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Digital Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide

Vermont Folklife Center
88 Main Street
Middlebury, Vermont 05753
info@vermontfolklifecenter.org / www.vermontfolklifecenter.org

Prepared by Andy Kolovos
Last Updated 2012-08-10


Well, summer is grinding on and gradually winding down here in northern New England and The Wife is off to Ukraine for a few weeks conducting fieldwork. What did she bring along to record interviews? Only her iPhone 4S and a TASCAM iM2 mic.

Imagine that?

Some day I promise to provide a nfity new section on all the awesome things one can do with iOS devices. Sadly that day is not today.

But what do I have for you all today? Ah! Some news on a refresh to the TASCAM DR-100, the TASCAM DR-100mkII! Check it out below!

 

And to keep beating this drum--if you're on the Magical Facebooks Tubes why not check out the Vermont Folklife Center Facebook page? And while you're at it, why not give us a like? On the miraculous Google+? Golly, so is VFC! And while your spending time on The Facebooks, why not check out the Audio Field Recording page maintained by me, John Fenn and Doug Boyd?

 

What's New:

  • Updated entry on the TASCAM DR-100mkII.

  • Deleted some stuff, updated a few small things and cleaned up some glaring errors.

PLEASE READ ME FIRST

I'm really happy that so many people find this thing useful, and I'm totally flattered that people seem to think I'm some sort of expert on this topic. Thing is, between my primary work duities, after-hours online teaching and my family, I'm pretty swamped.

So please--do not call me.

Really.

I don't want to be rude to you, but I will be. I simply do not have the time to answer any questions by phone.

Regarding email:

We maintain this webpage to assist ethographic researchers in acquiring equipment to conduct their work. If you are a professional researcher or student in an ethnographic field (e.g. folklore, ethnomusicology, oral history, anthropology), or if you are an educator or community scholar planning or undertaking a community research project, you are welcome to write me. However, if you do not hear back, please be understanding. I respond to everyone I can as soon as I can, but I just can't get back to everyone.

Also, if you want to give me (positive or negative) feedback, share experiences with gear, point out grammatical or spelling mistakes, etc., feel free to drop a line. I can't promise I'll be able to get back to you, but I'll try--and I certainly appreciate it.

Thanks for understanding.


Tip Jar

Trying something new here, folks. We at VFC have been maintaining this webpage since 2002. If you've found this resource useful and can spare a couple of bucks, consider dropping a few in our virtual tip jar. We're a small non-profit, and every little bit helps. The Vermont Folklife Center is a 501(c)(3), so your donation is tax deductible.

Thanks!

Andy


Table of Contents


 

Introduction [top]

This document is designed to offer guidance to researchers interested in obtaining digital audio recording equipment for conducting ethnographic fieldwork. It is primarily focused on the needs of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and oral historians, although anthropologists and anyone working in an ethnographic discipline or conducting ethnographic research will find some information of use here.

I have some strong opinions about what consitutes appropriate equipment for these sorts of applications: 1. I am a stanch advocate for using external microphones. Any recorder to which one cannot connect an external microphone of some sort will not be listed here. 2. I feel very strongly that fieldworkers should record in an uncompressed, standard format such as WAV or Broadcast WAV. Any recorder that will not allow for recording in WAV/BWF will not be listed here. 3. My focus is on mono and stereo recorders. With a few exceptions, I do not address multitrack field recording equipment here. 4. I have a bias toward equipment manufactured for, and marketed to, the professional market. While it is more expensive, pro gear is generally more durable and will produce better results. Are there exceptions? Sure, but more often than not you get what you pay for. 5. Finally, I feel completely free to make fun of any recorder with large, pokey microphones emerging like eye stalks from its top. It's a weird trend. They look silly.

All that stated, my basic rule is as follows: No matter what kind of equipment you ultimately work with--be it a $5,000 CompactFlash/hard drive recorder or a $40.00 Olympus digital voice recorder--it is most important that you are well acquainted with it and know how to use it optimally before setting out.

Many of the machines listed here can be found used for a fraction of their new price. There are many dealers in used audio equipment online these days, and Ebay (www.ebay.com) can be a great place to pick up bargains. When purchasing used equipment be sure the seller will guarantee that the equipment works and that he or she is willing to back up that guarantee with a full refund, repair or replacement. Caveat Emptor!

And, in the end, what matters most is not how fancy your toys are, but the relationships you develop through talking with other human beings and the legacy of their lives that you leave for the future.


 

Solid State Memory Card Recorders [top]

Over the past few years solid state field recorders have come to the fore. These machines contain no moving parts and record audio directly to memory cards such as CompactFlash (CF), Secure Digital (SD) and Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) cards of the sort used in various digital cameras. From the cards, recordings can be directly transferred to a PC and stored on hard disc, redundant file storage servers, burned to CD-R, etc. The cards can be re-used over and over again. Best of all, when using Flash cards, there are no moving parts. No moving parts means less power draw on batteries and fewer things that can jam, bend, wear or break! No moving parts also means there is no machine noise to intrude upon your recording!

On the downside, with an hour of CD-quality audio (16bit/44.1kHz stereo) requiring 630 megabytes of memory, even a 512 megabyte CompactFlash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) card would allow for less than an hour of uninterrupted, uncompressed audio at these settings. However, these cards are both expanding in size and dropping in price. At the time of this writing (August 2012), depending on the brand 8 gig CF cards can be had for around $20.00 and 16 gig SD cards for the same or less. Geezum!

Also, keep in mind something we learned the hard way: not all brands of solid state memory card will work well with every brand of recorder (or vice-versa!). Before dropping bucks on a high capacity card, contact the manufacturer of the recorder you are interested in to obtain a list of compatible brands.

And one more thing. A colleague of mine recently stopped into BestBuy to pick up some additional CF cards for her PMD660 prior to heading abroad for fieldwork. She inquired after them only to have the a helpful sale's clerk inform her that BestBuy no longer sold them because they are "obsolete."

Before you all start freaking out, they're not.

Although there has been a sharp decrease in the use of CF cards as a storage medium for consumer-grade digital cameras, they are still deeply entrenched in the world of professional digital photography. To put various fears to rest I contacted my digital photography guru Dan Havlik to get his perspective on the matter. He concurred. As the BestBuy experience recounted above indicates, they're probably going to become hard to find a brick-and-mortar stores that focus on consumer-grade photo equipment, but will continue to be readily available at stores that cater to the professional photo market as well as on the Web. And honestly the Web is probably your best bet.

