This tutorial sketches some suggestions for recording equipment, for recording practices, and for audio file specifications of recorded data in the field. The outline for the tutorial is as follows:

Notes on recording practices

  • Maximize the consultant's comfort. Be culturally sensitive during recording and respect your consultant. For instance, your consultant might feel uncomfortable if you adjust recording equipment attached to his/her body. Walk them through everything you're doing and make sure they are okay with it. Try to keep the consultant's awareness of the recording equipment and procedure fairly low so that they can relax as much as possible and speak naturally. If possible, try to have some water handy so they can drink if they get thirsty. Take breaks.

  • Have your research questions in mind. What the best recording practices are depends on your research questions, so keep those in mind. For instance, if you are interested in studying the acoustic realization of obstruents, it would be imperative to record in a quiet environment, a sound-attenuated booth if possible. This is because any background noise could easily swamp release bursts. However, if your research question only involves studying fundamental frequency, having a pristinely quiet environment isn't as crucial. It's more important to insure that the speech signal has a healthy amplitude in the recording. Low amplitude signals can make it difficult to identify repeating patterns for f0 estimation algorithms.

  • Don't forget to record the elicitor, too. If the elicitation session involves back-and-forth between the elicitor and consultant, then a recording can be fairly useless without including what the elicitor said. For instance, I've done blick testing (Could this be a word in your language?) where I didn't pay attention to recording myself and ended up incomprehensible recordings of "Yes. No. Yes." etc. Fortunately, the recording just barely picked up what was being elicited, but it's better to purposely set up a recording environment to record both the consultant and the elicitor. One can do this either by miking up both the consultant and the elicitor and making a stereo recording with separate channels for the consultant and elicitor, or by using a separate recorder for recording both the consultant and the elicitor and whatever else is going on in the surrounding environment with the recorder's internal mics.

  • Maximize signal to noise ratio. Even if the speech signal is high amplitude, that's not enough for good signal quality. If the speech signal is high amplitude but there's torrential rain pouring down a few feet away, signal quality will be compromised. If the speech signal is low-level, but you're in a quiet room, signal quality could still be fine for analysis. The higher level the speech signal, the higher the signal to noise ratio. The higher the background noise level, the lower the signal to noise ratio.

  • Keep background noise to a minimum. It's generally a good idea to try to record in a quiet environment. A quiet back room is good if available. Try to avoid overhead fans, construction, animal noises, etc. Sometimes it could be worth waiting out weather-related noise if practical.

  • Maximize amplitude of speech signal (but avoid clipping). You want your recording setup (including distance from mic to speaker, preamp(lifier) setup, recorder setup) to maximize the speech signal level without causing signal distortion. The mic should be close to the consultant's mouth, a little off to the side to avoid pops from noise bursts. Having a preamp in your recording setup is essential both to boost the signal level and to allow for easy adjustment of input levels during recording. But if you overload the mic preamplifier, you can get signal distortion, including clipping, which occurs when the amplitude of the signal exceeds the capacity of the preamplifier, as shown below, when the recorded signal exceeds the maximum range ([-1.0, 1.0] for Audacity, as shown below). If clipping occurs, it introduces the artifact of high frequency components to the signal, which is particularly problematic if you're interested in any kind of spectral analysis of the speech.

Demonstration of clipping during recording in an audio file in Audacity
Demonstration of clipping during recording in an audio file in Audacity

Audio recording software and devices usually have a meter you can observe to monitor the input level to maximize the input level without clipping. We show an example of a meter tool from Audacity below. The red bar to the right shows the recording level. If it goes past the blue line, we get clipping. In other recording software and for other recording devices, sometimes the meter tool will change color from green to red when the input level is too high.

Meter tool in Audacity
Meter tool in Audacity for monitoring input levels.

  • Keep recordings on the shorter side and consider making summary recordings. Consider breaking up a recording of a longish elicitation session into several audio files. This keeps file sizes smaller and if for any reason the file is damaged in any way or some technical difficulties occur, those issues will be localized to a smaller portion of the elicitation session. I generally try to keep recordings no longer than 10-15 minutes. The downtime between the recordings also gives you and the consultant the chance to take a break and perhaps change batteries or the memory card if needed.

It's a good idea to record entire elicitation sessions, but it may also be helpful to record "summary sessions", where you consolidate the elicitation items into a densely packed session. Such shorter densely packed sessions allow high quality recording with lossless file formats without having gigantic file sizes.

  • Keep your audio files organized and backed up. Copy your recorded audio files to additional storage devices as soon as possible after an elicitation session. Name your audio files systematically.

