorder captures the information. Images in interlaced formats may not always retain maximum quality.

  • Be very careful about using home video equipment, especially if it utilizes a miniature version of a popular format or is more than just a few years old. The quality of the recorded materials may not last and future access could be hindered by changes in technology.

In general, it is best if your video camera or recorder has these features:

  • A connecting jack for plugging in an external microphone, to assure proper placement and so you will not pick up the sound of the recorder's motor on the interview.

  • A connecting jack for a set of headphones. This is useful to make sure the sound of both the interviewer and the narrator are being picked up by the recorder.

  • A time code display showing hours, minutes and seconds

  • An AC adapter so that you will not need to depend on batteries.

  • A zoom lens if you want variety in the shots

What should I know about recording media?

The recording media are the physical materials on which the recordings are captured and kept. Some of the more familiar media are audio and videotapes, digital audiotapes (DATs), compact discs (CDs), digital video discs (DVDs) and computer hard drives. The choice of a recording medium is critical for recording quality, information accessibility, and long-term preservation. As with the choice of equipment, it is helpful to check with representatives of the interview or project repository when choosing media. They can talk with you about specific storage and long-term accessibility issues -- important factors to consider when choosing a recording medium.

Audio media

Audio media come in both analog and digital formats. The choice of equipment is a major factor in determining the type of recording media you will use, but within that decision, you will still find a range of options. The following guidelines can help:

Features to look for in analog audio media (magnetic tapes) are the following:

  • Standard size (not mini) cassettes. The long-term stability and accessibility of mini-cassettes is very poor.

  • Sixty-minute cassettes (30 minutes on a side). The longer a tape is (running 90 or 120 minutes), the thinner it is and the greater the possibility it has of tangling, breaking, and sound bleeding.

  • High bias, which has better sound than standard bias. "Metal" tapes cannot be played in all machines and are not recommended.

  • Cassette casings that are screwed together (rather than permanently glued) so the tapes inside can be accessed and repaired if needed.

There are a variety of types of digital audio media. In general, features to look for, listed by type, are the following:

  • Digital audiotapes (DATs). These are magnetic tape cassettes that store information digitally. They have open standards and have the fewest proprietary concerns of all digital audio media.

  • Standard compact discs (CDs). While mini-CDs may have good sound quality, information on them is often compressed at high rates causing restrictive playback options. CDs should conform to the recording industry's "Red Book" standards of size, physical composition, and formatting; Among other things, this means they should be able to store up to 74 minutes of audio in an uncompressed 16 bit, 44.1kilohertz, 2 track format. Always check on long-term equipment and software access needs. Writeable digital videodiscs (DVD-Rs and DVD+Rs) hold many times more information than CDs and can also be used to hold audio files.

  • Removable or external computer hard drives can be acceptable audio recording media if the audio sample rate is 32 KHz or higher and at a bit rate of 16 or higher. Always check on long-term equipment and software access needs.

Video media

As with audio, video media come in a variety of analog or digital formats. A general guide includes the following:

  • Analog videotapes (VHS). These come in different grades: super high grade, high grade, standard grade, etc. Use the best grade you can find. And as with analog audiotapes, the longer the recording time, the thinner the tape. Always record in standard play (SP) speed and to NTSC recording standards.

  • Digital videotapes (DV) and digital videodiscs (DVDs). These hold the binary code that represent points of brightness and color in the original subject. Both store them information in compressed form. Always check on long-term equipment and software access needs.

How important is an external microphone?

It is very important. Using an external microphone assures proper placement and avoids picking up the sound of the recorder's motor.

Microphones are defined by how they pick up sound. Here are some of the more common types:

  • Dynamic. Good, durable, all-around devices that operate without power.

  • Condenser. Commonly smaller, more sensitive and require an external source of power (often powered through the recorder), but give high-quality sound. They are often used in broadcast situations.

Microphones pick up sound in a variety of patterns. Here are some of the more common types:

  • PZM (pressure zone microphones) are generally flat on one side so they can lie on a horizontal surface, like a table, and often are used to record meetings.

  • Omni-directional microphones can pick up sound from all directions at once. They can be used for audio and video work and often are used for oral history interviews.

  • Unidirectional microphones pick up sound best from only one direction. These are not recommended for use in oral history interviews because they will pick up the narrator's voice, but not always that of the interviewer.

  • Lavaliere or lapel microphones, individual and often unidirectional, are fastened one each to the interviewer and narrator and often are used for oral history interviews.

What about other equipment?