Still, with the PMD661 Marantz made the swtich from CF to SD, so who knows what's coming down the pike. At this point companies that cater to the "more" professional wing of audio recording (Sound Devices, Fostex and others) are still supporting CF. Something to keep an eye on is all.

If you are contemplating a solid state recorder for you work, there are some practical considerations. Since you need to upload the data off the card and securely store the audio, you need to have access to a PC with ample storage space and, to be more safe, some kind of optical disc burner to create additional back ups. With that in mind, if you're going to be living in a tent off in the bush for 6 months, a solid state recorder might not be the best choice for you. However if you have regular (or at least semi-regular) access to a computer and reliable power, a flash-memory based recorder is a great recording option.

For more details on working with solid state memory recorders, please see the page we created on working with the Marantz PMD660, Field Recording in the Digital Age. Although it focuses on the PMD660, the suggestions provided will transfer to any solid state recorder.

The solid state recorders discussed below are very different from the smaller digital voice and dictation recorders available at office supply stores. While the smaller digital voice recorders create sound files in heavily compressed, proprietary formats (such as the Olympus .dss file format), these pro machines can record in uncompressed, standard formats such as .wav and broadcast wave, and do so at resolutions ranging from at least 16bit/44.1kHz to, in some cases, even 24bit/192kHz. My advice: from both audio quality and digital file management perspectives, stay the heck away from rinky-dink digital dictation and voice recorders if you have an interest in creating quality audio.

Solid state recording technology is one of the best digital audio field recording options currently available, and may well represent the future of field recording in general.


    Fostex FR-2LE
    Fostex's cheaper, downsized version of the FR-2. Over all it's pretty cool--24bit/16bit, 44.1kHz-96kHz, BWF and MP3. A whole lot to love.

    The downside for some folks (but an upside for others) is that the unit has two separate controls for setting levels when using an external mic: a mic trim and level control. When recordinig, one first sets the trim for each channel being recorded, then adujsts that signal with the level contols. Overall this increases the flexibility of the unit enormously—however, for people without experience or who aren't comfortable coming to terms with mastering the ins and outs of this approach, the FR2-LE ight not be the best choice.

    Here at VFC Central we've been experimenting with this unit for the last year or so. I gotta say, I like it a lot. Once one gets comfortable with the controls it's a fairly straight forward machine to use. It has its quirks (which I'll address in a moment), but that stuff notwithstanding, it is the cleanest sounding recorder I've used in this price range. Clean with the mic we've been using (a Rode NT55) at least. Here's a story: due to some early mishaps with settings, we had a couple of recordings turn out really low, and in order to create audible versions yours truly was obliged to boost the amplitude via our DAW. I would have expected to have a corresponding (and pronounced) increase in audible noise along with the louder signal. Didn't happen. I was impressed and, under the circumstances, relieved.

    The machine does have some quirks, the most annoying of which is the need to format the card specifically for either 16 bit or 24 bit recording, and also for mono or stereo recording, so you can't change your mind about bit depth or sound field without reformatting (and thereby deleting) the contents of the card. And—at least with the version of the firmware we're running—it has this annoying habit of mysteriously reseting itself from mono to stereo. While I imagine there is something we're doing that is causing this unintentioned switch, the appearance of intentional action on the part of the machine is still kinda spooky.

    The FR-2LE is still one of my favorite CF recorders in this price range. If you're willing to work with the dual level adjustments, I think it's the best thing south of the Sound Devices recorders for now.

    Fostex info here. Our heroes at Oade Brothers have rolled out a suite of upgrades as well. Street price is around $499.00.


    Marantz PMD-620
    New recorder from Marantz that's both priced and sized to compete with the cheaper units from Edirol, M-Audio and Zoom. Does the currently expected usual: 24 bit/16 bit, stereo/mono, WAV/MP3. Sampling rates limited to 44.1kHz and 48kHz. Internal stereo mics and mini plug input for an external mic. Writes to SD cards. Recently read a interesting review of the unit on the Transom Tools "Ask Jeff" forum, according to which the thing got left on the roof of the reviewers car, flew off at 50MPH, hit the road, skidded around and still worked just fine.

    That, my friends, is pretty freaking impressive.

    UPDATE: VFC collaborator and my buddy, Ginger, showed up earlier this week with the PMD620 that I managed to con talk her into buying for a project she's working on. Although we were both pressed for time, here are my initial reactions: It's small, it's plastic. That I didn't like so much. The menu system is nice and familiar, clearly based on the menu Marantz used for the PMD660, which I actually like and find fairly intuitive. We fired it up using the only working mic I could find around the office (a Sony lav, the ECM-55B) and the resulting recordings were actually pretty good by my standards. We also recorded using the internal mics. That I didn't like so much--not terrible but, when compared by ear and by looking at the waveforms on screen, noisier than the recording made with the external. No surprise there.

    Overall I don't love the thing, but if I had to buy one of these chincy-mini-plug-dual-external-mic-jobs, I'd lean toward this one based on my (brief) experience and what others are saying. Plus, as I've mentioned before Marantz customer service is pretty darn good, especially compared to what you're most likely going to get over at Roland (Edirol R09) and Sampson (the Zoom recorders). Good customer service is really something to consider when doing a cost-benefit analysis for making these sorts of choices. On another note, Doug Oade of Oade Brothers is already on top of modificaitons for this unit as well.

    For a unit that I think will turn out to be superior for many resaons, and largely because it does not wallow in the mini-plug pool, see the PMD661 below.

    Official info on the PMD-620 here. Street price is $399.00.

    Marantz PMD-660
    Portable hand-held PC card recorder. Marantz foray into the field of hand held recorders. The PMD660 can create WAV files encoded at 16 bit/44.1kHz and 16 bit/48kHz in mono or stereo. It has XLR jacks for mic input (yeah!), mini plug for line level analog in and outs (boo!), and USB in/out on the unit (whoopie!). Thanks to the intrepid research of VFC internship alumnus, Mr. Stuart Burrill, we now also know that the unit has only two .mp3 encoding options (64kbps mono and 128kbps stereo only) and doesn't have a limiter. I'm not bummed about the .mp3 thing, but I can see why no limiter might be troubling to some people. In the words of a Marantz rep, "The 660 is not a replacement for the 670, it is a lower cost, more basic unit."

