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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 2: How to Document

How to document:

Sound Recordings

A researcher's level of craftsmanship with tape recorded interviews is evidenced not only by interviewing skill, but by the ability to produce recordings of high quality. The achievement of high-quality sound recordings relates to the type of recorder, microphone, and tape used, the way the equipment is set up, and the choice of recording site.

Audiocassette tape recorders, if carefully used, can give very satisfactory results. By and large, more expensive models ($200 - 500) offer the best performance, but good results can be obtained with less-expensive machines. Although the size of the very smallest recorders may be attractive, researchers should consider that slightly larger machines often provide some of the following desirable features: the use of larger batteries and hence greater battery capacity; an easy-to-read volume (VU) meter that indicates the recording level (and often the condition of the batteries as well); a line- or auxiliary-level input to permit the copying of other recordings, the recording of an event directly from a public address system, or the like; and, occasionally, the ability to choose between automatic and manual control of recording levels. The very best recordings are made with professional open-reel equipment. In the near future, this equipment will likely be surpassed by a new generation of portable digital recorders.

If interviews are structured so that the informant does most of the talking, a monaural recorder will probably suffice. Even with the use of a clip-on microphone an interviewer's questions will be heard, although with an "off-mike" quality. On the other hand, if the interviews are structured as dialogue or if interviews are conducted with two or more individuals, a stereo recorder and two microphones may well be called for. A stereo recorder may also be useful for recording events or activities other than interviews. A professional sound recordist, however, may be needed to make a high quality recording of, say, a church service or the verbal exchanges between workers on the deck of a fishing vessel. And certain types of musical performance may best be recorded in a studio.

Regardless of the type of recorder, the two most important factors in producing a good recording are the placement of the microphone and the control of ambient sound. External cardioid, lavaliere, or clip-on microphones are recommended over internal, built-in microphones that pick up excessive amounts of machine noise and ambient sounds. Because ambient noise increases in proportion to the distance between the microphone and the subject, it is important to place the microphone as close as possible to the subject's mouth. A cardioid microphone can be attached to a boom and suspended above and in front of the subject's head. A lavaliere or clip-on microphone can be easily fastened to the subject's clothing.

The type of recording tape used is an important consideration. For best results, use high-quality, name-brand tape. Researchers who use cassette tapes usually select sixty-minute cassettes (thirty minutes per side). Longer tapes--those over forty-five minutes per side--are thinner and more susceptible to stretching or breaking. Cassettes held together with screws are better than those held together with glue because they can be easily disassembled for repair of broken or jammed tape. Researchers who employ open-reel machines usually prefer tape with a thickness of 1.5 mils because tape of this thickness is stronger and subject to less "print through" than thinner tape.

The recording site is another important factor in achieving high-quality recordings. Since field interviews are usually conducted in a subject's home or work place rather than in a sound studio, the researcher must select a location within such areas offering the best possibility for a clear recording. This might mean choosing a room with carpets and curtains, which minimize the reverberation of sound, or selecting the room furthest from a noisy street. If a television or radio is playing, or a fan is whirling, the researcher might request that they be turned off during the interview. Although fieldworkers may feel hesitant about these requests, those "who work carefully with good equipment convey to the informant how much they value his words and thus produce a flattering and positive effect."1

In order facilitate the preservation of a field recording, copies should be made as soon as possible and used for cataloging and transcribing so the original tape can be spared the wear and tear. In short, the original recording should be viewed as the "master" and protected accordingly.


1. Carl Fleischhauer, "Sound Recording and Still Photography in the Field," in Handbook of American Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 384-90.


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   May 15, 2015
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