Here's a couple of comments based on many years of recording interviews and oral histories, more on
a Sony Pressman cassette recorder than anything else. I now have a M-Audio Microtrack II and like
it, but alas most of the people whose oral histories I wanted to get are now dead or too old and
feeble to remember so I haven't been using it so much for that. Plus, I've transferred and/or
listened to a good amount of interviews and oral histories.
First thing, Richard is absolutely right. If you care about a person's history and they are aging,
get them recorded ASAP. You'll find you'll go back several times as you absorb the information,
wanting followups and circling back to make sure memories are clear. You also get led to second and
third and more sources, to triangulate facts, in some cases.
I've used a more modest rig to get very audible voice recordings. What I've noticed is, lavalier
(sp?) mics are not a good idea for most people most of the time. Most people fidget and shift and
aren't wearing appropriate clothes for a mic to be clipped, their heads bob and weave and most
recordists are not skilled in placing a lav mic. So using a seated (table-placed) mic usually works
better. One mic per person usually works well, but I've heard very nicely audible group-discussion
things made with a well-placed stereo mic. I've never had access to pricey mics nor had phantom
power with the little Sony cassette machine, so I always used relatively cheap dynamics -- usually a
pair of late 60's Japanese-made/Ampex-badged mics. These things were frequency-limited and not the
most sensitive things, but when placed in front of a speaker (and I always put them on a
double-folded cotton towel when placed on a hard surface to kill off as much combing stuff as
possible), the voice comes through loud and clear and true to how it sounded in the room. In many
journalistic interview situations, of course, I had to just use the built-in stereo mic on the Sony
and it did fine except for picking up a lot of mechanical noise.
Here's what may be a controversial notion. If you have made an oral history recording that is of
great value to you and your family, I would suggest that it's prudent to record a backup of the
final edited product to ... cassette! Why? They are cockroaches -- they seem to last very well over
decades when stored properly. There will likely be playback gear around for decades to come (if you
have any doubts, go online and buy a couple of $20 Walkmans, they are still sold). This is not for a
professional archive but for your family. Who knows how long some bits and bytes on your hard drive
will last, given most family situations with backing up and buying new computers, and general lack
of IT knowledge in the civilian population. Even if you know how to run a computer network, will
your kids or grandkids? Also make audio and data CD backups, of course. I don't buy the notion that
you won't be able to play 5" optical-digital discs in 100 years -- too much installed base, too
known and ubiquitous a technology, plus 5" is also the standard size for the denser-pack formats,
now even the hi-def video formats. In 2108, someone somewhere will be able to grab the bits off that
CD disc, unless civilization went down the toilet and we're all fighting each other from caves, in
which case your great-grandfather's stories won't matter much anyway. In that case, maybe that old
"thing that says Walkman on it in that plastic watertight case" might still work. But the people in
that time might be more interested in building weapons to protect their food cache rather than
worrying about archives of oral histories. Or, in a brighter future scenario, all the oral histories
of the world will be given the respect they deserve and preserved in a global digital
Alexandria-type library. Reality will likely fall somewhere plus-minus in between.
-- Tom Fine
----- Original Message -----
From: "Richard L. Hess" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 10:14 PM
Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] Oral History tools (was The end of the cassette ? ? ?
> At 09:09 PM 2008-07-30, Tom Fine wrote:
>>Boy do I not miss cassettes for music content, but I think we'll end up missing them for
>>spoken-word content. There is little attention paid to quality with cheapo digi-recorders of
>>spoken content and the digital artifacts of low-grade lossy formats are far more annoying, at
>>least to my ears, than a little bit of hiss and/or wow from a cassette.
> Being stuck in cassette purgatory (I had a city archive throw 100 oral history cassettes my way a
> few weeks ago, and I'm doing final cleanup on them), I must say that I sort-of agree with you.
> But ANYONE considering doing oral history with digi boxes needs to look at these two sites:
> In my experience, every time you improve the quality of an oral history recording, it adds
> I have used over the years several rigs that I liked (and you can mix and match).
> 2 AKG C451 mics with a ReVox A77 tape recorder
> 2 Sennheiser MKH-416T mics with a portable DAT recorder
> Audio Technica AT822 with a portable MD recorder
> 2 DPA 4006-TL with Sound Devices 722 recorder
> Of these, the AT822 and MD is the worst combination, but it is so much better than anything I hear
> coming in on cassette to transfer, that I heartily recommend it. It is also the smallest and least
> intimidating. The mic goes on a flat surface and there's a tiny wire plugged into the MD about 0.5
> m away.
> Andy Kolovos's page has some thoughts on some of the compact-flash recorders and though I don't
> think Andy likes the Zoom, I think Susan Kitchens (no relation to the Kitchen Sisters on NPR) in
> the second link above likes it.
> Story Corps is using a Neumann KMS-105 and now that I own one, I can see why. Great mic.
> I really, really like the Sennheiser short shotguns. The best oral history recording I got with my
> Dad was when we spent a whole afternoon and I had one on him and one on me. Even though the DPAs I
> used a few weeks ago sound a bit better and more natural for a room full of people, sadly Dad
> isn't as alert as he was when I did the previous rig. So, even more important, go out and do it.
> (I brought the SD recorder and the DPAs as I had been telling Dad about it and he was full of "you
> don't say" comments so I thought we'd have fun playing with toys. He's 92.5 years old now. So,
> just go and do it before it's too late.
> Richard L. Hess email: [log in to unmask]
> Aurora, Ontario, Canada (905) 713 6733 1-877-TAPE-FIX
> Detailed contact information: http://www.richardhess.com/tape/contact.htm
> Quality tape transfers -- even from hard-to-play tapes.