Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Field Recording Equipment

At a recent meeting, I was asked by someone about what sort of digital devices exist for doing field sound recordings. The best online source for reviews of recording devices is published by the Vermont Folklife Centre on its Digital Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide, prepared by Andy Kolovos. It is by far the most comprehensive reviews page for field recording equipment, written specifically for those people who will be doing folklore and oral history field recordings.

While I am far from an expert on the matter, I have pulled together a little review. Note that everything that follows is personal opinion, and if you read the Vermont Folklife Center page, that author has varying opinions. Your best bet is always to figure out exactly what you will be using the recorder for, ask around and see what people are using for similar project, and to see if you can test out a recorder in a field situation before you spend your money.

I personally use the Edirol R-09 WAV/MP3 recorder. I bought it at a local music store over a year ago, and I like it. I’ve used it mostly for recording storytelling events, either by using the built in mic, or by patching it in to a sound board using an inexpensive cable and jack adaptor bought from The Source. The Edirol is roughly the size and weight of a pack of cards, and I find the interface fairly easy to use. I recorded the 2007 World Storytelling Day Concert using the Edirol plugged into the headphone jack of a professional soundboard, and was quite pleased with the quality of the recording. I am currently using it, with the built in mic, to record stories told by storytelling students here in St. John’s as part of an ArtSmarts project, and will post a link to those recordings when they are placed online.

Delf Hohmann is a singer, musician, folklorist and coordintor of the Cape St. Mary's Performance Series, who also uses the Edirol. He uses it for live recordings, fieldwork, and radio assignments. I asked him for his thoughts, and this is what he wrote:
It is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, and it is an easy to handle, straightforward recording device with no extra knick-knacks. It works well with external microphones. The built in ones are fairly good, or good enough for recording of speech, yet, they are not good enough to make a high-end music/sound recording. The internal software version 1.3 (downloadable from the Edirol website) allows for the use of a 8GB SDHD card, which provides 12hrs of CD quality (16 bit, 44.1kHz) recording (with SanDisk Extreme III (6) 12hrs 50min). It takes Ni-Mh rechargerables or AA batteries. The only disadvantage is the machine's overall flimsyness. It is not very robust and needs carefull handling, i.e. I wouldn't suggest to drop it on the floor. The cover for AA-battery bay and the SD-card needs careful handling. In the slightly larger new version, the "Edirol R-09HR" this problem has been fixed by placing the battery bay on the back of the recorder - the "Edirol R-09HR" has an overall stronger casing.
Andrea O'Brien is a researcher and project officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. She is using the Zoom H2 Handy Recorder
When I first began my folklore studies back in the early 1990s, the hand-held cassette recorder was the way to go when it came to field recordings. While that compact gadget saw me through university, I lately realized that I would have to move into the digital age. After some searching, I recently bought a Zoom H2 and I’m impressed with its usability and recording quality. The Zoom H2 is compact, lightweight and has the capacity to record on four built-in microphones for 360 degree recording. Recording length varies by the size of the memory card you use and the format you choose (WAV or MP3). Recordings can be saved to a PC or Mac. The Zoom H2 comes with great accessories, including a tripod stand, microphone adaptor and wind screen. It also comes with an AC adaptor, but two AA batteries will provide 4 hours of recording time. I have used the Zoom H2 for voice recordings only, but it can also be used to record multi-instrument performances. The variety of menu options was daunting at first, but one read through the instruction booklet provided the basic knowhow I needed for voice recordings. For the student or researcher on a budget, the Zoom H2 offers great recording at a low price. I purchased mine at a local music shop for under $250.00.


chris brookes said...

I just got back from a radio doc festival in Croatia, where the Australian producer had the Marantz 620. (review at )
I borrowed it for a night, and I think it outpaces the Edirol and the Zoom, for about the same price. It seems more robust, controls are larger and better, screen MUCH brighter, internal mics comparable and the preamps for ext mic socket are reputed to be far cleaner than the Edirol or Zoom. I'm going to buy one soon as I can - its the machine I've been waiting for, I think.
Chris Brookes (Zoom H4 user)

power said...

When I was conducting the pilot project for inventorying ICH on Fogo Island I did not use a sound recorder. I conduct my research using a video camera. This way you get a visual along with an audio of the ICH which gives you a full context. The great thing about using a video camera also is that you can always extract the audio using software such as iMovie (which is a great program right now but is getting worse with upgrades and as Apple becomes more like Microsoft. I recommend getting an older version of iMovie or do what Apple wants you to do and purchase FinalCut).
My camera is a Panasonic 3CCD. What is important is the 3CCD which means that the picture is television quality breaking the Green, Blue, and Red spectrums to record separately giving true colour as opposed to flat colour recorded by conventional video cameras. These cameras are more expensive (~1000 for DV) than other cameras but where they are higher end they also have superior audio recording with jacks for mics and the like. (I got mine off of ebay for a good price). They are one step below professional cameras. I also will keep my lens cap on and record audio with my camera as the audio can be extracted easily and they are small cameras which are unobtrusive.
I also suggest getting DV tape as opposed to Hard Drive as you need to dump your hard drive as opposed to changing tapes. Dumps take longer. Also, you have a physical tape which will not get lost if your computer crashes or is stolen or whatnot.