Notes on recording equipment

Now that we have an idea of the issues involved in thinking about a recording setup, we'll consider recording equipment:

Microphones and accessories

Some general properties that are desirable for mics in the field are that they:

  • Are comfortable. This helps reduce the consultant's awareness of the recording procedure and makes a potentially unfamiliar process more friendly.

  • Reject background noise. To maximize signal to noise ratio especially in potentially unavoidably noisy field conditions.

  • Rugged. To withstand wear and tear.

An example of a mic that fits the bill is the Shure SM10A headworn mic, pictured below (left).
Sample recording equipment for fieldwork:
(l-r) Shure SM10A microphone [Shure]; Shure X2u XLR to USB adapter [Shure]

It's headworn and lightweight and adjustable, and it is pretty comfortable for long periods of time. Another nice property of headworn mics is that the distance from the mic to the sound source is quite easy to keep constant. To keep the distance from a tabletop mic to the sound source constant, you have to be careful about exactly where the consultant is sitting and where his/her mouth is, etc. and be strict about the consultant holding still. If the distance between the mic and the soundsource fluctuates, the input level also fluctuates.

One other nice property of the Shure SM10A is that it is a dynamic rather than a condenser microphone and requires no power supply for the generation of the audio signal. Dynamic mics tend to be more rugged and are moisture-resistant---good properties for the field.

The Shure SM10A is also unidirectional, which makes it great at rejecting background noise and indispensible for working in unavoidably noisy field environments. One drawback as a consequence is that there is a proximity effect, a boost in bass frequencies when the microphone is very close to the sound source. This proximity effect means that one should be cautious about directly comparing absolute values of acoustic spectral properties of the speech signal between recordings when different recording equipment is used, but this is not something that is typically done anyway, since it's the relative acoustic properties in speech sound contrasts that is most often of interest.

A more significant drawback because of the small size of the mic, in particular, because of its small magnet, the signal from the mic is usually fairly weak, even if the mic is very close to the mouth as it should be, but this is acceptable as long as the signal to noise ratio is high.

For recording directly to computer, an additional valuable mic accessory is an external A/D converter and preamp, as we discussed in Notes on recording practices. One such device is the Shure X2u (see picture above right), which accepts a male XLR connector (shown below) and plugs into a USB port. You may also want a cable to connect two XLR outputs to one XLR input if you want to record two channels at once, e.g. one for the consultant and one for the elicitor.

XLR connectors, from
XLR connectors, (l-r) female and male [wikimedia]

Audio recording devices
Sample audio recording devices for fieldwork:
(l-r) Zoom H4n handheld recorder [Samsontech]; Roland R-44 field recorder [Roland]

For audio recording devices, some general desirable properties for recording in the field are that they:

  • Are portable and robust to mechanical stress. To withstand the rigors of field environment. Portable recorders currently on the market generally accept SD cards, which use flash memory for disk storage. Flash memory is great for the field since it uses no moving parts, and is thus noiseless as well as robust to mechanical stress.

  • Allow multichannel recording. So you can record a dyad of two or more consultants or record the consultant and the elicitor.

  • Have good quality built-in preamps. You can have separate preamps, but it's nice to have them built into your recorder.

  • Support lossless audio file formats and high-quality recording. It's a very bad idea to perform phonetic analysis with lossy audio file formats like MP3s. But lossy audio file formats might be the only practical choice for recordings of hours of recording sessions. More on settings for audio files in the next section.

  • Have inputs appropriate for your mic setup without any adaptors. You want your recording device to work seamlessly with your mic setup. Each interface between devices can introduce noise into the signal.

Two examples of audio recorders with these properties that I've had good experiences with are the Zoom H4n handheld recorder and the Roland R-44 field recorder, pictured above, with specs listed below.

Device Precision/bit depth (bit) Sampling rate (kHz) Input Memory storage Power supply Size/weight
Zoom H4n 16, 24 44.1, 48, 96 4 XLR inputs with phantom power SD, SDHC, up to 32GB cards AC adaptor (DC5V/1A/center plus)
AA size (LR6) battery x 2
70(W) x 156.3(D) x 35(H)mm
280g (without batteries)
Roland R-44 16, 24 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 192 4 XLR inputs with phantom power SD, SDHC, 64MB-32GB AC adaptor (PSB-1U)
AA type battery x 4 (Alkaline or NiMH)
157(W) x 183(D) x 61(H) mm
1.3 kg with batteries

These recorders both have the properties listed above, including XLR inputs which work with the Shure SM10A headworn mic. Both can record WAV files at least up to 24-bit/96kHz, which is overkill for the recording quality necessary in recording speech (most recorders are designed for the music market). The Zoom H4n is small but still accepts 2 channels. The Roland R-44 is bigger, but still easily portable, and accepts 4 channels; it's overall higher-end, but is rather pricey.

