Audio and video recording

As promised, a few chapters of my book on field methods will be serialised here over the coming weeks. Comments are very welcome! Please either leave them in the comments section of the post, or in an email to me (anggarrgoon at gmail). Sorry about the less than ideal html rendering.

Chapter 2 Audio and video recording

This chapter covers procedures for making good quality audio and visual recordings. A brief history of the technology used to make linguistic recordings is given in order to illustrate the issue of obsolescence in technology and the importance of archiving. The advantages and disadvantages of some different recording media are discussed and the most important issues to consider are highlighted, including media portability, ease of recording, transcription and duplication, durability of the recording device, and reliance on external power versus batteries. The aim of the chapter is not to make any specific recommendations, but to give the student the knowledge of what to look for in a recorder so that they can make an informed decision about the different types of recording device available. Guidance is also given in how to read the specifications (such as signal to noise ratio) for recorders, headphones and microphones. The primary focus is on audio recording but there is also a section on the specifics of making good video recordings; some comments are also made on computer hardware and software. The chapter ends with a section on the practicalities of making audio and video recordings, such as microphone placement and ways of minimising external noise.

2.1 Introduction – why make recordings?

If you are going to the trouble of travelling a long way to ask someone questions about their language, you want to have some way of recording their answers so that you can come back to them later on. You might want the recordings later on so that you can check your transcriptions. Perhaps the narratives you’ve recorded will be used for a talking book, or maybe you transcribed your tapes with one aim in mind and later will wish to go back to them for other data.

Among the first language documentation records we have are clay tablet primers in Sumerian cuneiform, from about 3000 bce. Clay has certain advantages as a medium for preservation of materials. Once fired it’s quite durable, for example. If the scribe makes a mistake while writing on it the error can be easily erased. Cuneiform is pretty to look at and can be used on clay, wood, stone, or paper with relative ease. As a writing system it’s suitable for quite a few languages. But it’s cumbersome to carry around, and cuneiform wasn’t re-deciphered until the 19th century. It doesn’t give us any audio information either, and once the clay is fired the record can’t be changed.

These days we have considerably more sophisticated ways of preserving language materials than clay tablets, but we still need to take the same considerations into account. There are many ways of making recordings, but we still want durable materials, so that all our work (and the work of our consultants) will be useful to others in the future. We want to store our materials in a format and in a medium that others will be able to decode later on. We also want to be able to refer to them easily ourselves in checking and analysing data.

Obsolescence and durability are a real problem in modern recording technology. Bird and Simons (2003:557-8), for example, make the point that the more recent and advanced the technology, the quicker the time to obsolescence. We could decode Linear B and Sumerian without the code, but could we ‘decode’ the information on 5 ¼” floppy disks the same way? Certainly not.

Here is another example. The first sound recordings of Australian languages were made in the very early 20th century. They date from about 1902 for the Arrernte language of Central Australia and 1911 for Nyulnyul and Bardi (spoken in North Western Australia.[1] They were made on wax cylinders. The speaker would speak into an “amplifier” (very similar to an ear trumpet) and the vibrations in the air caused by the sound waves would trigger the movement of a stylus, which would scratch a path into the wax. The cylinders could later be replayed. Only a few places in the world can now play these cylinders, and in many cases they have been damaged and are unplayable. For example, Gerhardt Laves’ cylinders melted in the heat of a Northern Australian summer in the late 1920s, and the information on them was destroyed. The wax can also grow mouldy, and scratches on the surface distort the sound. The recordings are also of not very high quality.

Sound recording technology improved, of course, and then we had the first tape recorders.[2] Stephen Wurm once described his field equipment for his work in the early 1950s. He had a 12 volt car battery and a “portable” Nagra reel-to-reel machine. They fitted in the side-car of his motor-bike and weighed about 20 kilograms. Each tape would last about 14 minutes, but would speed up towards the end of the tape as the reel got smaller and the time per revolution decreased (that is, the same frequency at the start of a recording is played back at a higher frequency at the end of the tape). These days these tapes can only be played by specialist archives too, and the parts for servicing the machines are unobtainable.

