The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 23, Number 2

Sound Recording in the Digital Age: Notes from the Field

by Charles Hardy III

The author ( is an oral historian in the Department of History at West Chester University, Pennsylvania. He gave this paper at an American Library Association Preconference in 1998.

Readers who have struggled to preserve brittle books and papers and championed the cause of alkaline paper will see a parallel with the sound recording field as Charles Hardy describes it. This is the first of two parts.

My charge this morning was to repeat a presentation I gave at last fall's SAA Meeting in Chicago on what is going on out there in the field, among the people who create the oral history interviews, radio broadcasts, and other sound documents that sound archivists collect and have to figure out how to preserve. I was very impressed by what I learned at SAA about sound archivists' collective knowledge of different recording media and technologies. But the meeting also confirmed to me the huge divide between archivists and the oral historians, sound documentary producers, radio journalists, and other sound gatherers who nation-wide generate and use thousands upon thousands of hours of recordings each year.

Let me start with a story from Steve Rowland, one of the nation's most respected sound documentary producers who is currently working on a thirteen-hour performance biography of Leonard Bernstein. In 1987, Steve had just begun work on the Miles Davis Project, an eight-hour award-winning series of radio programs on the music and life of Miles Davis. Early in his research, Steve went to Rutgers' Jazz Archives, which in the 1970s had undertaken an ambitious oral history project to interview the first generation of great jazz pioneers who were then dying off. Steve hoped to use experts from a number of these interviews in his series. He was especially interested in an interview that Rutgers had conducted with the great jazz bassist Charlie Mingus soon before his death. The tape, however, like the other interviews that Steve listened to, was barely audible.

Inquiring why the sound quality was so poor, he was told that since the tapes were only recorded to create written transcripts, it wasn't worth the money to buy decent equipment or train the interviewers to record high-fidelity sound documents. The decision to use inexpensive cassette recorders with built-in mikes precluded the use of these tapes in any medium but print. Some of the tapes were so poorly recorded that even the transcripts were inaccurate. This loss is especially tragic when one recognizes how much of the meaning of what is said is contained in the actual voice of the interviewee, especially among people who think and communicate in sound, and who speak, as they play, to be heard and not read.

Now I don't mean to pick on Morgenstern [Director, Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies] and Rutgers. A similar story could be told of any number of prominent oral history projects. What it illustrates is the all-too-common lack of thought and attention that historians and archivists still pay to the importance of high-fidelity recordings, and of the tragic loss to the nation's history that the continued reliance on print is causing. The print biases of scholars and archives may once have served them well, but today, in a world in which electronic media are already radically changing the nature of publication, we need to be creating, collecting and preserving the documents in sound and moving images that the scholars of the future will need for their work in the unified docuverse of digital media.

During the past century the technological triumph of the motion pictures, recorded sound, radio and television brought about monumental changes in the nature of human communications. Today we are in the midst of a second, digital revolution that is laying the groundwork for an international and interactive information infrastructure in which once separate media are already converging: a celestial jukebox in which information will be recorded, stored, transmitted and received digitally. What this means for the nation is that more and more people will be generating documents about themselves and receiving information about the world, past and present, in multi-media formats.

To author the history of the twentieth century, historians working in digital media will need usable records, documents that accurately reproduce the sound and visual events that they recorded. Increasingly affordable technologies today permit sound gatherers to record high-fidelity interviews and sound documents, and to convert those materials into sound and multimedia "articles" and "books" that can be released in a variety of stand-alone and multiple media formats. Joining the soaring numbers of high-quality video and sound documentaries are new multimedia monographs that team text, documents, still and moving images and audio recordings. A superb example of things to come is the American Social History Project's Who Built America, the 1993 CD-ROM that incorporated several thousand pages of text, hundreds of high resolution photographs, sixty graphs and charts, four hours of audio--including oral histories--and forty-five minutes of film.

In the historical journals one can already read accounts that foreshadow the impact that the digital revolution will have upon scholarships and archives. Historians and other scholars can present their work in an extraordinary range of broadcast and non-broadcast media: radio and television, audio and video cassettes, books on tape and CD, CDs and tapes with print supplements, and websites. Museums can now present highly interactive sound and multimedia programming through a new generation of high-fidelity, solid-state interactive digital audio repeaters and multi-channel, computer-based digital processors. All these wonderful new digital technologies have one thing in common: they require broadcast-quality, and preferably high-fidelity, recordings.

Today, I believe we have reached the point where it is professionally indefensible for historians and archivists to be content with low-fidelity, monaural recordings of spoken words alone. To make this seem less of a radical and doctrinaire statement, let me draw an analogy to professional visual image recordists. How many trained documentary photographers load the cheapest film they can buy into point-and-shoot instamatic cameras, then take nothing but black and white head shots of their informants through lens that are never cleaned, without ever looking through the view finder? The whole notion is ludicrous. But that is exactly what the vast majority of oral historians and other sound gatherers still do, with little or no comment from the archives that accept their tapes. Most oral history training programs continue to pay only the most rudimentary attention to field recording equipment and its use, and often no attention at all to the quality of the sound documents they produce. And again, interviews that are poorly recorded can be used only in print: all video, film, sound and multimedia uses are precluded.

This may have been acceptable forty years ago when field equipment was expensive and heavy, and documentary production was an esoteric craft practiced by only a small and all-but-invisible community of radio documentary producers. But the ongoing digital revolution is rapidly accelerating the democratization of sound recording and documentary production. Today one can produce high-fidelity interviews with equipment that costs under $400, and can author multi-track, broadcast-quality sound documentaries on a home computer with digital audio workstation software (DAWs) that costs even less.

