3. Recording practice

The physical-technical definition of sound recording is dealt with briefly in the technical chapter of this publication. Methodologically, a recording of a musical event cannot be seen separately from the role of the researcher.

By his very presence the person recording exerts an influence on his subject, regardless of whether he sets the recording up (i.e. is responsible for the production taking place at all) or whether he is merely attending a musical performance which would have taken place anyway. Apart from the general behaviour of the person making a recording, the deciding factor in the question of the degree to which a recording is influenced can lie in the technical circumstances under which it is produced. In the classical area of ethnomusicology the 'subject' is likely to be a musician bound by the society in which he lives and so, as a rule, it is better to avoid recording in a studio (which might well be free from extraneous noises, but which places the musician in unfamiliar surroundings). This rule may be ignored in cases where the informants are quite used to speaking into a microphone or in making demonstration recordings of instruments. In general, however, recording should be done on location; that is in surroundings and in an atmosphere with which the person being recorded is familiar.

All location recording should begin as unobtrusively and with as little fuss as possible, keeping the number of those involved in the recording to a minimum. Just as the use of a radio car can arouse false expectations, an official government vehicle can cause unnecessary anxiety. Also, no more than two people at once should normally produce the recording. The extent to which measures taken to improve technical quality (for example whether to record in a quiet, seldom used room in the house, or to remove ticking clocks and so on) might disturb the openness of the musician and in turn affect the recording has to be decided on the merits of each case. In the same way one should avoid too much technical gadgetry or drawn out tests for correct microphone positions. However, one should never, at any cost, interrupt a recording because of actual or suspected faults, as quite commonly happens in commercial recordings.

The reduction in technical gadgetry is directly related to the fact that, until recently, in the field of ethnomusicology most recordings were produced in mono, using only one microphone. Increasingly, however, stereo equipment is being used for various recording techniques. Apart from the standard spaced and coincident microphone techniques (or AB-and XY stereophony), binaural techniques are coming to be used more and more. In this technique, similar to dummy head recording, the microphone distance is approximately 17 cm, corresponding to the average distance between the human ears. This has the advantage that, relatively speaking, microphone locations are not critical and quite acceptable recordings can be achieved even from 'impossible' positions which inevitably occur in some live recording session. This technique has even stood the test of concerts in which the music is performed with electronic stage amplification and the recording has to convey the sound as it is heard by the audience. This method of recording is especially useful because it can be carried out by just one person and requires scarcely any more complex equipment than for a mono recording. Of course, recordings of this sort can only really be fully appreciated by listening to them on headphones.

In cases where one is already quite familiar with a particular culture or its representatives, more intricate techniques might be used in order to carry out some kinds of investigations, such as using multitrack tapes to improve the clarity of individual voices for transcription purposes. Such intricacies, however, require careful preparation as they constitute a serious incursion into the actual musical situation and should, therefore, be kept to an absolute minimum. In contrast to practices in commercial recording, all aesthetic alterations to the original sound, such as filtering, should be avoided.

While getting something down on tape is important, keeping written and, if need be, photographic documentation is also an essential aspect of recording. The written record should include the date and place of the recording, details of the subject, descriptions of the content of the recording and of the circumstances which led to its being made, as well as the technical data of the recording itself. Playing a recording through as soon as possible after it has been made is a highly recommended course to follow, because then the details of the event concerned can still be remembered clearly and the opportunity remains to interview the informants again if necessary. It is for this reason the tape recorder is being used more and more often and because it has proved to be extremely valuable if informants are also allowed to give their personal views on music in the form of an interview.