Audio Equipment Recommendations on a Budget

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When choosing recording equipment for linguistic fieldwork, it is important to seek out hardware that records data in formats that ensure long-term intelligibility. However, the linguists who are most likely to need equipment recommendations are often the least able to afford expensive devices. On this page we have begun to collect equipment recommendations from members of the Ask-an-Expert panel, with the awareness that budgetary considerations may play a major part in the choices made.

Chilin Shih's Recommendations

The following recommendations were made by Dr. Chilin Shih, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

There is no such concept as a single best recording setup, even given a budget. And what I am likely to buy changes with the technological development and the market.

For under $500, I would record directly onto my laptop, since my laptop goes with me on field trips anyway.

You can't use a condenser mic without a good amplifier, which is expensive and heavy. So my choice is a Shure SM58 cardioid dynamic mic. The price is around $100. You need a mic stand. Add $20. You need a cable, add another $20. You need a converter to convert the XLR connector of SM58 to the mini input on your laptop. That should be just a few dollars from Radio Shack.

Line-in takes the signal to soundboards directly, while mic-in amplifies the signal before sending it to the soundboard. PC mic-in amplifiers are of low quality, so I avoid them and use line-in.

If your soundboard can handle the dynamic range produced by SM58, you are OK with $150. Chances are you will still need to boost the signal. The Shure A96F transformer can boost the signal level for around $90. It also provides the XLR to mini converter.

If the A96F still doesn't provide enough amplification for your laptop, you will need a good amplifier. But if you do need to use an amplifier, I'd consider a higher-end setup with a condenser mic. That's going to be more than $500. So check your soundboard specification before going this route.

I actually did not use a Shure A96F. I use a $14.99 replacement from Radio Shack, 274-016, an XLR jack to 1/4" plug adapter/transformer. It works on my laptop (IBM ThinkPad). I did not purchase a Shure A96F and did not compare Shure A96F and Radio Shack 274-016.

The price tag is then $200 to $300, if you provide the laptop.

Chilin Shih

PS: The Shure SM58 was my first mic. I am sentimentally attached. Take that into consideration.

Bartek Plichta's Recommendations

The following recommendations were made by Dr. Bartek Plichta, Michigan State University.

Professional audio recording equipment can be very expensive, but do linguists need professional-grade equipment? Yes, of course, they do! I believe that linguists are both language and sound professionals. They need the best instrumentation they can have.

Finding the right equipment is very difficult as virtually none of the commercially available audio equipment is made specifically for high-quality speech recordings for linguists. Therefore, we need to improvise and try to find the best options for our research. There are a few key concepts to keep in mind:

  1. The microphone must have a flat frequency response, low noise, and medium sensitivity.
  2. The microphone needs to be placed as close to the talker's lips as possible, the headset configuration with an omnidirectional microphone being the best.
  3. The recorder needs to have the best preamplifier we can get. If it doesn't have a good preamplifier, we need to use an external unit.
  4. If recording digitally, use the uncompressed PCM format at 24-bit/48,000 Hz.
  5. Recording technique is far more important than the latest, most expensive, and aggressively advertised digital equipment
  6. It is best to stay away from equipment marketed to musicians and recording studios, as such equipment is likely to produce spectrally biased, or 'colored' recordings.

$500 or less

Microphone - Audio-Technica ATR35S attached to a lightweight telecommunications headset

Recorder - M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96

$1500 or less

Microphone - Shure Beta 53, Beyer Opus 55.18 MKII, or Sennheiser HSP2, purchased with an in-line phantom power adapter. This is likely to be special order only, but can be purchased from any repeatable dealer. These are omnidirectional, headset microphones that have broad and flat frequency response. If used correctly, they are capable of recording a great deal of spectral detail.

Recorder - M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96

Preamplifier - Sound Devices MixPre

$5000 or less

Microphone - same as above

Recorder - Sound Devices 722

More on audio recording equipment

The content of this page was developed following the recommendations from Chilin Shih and Bartek Plichta.

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Audio Equpipment Recommendations on a Budget
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