Here are some additional items oral historians typically use, especially in the context of audio-only interviews:

  • Good quality headphones, to make sure the voices of both the interviewer and the narrator are being picked up by the recorder.

  • An extension cord for the recorder, to assure it can be placed in a handy spot for the interviewer.

  • A microphone stand, foam mat or folded towel to cushion and protect the microphone from vibration and noise.

  • The best-quality cable you can afford to connect the microphone to the recorder.

  • Extra media. Always have twice as many on hand as you think you'll need.

  • Batteries for the recorder to be used as backup in case electrical power is unreliable or not available at the recording location.

The "Oral History Kit"

If audio-only is your choice (and most oral historians make this choice), you can assemble an "Oral History Kit" after you have made your equipment and media decisions. This kit will contain all the equipment and supplies you need to conduct an interview. An audio-only Oral History Kit generally includes the following:

  • Recorder

  • Recording media (always include extras)

  • Microphone

  • Microphone stand (or foam mat or towel)

  • Headphones

  • Cables and connectors

  • Power cord

  • Extension cord

  • Batteries

  • Manuals for all included equipment

  • Inventory of kit items

  • Equipment Check-Out Log

  • Stenographer's notebook

  • Sharpened pencils

When you finish an interview, make sure all equipment is put back the way you found it.

Running a larger project may necessitate having more than one Oral History Kit. In this case, mark each item in a particular kit as belonging to that kit.

What equipment might I need after the interview is over?

Completing the interview isn't the end of the oral history process. The next steps involve processing; that is, preparing the interview and associated materials for deposit in the repository and to assure its future usability. The equipment options for this step include the following:

Duplicating Machines

You'll want to make several copies of each recorded interview. The versions may be in different formats, depending on the needs or preferences of the user. You should have at least four copies, defined in this way:

  • The master (original recording), from which the use copies are made. It will reside in the repository.

  • One use copy for processing tasks, including transcribing.

  • One use copy for researcher access, to be given to the repository along with the master.

  • One copy to the narrator or the narrator's family.

Duplicating machines need not be specialized equipment made specifically for creating multiple copies of your masters. Even though such equipment does exist, if you need to make use of any of it, it may be more cost-effective to hire services that have such equipment than to acquire it yourself. More often, you can just hook up more than one machine (one for playback of the master and one for recording the copy) and make your copies one at a time. Here are some tips for making copies of the master:

  • Copy audiocassette tapes at regular speed to maximize transfer of sound quality.

  • CDs may be copied on a computer equipped with a CD "burner" and the proper software; it is even better if the computer also has a second CD drive for playback. Take care to use CD-Rs (writable) rather than CD-RWs (re-writable) for your copies, and to format them to the ISO 9660 standard (so that they can be read on any standard CD-ROM drive). Likewise, DVDs can be copied on computers with the proper burner and software.

  • For audio or videotapes, use the same length of tape as the master.

Transcribing Machines

Transcribing machines are playback devices used for creating a transcript (a written verbatim, or word-for-word, representation of the contents of the interview). While you can type a transcript by listening to the recording on any machine that will play it, a transcribing machine makes the job considerably easier. Choose the machine that fits your media. If you used video to capture the interview, you may prefer to dub the soundtrack onto an audio medium to make transcribing easier.

For best results, an audio transcription machine should include these features:

  • Volume control

  • Tone control

  • Tape speed control

  • Headphones

  • Foot pedal with forward and reverse controls

Some final thoughts on equipment:

  • Before you choose equipment for a project, do some research. Check reviews on the Web, recommendations by broadcasters and technicians, and stay current on changes in formats.

  • If you think oral history will be a long-term or frequent enterprise for you, it helps to have more than one of any piece of equipment, including recorders, as backup.

  • If you need help finding equipment, check with community organizations, continuing education programs, extension programs, schools, community colleges, and libraries. They sometimes have equipment you can check out.

  • Always go over the equipment when you first receive it to check settings and to make sure it is in working order. Practice with new equipment before each interview to become familiar with it. And, whether you are using it for the first time or the eighty-first time, always test it before each interview.

  • Keep your equipment clean and properly adjusted. The manufacturer may recommend appropriate time intervals and available services.

  • If you plan to house the masters yourself, find out about proper storage and preservation techniques. Also, have an on-going media migration plan in place. Keep the interview master intact in the originally recorded format and make copies in newer formats as technology evolves.

  • The best advice for choosing oral history equipment is this: Prepare yourself and your project for on-going technology changes through careful and continued research and planning.

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