15.3459, Sum: I-Pods for Linguistic Recordings

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Fri Dec 10 21:08:56 UTC 2004

LINGUIST List: Vol-15-3459. Fri Dec 10 2004. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 15.3459, Sum: I-Pods for Linguistic Recordings

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Date: 10-Dec-2004
From: Fiona McLaughlin < fmcl at ufl.edu >
Subject: I-Pods for Linguistic Recordings

-------------------------Message 1 ----------------------------------
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 2004 16:03:11
From: Fiona McLaughlin < fmcl at ufl.edu >
Subject: I-Pods for Linguistic Recordings

Regarding query: http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-3237.html#1

A few weeks ago I posted a query to the LINGUIST List regarding the
appropriateness of using iPod recorders for linguistic recordings.
While iPods obviously interface well with computers, their recording
quality was not deemed adequate for linguistic use by many of those who
responded to me.

Many thanks to the following people for responding:
Christopher Bader
Linda Barwick (U of Sydney)
Scott Baxter (Purdue U)
Dan Everett (U of Manchester)
Ann Galloway (Kurongkurl Katitjin/School of Indigenous Australian Studies)
Susan Gehr (Language Program Director - Karuk Tribe of California)
Monica Gonzalez-Marquez (Cornell U)
Mark Jones (Cambridge)
Steven Moran (Eastern Michigan U)
Bernd Meyer (University of Hamburg)
Elizabeth Winkler (U of Arizona)

Here are some of the answers I received:

1) One of my colleagues has been trialling an i-pod in conjunction with
conventional tape recording equipment for fieldwork in a research
project that will include linguistic analysis of some of the interview
data.  The interviews are conducted in school settings, such as offices
or sometimes classrooms.  In terms of quality of reproduction, the i-pod
recording is good.  However, the battery life is a significant problem
as it only lasts for about two hours without needing to be re-charged,
despite the marketing claims that suggest a much longer life.  Other
colleagues have reported similar problems with other brands of digital
recorders, plus in the case of at least some other brands their
recording capacity is limited and therefore one needs to be able to
download regularly during the day, which is often impossible in a
fieldwork situation.  Another problem they've identified with digital
recordings is the difficulty of separating interviews, lessons or other
sessions, or perhaps more specifically working out where each one starts
without reviewing the whole recording.  Consequently, that group
reverted to conventional tape recording equipment because each new
session could be recorded on a new tape, batteries have a long life and
can be changed quickly and easily, and the media were easy to use and

2) I have not used the iPod recorder for linguistic fieldwork, but I can
give you some input as to why it isn't and probably won't ever be a
viable solution for linguistic fieldwork.

The iTalk only records at 8kHz, a very poor quality compared to CD
quality at 44kHz.  Speech will be perceptible, but you wouldn't actually
want to use the recordings for anything.

This is not a limitation set by Griffin on the iTalk. It's a built-in
limitation set by Apple for the iPod because field linguists are not the
iPod's primary market, music lovers are. In its forays into the digital
music market, Apple is trying to do things that do not upset the music
industry too much, such as creating an extremely portable CD-quality
digital recorder that can be used to create bootleg concert recordings
of Madonna and the like.

I've heard this very question discussed several times on the internet
radio show Your Mac Life <http://www.yourmaclife.com/> and the answer has
been the same ever since the iPod came out: no, the iPod will never be a
high-quality recording device.

3) I sometimes use a mic on the i-pod, but only for recording group
discussions in favourable conditions, i.e. small groups, no noise. The
recordings are not very good. I don't think that you can make phonetic
analysis. If you are not a native speaker of the recorded language it will be
difficult to transcribe the recording. The good thing is that you dont need
power supplies or mini-discs, you just put the i-pod on the table and it
records for two or three hours without any problem. The recording can easily be
transferred to the mac and then you can a burn cds from it.

