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What are the main considerations in selecting field recording equipment?

One of FRW’s Indian subscribers, Mahesh Acharya, thoughtfully referred us to a guide to community radio technology prepared by the United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2007. In late 2006, the government of India decided to allow community radio stations in the country. The technology guide was designed to answer the questions of prospective radio operators about the kind of equipment needed to set up a community station.

The following is adapted from the guide, describing factors to consider when selecting field recording equipment. You may also refer to the complete guide – CR: A user’s guide to the technology, online at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001561/156197e.pdf [1].

1) Ruggedness. Any equipment we move around with should be able to take some basic knocks and bumps without malfunctioning: climbing in and out of vehicles, travelling in crowded buses, and hiking some distances on foot are par for the course for community radio volunteers, and the equipment should be able to take that. You’ll find that modern solid state recorders, in particular, fulfill this condition well, as they have very few moving parts.

2) Resistance to humidity and dust. Many pieces of electronic equipment are so sensitive that they cannot withstand shifts in temperature – indoors to outdoors, for example, or from sunshine to shade. Others get easily fouled by the fine dust that pervades cities and rural areas and need multiple cleanings of their heads and other moving parts to stay in working order. Such pieces of equipment cannot be part of our field recording kit. While some maintenance is unavoidable, the ideal field equipment will not mind a bit of dust and will have a large operating temperature range.

3) Adaptability and portability. While we are in the field, we do not have the luxury of carrying large varieties of equipment to suit different situations. The recording equipment we carry has to give adequate or good results in all the situations and recording conditions we are likely to encounter. (This means the microphone has to be good for delicate as well as harsh sounds, voices as well as music, able to work in noisy conditions and in quiet.) Similarly, this will be equipment we will be carrying on our persons most of the time, so it has to be reasonably light, or we will be weighed down and tired out by just the effort of carrying it around.

4) Availability of spares and ancillaries. While most modern electronic equipment is too complex for us to expect that there will be people capable of repairing faults wherever we go, always plan on acquiring field recording equipment for which supplies are available easily in the areas you work in. For example, choose equipment that uses standard AA, AAA or D cells over fancy proprietary batteries that may not be easily available. Similarly, if the availability of recording media is an issue for you, it makes better sense to choose an audio cassette based recording device than a MiniDisc (MD) or DAT recorder. (Of course, this is not always a problem – MDs and DATs, for example, are highly reusable media, and can be erased and reused several times, thereby increasing the gap before fresh supplies are needed.)