Recording an oral history interview – what equipment do you need?

You don’t necessarily need expensive equipment for recording an oral history interview (for example, you could use a basic digital voice recorder or the audio recording feature on your phone) but to create a polished, professional recording, use the best equipment you can beg, borrow or buy. 

Recording devices

The type of recording/audio device you choose to use not only depends on your budget but also on what you plan to do with the recording. However, there are some basic features that are expedient whatever device you use:

  • ability to be powered by both a mains supply and batteries (ideally rechargeable)
  • an external microphone jack/socket (two if you want to record in stereo or record two interviewees on separate channels)
  • USB port or external memory card slot for uploading your audio interviews to a PC or Mac for sharing, storage, copying, transcribing etc.
  • able to record in uncompressed WAV format (16-bit 44.1kHz (minimum) or 24-bit 96kHz) or at a minimum MP3 format at 16-bit 48kHz (these are typically pre-programmed settings on many recorders so don’t worry too much about the technicalities), but if you would like more information on WAV and MP3 formats see How do MP3 and WAV Files Differ?)
Smartphones

If you have a smartphone you already have an easily portable recording device. You can use your smartphone to record an interview using your smartphone’s built-in microphone and do some basic editing. However, built-in microphones do have some limitations. If you are able to record your interview in an optimum environment (i.e. a room/venue that is small and not too noisy) a built-in microphone should do the job but the recorded sound can be a bit thin and tinny and any wind or air disturbance around the microphone will affect the sound quality. It is therefore advisable to consider using an external microphone if you need to produce higher-quality recordings.

Even though all smartphones come with a basic recording app, there are other apps available which offer more advanced recording features and functionality. Do a search online for Android and iPhone voice recorder apps or check out these links for starters:

9 Voice-Recorder Apps that Won’t Miss a Second

Best voice recording apps

5 Voice-Recorder Apps for Oral History Interviews

If you are aiming for high-quality recordings, a smartphone is probably best used as your back up rather than as your primary recording device. However, it is always advisable to use two devices to record your interviews just in case something goes wrong with one of the devices.

Digital audio recorders

There are many different types of portable digital audio recorders on the market ranging in price from under £100 to £500 plus but do make sure whichever device you choose it does have all of the basic features listed above.

Check out the following link for some useful advice on what to on what to look for when choosing a voice recorder.

Best Voice Recorders for Interviews 

When doing an online search for recorders, it is worth narrowing your search to recorders specifically for recording interviews. The following link is to an American website and so the prices are quoted in dollars but most of the devices are available on UK websites including Amazon.

7 Digital Recording Devices for Oral History Interviews

Microphones

Most digital audio recorders have built-in microphones but in general you will get much better sound quality if you use an external microphone. Using an external microphone also enables you to use different microphones for different recording conditions.

If you do rely on a built-in microphone it is better to use a tripod to avoid any handling noises. Also make sure that the recorder is in a position which can pick up both your voice and the voice of your interviewee.

When using an external microphone use a stand instead of holding it and position the stand as close as you can to your interviewee without it becoming too intrusive. Using a microphone stand also cuts out any noises made when handing the microphone and it’s also a lot less tiring than holding it (particularly during a longer interview).

For one-to-one, indoor interviews, a tie-clip (lavalier) external microphone which you attach to your clothing produces good results and is very convenient. If your recorder has two microphone jacks you can use two — one for yourself and one for your interviewee. Note that excess body movement, the rattling of jewellery and other accessories and the rustling of clothes will get transmitted through a tie-clip microphone. Click on the link below for a selection of lavalier microphones which are currently available:

Tie Clip (lavalier) microphones

Memory cards

Most digital audio recorders do have built-in memory but in general this will be quite limited and so you will need some form of external storage such an SD card. Check online to find out what is available for your recorder.

Audio levels

Audio levels are measured in decibels (dB) and are displayed on the audio meters which come with many recording devices. If your device doesn’t have a built-in audio meter you can use a separate VU (Volume Unit) meter.

During an interview the audio level should always peak below 0dB. Anything recorded above this level will cause distortion. If you are interviewing a group of people, the target audio levels for everyone speaking should be around -13dB. This is to compensate for extraneous noises such as coughing, laughing and loud speaking. Before you begin a recording session do a quick test recording with your interviewee(s) to check audio levels. 

To get more detailed information about audio levels, do a search online.

Know how to use your recording equipment

Whatever type of recording equipment you use to record your interview, make sure you are completely confident using it and that you are able to deal with any problems that may arise during the interview. Test your recorder before your interview, make sure you have a reliable power supply (and a backup supply) and that you have enough space on the storage space you are recording to. 

Related articles:

The oral tradition of storytelling and its role in history

Planning an oral history interview – how to get started

Setting up your oral history interview

Processing your oral history interview