Choosing a Recording Device

Ethnomusicologists have come a very long way from Frances Densmore’s iconic photograph, but the judicious use of recording devices is just as important. Today, Alice Rogers shares her experience and expertise regarding useful questions to ask and things to consider when buying recording devices and making recordings. Thank you, Alice, for your contribution and insights!


After reading Heather’s post about the difficulties of dealing with technology, I thought I might lend my own thoughts and experiences to the discussion, particularly when it comes to choosing a recording device. In my undergraduate education, I remember painstakingly testing a number of microphones, discussing their prices, and considering what instruments would sound best with each and every one of them.

This was the life of a music technology major. Now, as an ethnomusicology student, I have so many other considerations, particularly when doing fieldwork. Here are some questions I asked before choosing my recording devices.

  • What am I going to be recording? Most ethnomusicologists record two things: “field” performances, and interviews. When recording music or field “sounds,” sometimes it can be useful to have a stereo recording, where one microphone from the device is pointed one way, and the other microphone is pointed the other way. In the case of an interview, this is not as necessary.
  • How will I be using the recording? This is perhaps a more important question than the last, but it is often overlooked. Are your recordings only for your personal use? Will you use the clips in a presentation, or potentially in a book? Do you plan on “polishing” your recordings? These questions will determine how high quality your recording device should be.
  • How high quality should the recordings be? This is really based on the last few questions, but here I want to just quickly mention a few numbers you see on recorders: sample rate and bit depth. To keep this extremely short, these numbers essentially tell you how the little computer inside your recording device is taking the information coming from the microphone and turning it into 0s and 1s (digital data). Sample rates refer to the number of samples being taken by the device per second (often expressed in kilohertz, kHz. Common numbers here are 48kHz, which is used for video, and 44.1kHz, which is used for CDs). The bit depth refers to the level of detail (think like pixels on a computer screen: the more you have, the more detail can be shown. Also, it can capture softer sounds/moments more easily. Common numbers here are 16-bit and 24-bit). Obviously, in these areas, higher numbers mean higher quality, but be aware that you will need more space to store them.
  • How unobtrusive is the device? This is particularly important for interviews, but it can also be important for the field recordings. A smaller device might be important for you if you find that a larger one distracts interviewees and/or musicians. I do find that often, if I ignore the device, the other person will eventually, but that may not be the case for you. In these situations, it might be best to use a cellphone or more unobtrusive recorder.
  • How much do you plan to use it? I do not think that every ethnomusicologist needs a dedicated recording device; in fact, I suspect that many will not. If you will just be doing interviews, you might consider just using a smartphone or a cheaper recorder. The more you record field sounds, lessons, or musical/sound events, the more it might make sense to go to a traditional recorder.
  • How much does it cost? We are students. Money is often tight, and these recorders can be quite expensive. I purchased a Zoom H4N, which is around 200 US dollars. This is near the high end, but these audio/voice recorders range from 20-350 US dollars.

I use the voice memos on my iPhone for interviews and the Zoom H4N for musical recordings. Both of these I love, and I am happy with how the recordings came out. I sprang for the more expensive device because I record more than just work for my ethnomusicology degree; I also do some recordings for friends of concerts/recitals, and I need to be able to give them a high quality product.

Please comment with how you have chosen your recording devices, or if/why you have chosen to go without them! Also feel free to ask any questions, I will do my best to answer what I can.

– Alice, SEM Student Union Secretary/Treasurer


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