    Opinions on the machine tend to vary. I received word from Dr. Doug Boyd (Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky) regarding some testing he conducted at a recent folklorists gathering: "Andy, I did a workshop in Alabama this weekend and conducted an A/B test on the 660 and 670 at 16bit/48 and the 660 was significantly quieter. Surprised the heck out of me." So far, so good. A thorough review of the unit from the perspective of radio journalists resides on the Transom.org site here and another thorough review by Bartek Plichta aimed at researchers in linguistics can be found here.

    We've been using the PMD660 for a while now, and I've found it decent but, by my standards, the mic-pres are noisy. I also discovered, much to my chagrin, that the mic-pres are easily overwhelmed by sensitive mics. I recently had a conversation with Marantz technical support about this matter and they reiterated the comment made to one of my chums earlier: the PMD660 is a lower cost unit. Part of this lower cost includes fewer features than the other machines in the line. Part of this lower cost also includes lower quality electronics when compared to the other CF recorders in the line.

    Still, despite the things that bug me about the unit there is a heck of a lot to like in the PMD660. No other solid state recorder in its price range has XLR inputs, and unlike similarly priced machines such as the M-Audio MicroTrack and the Edirol R-1, you can record in both mono and stereo. Battery life in my experience has been great, and I find the recording controls to be well laid out and easy to use. Furthermore, Marantz technical support is stellar--and the value of good technical support should not be underestimated. Not only do they actually answer the phone, they're damn good about actually answering your questions.

    So overall I favor the unit and tend to recommend it ahead of comparably priced machines. You can check the PMD660 out at the Marantz website here. Retailing between $450.00 and $500.00 or so.

    Now, the good stuff. There is an interesting solution to many of the problems I have with the stock PMD660. Oade Brothers performs a low-cost modification to the PMD660 that greatly improves the unit’s performance. The difference is quite remarkable, actually. Their “Basic Mod” replaces the problematic mic-pres, which in turn cleans up the sound noticeably. Me and the wife, the Mighty Dr. J, picked up one as our family field recorder, and down at the VFC we bought a few as well. Info on the mod can be found here. Oade Brothers sells the PMD660s with the Basic Mod for around $560.00, which isn’t all that much more than a stock unit. So far I’m a very big fan—it’s a lot of bang for the buck.

    Note: interested parties should be aware that performing the modifications renders the original manufacturer’s warranty invalid, so if you buy a modified unit you can’t go crying to Marantz for help if it breaks. However, Oade Brothers does provide a 90 warranty, so you are not totally on your own.

    Marantz PMD-661
    A 24 bit recorder released as a replacement for the the PMD660. Frankly my rock-and-roller self was hoping for the PMD666, but well, I suppose PMD661 makes more sense and will alienate fewer people. Somewhat smaller (30% smaller according to Sound on Sound) than the PDM660, records in both 16 and 24 bit at up to 96kHz, writes to SD and SDHC cards instead of CF and, of course, features XLR inputs. Strangely while it has a S/DIF digital audio input it apparently lacks a digital audio output—beside the USB, that is. Don't like that. The S/PDIF out on the PMD670 has save my butt numerous times.

    And as expected, Doug Oade is on the job with his modifications.

    I really like the Fostex FR2-LE, but for those less inclined to want to deal with some of that unit's quirks (dual gain and level adjustments in particular) this unit might be the way to go. For many in the ethnographic/oral history field recording world, this has been the combo of functionality and size to wait for.

    Now the hands on: The Wife and I bought one of these over a year ago and I have to say I realy like it. Marantz has addressed almost all my issues with the PDM660, and improved upon the whole thing dramatically. The one let down is the lack of a limiter, but that seems to be something Marantz is not interested in providing at this price-point.

    So, what do you get? A 1/4" headphone jack to start! Man, that made me happy--the main failure point on the PMD660 for us has consistently been the headphone jack. Also--balanaced analog inputs! An external mic/line switch rather than a menu option. Better battery life. Lots of little things like this that make it a much nicer machine all around. The Wife and I purchased one of the Oade Bros. mods, so I can't speak to the quality of the stock pres, but word is that even the standard preamps in the PMD661 are a large improvement over the pres that came with the PMD660. I like the unit a lot and I recommend it.

    Official info on the Marantz PMD661 available here. Transom.org's review of the unit here. Street price at this point is around $600.00.

    Marantz PMD-671
    Built on essentially the same chassis as the PMD670, with the PMD670 no longer in production, the PMD671 is now the only full-featured audio field recorder from Marantz.

    Along with all the basic features present in the PMD670 (e.g. a limiter, S/PDIF, external controls, etc.), the PMD671 is a 24bit/96kHz machine with stock mic-preamps that are, by all accounts, a big improvement over the mic-pres in the 670.

    After the circuit board on one of our PMD670s got totally fried, we opted to replace it with a PMD671. We made this choice for several reasons, not the least of which is that--from an operatorís perspective--the 670 and 671 are basically identical so the fieldworkers would not have to learn a new recorder from scratch. We also opted to buy a unit with Oade Brotherís modifications to take advantage of the further-improved input path.

    Thus far I’m very happy with it—as I noted earlier, from a functional perspective it’s pretty much identical to the PMD670. In some ways I still prefer the Fostex FR2-LE, but the the Fostex has its hassles, and PMD671 is what it is--an impoved version of the always-reliable PMD670. And it's doing fine for us so far.

    Manufacturer's info on the unit here. Last I checked it listed at $999.00.


    Roland R-09HR
    The Roland R-09HR--formerly the Edirol R-09HR--is a refresh of the original Edirol R-09. While Roland dropped the Edirol brand I'm not exactly sure, but as far as far as I can tell the recorder is essentially the same.

    Mostly the same stuff as the R-09: up to 24 bit/96kHz, writes to SD (and in this version SDHC cards as well) instead of CF, has a built in stereo mic, miniplug input for external mic. They've added a limiter this time around. I don't know, I thought the original was pretty lame, especially after hearing it. I'm guessing this one is probably pretty lame too. Maybe not, though. I'm guessing Doug will probably buy one, so I'll see and then ask him what he thinks. To Edirol's Roland's credit, the redesign looks less dumb, which is something at least. Now it's rubberized! Check it out here. Sells for around $300.00.

