Oral History 301: Understanding Recording Formats

photo

For this week’s blog post on the oral history collection at the Southwest Collection (see previous entries here  and here!), we want to give you a quick overview of the various recording formats that have been utilized in recording our interviews. Since our collection spans over 60 years and more than 6,000 oral histories, historians have recorded using the technology of many eras. Today, preservation is our highest priority, so all of the older media are being converted to digital format.

reel to reel machine

The earliest interviews were recorded on ¼ inch magnetic audio tape or “reel to reel” format. Roughly 1,900 of our interviews are on this format, ranging from 1949-1985. Reels can come in a variety of sizes, but since most of our interviews were recorded at an incredibly slow speed (typically 1 7/8 inches per second), these interviews could fit on very small 3 inch reels. You can see an example of one of the portable recording devices likely used by our field historians here. These reels require extra care as we digitize them today because they tend to have tension issues on modern reel-to-reel players that are calibrated to play the larger commercial reels.

magnetic cassettes

Beginning in the mid-1970s, field historians also recorded to audio cassette. This format is utilized in about 2,000 interviews. Though many patrons are familiar with how to work a cassette player, we still ask two weeks advance notice in order to make a digital copy of an interview. The older the recording, the more likely there will be technical issues: the plastic casing might be cracked, or the springs or rollers might have quit working. Fortunately, our audio/visual staff is well versed in cassette tape repair.

oh recorder

Luckily for our audio/visual department today, our oral history collection was primarily recorded on newer, more versatile audio formats. Occasionally we have worked with interviews on microcassettes, DAT tapes, and various small video tapes, but starting in the mid-2000s all oral histories are recorded on digital audio recorders, or as we phrase it, they are “born digital.” This allows us to copy the files to our servers, make patron-use copies on compact discs, and edit audio files much more easily. Our current recorders save files in .wav format, with a 44.1 kHz sample rate and 16 bit depth (which is compact disc quality). In the upcoming years, we will likely upgrade our equipment with portable recorders capable of 96 kHz/24bit and better quality microphones. It seems the future will bring us higher fidelity digital recordings, but luckily (fingers crossed!) no more unique and proprietary formats.

Now it’s time to ask our readers (especially you oral historians!): what formats have you seen oral histories recorded on? Sadly, our collection does not go far enough back to include transcription discs or wire recordings. Have you used video recordings with video backups? Our field historians began this practice almost a decade ago, but we still rely heavily upon audio recordings. Many of the unique audio formats we encounter come from small oral history collections donated by individuals in our surrounding communities. In a future blog post, we will give an overview of the work others have done to promote oral history cultivation on the South Plains. And, as always, if you’d like to listen to these oral histories or view any of our other collections, don’t hesitate to contact our Reference Staff.

by Elissa Stroman

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s