Tools for the field: Digital audio recorders
My digital voice recorder died a slow death this year. It was a Zoom H2. I bought it about 5 years ago and used it all last year for fieldwork in Baja. I think the salt air may have something to do with its death–or maybe a battery leaked, I am not really sure. There is some greenish crud on the back near the battery compartment, and it has been acting up in all sorts of ways lately–giving error messages, not wanting to shut off, and so on. It has also been eating batteries like, like, like something really, really hungry for batteries! My wife has been using it for her interviews and now it’s burning through two AA batteries in about an hour and a half, which is not good. But the battery life of the H2 has never been great. That’s been a problem from the start.
So, long story short this means I ended up looking around for a new voice recorder. Looking back, the H2 was an ok investment. It had great sound quality, but the user interface was really clunky, and the construction of the unit itself felt pretty shoddy. It looked and felt pretty cheap to me. I spent about 250 bucks on that thing and I definitely would not buy another one.
Searching around for a new recorder led me to a couple of posts over on Karen Nakamura’s blog (here and here). In the first post she recommends recorders by Olympus (she mentions the DS-750 and the LS-11; keep in mind the post is from 2010) and the Sanyo Xacti ICR PS605RM. In the second link, which was posted in 2012, she once again recommends Olympus, this time the VN-8100PC, priced at 65 dollars. Nakumara explains that there are more expensive models, but reminds us: “unless you want to record live audio (concert performances, etc.) then they are overkill.”
The OSEA (Open School of Anthropology and Ethnography) has a pretty good discussion about field equipment, including digital recorders, here. Here’s the basic recommendation (Olympus comes up again):
My recommendation is to get a machine from Bestbuy for a walkin purchase for about $60-$85, say an Olympus. If you are very serious about ethnographic fieldwork and anticipate a future of substantial recording of interviews and music, then go for a Marantz or a Sony portable professional digital recorder for under $400.
The Society for Linguistic Anthropology has a useful page on audio recorders as well, which includes some basic notes about audio recording and a few recommendations (specifically the Olympus LS-10 and the Zoom H4n). There’s also some good info about less expensive dictation quality recorders and a few things to keep in mind when it comes to recording quality (they are talking about the Olympus line specifically here):
Olympus also makes several “dictation quality digital recorders” around $100 or less that may be useful for recording interviews without the thought of ever conducting close conversation analysis or acoustic analysis. These types of recorders record in a compressed format WMA (windows media audio) and do not record in uncompressed WAV format which is the standard for archiving and which is the most flexible. Since we don’t yet know what questions we will have of our recorded data in the future, I recommend always recording uncompressed. Even for “only interviews”, if you can spend just a little more money for a PCM recorder that records WAV format and which will have much better built in microphones than these dictation machines, you will thank yourself when listening to many hours of recordings later.
Andy Kolovos from the Vermont Folklife Center a pretty extensive page about digital audio recording equipment as well. He is pretty knowledgeable–and opinionated–about fieldwork equipment, and talks about everything from voice recorders and recording quality all the way to microphones and equipment suppliers. Definitely a lot of useful material there.
In the end I decided to follow Nakamura’s advice and go with one of the mid range Olympus recorders. I looked into getting the VN-8100 she recommends, but after reading through this page decided to go with the WS-802 instead. It records in WAV, MP3, and WMA, has a built in USB, and much better battery life than the Zoom H2 (estimated at about 27 hours). It also comes with a rechargeable battery, which is nice, all for about 100 bucks on Amazon. Not bad. So far, the recording and sound quality are pretty impressive. It may not be the greatest of all time, but it seems pretty solid, especially for a graduate student on a budget! I will post some updates about it after I have used it a bit more. If you have any tips, comments, or suggestions about audio/voice recording equipment, please post them in the comments!
UP NEXT I will write another post about the equipment we use, this one inspired by the fact that my barely one year old Toshiba laptop (with all my dissertation notes, interviews, etc) just crashed about a week ago. Fortunately I had it backed up. I did lose some minor stuff though. Anyway, I think it might be useful to talk about the computers we use in the field, storage, and methods for backing things up. Until then…
Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty. He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public. You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).