    Roland R-26
    A recorder that appears to be Roland's response to the TASCAM DR-100 and Zoom H4r. The R-26 has all the standard bells and whistles for this price point--24/96, top mounted mics with a range of configurable arrays, XLR/TRS combo inputs, a limiter. Might be pretty good, might not. A lot will come down to the quality of the analog signal path.

    Lists for $499. No real reviews yet. Roland's offical page is here.


    Sony PCM-D50
    Priced to compete with the lower end of the solid state recorder market, but with an $100.00 tacked on as a Sony premium of some sort, the PCM-D50 is the cheaper version of the monstrously expensive Sony PCM-D1. From the get-go this recorder does a lot wrong from The Andy Perspective: built in X/Y pattern stereo mics, check. Mini-plug external mic input, check. The one thing they did get right is including a S/PDIF input/output, which is actually a fairly useful option to have.

    Since I haven't heard one of these things, I've only got reviews to go by. Transom has a good, thorough review of the PCM-D50 and they're alright with it generally. Still, it's not for me. The mini plug mic-jack kinda kills it. Anyway, if you're interested in one of these X/Y-all-in-one jobs, and you don't have a spare $2,000 kicking around for the PDM-D1, this might be the thing to get. I suspect it'll do a better job than the Zooms, R-09HR, TASCAM DR-1, etc. As for me, I'll take XLRs, an external mic and a clean signal path over any perceived added convinence of built in strereo mics. List is $499.00, retail is around $470.00.


    Sound Devices 702
    Oh boy! Remove the internal hard disk drive from the Sound Devices 722 (see below) and you have the Sound Devices 702, a slightly cheaper, pure solid state audio recorder. THIS is really exciting. If I wanted a 722 bad, I want this one worse. Thank Crom for my sensible wife, for without her wise counsel I would probably own one of these already, rather than saving money so we can continue to feed our child on a regular basis. Details here. List is $2,175.00, and I recently saw it at B&H for $1,850.00.


    TASCAM DR-1
    Now TASCAM is in on it too. Small, built-in stereo mics, mini-plug jack, yadda, yadda, yadda. Curiously it only records at 44.1 or 48kHz rather than the obligitory 96kHz. THAT might be the only positive thing about it. Really seems to be aimed at the home music recordist as one can do overdubs on it and it includes a built in tuner. It looks like a fusion of the Edirol R-09 and Sony PCM-D50. Frankly not my cup of tea. Info here. Going for around $180-$200.

    TASCAM DR-2D
    TASCAM's version of the Zoom H2/H2n. Or that's what it seems like at first glance. Cheap. Small. Multi-pattern internal mics. Limiter. One neat feature is what they're calling "Dual Record" which allows you to record the same source at differing peak dB levels simultaneously so that if one clips, the other won't. Not terribly useful for what I do, but still actually kinda neat. Selling for around $150. Official info here.

    TASCAM DR-40
    Finally a recorder that hits a sweet spot for price and features. In short: it's under $200, it's got XLR inputs, and it can be configured for true mono recording. Kinda my trifecta for an entry-level audio recorder, and TASCAM is the first manufacturer to put a machine like this to market.

    So, onto the good and the bad. The good: as noted above, it's inexpensive, it has XLR inputs and can be configured for true mono recording. The bad: preamps are not great, but that's to be expected at this price-point; in stereo mode the left and right channels are not independently adjustable; some basic functions are buried in irritating and, by my standard non-intuitive, menus; gain adustment is via a +/- rocker switch on the side rather than, say, a pleasant dial; the AC adaptor needs to be purchased separately and costs around $25; and it's got (to me at least) a cheap feel. In all respects it is the smaller, cheaper little sister/brother to the TASCAM DR-100.

    We purchased a number of these units to create recording kits for a community-based project we're coordinating here in Vermont, the Irene Storytelling Project. Our choice of these units was due to the three factors I mention above, and so far we're happy with the unit for what it is.

    Ah, but what is it exactly?

    That would be the rub.

    The TASCAM DR-40 is not a top of the line recorder at a low price. Rather, the TASCAM DR-40 is a decent recorder for a lower price that—when paired with an appropriate microphone—gets the job done better than some and worse than others. For those of you with a lower buget who are looking for something half-way decent—be ye a student, a professional with limited funds, or someone who just wants to record sound—the DR-40 is a darn good option, and one that (and I'll go out on this limb) I recommend ahead of any other in this price range.

    The indomitable Jeff Towne has put up an excellent review of the TASCAM DR-40 in the Tools section of Transom.org, and I agree with his conclusions completely. If you're considering the unit, you should totally check out what he has to say.

    Regarding the preamps and microphones, as noted by Jeff the TASCAM DR-40 will be noisy with lower-output dynamic mics--mics like the reporters' favorite ElectroVoice RE50 for example. The TASCAM DR-40 will be less noisy when used with a condenser mic. Advice: use a condenser mic or be prepared to deal with noticeable hiss.

    The TASCAM DR-40 seems to be selling for around $199. Offical details here.

    TASCAM DR-100mkII
    A refresh of the TASCAM DR-100, and by every account I've read so far it's a strong improvement over what was an already fairly strong recorder. Like its predecessor the DR-100, the DR-100mkII is set to compete with to the Roland R-26 and the Zoom H4r--and thus far it looks to be beating out the others quite squarely.

    My friend and colleague, ethnomusicologist Harold Anderson, purchased a bunch of DR-100s for the Cultural Sustainability program at Goucher College. I got to play with them a bit while I was working with Harold during a program residency and I was impressed. It struck me as solid and sturdy, and best of all it has my blessed XLR inputs. While the preamps were not as clean as I would have liked, they weren't all that bad either. Interesting option in this price range.

    Doug Boyd has doen a thorough overview of the DR-100mkII and, based on what he says--as well as what many others are saying (e.g. B&H, and poke around the Web for more)--it looks like TASCAM has hit the sweet spot I've been waiting for between features, price and quality. From what I'm seeing this is now the machine to beat in the sub $500 price range.

