Which Kind of Audio Recorder?

Robin Shoaps, March 2007

Audio Equipment Selection:

What follows are general guidelines with the anticipated needs of linguistic
anthropologists and their budgets in mind. In general, if you have more money to spend
you will get higher quality audio (and video) recordings, but with the trade off of
equipment size and complexity. Ultra pricey ($1000) microphones are usually larger and
may also defeat the purpose if your recording equipment isn’t built to maximize their
sensitivity. Roughly speaking, prices jump dramatically from the cheap “consumer”
category to “pro” and there is little in between. What is listed below is the best of the
middle range. Keep in mind that “pro” needs are generally not those of linguistic
anthropologists, so don’t spend too much time coveting that fancy “pro” equipment that
is probably not the best match for your needs. In fact, the pro forum that probably comes
closest to our applications was public radio (such as “This American Life” and NPR
freelance correspondents) were using Minidisc recorders at least until recently.
Seriously consider buying multiple recording devices at different price-points and levels
of complexity. If you plan to have consultants make field recordings (I strongly suggest
this!), you will need multiple recorders. As a general rule of thumb, I would say four is
the number to shoot for—one for yourself for everyday field recording, plus three for
consultants (this also gives you a back up in case one breaks). Depending on the level of
technical sophistication of the people in your field site, their access to computers (for
downloading data), availability and difficulty of changing recording media, etc. you may
need to get different recorders for your consultants than what you use yourself.
In selecting audio (or video) recorders, the following considerations apply:

1. Size—if they are making “naturalistic” recordings, something large, heavy or
clunky may introduce an element of “stage fright” into the interaction and will
be a burden to carry around for ambulatory situations (processions,
conversation while walking to or from an event).

2. Ease of use—lots of buttons, levels to set, lights, etc. can make the equipment
seem difficult and intimidating to less tech-savvy people (even to
anthropologists!). I’ve found that in my fieldsite, Minidisc (MD) has the easiest
interface and it has the plus that people are familiar with the idea of needing to
add blank, cassette-like media. Some of the new digital recorders require
setting up folders, reading an English language display, etc. The easier it is to
record, the more often people will do it. Lastly, how hard is it to save or delete
the recording? What if your consultant presses a button accidentally and
doesn’t see or understand the “delete okay?” message on the LCD screen and
accidentally deletes what they’ve recorded? Everyone prefers using something
easy and appreciates having the confidence that they won’t break it or
accidentally erase a recording.

3. Media: if you set up WAV as the default recording quality, the recording time
is significantly shortened. This means that you or your consultant will need to
change media (flash card) or export the data onto a computer via USB fairly
frequently. Unless your consultants have regular access to computers (that are
up-to-date enough to have USB connections) or can stop by to see you often
enough that they can have you do this for them on a regular basis, you won’t
be able to get the quantity of recordings that you could get if you simply give
them a stack of blank minidiscs. If you use a flash recorder you’ll want extra
flash cards (and a card reader for your computer) to give consultants so they
can change them on their own. I found that I got the best recordings when I
just let people keep the recorders and blanks for months.

4. Price: for obvious reasons, if you want three or more recording devices, price is
an issue. As of Spring 2007, a general rule of thumb is to plan on spending
around $300 per recording device for MDHD, M-Audio or Edirol R9 recorders,
more for Marantz, Sony or Tascam solid state recorders. Factor in the cost of 1-
4GB flash card or other media, you will want at least one spare media cartridge
per recorder, unless you are using MD.

5. Transcription. If you’re lucky enough to work in a site where you can have
locals transcribe independently, you may want to have them do this on a
cheaper player or on a computer to save wear and tear on the recorder. When I
used MDs I purchased several players (around $100) that were used only for
transcription. Make sure it’s easy to get your recording off the recorder and
onto (hopefully inexpensive) equipment that your consultant can transcribe
from. A benefit to this is that you don’t have to worry about people forgetting
how to move between play and record modes on the recorder. Keep in mind
that first pass transcription (what your consultants will do) can be done in mp3
(convert files from wav to mp3), meaning cheap (low memory) mp3 players
can be used or that less memory needs to be used on a computer.

