Oral tradition

The equipment

The collection of oral materials necessarily requires the use of hardware. The basic equipment is the recorder (traditional or digital); it can be complemented with a camera, or replaced by a video camera, which captures image and sound at the same time. There is also advanced equipment on the market allowing the recording of image and sound directly in digital format and its download to the hard disk of a computer for storage in CD, DVD or an optical memory. This paper will emphasize the use of the first option, usually the most accessible, both in terms of costs and usage skills.

Recording equipment includes cassette recorders, reel-to-reel equipment, micro-cassettes and modern digital recorders. The recommendation focuses on the use of the first, since they are the most common and "universal", and can be obtained and reproduced anywhere in the world without too many problems. While the reels have a longer lifespan, they are difficult to handle.

[Note: In brief, this section will be expanded with contents related to modern digital media].

Recording equipment can vary in degrees of complexity. In general, an equipment with the following characteristics is recommended:

  • Recording level indicator. It allows to control the sound quality.
  • External, stereo and multidirectional microphone. It eliminates noise associated with the device's machinery (which would be collected if a built-in mic was used). It allows getting closer to the interviewee in a room full of noise, and in outdoor settings, it allows avoiding even the sound of the wind (using a home-made or a wind cover). The connection of the microphone to the recorder is done through a jack which can also be used to connect two devices and make duplicates.
  • It is advisable that the equipment can be operated with batteries and, at the same time, can be connected directly to the domestic electric current. In the latter case, care should be taken to always carry the connecting cable, and check the local voltage (usually 220V). In case of differences, an adapter would also be needed.
  • Tape counters are useful in these devices, as they allow to locate or mark a particular point of the recording. These signals can be included in content summaries and transcripts.
  • When listening, headphones are preferable to speakers. They avoid the interference of external noises... and disturbing anybody else.
  • Tapes must be of good quality. Chromium alloys are the best, especially for music and complex sounds, but their reproduction can be complicated, since not all the devices accept them. It is advisable to use 90-minute Type I Normal Bias cassettes: shorter ones cause annoying and periodic changes, and longer ones are very weak and end up breaking. Also, those formats that are not sealed or glued, but bolted, are preferable: repair in the event of an accident is simpler. The acquisition of recognized brands is recommended, and the use of new tapes for each interview.
  • Cassettes should be stored in a dry environment at constant temperature. They should also be kept away from heat, and should not be allowed to freeze (water will soak them as it melts). A well-preserved cassette has a shelf life of 20 years. It is advisable to remove the recording insets, two plastic pieces on the top edge: this prevents accidental recording on the existing contents. Also, it is advisable to duplicate the originals, and the use of those in the work of transcription, translation, etc. The originals can thus remain archived.
  • It is advisable to frequently clean the recording equipment's heads, as they are often soiled with dust and other elements.

Practice itself –and the analysis of the results of the successive recordings– will allow improving the use of the equipment and its controls, always looking for an optimal recording quality. A number of previous tests should be carried out to identify the defects and problems that the equipment may present, as well as the best recording positions and their possibilities. It is also advisable to prepare a list of materials to be carried to an interview, taking into account the extra elements (batteries, cables, cassettes, etc.).