Oral Histories and the Tech Needed to Produce Them, Part 1: Cameras, Audio Recorders, and Media Storage, by Nick Hurley

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.19.45 PMLast summer I had the pleasure of spending several weeks in southwestern Germany, visiting family and conducting interviews with five local residents who lived through the Second World War. In doing so, I fulfilled a goal I’d had in mind ever since the death of my great-grandmother in 2013. She had been one of a host of relatives and family friends that regaled me with stories from “back then” every time I’d come to visit, and her passing made me realize that I had to do more than just listen if I wanted to preserve these memories for future generations. This time around, I would sit down with each of the participants—the youngest of whom was in their late 70s—record our conversations, and eventually send each of them a copy of their edited interview on DVD. While I had a clear idea of why I was undertaking the project, and had done a lot of reading on oral history practices (including this fantastic online resource), I was less confident in just how I would go about carrying out the actual interviews. I was inexperienced with audiovisual equipment or video editing, and the seemingly endless number of tech-related questions I faced concerning things like cameras, microphones, and recording formats left my head spinning.

It took a significant amount of research and self-instruction before I was comfortable enough to purchase the necessary gear I needed. These two posts are my attempt to share what I learned and hopefully save other oral history novices some of the headaches I endured putting together an interview “kit” which, at a minimum, will consist of a camcorder (possibly), your audio recorder, and a way to store your footage.

The Camera

You’ll need to decide early on whether or not to record video as well as audio for your oral histories. While choosing the latter option will greatly reduce the amount of equipment you’ll need to buy, it really depends on the nature of your project. If you do decide to film, steer clear of mini-DV and DVD camcorders, as these record on formats that are quickly becoming obsolete. Your best bet is to go with a flash memory camcorder, which utilize removable memory cards that can be inserted into your laptop for easy file transfer.

High definition (HD) camcorders are fast becoming the norm over their standard definition (SD) counterparts, and they’ve become affordable enough to make them a viable option for amateur filmmakers. In terms of capture quality, AVCHD usually means a higher quality image but a bigger file, while MP4 files are compressed to reduce size and are a bit more versatile in terms of how they can be manipulated and uploaded. Either way, you can’t go wrong, and will get a great looking picture. I’ve shot exclusively in AVCHD so far with my Canon camcorder and have had no issues.

The Audio Recorder

If you’re going to splurge on anything, it should be this. You may or may not elect to include video in your project, but you will always have audio, and the quality should be as clear as possible—especially if you plan on doing any kind of editing or transcribing. There are a few things to consider when choosing a recorder:

  1. Whichever model you go with should have at least one 3.5mm (1/8”)Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.10.03 PM stereo line input, to give you the option of connecting an external microphone, and one 3.5mm (1/8”) output, so you can plug in a pair of headphones to monitor your audio.
  2. If you know you’re going to use an external microphone, having one or more XLR inputs is a plus. XLR refers to the type of connector used on some microphones; they are more robust than a 3.5mm jack and harder to accidentally unplug, making them an industry standard.
  3. Some recorders are meant for high-end professional use and have a plethora of features and buttons you’ll simply never use. Look for one with an easy to use interface.
  4. WAV and MP3 will be the most common options you’ll see format-wise, and many devices can record in either. WAV files are uncompressed, meaning they contain the entire recorded signal and are therefore much larger than MP3 recordings, which are easier to move and download but sometimes experience a slight loss in audio quality.

Media Storage

The three main types of memory cards that you’ll encounter are SD (Secure Digital, up to 2GB), SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity, 4-32GB), and SDXC (Secure Digital eXtended Capacity 64GB-2TB). Almost all cameras, computers, and other tech manufactured after 2010 should be compatible with all three types, and the cards themselves are fairly inexpensive. Useful as they are, memory cards shouldn’t be considered a means of long-term storage for your files. For one thing, you’ll run out of room fast; while things like compression and format will determine the exact amounts, for planning purposes you can expect to fit only about 5 hours of HD video on a 64GB SDXC card and 12-49 hours of WAV audio on a 16GB SDHC card. Even if you’ll only be doing one or two short interviews, you should still plan on migrating your files to a more secure storage media as soon as possible after you’re done recording. Cards can be broken or lost, and digital files, like their analog counterparts, will “decay” over time if simply left sitting.

Screen Shot 2017-03-04 at 4.12.54 PMMy raw footage is stored on two external hard drives. Any editing work is done using one of them, while the other is stored in a separate location as a backup. Edited interviews are likewise copied to both hard drives once they’re completed. (This practice of having multiple copies of the same material stored in separate locations is known as replication, and is an important aspect to any digital preservation plan; for more info, check out this great page from the Library of Congress.)

Again, these three pieces are the minimum you’ll need to properly record and store audio and (if you desire) video footage. Depending on the circumstances and scope of your project, however, you may want to utilize some optional gear and accessories, which I’ll bring up in Part 2. Until then, feel free to contact me with any questions, and thanks for reading!

Nick Hurley is a Research Services Assistant at UConn Archives & Special Collections, part-time Curator of the New England Air Museum, and an artillery officer in the Army National Guard. He received his B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, where his work focused on issues of state and society in 20th-century Europe. You can contact Nick at nicholas.hurley@uconn.edu and follow him on Twitter @hurley_nick.