4) I haven't tested iPod recordings very extensively, but I haven't been
all that happy with the quality or their usefulness in spectrographic

However, they have two very important uses. First, you can store sound
files on them for listening and mimicing, helping with language
learning, which I think is vital in field work.

More importantly, perhaps, you can use iTunes to produce a sound
dictionary (with close to IPA transcriptions, glosses, and PRAAT-usable
files) and then store the entire sound dictionary, easily searchable, on
the iPod.

5) I would strongly urge not to succumb to the siren song of high tech
miniaturization. I did and I regretted it.  I bought the smallest available
mini-disc recorder, which was about the size of an Altoids box but not cheap,
only to discover that its tiny buttons and poor sound made it totally
inappropriate for fieldwork. Poorer but wiser, I bought a Shure microphone and
a Marantz tape recorder, both technologies that haven't changed much in the
past half century.  I was (and am) very happy with the results.

6) I'm a phonetics PhD student at the University of Cambridge, UK, and
this is an issue which recently came up (briefly) on a Phonetics
teaching list, PHONET.

I don't think anybody there had anything specific to comment on having
used i-Pods, but the context was the use of MiniDisc (MD) recorders for
phonetic fieldwork, and there will be some overlap of problems.

The major problem with using MD and i-Pod is the loss of acoustic
information from any compression system used. MD uses a compression
system (ATRAC) to allow large amounts of digitised sound data to be
stored in a small amount of space, and MP3 does the same, so there is a
loss of some information using these formats. If you're doing some kind
of auditory analysis of data, that is not necessarily a problem for you,
but if you want to use the recordings for instrumental phonetic analysis
(or if you put them into a database where others may want to do such
analysis in future), the use of any compression system will have to be
specified, and is really not ideal. It could even be downright useless,
in fact.

If the i-Pod (or other portable MP3 recorder such as the Creative Nomad
Jukebox 3 which i have used) allows you to record in an uncompressed
format (WAV), you should use that, and you should select a sampling rate
of at least 20,000 Hz so that it is possible to analyse major aspects of
female voices and fricatives.

I include the URL to the recent discussions on PHONET.

The following is the PHONET archive - you need to look at points 2 and 5
on the list:


7) I've used one to collect data in a lab setting and to record lectures
while abroad. I have no complaints at all. The one thing that may be an
issue is the type of research you're doing. Ipods record files as wav
and their density is not at high as aiff. I haven't compared waveforms
between the two formats; never got around to it because I didn't really
need it. If you're doing something in phonetics or phonology, it might
be a good idea to compare the level of detail. Otherwise, if you're
doing recording for straight content, then I say go ahead. The recording
will be much, much cleaner than anything you'll get with a tape
recorder, i.e. no buzzing from the motor. I've got a Belkin voice
recorder and I've found the sensitivity to be good enough to capture
comments in a lecture hall that holds about a 100 people from a person
speaking at the other end of the room. You have to fiddle with the
amplitude in a program like Soundstudio but it's totally doable.

8) I have used my ipod to listen to data, but not to collect it. I use my
iBook and its built-in recorder and a program called audiocorder. The
program is nagware -- you can download it and use it for free, but if
you don't pay a small fee then you get a 10 second reminder at the
start of each recording. Once the recording is finished, I can listen
to it with iTunes or transfer it to my iPod. It records the file in
something like wav format, but I can convert it to .mp3, if I need to
save space, without losing quality

I do discourse research where I am interested in using the recordings
to fill in notes that I take by typing on the iBook while doing
interviews. So, my transcribing is broad rather than narrow.

9) As to the IPOD, I took mine to Costa Rica this past August for
research. I bought the mic that attaches right to the top (the name is at home
if you need it let me know). I found the quality of the recording to be very
good. And a lot of my recordings were done at the beach or in bars and the
market where I got lots of voices other than the person I was talking to. Saved
me having to carry the computer down there with me.

Thanks again to all who responded.

Fiona Mc Laughlin
Associate Professor
African Languages and Linguistics
University of Florida

Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics

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