Help me best record family history.
February 3, 2012 5:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm embarking on a new stage in a family history project, in which I'll be interviewing my grandmother and great aunt for their knowledge and stories about our relatives. What is the best technology by which to do so - that is, how should I best record and preserve these conversations?

My mother did a similar project when she was in college, speaking to her grandmother with the help of a tape recorder. Much to our dismay, those tapes were never transcribed and they've since disappeared - my great-grandmother and her generation have been gone now for decades, so that information is irretrievable. I don't want the same to happen with the similar interviews I'm planning to carry out with my grandmother (on one side) and great aunt (on the other side) - obviously having copies and a transcript will be a step on this. But I'm entirely in the dark about where to start with how to physically record these conversations.

One problem: my computer's internal mic has been dead for more than a year now, so anything done via my computer is either not going to happen or will require me to purchase equipment. If I need to, obviously I will do so, but I want to be clear that if I need to buy equipment it can be anything (within reason, for cost issues), and I am neither working with an audio-equipped computer nor restricted to that function.

Any and all thoughts very warmly welcomed!
posted by AthenaPolias to Technology (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you have a smartphone that records audio notes (such as an iPhone) you might try that. I'd record a test conversation that you have with a friend under similar circumstances (e.g., sitting at the table, drinking tea, sort of a thing. You want to make sure that your device will capture the voices at audible levels under your recording circumstances.

You can get this portable voice recorder which is fairly cheap and seems to be well-regarded. This one (similar price point & ratings) is omnidirectional, and might be better for your purposes.

Consider -- if you're setting the thing on the table at which you are doing the interviews -- bringing a small pillow or beanbag to rest the recording device on so it doesn't pick up all of the times you bump the table with you knee or set down your teacup or whatever.

Good luck!
posted by gauche at 6:07 PM on February 3, 2012

Zoom. Depending on how much you want to spend up to the H4N. They're pretty sweet.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:19 PM on February 3, 2012

Best answer: Consult the people at your local library and/or historical society. They may lend you equipment or expertise.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:20 PM on February 3, 2012

Use multiple recorders. You don't want them pouring out their hearts and then find out that your recorder wasn't working.
posted by fellion at 6:48 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would do both a video recording and an audio recording. The video because it will be more meaningful for others to watch. The audio because it will be easier to use for creating a transctiption. No clue about the specific technologies to recommend though.
posted by metahawk at 9:12 PM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're serious about this project, you need an HD video camera with an external (probably shotgun) microphone. Having a backup audio-only recorder would be good, like the Zoom mentioned before. You can get by for a lot less, say an iPhone 4 recording video and sound, but in 20 years when your grandkids are watching it you may be kicking yourself for not going with the highest quality you could.

You can get by with less camera if you shoot in a well lit place, darker scenes are harder on cheap cameras. Front-light your subjects, but don't contrast them too much with the background. Here's a frame of an interview video I shot with my parents. Not ideal (and not color corrected), it was too bright outside, but it was the best I could quickly setup. That was shot with a Canon VIXIA HF S200, which records directly to SD cards. I used a Rode Videomic for my shoot, which is mono. If I was doing it again, I'd probably use a stereo mic. The VIXIA I used doesn't have a standard sized hotshoe, so I had to mount the microphone weirdly. Put your gear together before you shoot to make sure you have things like that covered.

If you're on a budget, I'd suggest hitting up your local community access TV station. If you're in Cincinnati, that might be Media Bridges. You can signup, they'll teach you how to use the camera and edit video in a few classes, and then you can borrow their gear to shoot your interviews. It looks Media Bridges may only have standard definition cameras available, but they could probably point you to someone with HD gear, and they'll have better than normal audio equipment.

Get a good tripod for the shoot. Sit near the camera (but behind and to the side a bit) so the interviewees eye lines generally line up with the lens and you can see the camera's screen to make sure it's recording. Keep the camera at a little below eye-level with the person you're interviewing. Ideally you'll have AC power, so you won't have to worry about the batteries dying in your camera.

Prep your questions in advance, but be ready to follow tangents when they come up. Listen to a lot of interviews from, say, StoryCorps. Do a few sessions, it's hard to think of everything the first time, but give them a few weeks or a month and they'll think of other stories. Make them comfortable, people don't look great sitting in recliners, but you want them to feel relaxed. Be confident enough with your gear that you don't make them nervous. Have enough storage space to go over however long you think you'll record, you never know how long the stories will flow. Ideally, have your rig setup so you don't need to stop recording and swap memory cards. If you do, pick a time to pause with plenty of time left, you don't want to cut someone off mid-story. You can shoot multi-camera to get around that, but it gets complicated (especially in edit) and you'll need help.

Archive your raw footage in a common digital format. Most cameras produced these days output MP4 files, that's great. Keep backups, preferably in several places. Once you have a decent sized collection of interviews you might want to dump it all on an external hard drive, label the heck out of it and send it to that packrat cousin who never moves. When you're ready, edit down to self-contained story chunks, maybe built around themes like falling in love or youthful misadventures. Throw those up on Vimeo or Youtube, password protected if you're worried, and spread them around the family. Expect other family members to ask your advice or help with their own interviews. Once the stories are gone, you can't get them back.

If you really want to be cutting edge, maybe the next generation would rather see them in 3D.
posted by jeffkramer at 10:22 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did a similar thing for project twice - the first time I used an old-school tape recorder (the big bulky one) and the second time I used a digital recorder that cost about half what's been posted above. No difference in quality, but I'd go with digital of course. I did my own transcripts but these days you can easily send the digital audio files to someone else to do it, too. It is really, really, time-consuming.

In a previous life I was a historian, so I had a lot of resources at my fingertips on how to conduct oral history interviews, what kinds of questions to ask, and even what kind of equipment to go with. You may want to start with a historical society, or even a history professor who is experienced with this kind of history, for advice and tips.
posted by sm1tten at 6:58 AM on February 4, 2012

All the electronic media are subject to rapid, impending obsolescence. witness DAT tape, floppy disk, etc. Call me a Casandra, but I dont believe any digital storage system or "the cloud" has much chance of lasting even one generation.

If you want your history to last, make your recordings, but then transcribe it in to text. Recorded history endures best when engraved into stone, but good paper, bound into solid books has had a good track record.
posted by Abinadab at 7:02 AM on February 4, 2012

Response by poster: So much good information here - thank you, everyone! I hadn't considered video but it's such an obvious, good option that I'll look into it. jeffkramer, I really appreciate all of the detail, particularly because I've never done anything remotely like this - you've given me a lot of great starting points.

Abinadab, I agree - you're no Cassandra! - about transcribing and having multiple copies. Transcribing is high on the priority list afterward, particularly following the loss of my mother's recording with my great grandmother.

sm1tten - luckily enough, my mother is a history professor, so I've got built-in help there!

Thanks so much, all. If I have any great successes with this project I'll post what I ended up doing here.
posted by AthenaPolias at 8:54 AM on February 4, 2012

They'd never replace a transcription foot pedal but I found Winamp's global shortcuts for playback controls useful. Once switched on in the preferences one may use CTRL-arrow keys to control playback directly from within the word processor.
posted by yoHighness at 3:30 PM on February 4, 2012

Btw. when folks use unfamiliar (e.g. place) names during the interview ask them to spell out the word. It can really help during the transcription.
posted by yoHighness at 3:37 PM on February 4, 2012

I've done this with my family. Used a roland r09 digital voice recorder. Direct to mp3, hours of high quality recording, omnidirectional mics, runs on aa batteries, very unobtrusive.
posted by ead at 5:41 PM on April 29, 2012

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