Which portable recorder for an oral history project?
September 27, 2014 4:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm a researcher with no film experience, and am beginning to think about an oral history project, which best case would become a short film. The theme is regional accents, so audio quality is important.

I'm planning to do this through a particular graduate program, but can't enroll until 2017. I'd like to capture voice recordings of people who may not still be around by then, and want to buy an e-z portable recorder. The model recommended by the Vermont Folk Life Center is no longer sold, so I'm wondering - which is the best yet most cost-effective investment? Is digital required? I'm looking at Tascam DR-07MKII, and the DR-05. Thanks for any insights.
posted by mmiddle to Technology (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Just to clarify, when are you going to start recording, now or in 2017? If it is 2017, make no purchasing decisions (or even do any shopping research) until at least late 2016. Two years is a long time in technology.
posted by SNACKeR at 5:01 AM on September 27, 2014

Response by poster: I would like to start recording now, for incorporating into the later work.
posted by mmiddle at 5:30 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: Ira Glass has audio equipment recommendations on Lifehacker. His digital recorder isn't available, but the Marantz Professional PMD661 MKII is. If that's beyond your budget, Transom has recorder recommendations.

The shotgun mic that he talks about isn't on Amazon, but he mentions another one on the This American Life page, the Audio-Technica AT8035 Shotgun Microphone.

"This American Life producers record in the field on Marantz PDM 661 digital recorders, with Audio-Technica shotgun microphones (AT835b, AT8035 and AT897). We like shotgun mics because they give you a prettier sound for interviews with less room noise, and when you need to capture the sounds of machines clicking and cows mooing and all the other ambient audio that makes up a radio documentary, you can point at what you're trying to record and isolate it from the surrounding environment a bit. Occasionally in specialized situations we'll also use a wireless mic, which is a great thing to have but definitely not a necessity for a beginner. Ira recalls: "I bought my first wireless when I was 33. I'd worked in radio for 14 years without one. It was, no kidding, more expensive than the car I drove at the time, a pro Lectrosonics rig that cost me $1800."
posted by nevan at 6:21 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: I'm a linguist and we commonly use a zoom h4n with a headset mic for phonetic detail or something like a Rode nt4 if you want stereo sound of a pleasant quality to listen to. This blog has great mic and recorder information and reviews.
posted by lollusc at 6:22 AM on September 27, 2014

I'd go with the Sony PCM-D50 or -D100 if you have the cash, or the -M10 if you have less. The feature on the Sonys that I think is crucial is that they are constantly recording two signals, one lower than the other, so that if there is ever a spike in volume, it smoothly mixes the two together so that there isn't any distortion that could ruin the take. Plus they are nice and rugged.
posted by umbĂș at 6:24 AM on September 27, 2014

Oh yeah the marantz mentioned above is a common choice too and you'll want a good mic stand and shock mount and if recording outside at all, a dead cat.
posted by lollusc at 6:24 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: Look into the Zoom H4N. They're pretty common for this type of use, and you can get them used for less than 200 dollars. Their included mics should be fine for your use, but they also have inputs for external ones. The two you linked might be cheaper, but if you plan on using them for film the quality of the H4N (or similar recorders, there are a few but the H4N is the most popular) is warranted.
posted by catwash at 6:25 AM on September 27, 2014

Also, looking at nevan's comment, a shotgun mic like the one they linked to might be warranted if you plan on recording in very noisy environments.
posted by catwash at 6:31 AM on September 27, 2014

Response by poster: Great, thank you! I notice that there are different versions of the h4n on Amazon - one is $200 but the wireless is $750. The Ira Glass quite above makes it sound like the wireless is best, but - dumb question, I imagine - what is its advantage?
posted by mmiddle at 6:44 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: Yep. Ethnomusicologists use Zoom H4N as a primary sidearm these days too. Love mine. Phantom powered xlr inputs mean you can add top quality mics (shotgun, lav, etc) but the built in stereo x/y pair is excellent.

Of course more and more people just use an iPhone with an outboard DAC these days. For oral history interviews that is really fine (I use a TASCAM preamp/DAC).

A Marantz PMD661 is total overkill for your purposes and way bigger and heavier than you need. I own one and it gathers dust these days.
posted by spitbull at 6:52 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You don't need wireless. You'd be better off buying a separate wireless mic unit for when and if you need it. The people who need it built in are film makers.

Spend $200 on the zoom and $500 on a set of really good lavalier mics (and maybe a shotgun, but honestly lavs will be MUCH more useful for oral history interviewing).
posted by spitbull at 6:55 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: Just to clarify something: the sound quality of your recordings depends far more on your mics than on which 16 or 24 bit DAC you plug them into. Blow money on mics, not a recorder.
posted by spitbull at 7:01 AM on September 27, 2014

Response by poster: Prices on mics are all over the spectrum. Does the Sennheiser MKE2-P-C MKE2 omni lavalier with XLR connection meet this standard?
posted by mmiddle at 7:09 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: Remember you need two. I don't know that unit but that's a very expensive mic (and Sennheisers are great mics in general).

