Recording Great Audio: What you'll need

Sometimes, a person's story is best told in their own voice, in their own words. Nothing makes a story as immediate is hearing the voices of the people at its core, and the sounds of the environment where it is taking place. Personal interviews and other audio documentation are a valuable tool in any documentarian's arsenal. We'll now talk through the equipment you'll need to be able to do high-quality audio field recording. Don't be intimidated!! There are options for any budget, even no budget.

Note: much of this text is excerpted from Andy Kolovos' excellent Digital Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide at the Vermont Folklife Center's website:

1. The first thing you'll need is some sort of digital audio field recorder.  These vary widely in terms of technology, quality, and price. Below are some of our recommendations, at a range of price points.

  • Portable compact flash digital recorders are the best way to easily record high-quality audio in the field.
    • The Marantz PMD 670 ($700) or 660 ($500) digital recorders are higher-end portable compact flash recorders recommended by many oral historians.
    • The Zoom H2 SD Handy Recorder ($170) is also a versatile hand-held recorder with a built-in stereo microphone that will yield high-quality audio at a budget-friendly price.
    • The Olympus WS-321M digital voice recorder ($70) has a built-in stereo microphone, and is a great low-cost option for recording personal interviews or conversations.
  • There are a number of other ways to do audio recordings in the field which you may also find useful, but which we do not endorse as highly.

2. Unless you're using a recording device with a built-in mic, you'll also need is a microphone. Like recorders, external microphones also vary widely in kind, cost and quality. There are several different variables to consider when selecting your microphone, each of which we will discuss briefly.

Two distinct classes of microphones are dynamic and condenser mics. While condenser mics tend to be more sensitive, they also require a power supply (either a battery or what is called "phantom power" which is drawn from the recording device) to function and tend to be somewhat fragile. Dynamic mics are generally not as sensitive, but are more durable and do not require additional power of any sort. Check the specifications of your recording device for manufacturer recommendations when selecting a mic. Marantz, for example, recommends using a condenser rather than dynamic microphone.

Another distinction in microphones is mono vs stereo. Mono mics record a single channel of audio, stereo mics record slightly different signals to each channel of a recording, creating a stereo effect when used with a stereo field recorder. With stereo recording devices, a stereo signal can be created through the use of two appropriately positioned mono mics or with a stereo mic.

The next, and perhaps most important, quality of a microphone to keep in mind is the way in which it picks up sound. 

  • Omnidirectional microphones (easily identified by their distinctive round mesh ends) can pick up sounds from virtually any direction. Some omnidirectional microphones have a foam cover over the bulb that helps act as a shield against wind and explosive breath sounds. Ambient noise is a common concern with omnidirectional microphones. Because the microphone cannot discriminate between wanted and unwanted sounds, ambient noise from the environment can be picked up and amplified.
  • Unidirectional microphones are usually used where too much background noise would be picked up by an omnidirectional unit. Unidirectional microphones have a more focused range, and must be pointed at the source of the sound in order to pick it up. There are three main types of unidirectional microphones: cardiod, hypercardiod, and supercardioid.

Finally, you will definitely want to consider what kind of jack your microphone has. XLR (3-pin) and 1/4" jacks are better quality than 1/8" mini jacks. Most importantly, you'll want to make sure that the type of microphone you purchase is compatible with your recorder and check whether the microphone includes the appropriate connecting cabling or adapters.

With all of these distinctions in mind, here is a very brief list of some recommended microphones in various categories:

  • Omni-directional mono dynamic mics
    • Electro-Voice 635A and 635A/B
      Nicknamed "The Hammer," the EV635A has been a staple in field interviewing, particularly broadcast journalism, for decades. Excellent sound, dependablity and virtually indestructable. The 635 A/B is the same mic in black. Sells new for $100.00, used for around $50.00.
    • Shure VP64A
      Affordable, solid Shure mic. Priced between $65.00 & $90.00.
  • Directional mono condenser mics
    • AKG C535EB (cardioid)
      Phantom power only, no battery. Lists at $299.00.
    • Audio-Technica U873R (hypercardioid)
      Retails between $180 and $200.00.
    • Neumann KMS 105
      One of the mics used by Story Corps. A wonderful mic, but not cheap: retails for around $620.
  • Stereo Condenser mics
    • AKG C-1000
      A matched pair of mics for stereo recording. A lot of mic at this price. $300.00 for the set.
    • Audio Technica AT825
      A great, rugged, dependable stereo condenser mic. Costs around $340.00.

3. If you're using a microphone, consider also using a microphone stand. Not only does it make the job of interviewing and audio recording much simpler, it can greatly improve the quality of the audio you record. Also consider using a windscreen (a necessity when recording out-of-doors) to reduce  noise cased by air blowing across the top of the microphone.

4. We strongly recommend using headphones when recording, at least at the start of the interview and periodically throughout, to monitor environmental noise, sound levels and overall recording quality. Better headphones will certainly do a better job, but what is more important is that you simply use them at all -- in other words, almost any pair is better than none. So if you've got a pair of old Walkman headphones, iPod ear buds, a half-way decent set of monitor headphones such as Sony MDR-7502 (around $45.00), bring them along and use them. The one tricky part to using headphones is being sure the plug on the end of the cord matches the input on your recorder. You may need to buy a 1/8" to 1/4" adapter to plug your headphones into your recording device. This is definitely something to check before going out in the field.