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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

5. Thoughts on Equipment and Media


People have been collecting and learning from oral information for thousands of years.
Saved either in written form or handed down orally, this information contributes to our understanding of history and culture. In the late 1940s, as voice recorders became more commercially available, historians at Columbia University, followed by the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA, started to realize the potential for recording firsthand knowledge as a way of collecting and preserving it. Although the term "oral history" actually was coined earlier, this was the formal beginning of oral history as a process or tool for collecting primary source information.

Oral history is technology-based, and equipment choice is regularly discussed. Whether you are doing one interview or a multi-interview project, good equipment is a necessity. What are some of the key factors to consider? Good sound quality is one of the most important. And while many people also look for immediate access to the recorded information, preserving it for future users is another important issue.

Rapid changes in technology complicate the equipment choice. While some types of recording equipment are easy to use and have great sound, information recorded on them may not be accessible in a few years, much less in ten or twenty years, because of the rapid pace of format obsolescence. Repositories charged with caring for recordings and making them accessible to future users are usually not equipped to collect and provide ongoing access for every type of media on the market today. So the choice of equipment is an important one that involves thinking through not just the immediate need of capturing the interview itself, but also the long-term issues related to helping keep the information as accessible as possible in the future. Meeting these needs is not easy. The following information will help you sort out some of the basics.

Analog or Digital?

How does recording equipment work? Recorders convert sound and light into audio and optical signals that are then stored on the media (such as a tape or disk). The equipment, signals, and media all come in either analog or digital formats.

Your first decision is which type to use when recording the interview (making the interview master). The following table provides additional background to help you think this through:

ANALOG DIGITAL
 Equipment is generally universal. It does not use software to record and access information. Some equipment and media are increasingly difficult to find.  Equipment uses software and hardware to record and access information. This software and hardware may be proprietary; that is, their compatibility may not be universal. Sound and images are stored as bits of data.
 Recording has a lower signal-to-noise ratio
(relationship of strength of signal to unwanted noise).
 Recording has higher signal-to-noise ratio, giving it better sound. Recording media include CDs, DVDs, DATs, computer chips and hard drives.
 Media can deteriorate over time, but can last from 20-40 years if stored and used properly.  CDs can experience physical degradation, and the stability of other digital media is as yet unknown. Transfer processes, such as refreshing, reformatting and migrating to current media, are recommended on a five-year cycle to help preserve access to the sound files.
 Copies (dubs) deteriorate in quality with each generation made.  Copies (clones) may be made without degradation for many generations.
 Signals are not compressed.  Depending on media and formats, the signal may be compressed. If so, access must be obtained through a CODEC, a program that compresses digital files to save storage space.
 If the media is damaged, it may be spliced and repaired without full loss of information.  All information is usually lost if the media is damaged.
 Less easy to manipulate for programming  Easily edited, indexed or manipulated for programming.
 Some equipment and media record broadcast-quality sound.   Most equipment and media record broadcast- quality sound.
 Reel-to-reel tape is considered an archival standard, though players and media are increasingly difficult to find.   Does not yet meet archival standards.

With changes in technology occurring so rapidly, archivists and sound technicians often recommend using both analog and digital -- recording in one, copying to another, and storing in both. But this requires extra equipment, funds, time, personnel, and storage. Interviewers and project leaders often talk with representatives of the repository that will ultimately house the interview materials to find out what they recommend before making a decision.

Audio or Video?

Besides deciding on analog or digital formats, the interviewer or project manager also has to decide on the exact format of equipment and media. Do you want to record in audio or video, or are you interested in using both? Once again, a review of the basic issues can help you think this through.

Audio

Audio is the most-used oral history recording format and is the least complicated to use and arrange for. It is the least invasive or disruptive and the interviewer can generally run the equipment. It is readily available in both analog and digital versions.