I use Sony ECM-44 lavs, which are about $150 each, for interviewing.
posted by spitbull at 7:23 AM on September 27, 2014

Nthing the Zoom H4N for interviews and field recordings. It's pricey, but even without an external mic attachment it does a fantastic job at picking up quiet and subtle sounds. Don't forget to invest or make a good wind screen for your mic... you'll regret it later when you play back a track and there's a constant 'whoosh' sound.
posted by nightrecordings at 7:29 AM on September 27, 2014

Also make sure you know something about the physical settings in which you will be recording. Sitting across a table in a quiet house? Driving across the ranch in a truck? Outdoors? Will you need to record music ever? Mic choices depend on application.

Are you sure your program won't be pushing you to use video? In oral history work I know, video is beginning to replace audio only. That opens a different can of worms.

You need good over the ear headphones too. Ca. $100 is where to start. But you don't need to spend $500 either. Most of my colleagues prefer Sony MDR7506 cans, as do I, over options costing twice as much. I've used them for years and years.
posted by spitbull at 7:29 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use the DR-05 on a daily basis. Durability-wise it has held up well. Personally I like having clear, simple-to-use buttons to activate the controls. I love that I can just swap out memory cards, plunk them into my computer and easily copy over files. (I've seen other devices where you have to use USB cables to move data from the unit to your main computing device. Don't buy one like that.)

The sound quality is good, but as with all audio recording, much of that depends on how and where you record. If you're in a quiet room and you can control your environment, it's really great. If you're in a large conference hall listening to a lunch-time speech, the recorder has a tendency to pick up all the nearby ambient noise (cutlery clinking on plates, etc.) to a higher degree than I'd like.

As others have suggested, if you really want to control the quality of the audio, you should look at supplementing the recorder with a mic. And you need to make sure you record on the highest quality setting possible. I've got mine set to 24-bit WAV and not the smaller, more compressed MP3 files.
posted by sardonyx at 7:36 AM on September 27, 2014

Sorry to pepper the thread, but I do this stuff for a living so I think I can be helpful.

The ECM44 omni lavs are almost $200 each now, so I guess I'll take better care of mine. They have a battery so you can use them without phantom power, which is a really cool feature if you ever do plan to do video interviews (the Zoom h4n will provide phantom power however). They are quite durable.

I note on Amazon that the H4N is the first item listed under "people who bought these ecm44 mics also bought." That tells you just how standardized this rig has become. You want what everyone else is using in this case.

Don't blow too much on one mic. You will want a kit of various kinds of mics for various situations.
posted by spitbull at 7:38 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

H4N has an SD card too. I use a 16gb card with no problem.
posted by spitbull at 7:40 AM on September 27, 2014

One more: honestly, for oral history interviewing, you do not need 24 bit audio. 16 bit PCM is fine and few people can hear the difference for speech alone.
posted by spitbull at 7:46 AM on September 27, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks a ton for these answers; this is hugely helpful. I feel like I've taken that first step! I love Metafilter.
posted by mmiddle at 7:55 AM on September 27, 2014

Response by poster: Oh, and spitbull, I do expect to be working in video eventually. But some of the voices I need may likely not be available in 2-3 years. I'm hoping that some of what I get in audio now can be imported into a film, even without video of the speaker.
posted by mmiddle at 8:01 AM on September 27, 2014

Best answer: If you're doing oral history with people who aren't used to being interviewed, try to keep things as simple as possible. Big, huge, radio-professional sized equipment may be intimidating, especially if you have to constantly monitor the recorder or fiddle with inputs. People get impatient if you take ages setting things up, mic'ing them, testing levels, etc., so the system that you can operate the easiest and quickest is a best choice. Portability is also a consideration. Do you want something you can carry with you at all times, so you can grab interviews on the fly? (This is a key consideration for me.) Just remember that sometimes simpler is better, especially if this is just a tool for a job, and you don't have an audio pro to offer you backup and tech support.
posted by sardonyx at 8:03 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you're thinking about incorporating this stuff into a film eventually, I'd also have a video camera/device of some sort running. That could be in addition to the audio recorder or instead of the recorder. You don't want to be in the position of regretting that you don't have any footage.
posted by sardonyx at 8:07 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Actually... Okay, if I were to try videorecording, any recs for simple, portable but quality recorder?
posted by mmiddle at 8:49 AM on September 27, 2014

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