    Most importantly Doug notes that the preamps on the mkII are a marked improvement over the original model. And since the pres on the DR-100 weren't half bad, this is a really good sign.

    XLR inputs? It's got XLR. Decent qualtiy preamps? According to Doug, it's got 'em. Balanced analog output? Yup. Easy level controls? Sure thing. Lots of external switches and button instead of menus? Indeed. All this in a sturdy metal chasis for around $330.

    And, unlike the Marantz PMD661, it's got a limiter.

    The only bummers to me are: A) it lacks a digital signal output beside USB, and B) from what I've read rather than recording single channel mono files in mono mode it creates dual channel mono files. As far as "A" goes, you're not going to find that for less than $600. As far as "B" goes, it's an annoying waste of storage space, but not the end of the world.

    In light of all of this the DR-100mkII seems like a really good recorder for the price. Are there better recorders out there? Sure, of course. Are there better recorders at this price point? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no.

    So, in conclusion, if you're an ethnographer and/or oral historian looking for an audio recorder and can part with $330, the TASCAM DR-100mkII looks to me like the one to buy.

    TASCAM's page here. Selling for around $330-$370 or so.


    Zoom H1
    Cheap offering from Zoom/Sampson. Cheap in apparently all senses of the word. But still, cheap in the monetary sense of the word too--as in around $99.00 cheap. If all I could sport were $100, I'd buy this ahead of any of the Office Max/Staples digital vioce recorder thingies. Waaay ahead. So if you're a student and you don't have much to spend, maybe (MAYBE) this sucker is the one to start with--especially when paired with a standard plug-in-power external mic like the Sony ECM-MS907 (retaial around $65).

    Info here. Current retail is $99.00.

    Zoom H2n
    Sampson's refresh to their ubiquitous Zoom H2 Handy Recorder. Have not handled the H2n yet, but by the accounts I've read it appears to be an improvment on the scale of the H4n/H4 uprgade.

    Highlights being pushed in the promotional materials are a physical redesign, and interface redesign, some altered controls, and the addition of a Mid/Side stereo mic configuration.

    I've gradually begun to reconsider the Zoom units because several friends and colleagues have convinced me to do so (and this includes you, Richard Hess). Also, perhaps more importantly, I've decided to try and grow up a touch and be less of a snob about things.

    Like it's predecessor, the Zoom H2, I'm going to come out and say that the Zoom H2n is a Not-Great audio recorder. However, amongst all the options that litter the large field of Not-Great audio recorders out there, I'm now willing to say that the Zoom H2n is probably at the top of the heap of said inexpensive, lo-fi, Not-Great audio recorders. It is cheap. It does a decent job for the money. And those two factors are its primary virtues: being cheap and being the least crappy of the crappy.

    If my choices boiled down to buying one of those horrific OfficeMax/Staples digital voice recorder things or a Zoom H2n, I'd buy the Zoom H2n. Hands down. If I were teaching a class and needed a mess of recorders, or if I were running a community-based research project on a limited budget, I'd buy a bunch of Zoom H2ns. If I had to use one of these things or not get the take (as it were), no question, I'd use it.

    However, if I were looking for a recorder and had a reasonable budget--say $400 to $1200, I wouldn't buy a Zoom H2n, I'd buy something else.

    Audio guy, Brendan has a great review of the H2n on his blog, Drive-By High Five, available here. One of the important things he notes is that the pre-amp for the external min input seem to be better than the pre on the original H2. Official details on the recorder on the Samson website are available here: Zoom H2n.

    Now, as with the Zoom H2, the Zoom H2n only has a mini-plug mic input. In order to use a decent mic with it, you'll need an interface allong the lines of the ones listed in "Cables and Accessories" section below, or choose a decent electrolet condenser like the the Sony ECM-MS907 I mention above. Otherwise you'll be limited to any old crapola mic with a hard wired mini-plug. So it goes. What do you expect for under $199.00? A freaking Nagra?

    Zoom H4n Handy Recorder
    Zoom/Sampson's update to their popular, and by my standards lame, H4 recorder. By all acounts the H4n is vast improvement over that earlier unit. It even looks less stupid! Almost unique among this class of recorder for having XLR inputs in addition to those goofy X/Y pattern mics mounted on top. As with a lot of this stuff, much of the functionality is aimed at musicians, but based on specs it will certainly still be useful for ethnography/oral history. Although it won't generate a true mono file--rather it creates a dual channel mono file. This is annoying. Would I buy it? I'd save my money for something better, frankly. However, if you need to buy a recorder and the most you can do is $300 or so, perhaps this is a good option.

    The ever-dedicated Bartek Plichta has an excellent, thorough review of the H4n aimed at lingusists, ethnographers and oral historians here that highlights some of the challenges you'd face if employing the H4n toward any of these endeavors.

    Offical info available here. Lists at $400.00, seems to be retailing around $300.00.



 

Hard Disc and "Hybrid" Recorders[top]

This category includes digital audio recorders that write to hard disc or that record to more than one format--hard disc and CD-R or CompactFlash and built in hard disc, for example. It's kind of a place to fit stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere, so I didn't know what else to call it. I'm open to suggestions.

    Korg MR-1

    Brought to you buy the folks who gave us the '80s pop synth revolution, the Korg MR-1 is a smallish, hand held, high quality digital audio field recorder. A lot of people seem to be kinda ga-ga for this number, and there are certainly reasons to be. That stated, as you can probably guess, I've got my issues with it too.

    Lets begin on the positive side—most reviews I've read stress that the MR-1 is a clean recorder. This is good. It uses balanced connectors on the inputs. This is very good. It's kinda cool looking. This isn't bad.

    Now the negatives. For a unit in this price range (original MSRP $899.00, currently selling $550.00-$650.00) the use of mini-plug inputs—even if they're separate balanced inputs for each channel —is kind of a disgrace. Another thing that bugs me is Korg's prattle about "future proof" recording.

    There is no such thing.

    Trust me on this one, I'm an audio archivist and this is something I know a little bit about.