Video

Video, of course, includes an audio signal but adds the visual component. While it offers the opportunity to increase the amount of information collected, its use needn't be automatic. Interviewers and project leaders generally use video to record scenes, settings, photographs, and other types of information that can't be picked up with an audio recorder. Consider the use of video if the interview will likely include visual triggers or enhancements to the narrator's stories (like showing photographs or objects, or moving around a building or other place), or when planning exhibits or programs based on the interviews after they are completed. You can also consider recording the interview in audio and then adding needed visual components later.

Planning for video takes additional time. Here are some factors to consider:

Like audio formats, video formats are also readily available in both analog and digital versions. And again, when choosing a format interviewers and project leaders often talk with representatives of the repository that will ultimately house the interview materials to find out what they recommend before making a final decision.

Are there some basic equipment recommendations?

Yes. Although the choice of recording equipment depends a great deal on budget, project-planning needs, ease of use by the interviewers, and the capability of the repository to care for the types of recordings you make, there are some standard factors that you always should consider. They are:

When using audio equipment. . .

In general, it is best if your recorder has these features:

When using video equipment. . .

In general, it is best if your video camera or recorder has these features:

What should I know about recording media?

The recording media are the physical materials on which the recordings are captured and kept. Some of the more familiar media are audio and videotapes, digital audiotapes (DATs), compact discs (CDs), digital video discs (DVDs) and computer hard drives. The choice of a recording medium is critical for recording quality, information accessibility, and long-term preservation. As with the choice of equipment, it is helpful to check with representatives of the interview or project repository when choosing media. They can talk with you about specific storage and long-term accessibility issues -- important factors to consider when choosing a recording medium.

Audio media

Audio media come in both analog and digital formats. The choice of equipment is a major factor in determining the type of recording media you will use, but within that decision, you will still find a range of options. The following guidelines can help:

Features to look for in analog audio media (magnetic tapes) are the following:

There are a variety of types of digital audio media. In general, features to look for, listed by type, are the following:

Video media

As with audio, video media come in a variety of analog or digital formats. A general guide includes the following:

How important is an external microphone?

It is very important. Using an external microphone assures proper placement and avoids picking up the sound of the recorder's motor.

Microphones are defined by how they pick up sound. Here are some of the more common types:

Microphones pick up sound in a variety of patterns. Here are some of the more common types:

What about other equipment?

Here are some additional items oral historians typically use, especially in the context of audio-only interviews:

The "Oral History Kit"

If audio-only is your choice (and most oral historians make this choice), you can assemble an "Oral History Kit" after you have made your equipment and media decisions. This kit will contain all the equipment and supplies you need to conduct an interview. An audio-only Oral History Kit generally includes the following:

When you finish an interview, make sure all equipment is put back the way you found it.

Running a larger project may necessitate having more than one Oral History Kit. In this case, mark each item in a particular kit as belonging to that kit.

What equipment might I need after the interview is over?

Completing the interview isn't the end of the oral history process. The next steps involve processing; that is, preparing the interview and associated materials for deposit in the repository and to assure its future usability. The equipment options for this step include the following:

Duplicating Machines

You'll want to make several copies of each recorded interview. The versions may be in different formats, depending on the needs or preferences of the user. You should have at least four copies, defined in this way:

Duplicating machines need not be specialized equipment made specifically for creating multiple copies of your masters. Even though such equipment does exist, if you need to make use of any of it, it may be more cost-effective to hire services that have such equipment than to acquire it yourself. More often, you can just hook up more than one machine (one for playback of the master and one for recording the copy) and make your copies one at a time. Here are some tips for making copies of the master:

Transcribing Machines

Transcribing machines are playback devices used for creating a transcript (a written verbatim, or word-for-word, representation of the contents of the interview). While you can type a transcript by listening to the recording on any machine that will play it, a transcribing machine makes the job considerably easier. Choose the machine that fits your media. If you used video to capture the interview, you may prefer to dub the soundtrack onto an audio medium to make transcribing easier.

For best results, an audio transcription machine should include these features:

Some final thoughts on equipment:

 

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