Nowadays we have digital audio recorders, CD recorders, minidiscs, mp3 (and mp4) recorders, and so on. But these too will quickly become obsolescent. This section will date quickly, so I will discuss some general points about what desirable equipment is. I will also make some suggestions (based on the best available in the US in 2005). My purpose in giving you this history of audio recording techniques is to remind you that all equipment becomes obsolescent, some quicker than others, and particularly with digital recorders one needs to make sure that recordings are still playable 5 years or 10 years in the future.

2.2 Factors to consider when choosing audio recording equipment

Whatever your field situation (and this goes for classroom recording as well) there are certain requirements for audio and video recording devices.

First of all, your recorder needs to be portable and robust. There is no point having a recorder that is likely to break and leave you without it, and you need to be able to get it to your field site and use it while you are there. Dust, heat, humidity and vibrations all do terrible things to electronic equipment. You need something robust to keep your equipment in too; good protective bags are quite expensive, but are worth the investment.

Secondly, you should not have to rely on mains electricity. Of course, your field site might not have electricity at all. Or, you might be working in an area where the supply of electricity is unreliable. Even if there is mains electricity if it comes from generators the current can be variable and a surge can damage the machine (and “brown outs” – short periods of changes in the current where the current isn’t entirely shut off – can cause data corruption. Devices that need mains electricity are also inherently less portable than those which can be run off batteries. Also, recording while running the unit plugged into a wall outlet (on mains power) causes an electrical hum from the line in some units; this was a problem with some of the DAT machines. So, it should run off batteries, and you’ll need a way to charge those batteries.

Units also vary in their power efficiency. Some units, although they run off batteries, have very short battery lives. Different tasks also use up different amounts of power. Recording is much more battery intensive than play-back.

You also need to have a backup device in case something goes wrong with your main recorder. All sorts of things can cause equipment malfunctions. Dirt and dust are bad for all electronics, as is water, of course. Power surges are a problem in communities which run on generator power. Modern electronics are designed not to last very long (because companies want you to have to upgrade constantly) so many brands are not very durable. And sophisticated recording devices (unlike wax cylinder recorders) can’t be fixed by non-specialists. On one of my field trips a small screw that holds the heads in place in my main analogue cassette recorder shook itself out on the vibration of the corrugations in the road. It made the machine unusable and I had to go to the nearest town to buy a vastly inferior quality machine to do transcription. Make sure that you can mix and match equipment; for example, your backup microphone should be usable with both your primary and your backup machine.

Another factor which you should consider when choosing equipment is the battery type. There is an annoying lack of standardisation in equipment chargers. Video and audio recorders often have their own specific batteries, which require their own chargers, each at slightly different voltages. This can add considerably to the weight and bulkiness of your baggage.

You need to be able to get your data off your recorder easily. That is, playing back small portions of the recording should be easy (minidisc recorders, for example, often require you to play back from the beginning of the track). Analog tapes are easy to play back in small portions, but they have to be digitised in real time. You should be able to make backup or archive recordings of your tapes easily. You will want to make working copies so you can store the originals in a safe place, and you don’t want to tie up your machine for hours while you do it.

A related point to this is that you should record in a format that lets you easily copy for community members, especially if you are doing a salvage project. You don’t want to be using all your battery and work time making copies of tapes.

Some recorders are easier to use than others. You’ll need one that shows the sound levels (so you can make sure you are not clipping the recording, or that the recording is loud enough). One that has a battery level monitor is also high recommended (and know that these usually aren’t entirely accurate). Displays that are impossible to read in bright sunlight are not very helpful. You should always be able to tell if the pause button is on, if sound is coming into the unit and if the unit is recording.

Finally, it goes without saying that your recording device should produce good quality recordings. (Of course, the quality of the recording will depend on your site and where you can work, too.) If your recordings will be the primary record of the language, you’ll want to make it as data-rich as possible. Even if not, you will make things easier for yourself by having clear recordings that are easier to transcribe. Recording quality is a function of many things. The quality of the recording unit is important, but so is the microphone, the cables that are used to transfer the data between machines, the number of times the signal is copied, as well as any ambient noise, the room, and the placement of the recorder.

There is, of course, a trade-off between portability, quality, price and durability, and there is no equipment which is ideal on all of these points


[1] The last speaker of Nyulnyul died in 1999. There are about twenty speakers of Bardi these days.

[2] There were other recording devices too, such as aluminium wire recorders.

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One response to “Audio and video recording

  1. As I am currently looking for the same thing, do you have a specific recommendation about a device?

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