Recording directly to the computer

An alternative to dedicated audio recording devices is to record directly to a computer, i.e. a laptop can also serve as an audio recording device in the field, especially if you're bringing it along anyway for other reasons. A couple caveats for recording directly to a computer are that:

  • You need to be careful about running other processes simultaneously while you're recording. If you have an anti-virus program continually scanning your hard disk or your computer is backing up tons of new audio files while you're recording, the system resources allocated to the audio recording could be affected. This could affect the fidelity of your recording in unpredictable ways.

  • You should have a device to perform analog-to-digital conversion external to the computer's sound card and to serve as a preamp. Analog-to-digital conversion (A/D conversion) converts the continuously varying analog voltage output from a mic into a quantized digital signal for the computer. If the A/D conversion is performed by a sound card internal to the computer, it can also pick up computer-internal noise. A preamp boosts the microphone signal and is important to get the speech signal to level useable for signal processing like pitch tracking.

  • You may need to be more careful about mechanical stress. Many laptops nowadays still come with spinning hard drives, which are vulnerable to damage from mechanical stress like bumpy truck rides and falling. If you record directly to the computer without backing up somewhere else, you leave your recorded files vulnerable to being lost from hard disk failure. Solid state drives are becoming more and more common and more affordable and are more reliable under significant mechanical insult.

There is versatile and powerful free and open source, cross-platform (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux) audio recording/editing software such as Audacity and Praat available to use if you record directly to the computer. I've also gotten and continue to get good use out of a simple little recording application (Mac OS X only), Audio Recorder, developed by Ben Shanfelder, but it hasn't been updated since 2008. See a more extended list of free and open source audio recording/editing software here.

Audio file specifications

For audio recording devices and software, there's a plethora of options available for setting properties of the digital audio file. A good review of digital audio is here. We'll sketch some guidelines for the most important properties here.

Lossless and lossy file formats

There are a variety of digital file formats for sound. The most common file formats you'll see in software and recording devices are WAV and MP3. The main consideration for recording speech is whether the file format is lossless or lossy. Lossless file formats, e.g. WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC may be compressed or uncompressed, but preserve the original audio in the most accurate digital representation possible given the recording settings. Lossy file formats, e.g. MP3, MP4, AAC, OGG are all compressed and involve the removal of audio data such that the original audio is irrecoverable from the file.

For phonetic data analysis, it's imperative to record with lossless file formats like WAV since lossy file formats alter the sound. If a recording is done purely for keeping a record of what happened in an elicitation, lossy file formats can be appropriate and can yield smaller file sizes than compressed lossless file formats. However, since space is cheap and ever cheaper, it's likely that file size won't be a limiting factor at some point in the forseeable future. In addition, someone else may be able to use your recorded material as well, who wants to do phonetic analysis, so it's always worth considering using lossless file formats when possible.

Sampling rate

The sample or sampling rate for an audio file is a property of the analog-to-digital conversion of the sound and determines the temporal resolution of the recorded signal. In the figure below from JISC Digital Media, the sine wave in (a) is sampled at the indicated points, giving the digital representation in (b) and (c). (The plot in (d) shows the digital representation after some postprocessing).

Sampling of a sine wave
The sampling rate of a sine wave controls the temporal resolution of its digital representation. [JISC Digital Media]

The main consideration for the sampling rate is what the highest frequency of interest is; the sampling rate needs to be at least twice this frequency to avoid aliasing, in which higher frequencies are indistinguishable from lower ones. The highest frequencies in speech generally aren't higher than 5000-6000 Hz, so a sampling rate of 16 000, i.e. 16 kHz is sufficient for recording speech, and even 11 kHz can be acceptable, depending on the research question.

However, since recorders are marketed for musicians, the lowest sample rate option offered for an audio recorder may be CD quality 44.1kHz. You may choose to downsample the file later, after recording (see Sox and Praat tutorials), in order to reduce file size.

Precision/bit depth

Another property of the analog-to-digital audio conversion is the precision or bit depth. This regulates not temporal resolution, like sample rate, but the resolution in the quantization of the amplitude of the speech signal, as shown below. The higher the bit depth is, the less grainy the representation of changes in the amplitude of the speech signal.

Precision/bit depth
Comparison of 2-bit (3 levels) with 5-bit (32 levels) of quantization. [JISC Digital Media]

The options for precision/bit depth offered in software and recorders are usually 16 or 24 bit. 16 bit is generally sufficient for recording speech.


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