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Oral History - Methodologies and Sources

This guide brings together information on oral history methodology as well as a list of select oral history collections and resources at Duke Libraries.

Technology: recorders and microphones

The basic principles of recording interviews have not changed dramatically despite radical shifts in technology.  A good microphone poorly placed, or a fine recorder set incorrectly, will yield a poor result, while budget equipment thoughtfully used can provide excellent results.

There are a few general tips that can be applied to any recording rig, keeping in mind Oral History Audio Rule #1: Sound is the heart of the oral history interview, even in video oral histories.  Audio quality matters.

  • Understand how your gear works.  Digital recorders and cameras are gaining in sophistication and quality all the time.  Know how to navigate menus, set levels, push record.... These things may seem obvious until you're trying to figure them out as your interviewee is watching you.
  • Avoid using a recorder’s or camera's onboard microphone if at all possible.  These are almost never as good as standalone/external microphones, and can be difficult to place close enough to the narrator.
  • Use a professional condenser microphone if possible, one with a balanced, 3-pin XLR plug.  This will deliver a wider sonic response and minimize electrical noise that can travel along unbalanced cables and plugs.
  • If using one microphone, position it as close to the narrator as possible (no further than three feet away), in line with the direction of his or her voice, without it becoming intrusive.  If the microphone has a “figure 8” or “omnidirectional” setting, use one of these so the interviewee’s voice will be picked up more clearly. 
  • Using a stand for the microphone is preferred over holding the microphone, which is fatiguing and prone to noise resulting from handling the mic.
  • If using a lavalier microphone that attaches to the lapel, beware rustling clothing and too much body-language – it will all transmit down the microphone.
  • Once the microphone is in place, ask the interviewee to test the recording levels using a normal volume and tone of voice.  The meter on the recorder should peak above -6 dB but below 0 dB.
  • Recording a signal too hot (spiking often above 0dB) results in distortion and clipping, and is impossible to correct after the fact.
  • Recording a signal too low (where levels peak below -18 dB) results in a recording that can have a poor signal-to-noise ratio, meaning that when the levels are raised in post-production, the interviewee’s voice will get louder but so will the background noise.
  • While video oral histories are gaining ground, particularly because they can be very effective in exhibits, there are several important considerations when choosing this route over audio:
    • While a microphone alone can introduce a certain tension into a conversation, a video camera can do the same tenfold, and the return can thereby be diminished.
    • Effective video production requires a good working knowledge of the camera and its aperture settings, lots of light, and a plan for capturing quality audio as well as image.  See this tutorial for lighting:
    • Before finalizing your decision to record your oral history to video, have a plan for storing the video files, which, uncompressed, can be as much as 50 to 60 times the size of an archival audio file (one hour raw video = ~100-120 GB) and a method for editing them.
  • Whether using audio or video, test the recorder before the interview, ensure you have enough power for the recorder and storage space on the medium you are recording to.
  • Avoid chairs with wheels! They squeak and can move out-of-range from mics and cameras!

Some notes on gear

Most oral historians are to one degree or another gearheads.  Story-loving, yes, archivists at heart, that too.  But eventually they must intersect with recording gear, and have some sense of what equipment they prefer to use, before they can revel in recorded sound as recorded history.  Getting to know the gear is cheaper than it used to be, but the surfeit of options keeps the process satisfyingly complicated for those who want to take deep dives.  Rather than provide a list of links to gear we like, which will certainly be obsolete within months, we have some generalities to offer up for those looking to build a rig, and trust you'll be able to Google around to find the products mentioned.

  • For those beginning the journey, I tend to recommend the Tascam DR line of audio recorders as a good starting point. The DR-40 is a great value at under $200 and reliably delivers audio at up to preservation quality (96kHz/ 24-bit).  With serviceable built-in X/Y mics and two balanced inputs for external mics, the recorder offers tremendous flexibility and quality.  It can be handheld, mounted on a tripod, set down on a table (although in that case you'd want to put a cushion underneath it if you're using the built-in mics).  Zoom's H line of digital recorders is in the same general price range and worth a look.
  • For lavalier mics, Audio-Technica offers a number of options under $200.  They do have a cheapy line of mics under $50 that you'll want to avoid.  I recommend going with a wired rather than wireless mic, to a) save money; b) keep things simple; and c) reduce chances of interference.  Since your narrator shouldn't be moving around, a wireless mic is not needed.
  • There are lots of good deals on tabletop condenser mics out there that do fine with spoken word, so it's not worth breaking the bank.  Samson, Studio Projects, MXL, Behringer... these budget brands can deliver very good audio if used well.  Remember to get a stand if you go this route!
  • Using your phone as a recorder is fraught with problems, but they're not unsolvable IF:
    • Your recording app can record higher resolution audio, meaning a WAV or ogg file that at minimum is 44kHz/16-bit.  I don't recommend recording to MP3, but if you do, make sure your app supports high bitrate MP3s, 190 kbps or above, with 44kHz sampling rate.
    • You can use an external mic, preferably a lavalier. Recording apps, phones, and mics have different capabilities so this will require some research.  
    • You block calls and notifications during the interview.
    • You have the required space on your phone for large audio files.
  • For video, I generally recommend Panasonic or Canon, and there are a ton of choices depending on your needs.  Just shooting some video occasionally? Go with a handheld camcorder, like the Canon Vixia line.  If you're really looking to do more documentary style, consider a DSLR or a dedicated full-on camcorder in the Panasonic AG line where you also get XLR audio inputs for your mic(s).
  • For affordable video production lights, your best bet is to check out companies such as CowboyStudio, who sell through Amazon and who have things like 5600K lights with tripods and reflectors for under $100.