At the SAA meeting, two archivists told me that although the number of scholars using their collections was actually in decline, the demands for tapes had already risen so much they needed to retrofit their reading rooms!

Field Recording Practices in the '90s: An Overview

So now to the nuts and bolts of my talk: a glimpse into contemporary field recordings practice. Today, sound archivists and field recordists live, by and large, in totally separate worlds. Although analog reel-to-reel was until very recently the preservation medium of choice among many American archivists, open-reel tape recorders all but disappeared from fields decades ago. It is my understanding that the recent discontinuation of open-reel tape manufacturing by 3M and Ampex has spelled the end of this format's utility for archives as well. Open-reel tape recorders were simply too large, heavy, and expensive for most field recordists, as was tape stock that cost $15 to $20 an hour.

The overwhelming majority of sound gatherers continue to use analog cassette recorders, blissfully unaware of the ephemeral nature of the medium and of the poor fidelity of the recordings they are generating. Today, field recordists of historically significant sound documents include an extraordinary variety of people and professions. Radio news journalists are a huge community of sound gatherers that by and large record monaural, low-to-medium-fidelity sound documents for the production of short news pieces on AM and FM radio. Working on daily deadlines in broadcast systems where intelligibility is the primary objective, radio news journalists pay little attention to sound quality. They use mini-cassette, mini-disc, Walkman-style and other analog cassette recorders, preferring machines that are small, lightweight, and rugged. Mikes are typically inexpensive omnidirectionals or shotguns that let them record voices in public settings. Working on tight deadlines and hard news, they treat their raw recordings as disposable, giving little if any thought to future use or accessibility. Consequently the sound documents they produce are typically short in duration, low fidelity, poorly indexed and labeled, and altogether a nightmare for sound archivists.

Those who work in public and noncommercial radio generally use better equipment and pay greater attention to sound and sound quality than their counterparts in commercial radio. Interested primarily in disposable news, National Public Radio issues most of its reporters monaural Marantz PMD 221 cassette recorders, idiot-proofed so that they only record on Automatic level control, and good Beyer SM 58 omnidirectional microphones. This is a step up from the commercial radio sound gatherers, but not all that much better.

The variety of equipment used by oral historians varies tremendously, ranging from the old reel-to-reel Nagras still used by a handful of traditionalists to the thousands of $30 Radio Shack cassette recorders with the built-in mikes and low-fidelity cassettes designed for dictation machines. Throughout its history the American Oral History movement has viewed the final transcription and not the tape as the primary historical document. Viewed as little more than dictation machines, tapes recorded by many of the nation's first generation of oral historians were routinely reused or "deaccessioned" in wastebaskets. Imagine the voices we have already lost: of the pioneers of radio and television, settlers of the West, authors, scientists, statesmen, and former slaves.

Most sound gatherers remain blissfully ignorant of the fragility of the recording medium with which they work, and of the ubiquitous dangers to all tapes. They have no idea that poorly aligned machines can rub or scratch the emulsion, causing signal loss each time the tape is played; that dust and cigarette ash falling on a tape's surface can cause dropout; that uneven tape tension can cause cinching, stretching and separation of the binder from the backing; that residual magnetism in the tape heads can add additional hiss and background noise in both record and playback modes; that changes in temperature and high relative humidity cause tape to swell and shrink, backing materials to stretch, binders holding the magnetic particles to degrade and pull away from the backing, adjacent layers to stick together, and oxide coatings to ooze and shed during playback, depositing gummy residues on the tape transport and heads.

They are unaware that the thin tape in an analog cassette has a greater susceptibility to fouling, breakage, and significant print-through. They may know that cassettes have poorer fidelity than open reel recorders, but few know of the inferior signal-to-noise ratio or of the cassette recorder's nonlinear frequency response, recording higher frequencies better than lower ones. Some do hear the audible tape hiss and use Dolby D noise reduction to reduce it, but few have ever listened to how it alters sound quality in such a way that many engineers and skilled sound gatherers prefer not to use it. Not knowing the difference between a normal and hi-bias cassette, they record tapes on the wrong equalization settings.

A growing number of oral history projects and centers use good equipment and tape. But the overwhelming majority of sound gatherers remain point and shoot recordists, ignorant of even the most basic field-recording or miking techniques. They don't know the difference between an omni-directional and cardiod mike, or think about proximity effect, sibilance, handling noise, ambiances, or sound environments. Although affordable stereo cassette recorders have been around since the 1970s, they continue to record in one-dimensional mono.

I have rarely met anyone outside of public radio who cleans or demagnetizes their heads, let alone takes their recorders in for routine maintenance and head alignment. In other words, most sound gatherers do not perform even the most basic and routine equipment maintenance: the photographers' equivalent of cleaning the lens.

Independent and station-based sound documentary producers comprise a significant group of sound gatherers, a group for whom the high-fidelity sound is paramount. The volume of high-fidelity sound documents has soared since 1971 when National Public Radio first came on the air. From its inception, NPR emphasized the importance of telling a story through sounds. Expanding on a sound documentary tradition pioneered by educational and Pacifica radio stations in the 1940s and 1950s, the American noncommercial radio systems have given us four or five generations of producers, the best of whom are superb field recordists and gatherers of historically significant sound documents. Unlike their counterparts in oral history and news, these sound documentary producers have rapidly embraced DAT--indeed are going digital from sound-gathering through production and broadcast. The gorgeous, crystal clear, life-like sound has proved simply too great to resist.

[To be continued]

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