    The high point in my research about this unit came when I discoverd the CNET review, and I quote, "For audio archivists [emphasis mine] reluctant to record using today's CD-quality standard of 16-bit/44.1kHz, fearing that the format may become outdated, DSD recordings offer a new recording option that may hold up better over time..." To be fair, I recognize that they're using the word "audio archivsit" pretty broadly (e.g. anybody on earth who wants to save audio recordings), while I use it more narrowly to describe those people trained, experienced and professionally engaged in the standards-based preservation of auido in an archival environment. So, speaking as one of the latter, DSD (Direct Stream Digital) isn't really high on the list of audio preservation formats. However, in their marketing Korg has been pushing the fact that the MR-1 can record in DSD and, once more as an audio archivist, at this point in time at least recording in DSD is a pretty bad idea. Support for the format is low, and, worst of all to me, it's another icky proprietary Sony thing.

    Curiously for the next two months Korg is offering a $200.00 rebate on this unit, and assuming the loopholes aren't too huge this might mean that potentially you might be able to pick up one of these for $350.00 or so dollars, which would be a pretty good deal. That stated, I don't love the unit. As noted above, the unit seems to be going for $550.00 to $650.00.

    Marantz CDR420 Portable CD Recorder Basically a hard drive recorder with a built in CD burner. Although you apparently can't record to CD-R in real time, you can burn CD-DA and CD-ROM discs after the recording session is finished. Limited, as you might imagine, to 16bit/44.1kHz recording. Info here.

    Sound Devices 722 The object of my latest audio recorder love affair. Writes to either (or both at once) Compact Flash cards and/or an internal HDD. I dream of it at night. Info on this most splendid of things can be found here. I want one. Bad. It seems my buddy Richard Hess just bought one of these. As I tamp down my jealously, I also await his feedback. I'll keep you all posted. Generally speaking, however, the more feedback I hear, the better the unit sounds. That's nice for a change. A steal at $2,375.00.


 

Microphones [top]

Using an external microphone is vital to making high-quality recordings. This is something we cannot stress enough. Built-in microphones complicate recording by requiring one to place the machine as close to the speaker as possible, they limit the amount of monitoring one can do to the recording because any contact with the machine while recording is underway will be picked up by the mic, and internal mics pick up an enormous amount of machine noise from the recorder itself.

Two distinct classes of microphones are dynamic and condenser mics. While condenser mics tend to be more sensitive, they also require a power supply (either a battery or what is called "phantom power" which is drawn from the recording device) to function and tend to be somewhat fragile. Dynamic mics are generally not as sensitive, but are more durable and do not require additional power of any sort.

Another distinction in mics comes in the way they pick up sound--the distinction between "directional" and "omni-directional" mics. Directional mics of various stripes pick up audio in an area directly in front of the microphone. Omni-directional mics pick up audio equally from all directions. The most common sort of directional mic is called a "cardioid" mic because it picks up audio in a somewhat heart-shaped pattern emanating out from the front of the microphone.

A further distinction can be made between mono and stereo mics. Mono mics record a single channel of audio, stereo mics record slightly different signals to each channel of a recording, creating a stereo effect when used with a stereo field recorder. With stereo recording devices, a stereo signal can be created through the use of two appropriately positioned mono mics or with a stereo mic.

Those of you interested in recording live music should consider the merits of a stereo mic (assuming, of course, that you will be using a recording device that can record in stereo to begin with!). Although stereo mics are more expensive, a field recording of a musical event made with stereo equiment will more faithfully reproduce the experience of the live performance than will a mono set up.

On another note, we advise against using lavalier mics--the tiny clip-on lapel mics one often sees on television. Although they have the virtue of being less-obtrusive, the tiny electronics in most lavalier mic canÍt match the dynamic range of larger, hand held mics.

Depending to some degree on the recorder you use, for most ethnographic and oral history interviewing a decent dynamic mono mic, whether directional or omni-directional, will work great. They are sturdy, less expensive and, since they donÍt require an external power supply, less of a potential hassle than condenser mics.

For a more in-depth discussion of microphones for field recording, including comparisions between various models, visit: www.transom.org, Bartek Plitcha's Microphone pages, and the Oade Brothers Mic FAQ in their "Taper's" section.

Mono Dynamic mics:

    Audio Technica AT804 Omni-Directional. A good, sturdy field recording microphone. No longer being made, but still available as old store stock or used. Sort of a bummer since Doug Oade recommends it as a good match for the PMD660. Not too many of those around. Runs between $78.00 & $90.00, perhaps less used if you can find one.

    Beyerdynamic M-58 Omni-Directional. Well regarded mic for field recording. $200.00

    Electro-Voice 635A and 635A/B Omni-Directional. Nicknamed "The Hammer," the EV635A has been a staple in field interviewing, particularly broadcast journalism, for decades. Excellent sound, dependablity and virtually indestructable. The 635 A/B is the same mic in black. Sells new for $100.00, used for around $50.00.

    Electro-Voice 635N/DB Omni-Directional handheld dynamic mic. Another macho member of the EV635 family, a tad meatier than the A and A/B on account of its "neodymium magnet structure." Retails for $120.00

    Electro-Voice RE50 Omni-Directional mic with a well insulated handle to reduce handling noise. Around $140.00

    Electro-Voice RE50N/DB Neodymium magnet equipped version of the above. A whole lotta mic. $160.00

    Sennheiser MD-46 A low-cost, mono, dynamic, cardioid microphone. I don't know too much about it, but my faith in Sennheiser knows few bounds. I've seen it for between $170.00 & $146.00.

    Sennheiser MD421 II Cardoid mic. The one we use at the VFC. A great mic, but somewhat pricey for most folks. $450.00.

    Shure SM58 Cardioid microphone. The familiar ball-top style mic that looks kind of like an ice cream cone. Around $100.00

    Shure SM63 Omni-Directional. Classic news gathering mic used for years by broadcast journalists. Approx. $120.00

    Shure VP64A Omni-Directional. Affordable, solid Shure mic. Priced between $65.00 & $90.00.

Mono Condenser mics:

    AKG C535EB A cardioid condeser recommended by Doug Oade of Oade brothers for all the right reasons--as he states: "It is a detailed, neural in tone and clean sounding hand held mic with a track record of reliability." Sounds good to me. Phantom power only, no battery. Lists at $299.00.

