Month: April 2017

Oral Histories and the Tech Needed to Produce Them, Part 2: Microphones, Accessories, and Editing Software, by Nick Hurley

Welcome back! To pick up where my last post left off, I’d like to discuss some of the accessories and optional equipment you can use to augment your basic interview “kit,” as well as several editing programs that can be used for post-production work on your footage.

The Microphone

An external microphone might be a good investment if you’re interviewing multiple people at once and want to ensure you are recording clear, distinct audio for each person. Almost all of the microphones you’ll come across will fall into one of two categories: dynamic and condenser. The difference has to do with how each converts sound vibrations into electrical signals. In addition, condenser microphones require a power source, provided by batteries or whatever device they’re plugged into (this is known as phantom power).Within these two broad categories, there are a number of different patterns in which microphones record sound.

True to their name, omnidirectional mics pick up sound in every direction equally. This pattern is utilized by many lavalier (aka lapel) microphones, the “clip-on” types you’ve probably seen on TV and elsewhere. If you’re going to go with a lavalier, make sure whoever you’re working with is comfortable wearing one. It seems like a trivial concern, but it could be significant depending on the circumstances of your interview. One of my participants had never been interviewed before, and was visibly nervous before we started. In cases like that, the less invasive you are, the better.
In addition, an omnidirectional lavalier isn’t ideal for multiple-person interviews; in these circumstances, a cardioid microphone is a better choice. Named for its heart-shaped sound pattern, cardioids will capture audio well from the front and sides, and, though they’re usually a bit more expensive, cancel out ambient noise better than an omnidirectional mic. There are also shotgun microphones, named for the linear pattern by which it picks up sound. Like a shotgun, it must be pointed directly at its “target” in order to properly record it. This results in a “tighter” sound when compared to a cardioid mic, but again isn’t ideal for multiple-person interviews, where you will have more than one source of audio.

Accessories

There are plenty of options out there for camcorder tripods, ranging from the too-cheap to the ridiculously expensive. Unless you’re going to be conducting the interview outdoors or will be moving around with your subject while he/she talks, you don’t need anything heavy duty. Just make sure you get one that breaks down easily and is relatively compact.

Bags and cases are another instance where you don’t need to go too crazy. Overseas I was able to fit everything I needed (minus the camera tripod) in a padded laptop case. If you’re going to invest in cases, buy them for the camcorder and audio recorder, although in many instances one might be included when you buy these items.

In a perfect world, you’ll be able to have your camcorder plugged into a wall outlet for an indefinite power supply while conducting an interview. Since that won’t always be feasible, you should look into a spare battery. A tip: if you use a Canon device, purchase a decoded battery for your backup. These batteries are manufactured by a third party and don’t have the Canon microchip to track things like number of shots, battery charge, etc. but otherwise behave exactly the same as their name-brand counterparts—and cost significantly less. Make sure you read the reviews however, as not all decoded batteries are created equal and some manufacturers are more reliable than others.

Editing Software

I’ve used Adobe Premiere Pro CC for most of my post-interview editing. While truthfully a bit more than

what I needed, it offers a lot in terms of manipulating audio tracks and syncing them up with video footage. Burning DVDs is easier as well (the software you need will be included in your Premiere subscription). Another upside to Adobe is the flexibility of their subscription plans. Individuals have the option of choosing which apps from the “Creative Cloud” they’d like to utilize or subscribing to the entire package, and can sign on for an entire year.

If you’re just looking to apply some simple edits like a title slide, transitions, and captions, you may be able to get away with using free video editing software like Windows Movie Maker. Here’s a short clip I put together to illustrate what can be done with that program:

If you simply need to import your audio files into a program where you can listen to them, transcribe, and do some basic editing, I would recommend Audacity. It’s free, relatively easy to use, and available on a number of operating systems.

Future Plans

Tech challenges notwithstanding, I found my entire project to be an incredibly worthwhile endeavor. Because the Second World War had until recently been somewhat of a taboo subject in post-war Germany, most of my participants had never discussed the topic at length with anyone. The fact that I was the first to hear, record, and preserve these stories made every ounce of effort worth it. I’m still not quite sure what I’ll do with the 5+ hours of footage I collected, but I could see using it as material for a series of small “episodes” featured on a personal website, a longer documentary, or a written collection of oral histories or narrative work.

I wish others similar success in their oral history endeavors, and I hope that these two posts will help simplify the process when purchasing the necessary equipment. Please feel free to contact me with more questions, or if you’d like to know more about anything I discussed here. Thanks again 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 twentieth century Europe. You can contact Nick at nicholas.hurley@uconn.edu and follow him on Twitter @hurley_nick.