Tools for the field: Digital audio recorders

My digital voice recorder died a slow death this year.  It was a Zoom H2.  I bought it about 5 years ago and used it all last year for fieldwork in Baja.  I think the salt air may have something to do with its death–or maybe a battery leaked, I am not really sure.  There is some greenish crud on the back near the battery compartment, and it has been acting up in all sorts of ways lately–giving error messages, not wanting to shut off, and so on.  It has also been eating batteries like, like, like something really, really hungry for batteries!  My wife has been using it for her interviews and now it’s burning through two AA batteries in about an hour and a half, which is not good.  But the battery life of the H2 has never been great.  That’s been a problem from the start.

So, long story short this means I ended up looking around for a new voice recorder.  Looking back, the H2 was an ok investment.  It had great sound quality, but the user interface was really clunky, and the construction of the unit itself felt pretty shoddy.  It looked and felt pretty cheap to me.  I spent about 250 bucks on that thing and I definitely would not buy another one.

Searching around for a new recorder led me to a couple of posts over on Karen Nakamura’s blog (here and here).  In the first post she recommends recorders by Olympus (she mentions the DS-750 and the LS-11; keep in mind the post is from 2010) and the Sanyo Xacti ICR PS605RM.  In the second link, which was posted in 2012, she once again recommends Olympus, this time the VN-8100PC, priced at 65 dollars.  Nakumara explains that there are more expensive models, but reminds us: “unless you want to record live audio (concert performances, etc.) then they are overkill.”

The OSEA (Open School of Anthropology and Ethnography) has a pretty good discussion about field equipment, including digital recorders, here.  Here’s the basic recommendation (Olympus comes up again):

My recommendation is to get a machine from Bestbuy for a walkin purchase for about $60-$85, say an Olympus. If you are very serious about ethnographic fieldwork and anticipate a future of substantial recording of interviews and music, then go for a Marantz or a Sony portable professional digital recorder for under $400.

The Society for Linguistic Anthropology has a useful page on audio recorders as well, which includes some basic notes about audio recording and a few recommendations (specifically the Olympus LS-10 and the Zoom H4n).  There’s also some good info about less expensive dictation quality recorders and a few things to keep in mind when it comes to recording quality (they are talking about the Olympus line specifically here):

Olympus also makes several “dictation quality digital recorders” around $100 or less that may be useful for recording interviews without the thought of ever conducting close conversation analysis or acoustic analysis. These types of recorders record in a compressed format WMA (windows media audio) and do not record in uncompressed WAV format which is the standard for archiving and which is the most flexible. Since we don’t yet know what questions we will have of our recorded data in the future, I recommend always recording uncompressed. Even for “only interviews”, if you can spend just a little more money for a PCM recorder that records WAV format and which will have much better built in microphones than these dictation machines, you will thank yourself when listening to many hours of recordings later.

Andy Kolovos from the Vermont Folklife Center a pretty extensive page about digital audio recording equipment as well.  He is pretty knowledgeable–and opinionated–about fieldwork equipment, and talks about everything from voice recorders and recording quality all the way to microphones and equipment suppliers.  Definitely a lot of useful material there.

In the end I decided to follow Nakamura’s advice and go with one of the mid range Olympus recorders.  I looked into getting the VN-8100 she recommends, but after reading through this page decided to go with the WS-802 instead.  It records in WAV, MP3, and WMA, has a built in USB, and much better battery life than the Zoom H2 (estimated at about 27 hours).  It also comes with a rechargeable battery, which is nice, all for about 100 bucks on Amazon.  Not bad.  So far, the recording and sound quality are pretty impressive.  It may not be the greatest of all time, but it seems pretty solid, especially for a graduate student on a budget!  I will post some updates about it after I have used it a bit more.  If you have any tips, comments, or suggestions about audio/voice recording equipment, please post them in the comments!

UP NEXT I will write another post about the equipment we use, this one inspired by the fact that my barely one year old Toshiba laptop (with all my dissertation notes, interviews, etc) just crashed about a week ago.  Fortunately I had it backed up.  I did lose some minor stuff though.  Anyway, I think it might be useful to talk about the computers we use in the field, storage, and methods for backing things up.  Until then…


Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky.  He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty.  He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public.  You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

12 thoughts on “Tools for the field: Digital audio recorders

  1. It’s a real shame that you don’t reference *any* of the substantial literature on recorders from the language documentation/linguistic fieldwork world. The ELDP program, for example, has extensive recommendations and equipment reviews.

  2. I started in the field with a Zoom H2 that caused me no end of headaches. Amazing sound, but the user interface clunk meant that I sometimes failed to record when I thought I was. I also fried the AC adapter cord on Indian voltage.

    I chose a Zoom H1 as my next recorder because the quality is great, it runs on one AA battery, and it is one click to record. I like that you can set the input levels. The construction is still a bit shoddy and plastic bits break off, but it still functions well otherwise. The recorder looks a little bit like a taser or something and it always inspires a comment by my interviewee.

