Ethnomusicology equipment recommendations
June 18, 2008 8:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm headed out to travel rural developing areas on a folk music field recording expedition. Can I get some advice on what equipment to use?

I'm traveling rural, likely North and Sub-Saharan Africa. I like to travel rugged and lightweight. Which means no powered mic and a lightweight recording device.

I'm not super concerned with quality, but also don't want to squander the opportunity to get good recordings.

Vermont folklife has a good equipment guide, and I've looked quite a bit through this. But I would love any firsthand experience, stories, ideas.
posted by iamck to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
No firsthand experience, but I'm seriously lusting after this one.
posted by piedmont at 8:57 AM on June 18, 2008

The equipment guide you linked to is a great resource. I have a Marantz PMD660 and it has such noisy preamps that it's basically worthless. (It also takes a fistful of AA batteries and you need the DC power adaptor to do a USB transfer.)

A musician friend purchased the Samson Zoom H4 recently for recording shows and rehersals, and he's happy with it. It also has XLR inputs so you can hook up a decent mic.
posted by kamelhoecker at 9:04 AM on June 18, 2008

I'd check out the small mp3/wav recorders from Zoom (the H2 and the H4) and Edirol (the R-09). I've used an H4 to record lectures and was happy with the results. I might eventually buy an H2 for recording acoustic music.
posted by wheat at 9:04 AM on June 18, 2008

I'd suggest looking at the internet archive live music catalog, pick some folk acts you recognize, then look at the equipment used for recordings you like. The equipment guide you linked has lots of great (expensive) options.

For light travel, I'd suggest a condenser mic and a digital audio player/recorder at a minimum. I have been using this microphone to record band practices and it works great. It's probably the best economy of size vs. sound quality.

I also use an older Sony MD player/recorder, but I don't necessarily recommend it. Sound quality and economy of size and battery are good, but proprietary software and the minidiscs themselves are a drawback. If quality is not a priority, any recording DAP will work.

Hope that helps.
posted by assoctw at 9:10 AM on June 18, 2008

I am an ethnomusicologist, and I recommend the Zoom and a cheap AA-battery-powered cassette recorder for if all else fails. AA batteries and cassette tapes can be found almost everywhere.
posted by billtron at 9:37 AM on June 18, 2008

This guy has a lot of experience in the field. IIRC, he is a professor of ethnomusicology at an Ivy League university. Unfortunately, he has disabled mefi mail, but perhaps you can find another way to reach him.
posted by dersins at 9:58 AM on June 18, 2008

Oligatory link to expert resource at Transom. Tons of folks out in the field consult their resources.
posted by mykescipark at 12:29 PM on June 18, 2008

Best answer: I use a Zoom H2 to record research meetings, previously using an Edirol R-1 (the predecessor of the Edirol R-09 mentioned above). I have used both to record live music. Both have wonderful acoustic range on recordings, are relatively low-noise, and have exceptional built-in microphones. The Zoom H2 is much better with battery life (seems to be at least 3 hours on two Duracell AAs, so far). The Zoom H2 has a choice of directional microphone patterns and you can use these in combination to get a 360 degree recording which gives a depth of the sound stage that is hard to beat. It is also much smaller/lighter to carry around than most other high quality field recorders. Th Zoom H2 can record uncompressed WAV or any variant of MP3 that you want (including VBR). I am really impressed with its performance. Finally, it takes SD cards, which means that you can record as much as you want in the field without having to worry about exhausting your storage capacity (pretty essential for me). It does seem very popular (probably the price-performance sweet spot, plus it is relatively new), so you'll have to look around to find one. Amazon (where I bought mine) don't seem to have them listed for direct supply, which means that they are hard to get.
posted by Susurration at 12:33 PM on June 18, 2008

Best answer: I used a Zoom H2 to do music field recordings in East Africa recently. It worked well. The end result for me wasn't amazing, but that is 90% due to my lack of skill and forethought. With some practice and planning you should be able to get very nice recordings. All the reviews will note the plastic casing, in my experience it is very sturdy. I would suggest using the little plastic grip to cut down on handling noise. Take a ton of high capacity SD cards, I could never get time and bandwidth to dump my 2 1gb cards to the Internet. NiMH AA's work well, but I'm pretty much done with the Tenergy brand -- stick with one of the bigger brands. The H2 drains at 15mA even when it is turned off, so take out the batteries overnight.

Most of the music I recorded was impromptu rap sessions with neighborhood kids. They much preferred using an external mic so they could front like in the music videos. I imagine the built in mics on the H2 would work great for a circle of older people singing traditional songs, women working, etc.

Really my biggest regret is that I didn't record more. Now that I'm back I long for the everyday sounds of the market, dalla-dalla buses and just people talking. Definitely take about 40gb of memory and record everything.

If you do go with the H2, I read on some random forum that it is best to leave the mic gain set to Medium and the level set to 100. All the other settings introduce noise and are better duplicated in post-processing on a computer.

Hmmm probably more detail than you want, but in conclusion the Zoom H2 worked well for me in a similar setting.
posted by ChrisHartley at 12:49 PM on June 18, 2008

Response by poster: All great answers, great response. It sounds like the Zoom is the preferred choice. Thanks for the advice all.
posted by iamck at 3:59 PM on June 18, 2008

SameDayMusic has two H2s in stock as of right now.
posted by wheat at 6:03 PM on June 19, 2008

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