    Audio-Technica AT813a A cardiod condenser. We just picked one up and, well, while it's not the greatest mic in the world, it's certainly better than many others. Still, it's cheap. Battery or phantom power. Same mic as the ATM31a below, just with a different name. Around $150.00

    Audio-Technica U873R A hypercardioid condenser with a wonderfully flat frequency response. Chet Briggs brought this one to my attention and I'm curious. A very nice thing about this mic is that, like the other mics in AT's Unipoint Series, one can purchase additional capsules with different polar patterns. So for less than the price of a separate mic one can purchase omni and cardioid elements for the U873R and swap when necessary. We bought a mess of these lately and I'm still feeling them out. So far so good though. Mic seems to retail between $180 and $200.00. Additional capsules range around $75.00 or so.

    Audio-Technica ATM31a A cardiod condenser, see above for details. Battery or phantom power. Same mic as the AT813a above, just with a different name. Around $150.00.

    CAD C195 A cheap, cardioid, electret consenser microphone with what amounts to a fairly flat frequency response for the price. Heck, it even comes with a 15' cable. Phantom power only, so be aware of that before you buy. Not the greatest mic in the world, but pretty darn good for the price. I learned of it from Doug Oade's mic FAQ, and we bought a bunch for recording kits we put together as a part of the Irene Storytelling Project. So far they seem to be doing their job. Sells for between $50 and $99 depending on the reseller.

    Neumann KMS 105 One of the mics used by Story Corps, for those of you who are inclined to care about such things. It is a wonderful mic, certainly worthy of the Neumann name. I put it here more for a hoot since, well, it isn't cheap. List is $650.00, retail is around $620.00.

    Rode NT55 A condenser mic with swappable cadioid and omni capsules. Two mics in one! Rode continues its track record of producing decent quality, lower-cost gear. It's small—about the size of a blunt cigar—not well suited to hand-held applicatons, but it works great on a stand. We've got one and so far I'm a big fan. Retails for around $350.00.

Stereo Condenser mics:

    AKG C-1000 A matched pair of mics for stereo recording. AKG makes top quality stuff, and VFC field recording workshop instructor, Scott Gillette speaks quite highly of these. A lot of mic at this price. $300.00 for the set.

    Audio Technica AT825 My ethnomusicologist buddy, Dr. Johnny Fenn, spent several months with this mic recording music in Malawi, South Central Africa. It took a beating and persevered. A great, dependable stereo condenser mic. Costs around $340.00

    Audio Technica AT822 Little brother/sister to the AT825. Retails for around $240.00

    Rode NT4 The mic-beloved of our summer 2003 intern, Stuart Burrill. Makes really nice recordings and looks like a medical device from the original Star Trek show. The price seems to range between $450.00 and $350.00

    Rode NT5 A set of two matched mics for dual-point stereo recording. Dr. Doug Boyd of Kentucky Folklife likes 'em, and that's ok by me. $300.00 for the set.


 

Microphone Stands [top]

Microphone stands make the job of interviewing and music recording much simpler, and can greatly improve the quality of the audio you record. Most mics will require a clip or adaptor to attach to any stand. New mics frequently come with the proper stand adaptor. If not, any retailer from whom you buy your mic should sell appropriate adaptors. Radio Shack sells a clamp-on adaptor (catalog number 33-372) for $5.00, which will clamp on to most smaller and larger microphones.

    Atlas DS7 Desk stand. It's designed to sit on a flat surface but can pick up noise easily (for example, fingers drumming on the table, bumps against table legs) and limits where you are able to set up your interview since it must rest on top of something. Noise from table bumps can be reduced by folding up a towel (or sweater or what-have-you) and placing it under the base of the stand. $15.00-$20.00

    AKG KM2210/9 High quality mic stand that won't suffer from the jitters prone to cheaper stands. Price really does matter with these things. Around $75.00.

    AKG KM251 stand plus the AKG KM211/1 boom arm. My favorite stand/boom combo. The rig gets really small„around 2.5'„when fully compacted. Sturdy too. We've been getting the pair for around $97.00 total.


 

Cables and Accessories [top]

Cable: Prices on cable vary depending on the brand, the quality of the cable, quantity of cable and types of connectors, but on average good cable seems to cost in the range of 75 cents through $2.00 or so a foot. Make sure you tell your salesperson what mic and recording deck you will be using so you end up with the right connectors.

Windscreens: A windscreen is a foam or fabric cover that one pulls over the top of a microphone to reduce noise caused by air blowing across it. A windscreen is a necessity if you will be doing any recording outdoors. They are also very useful for reducing breath noise and "puh" sounds associated with pronouncing words beginning with the letter "P." Windscreens are generally made of one of two kinds of material: foam or a fuzzy stuffed animal/shag carpet-style fabric. The fuzzy kind are much more effective at reducing wind noise. Unfortunately they are also tend to be more expensive and will not necessarily fit every mic. Foam windscreens are frequently sold by manufacturers as matching accessories to particular mics, so there will generally be a proper foam windscreen available for any new mic you purchase. The fuzzy fabric screens and foam screens can also be used in conjunction with one another. Original manufacturer's foam windscreens generally run in the neighborhood of $30.00-$60.00 or more, depending on the microphone model. Rycote makes a line of good-quality fuzzy fabric screens that will fit many mics out there. Prices vary, but windscreens suitable for mics such as those listed above seem to fall in the $60.00 range. Talk to a salesperson to be sure any windscreen you purchase will fit your mic.

Headphones: We strongly recommend using headphones, at least at the start of the interview and periodically throughout, to monitor environmental noise, sound levels and overall recording quality. Better headphones will certainly do a better job, but what is more important is that you simply use them at all„-in other words, almost any pair is better than none. So if you've got a pair of old Walkman headphones, iPod ear buds, a half-way decent set of monitor headphones such as Sony MDR-7502 (around $45.00) or a good set of monitor headphones such as Sony MDR-7506 (around $99.99), bring them along and use them. The one tricky part to using headphones is being sure the plug on the end of the cord matches the input on your recorder. Thankfully RadioShack sells all sorts of inexpensive adaptors to facilitate this process.

Other Accessories: There are a few other odds and ends that might be useful depending on the type of equipment you choose. A microphone pre-amp boosts the signal from the mic to the recorder, and is a good piece of equipment to consider if you are using a professional-quality microphone with a recorder that sports a single mini-plug mic input (such as the Edirol R-09/R-09HR, Marantz PMD-620, TASCAM DR-1, Zoom H2), an .mp3 player/recorder, a laptop soundcard mic input, a camcorder audio input, or an old consumer-grade MiniDisc machine. Of the gaggle of such devices out there, we have worked with two--both are small, inexpensive and do a good job of compensating for the lower-quality pre-amps built into less expensive recorders.

