Recommendations for Recording Native Language Materials

Bill Poser billposer@alum.mit.edu

Recordings of native language materials are all too often of poor quality. This makes them hard to use for some purposes and useless for others. In the future, people who do not fully understand the language may need to listen to them and interpret them, and they may be used as teaching material. The elders who are recorded do not always speak clearly. It may be necessary to carry out acoustic analyses. Most of the problems that lead to poor recordings can easily be avoided by using suitable equipment and taking a few simple precautions. Here are some recommendations for making good quality recordings.

Use a Good Recorder
Don't use just any old recording device. If you can, use a good digital recorder like the Marantz PMD670 on the left below or the Zoom H4N on the right. These are now cheap enough that they should fit the budget for just about any project and many individuals. They record on flash cards like those used by digital cameras and so can store a lot of audio. An 8GB flash card, now about $25, can store over 12 hours of uncompressed CD-quality stereo, 25 hours mono, a 16GB card, now about $50, over 25 hours stereo and over 50 hours mono. That's $1 per hour of mono, $2 per hour of stereo. I am currently using a Zoom H4N.

Bill Poser

May 26, 2011

Avoid cassette recorders, especially the common cheap ones like the Califone 1300AV model shown on on the left below. Even higher-end cassette recorders, like the Sony Walkman Professional model on the right won't provide the same quality as a digital recorder, and you'll eventually want the audio in digital form anyhow as it is easier to work with.

You will generally get better recordings with devices intended specifically as recorders than with the recording facilities offered by other devices such as cell phones, music players, and laptops. Most laptops have low-quality audio interfaces. You can make good quality audio recordings using an outboard audio device, these days ones that connect to the USB port, but beware of the built-in audio interface. Fifth generation iPods can make good recordings but earlier generations have low-quality audio interfaces. The ability to control the input level is important. Any device that does not allow you to control the input level is unsuitable for serious recording. In general, if you have a reason to use a particular device (maybe because you already own it), can obtain the necessary information about using it to record, and understand what is important, you may be able to use it. If you aren't able to do this, the most reliable way to make good recordings is to use a device specifically designed for making quality recordings such as the digital recorders mentioned above. If you're unexpectedly in a position to record something, by all means use your iPod or cell phone or whatever you have available, but if you are planning to make recordings they will be more useful if you use a good recorder.

Microphones
It is important to use a good microphone of a type appropriate for the task. Built-in microphones are rarely of good quality and should generally be avoided. (The Zoom H4N shown above is an exception – it has high-quality built-in stereo microphones.) If you are recording a single speaker, such as elder telling a story, use a good directional microphone (one that is sensitive mostly in one direction). Consider using a lapel microphone, which clips to the speaker's lapel, or a good headset microphone (not a cheap one intended for telephone use). Position the microphone carefully. It should be close Bill Poser May 26, 2011

enough to get good volume and for the speaker's speech to dominate background noise but not so close that the speaker will blow on it. If you are recording a conversation, use a good omni-directional microphone (one that records in all directions) or a directional microphone for each speaker with each microphone recorded on a separate channel.

Don't Record over the Telephone
People sometimes try recording over the telephone because it is more convenient: an elder, for example, may not live nearby. This is not a good way to obtain high quality recordings. The problem is that telephones only transmit information in the frequency band 300-3000 Hz. This is because in the early days of the telephone system they needed to pack as many conversations as possible onto a single wire. They studied what frequencies are needed to provide understandable speech and settled on this band. There is a fair amount of information in the speech signal that the telephone leaves out. In ordinary conversation we don't generally notice this because human language is redundant enough that our minds can fill in the gaps. However, if you compare telephone speech with the same speech with no frequencies cut out, you can easily tell the difference. Some sounds are difficult or impossible to distinguish over the telephone. The upshot is that you should avoid recording over the telephone. If that is the only way to record something important, of course it is better to record it than not to, but when possible, record in person.

Watch Out for Background Noise
Take care to eliminate sources of noise. Try to choose a location with as little background noise as possible and turn off noisy machinery if you can. Many noise sources are things that we are used to and may not notice while recording but which can make a recording much less useful later. These include: • • • • • • • • fans, air conditioners, heaters and ventilators refrigerators cooking noises (chopping, blenders) vehicles passing by radio, TV, or music playing in the background people talking children playing babies crying

Some noise can be removed afterward using the noise removal functions of audio editors but you do not want to have to rely on this. In any case, noise removal works best with constant background noise such as power line hum or radiator hiss. It does not work well with changing or one-shot noise like people talking or a truck back-firing.1

Watch Your Input Level
While recording, watch the input level and change the input volume as necessary. Too low an input level makes it too faint, but too high an input level produces clipping (chopping off the highs and
1 A free audio editor with a good noise removal function is Audacity: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

Bill Poser

May 26, 2011

lows), a form of distortion.

