Family History: Oral interview considerations

Family History: Oral interview considerationsBy Barry J. Ewell

Do I conduct a telephone or a personal oral interview?
When you have an option, choose to interview the person in their own home. It is by far the best option, as the interviewee will be much more relaxed. A one-on-one interview is best. Privacy encourages an atmosphere of trust and honesty. A third person present, even a close partner, can inhibit and influence free discussion.

Audio versus video taping. Should you audiotape or videotape an interview? The choice may not be yours—sometimes a person who is comfortable sitting and talking into a tape recorder will cringe at the thought of being videotaped (if you’re uncertain, ask the interviewee). Regardless of whether audio or video is more convenient for you, you’ll get the most from an interviewee who is comfortable with the environment.

Choosing recording equipment. Because you can’t write down everything that someone tells you, it is a good idea to use an audio or video recorder. Your recordings will be unique historical documents that other people need to be able to hear and understand easily, so it’s worth getting a good-quality recording.

Audio recorders (digital versus analog). There are many different makes of portable audio recorders. Digital recordings are not necessarily better than analog recordings. A good quality tape recording is better than a second-rate digital one. With both kinds of equipment, you will need to be aware of the following important considerations:

Digital recording equipment.
If you are unsure of the capacity of your digital recorder in this regard, check your equipment manual or ask a technician. Mini¬mum recording requirements for all digital media, including computers are as follows:

  • 44.1 kHz—minimum sampling rate
  • 16 bit—minimum bit depth

Not all digital recorders are suitable for interviewing. Avoid those that use proprietary software—for example “personal recorders” that create files that can only be used with the manufacturer’s software. You are dependent on such software for listening to the sound and copying it. The typical price range for digital recorders is from $150 to $500.

Working with digital files. Keep the raw material from a digital interview recording for archiving exactly as you have recorded it. Make a copy of the file to use for any editing that needs to be done. In order for material to be preserved for the future, you need to use standard formats that computer systems recognize. Save the original as a .wav file or an AIFF, not as an MP3. WAV (or WAVE), short for Waveform audio format, is a Microsoft and IBM audio file format standard for storing audio on PCs. AIFF, short for Audio Inter¬change File Format, is a standard audio file format used on Amiga and Macintosh computers. Both WAVs and AIFFs are compatible with Windows and Macintosh operating systems. WAV and AIFF file formats take up considerably more space than MP3.

Tape (analog) recording.
If you buy equipment, the size of your budget will determine the quality of the equipment you are able to get. Ideally, a professional- quality tape recorder with an external microphone and high-quality cassettes should be used. The price range is typically from $50 to $150 for a mini-cassette or cassette recorder. If you have a suitable tape recorder that has not been used for a while, take it to a techni¬cian for a maintenance check.
Features to look for in a tape recorder include the following:

  • Controls which allow you to play the tape (PLAY), wind back the tape (REWIND), wind the tape forward quickly (FAST FORWARD), RECORD, STOP and EJECT
  • A tape counter, which allows you to find your place within the tape by denoting a numerical location
  • A jack socket for an external microphone
  • A recording-level volume control which allows you to adjust the volume at which you record
  • A recording-level meter
  • The option of using either a wall socket or battery power
  • A jack socket for headphones
  • A built-in speaker

Cleaning your tape recorder—Isopropyl alcohol, which is 91 percent pure, applied with Q-Tips, will eliminate debris from all recorder parts that come in contact with the magnetic tape. Standard “rubbing alcohol,” which may contain some undesirable lubricants, should not be used, because the ingredients may damage the rubber pinch-roller if applied regularly.

Microphones. Whatever recorder you decide to use, it is important to use an external microphone. If you are buying microphones, go for the best quality you can afford. An external microphone is preferred over one built into the recorder. A built-in microphone will record all sounds indiscriminately, including the noise made by the recorder itself. It is difficult to position a tape recorder with an inbuilt microphone so that all voices are recorded clearly.

If you are buying only one microphone, you will need one with a stand, not one that has to be held. Hand-held microphones record any sound of the mic itself moving. Free-standing or table-top microphones are generally quite unobtrusive and record both the interviewee and interviewer clearly if they are placed carefully. However, they often pick up an undesirable level of background noise.

Microphones pick up a range of noise in four patterns. The different types are as follows:

  • Unidirectional or cardioid, which picks up sound in a heart- shaped pattern in one direction. They generally record sound around them but not directly behind them. These are the best type to use.
  • Omi-directional, which pick up sound coming from all directions.
  • Bi-directional, which pick up sound from two opposite directions.
  • Hyper-directional, which pick up sound from one direction only and have a very narrow field.

For indoor recording: For one-on-one interviews indoors, the best microphone is a small tie clip or lapel microphone. Lapel microphones tend not to record as much background noise as free-standing ones because the body of the wearer helps to absorb unwanted noise. Their only disadvantage is that most recorders do not have an input for more than one microphone, so while the interviewee is recorded clearly, the interviewer sounds very distant. There are two solutions to this problem: buy a recorder with two microphone input jacks, or buy a “split cord” which allows you to plug two microphones into one cord and then into the recorder. If your recorder is stereo and has two microphone sockets, you can get two microphones—one for your interviewee and one for yourself. They can be attached discreetly to your clothing and give excellent results.

For Outdoor Recording: For interviews done outdoors, a uni¬directional (or cardioid) hand-held microphone is best, as it will pick up less unwanted noise. The ideal for interviews is to use two lapel microphones that clip onto the clothing of the interviewer and the interviewee. Electric condenser or dynamic microphones are particularly good. Talk to someone at your local electronics shop (such as Radio Shack) or contact a manufacturer to find out what model would be best for your requirements. Tell them you will be recording voices, not music.

Video. Many interviewers (including me) prefer audio over video recordings for its ease of use, portability, and intimacy; but video equipment has fallen in price and size in recent years and formats such as digital video are becoming affordable options. Video has its benefits—for example, apart from the interview itself, photographs can also be filmed for later use—but video done badly is perhaps best not done at all. Oral historians have mixed views about the impact of a video camera on the intimacy of the interview relationship.

The following are some tips to keep in mind when considering cassette tapes for recording your interviews:

  • Use 60-minute cassettes for recording your interviews. They are physically thicker than the longer-playing ones, and so are less likely to stretch (and thus distort the sound) or break. Do not use 90-minute tapes or larger. Longer tapes are too thin and tend to bleed, stretch, or tear.
  • Buy normal tapes, not metal or high-bias ones. The latter are designed for recording music and are too expensive for this purpose.
  • It is a good idea to use cassettes that are put together with tiny screws in each corner instead of glue, because if the tape jams or breaks, the case can be opened, the tape repaired, and the case put back together again. If you are using tapes without screws, you have to destroy the case to get to the tape if it jams or breaks.
  • Use only name-brands of cassettes, such as Sony and TDK.

Other equipment
Batteries are expensive, so use a wall adaptor, allowing you to plug your tape recorder into an outlet. If you have to use batteries for your recorder, you will need a battery tester to ensure they are fully charged. If they are not fully charged when you are recording, the tape will wind through the machine slowly. When you play the tape back at normal speed the voices will be distorted. Battery tes-ters can be bought cheaply from electronic stores.

For tape recorders, you will need some cotton swabs and iso-propyl alcohol, readily and cheaply available from a pharmacy, for cleaning the heads (the bit the tape runs over in order to record). This method is more efficient and cheap than using commercial head-cleaning cassettes.

A padded bag, such as a camera bag, is useful for carrying your equipment and protecting it from damage.