Shure A96F Line Matching Transformer. Not technically a mic pre-amp, however the A96F will give about a 12db boost to your incoming signal. The A96F is a an in-line device intended for use with camcorders--one end has a female XLR connector, the other a mini-plug. You plug your mic or mic cable into the XLR end, and the mini-plug end right into your recorder--MiniDisc, tape deck, lap-top mic-input port, etc. Wala. For more info, see Transom.org's MiniDisc guide which includes a good discussion of the A96F. Costs aroound $45.00.

Fel Communications 35MX. Mono microphone preamp (Fel also makes a stereo version) that gives a 20db signal boost and reduces noise problems created by cheap built-in preamps in the aforementioned inexpensive CF recorder, .mp3 player/recorder, laptop, camcorder, and MiniDisc mic inputs. We sported this little guy back in our MiniDisc day and I was quite impressed. An in-line device like the A96F above. For further info, check out their site here. A neat little doo-dad. Made in the UK and apparently only available in the US directly from the manufacturer via the web. Not so cheap as it used to be: £76.00. Note that's GBP, not USD.


 

Equipment Suppliers [top]

Advice on buying this kind of equipment is pretty simple--check prices everywhere, ask a lot of questions and, as always, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Prices on professional audio equipment can vary greatly from retailer to retailer, as can shipping charges. Many retailers will match another store's prices as well. To get the best deal, shop around. Additionally, the more questions you ask, the more you will learn. A good salesperson will have thorough knowledge of the equipment she or he is selling and be able to answer all or most of your questions. Finally, Caveat Emptor--let the buyer beware.

Inclusion on this list of retailers does not convey an endorsement by me or the Vermont Folklife Center. At one time or another we have, or someone I know has, ordered from each of them. All the retailers below feature good prices, quality customer support and have good reputations, many of very long standing. We present this list to serve as a strong starting point for purchasing field recording equipment and not as the final statement on the matter. Good luck!


 

Other Online and Print Resources [top]

There's a whole lot more to say on this subject than what's here on this page. The websites and books listed below offer a great deal of additional advice on field recording equpment and ethnographic/oral history research in general, and have helped shape my thinking and discussion. Check them out.

Online Resources

    Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques

    Updated (as of 2002) online version of the American Folklife Center's classic introduction to folklore/folklife fieldwork. http://www.loc.gov/folklife/fieldwork/

    Historical Voices

    An online component to the excellent work being done by Matrix at the Michigan State University. Both the general Historical Voices section and the education-focused Spoken Word Project tutorials have excellent information on field audio recording. Both pages seem to contain identical text with varied design, so I'm not sure if one version is being considered for retirement. If you happen to know, drop me a line. Great discussion of microphone pre-amps, stereo mic techniques, recorders and gobs of other stuff.

    Field Audio Tutorial
    http://www.historicalvoices.org/oralhistory/audio-tech.html

    The Spoken Word Project Audio Technology Tutorial 
    click here

    Bartek Plitcha's "Audio Technology" and "Field Recordings" sections

    Linguist Bartek Plitcha's website for Akustyk, a piece of linguistic analysis software, contains a wealth of information on field recording techonology, digital audio, analog-to-digital conversion fundamentals and other related stuff in the "Audio Technology" and "Recommendations" sections--as well as full info on Akustyk software itself.
    http://bartus.org/akustyk/signal.php

    Loius B. Nunn Center's YouTube Channel

    Doug Boyd and the crew at the University of Kentucky's Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History have set up a great YouTube channel featuring video reviews of audio recording equipment. Well worth the trip!
    http://www.youtube.com/nunncenter

    Oade Brother's Recording FAQ

    Great information on mics, recorders, batteries, etc. Includes a section on stereo microphone techniques.
    http://www.oade.com/Tapers_Section/index.html

    Transom.org's Tools pages

    Transom.org maintains a great set of guides and other terrific informational sundries in the "Tools" section of their website--equipment, recording techniques, audio editing, etc. It's aimed at independent radio producer-types, but is quite useful for the rest of us as well. While you're at it, explore the Transom Talk forums--they contain a lot of good first hand reports about experiences with various pieces of equipment, among other stuff. http://www.transom.org/tools/index.html

    UCLA Oral History Program Magnetic Recording Equipment Guide

    An oldie, but a goodie. A very good resource on analog cassette tape recording.
    http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/special/ohp/ohpmag.htm

Print Resources

    Bartis, Peter. 2002[1979]. Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques. 38pp. Print version of the website listed above. The long awaited revision of the 1979 classic is available free from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Seek it out here.

    Ives, Edward D. 1995. The Tape Recorded Interview: A Manual for Fieldworkers in Folklore and Oral History (2nd Edition). 112pp. An oldie (the original edition was published in 1974), but a classic. Easy to find both new and used. List price is $13.95.

    Williams, Philip and David Miles Huber. 1998. Professional Microphone Techniques. 142pp. An excellent and not overly techincal handbook on microphone placement. A terrific book.


 

Some Final Words [top]

We hope you have found this resource useful. However, as I note above, between my primary work duities, my dissertation, and having a life, I've already got more on my plate than I can handle.

So please--do not call me.

Really.

I don't want to be rude to you, but I will be. I simply do not have the time to answer any questions by phone.

Regarding email:

We maintain this webpage to assist ethographic researchers in acquiring equipment to conduct their work. If you are a professional researcher or student in an ethnographic field (e.g. folklore, ethnomusicology, oral history, anthropology), or if you are an educator or community scholar planning or undertaking a community research project, you are welcome to write me. However, if you do not hear back, please be understanding. I respond to everyone I can as soon as I can, but I just can't get back to everyone.

Also, if you want to give me (positive or negative) feedback, share experiences with gear, point out grammatical or spelling mistakes, etc., feel free to drop a line. I can't promise I'll be able to get back to you, but I'll try--and I certainly appreciate it.

Thanks for understanding.

And best of luck in your research!

Download a PDF file of this resource :: here. It's pretty old, though.

© 2002-2010 The Vermont Folklife Center

 



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