    I want recorders in the field that can run on batteries, rather than only USB or wall charging, so if I’m out and about I can get replacement batteries in a pinch in any city.

    Windscreens are crucial if you’re doing work anywhere with pervasive fans or outdoors. Zooms all easily take windscreens. Don’t know about the dictation recorders.

  3. I use the Tascam DR-05, but sometimes I just use my iPhone. (You can also buy a Rode microphone for the iPhone.) I also recommend buying a tiny, bendable, tripod which you can use to attach the recorder to something in order to isolate it from table noise.

  4. @angarrgoon: Do you have any particular recommendations? Here’s the ELAR page (equipment reviews can be found under Documenting languages >> Reviews):

    Here’s an extensive review of the Edirol RR-09:

    …and a review of the Zoom H2:

    @Lilly: Ya, I know what you mean about the whole “not recording when you think you’re recording” thing with the H2. I prefer something that just starts recording when I hit the red record button. Thanks for the info about the H1. Have you read any reviews about it elsewhere?

    @Kerim: I thought about using an iPhone, but the battery life of mine is not great. Still, maybe I should give it a shot just to see. Good tip about the small tripod. Thanks.

  5. I’ve had good results from the Edirol R-09 (also the R-01) for doing language documentation. It’s very straightforward to use (power on, press record once to check levels, press it again to record). I use an external mic but the quality from the internal mic isn’t bad.

    People on the ILAT (Indigenous Languages and Technology) email list have also reported good things about the Zoom H-4.

    Dictaphones are definitely not recommended. They tend to have poor microphones, and they record at high compression and low sampling rates, which makes the files useless for any sort of linguistic analysis. That might not matter for the person making the initial recordings but you never know how data might be repurposed or reused in future for other projects, so it’s better to record with the best quality you can from the start.

  6. @anggaroon: Ya, in an ideal world I think everyone should have something along the lines of an Edirol, a Marantz, or a Tascam. But for broke grad students who simply can’t drop the cash on equipment that costs that much, I think that looking into some of the sub-100 dollar Olympus etc is probably a good strategy. Get the best you can with the resources you have. Well, it’s what I had to do when my Zoom started its journey toward Valhalla. I have a feeling lots of grad students (and others) are in the same boat. Ideally, I agree with you though. Thanks for your comments!

  7. I’ve been using H2n for half a year now, quite intensively, and it’s been working great. I once used a H4, and if I recall correctly the UI was much worse. (The H4n and H2n are the second edition models.) So here’s one vote for the Zoom recorders. For the price, the audio quality is fabulous. And when you crank up the gain, the H2n microphone picks up the discussion from quite far.

    Sometimes when I don’t have the recorder with me, I’ll just record using my Android phone. There’s an app called “Easy Voice Recorder Pro” that, among other things, let’s you use the video camera microphone, at least with my phone (HTC One) the results are surprisingly good.

  8. Thanks for your comment Heikki. Maybe I was too harsh on the Zoom. I always thought the recording quality was really good. Ya, I think the operating system is a little clunky, but it’s ok. But the main thing was I felt the construction could have been better–more durable–especially for fieldwork. But ya, the audio quality is really nice. You’re the second person who has mentioned using phones as backups–I should really give mine a try to see how it sounds.

  9. I sympathize with the broke grad student affordability problem, but there’s a longer term issue too. In my field, it’s quite likely that the grad student will be making one of the only recordings of the language (if not *the only*). I also work with people using heritage recordings to create language revitalization programs. It seems a bit short-sighted to save $50 or $100 when spending the extra money can make the difference between a recording that’s usable only for you and one that’s usable for other programs and projects in the future. Write the cost into the grant, or write an equipment grant for your university to get a set of recorders that grad students can use for their work.

  10. Hi anggargoon,

    Like I said above: get the best equipment you can with the resources you have. The case you bring up–recording indigenous languages etc–is clearly a particular situation in which the choice of equipment is a fundamental aspect of the research. Of course that cost would have to be written into the grant and that specific cost would be one of the top considerations.

    As Karen Nakumara said, though, I think there are cases in which getting certain recording devices can be a bit of overkill. If people are recording music, live performances, or trying to document language of course they need the best possible equipment they can afford. They will need an Edirol or a Marantz or something along those lines. In other cases I think looking into recorders like the Olympus line will work just fine. It all depends on the kind of work you’re doing.

  11. My point was that you have no idea what future recordings might be useful for. You’d be surprised how often this happens, especially perhaps in the “etc” (not just in recording indigenous languages). One example that comes to mind is the Houston social survey, where the team have extensive recordings of participants but they decided that they’d use dictaphones rather than higher grade recorders because they weren’t interested in language. Their material is priceless for sociolinguistics but it’s not usable because the recording quality isn’t high enough.

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