6. Power supply: How many hours does it record on battery power? Does it have
rechargeable vs. regular batteries? Will your consultant have to remember to
recharge it between uses? Some models only have their own, non-removable,
rechargeable batteries. Others (like MD) allow you to add on a regular battery
pack (with AA batteries) to supplement the internal batteries. Do you lose
everything when it runs out of batteries? Does it have a DC charger? More
specialized batteries sizes and voltages are hard to come by in third world
countries and may be past or close to their expiration date by the time you
purchase them, so recorders that take AAA or AA batteries are most

For my purposes, I have found that my Sakapultek consultants are very comfortable (and
now, used to) MD. The new HD recorders record digitally AND allow digital output (that
was the drawback of the older models), so you can maintain recording quality. The media
are cheap and there is now a 1GB size disc. My consultants don’t have to worry about transferring anything to a computer. They merely save all the recorded disks for the next
time they see me (great if you want to leave recorders with people for years, as I have
done). Plus, the disks are cheap enough that I encourage them to use a new disk each time
they make a recording (rather than try to fill up the whole 74 minutes). In essence, I don’t
have to interfere at all. Plus, they can transcribe using a cheaper MD player.
For those with more tech savvy consultants, I think the Edirol 09 is the way to go. They
can dump the recordings onto a laptop or local computer themselves and record directly
into WAV, while transcribing in MP3. You could also have them transfer files as WAV but
do most transcription in MP3 on a cheap MP3 player, if you are willing to convert file
formats for them (easy to do).

If you don’t plan on doing prosodic analysis, recording multi-party interaction in places
with lots of background noise and aren’t working with an endangered language (using
the best equipment you can for recording endangered languages is the best practice), you
may consider using stereo MP3 recorders—Olympus makes a nice model for about $200.
These are super easy to use, particularly for those who are already familiar with the ipod
concept. They’re very small—great for unobtrusive recording—and have decent sound
quality when used with external mics.

Now, in addition to everyday field recorders and mics (small, clip-on and inobtrusive is
best—I recommend the Sound Professionals $70 “T-mic” as entry level for most
applications), you’ll probably want a recorder that is higher quality and not necessarily as
small. You can use this for documentation (working with moribund languages),
phonetic/phonological work or recording large events where a more obtrusive recorder is
less of an issue. This sort of recorder could also be “planted” unobtrusively by you at a
site in advance for recording everyday (dinner table) interaction. Most of the top of the
line digital recorders (which tend to be larger) have an MP3 option, so you can also use
these for elicitation/interviews that you won’t be analyzing for prosody, etc. You can still
set it up so that it isn’t as obtrusive if you have time to prep the room in advance.
Even if you plan to work a lot with video, I recommend getting a couple of audio
recorders. Among other things, I think it’s prudent to record audio separately, to
supplement what you capture with your video recorder. For example, it’s often less
disruptive to have a participant in a recorded event wear a small recorder while you stand
at a distance and film in zoom with a mini-shotgun mic. Having both audio perspectives
will be useful for capturing both side conversations close to the action (if you have your
volunteer wear omnidirectional lapel mics) and for capturing the “on-record”
performance with all background noise filtered out. Also, if you are going to transcribe
audio in the field, it’s easier to take the audio directly from a recorder, rather than pull it
from a video recording. Lastly, until people are familiar with what you’re using the
recordings for and comfortable being video-recorded, audio recordings are a good way to
begin collecting data.
For the high quality audio recorder, I recommend the TASCAM HD-P2 or Marantz PMD
660 or 670.

One Response

  1. Luke Smith
    Luke Smith May 11, 2016 at 1:44 am | | Reply

    I think that these digital recorders are really something, you can use them for work, school, or personal life. A doctor that needs to take down lengthy notes, or listening to a teacher at a school. I have seen a lot of people record grandparent’s stories then have them written down.

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