Use a Good File format
Always record uncompressed audio. Most recorders will identify this as “wav” format.2 Because audio can take up a lot of space, it is often compressed. Some compression techniques do not distort the sound. These are known as “lossless” compression methods. When you decompress a file that has been compressed using a lossless method, what you get back is the same as the original. Because lossless compression techniques do not compress music very much (they typically cut the storage required by half), it is more common to use “lossy” compression techniques, which do distort the sound. What you get back when you decompress a file compressed using a lossy technique is not the same as the original. The most common lossy compression technique is MP3 compression. Some devices, mostly music players, record only in MP3 format. These should be avoided. Some other devices offer a choice between “wav”, MP3, and occasionally others. If you have one of these, make sure to set the format to “wav”. If you want MP3 files for people to play on music players, you can always make MP3 copies. The point is that you want to start out with the best quality and keep it as your archival version. Lower quality versions can then be made for particular purposes. To save space in archives, you may wish to use a lossless compression technique. One widely used technique is known as FLAC (“Free Lossless Audio Compression”). Quite a few audio editors and other programs can read and create FLAC files. You can also obtain free software for performing FLAC compression and decompression from this website: http://flac.sourceforge.net/index.html. Another widely used compressor that may be more convenient for people who use Microsoft Windows is Monkey's Audio. You can obtain free software for Monkey's Audio compression from this website: http://www.monkeysaudio.com/. The techniques and software available for lossless compression have been changing fairly rapidly. For up-to-date information it may be useful to consult this web page: http://billposer.org/Linguistics/Computation/LectureNotes/LosslessCompression.html. You can often save space without using any kind of compression. First, consider using a single channel rather than the usual two. Music of good quality is almost always stereo (two channels) these days, but this is because music recordings are usually of at least two sound sources (more than one instrument or singer, or a singer and an instrument). Stereo allows us to recreate at least in part the experience of being physically present and at different distances from different sound sources. If there is only one source of sound, a single speaker or singer or instrument, or only a single microphone, there is no point in using stereo. By using a mono (single channel) recording, you can cut the space used in half. Some recording devices allow you to choose whether to record mono or stereo. Others always produce stereo files but with both channels the same. In this case, you can use an audio editor to convert the stereo file to mono. Another way to save space is to use a lower sampling rate. The usual sampling rate nowadays is the CD rate of 44,100 samples per second. For music this is desirable, but for plain speech, which does not contain information at the higher frequencies, a lower sampling rate is fine. Many recording devices
2 Strictly speaking, "wav" is a file format, not an audio format, and "wav" files can contain audio in a variety of formats. If you really want to understand this, see: http://billposer.org/Linguistics/Computation/LectureNotes/AudioData.html.

Bill Poser

May 26, 2011

give you the option of using a sampling rate of 22,050 samples per second. It is also possible to change sampling rate using audio editors and other software. By using a sampling rate of 22,050 and a single channel, you can cut the space required by a factor of four from that used by stereo at 44,100. For example, a CD-rate stereo file containing one hour of speech uses 635 megabytes, almost an entire CD. A mono file with a sampling rate of 22,050 uses only 159 megabytes.3

Record in Reasonable-Sized Chunks
It is possible to handle recordings several hours long but it is easier to handle smaller chunks. Audio editors may crash on very long files or be sluggish. Large files can take a long time to transmit over a network or copy from one device to another and often cannot be sent by email. Try to stop keep each audio file to no more than half an hour or so, and take advantage of natural breaks. For example, if you are recording stories, make a new track for each story. If you take a bathroom or smoke break, stop the recording and start a new track when you get back to work.

Identify the Recording
It is easy for a recording to become separated from notes about it, so it is a good idea to include information such as the date and the names of the people recorded on the recording itself. Include the date and the name of the speaker or speakers in the name of the file, e.g. Bob_Jones_2011-0322_01.wav.

Make an Archival Copy
Once you have made a recording, store a copy somewhere where it will not be lost or damaged. Don't assume that it is safe on your computer's hard drive. Hard drives fail, computers can be damaged or stolen, and people sometimes make mistakes and delete files that they should have saved. Make a master copy of the recording on a CD or DVD, label it so that another person down the road will know what is on it, and store it somewhere else. A CD on your bookshelf will preserve the recording if your hard drive fails but not if your office burns down or if someone steals it. Store your archival copies in a place unlikely to be damaged that people cannot easily get into such as a safe deposit box in a bank or a fireproof safe in an office.

3 A calculator that shows how much space is required for a given duration of audio in various formats and that also allows the inverse calculation of how long a recording will fit on a CD or other given space can be obtained free at: http://billposer.org/Software/AudioSpace.html.

Bill Poser

May 26, 2011

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