Recording - approach and technicalities

Recording – approach and technicalities

Be fair, friendly, respectful and honest with contributors and explain why you are interested in their repertoire. Do not try to record surreptitiously. Always ask for permission before beginning to record and offer to stop recording at any time – even if just for a moment so contributors can say something off the record. Assure them that there are no financial rewards either for them or you but that it is out of pure interest in the subject. Be direct and do not show off your great knowledge of folk song – this won’t endear anybody to you in any situation! Above all, be patient, appreciative and grateful and be a good listener (even if at times you disagree with the contributor’s views).

You are there as a song collector, not a missionary.

Press for information and songs but don’t push it too far if they are not willing to tell you or really don’t know what you are asking after. Leave the contributor with your contact details and ask if they are happy to give you theirs. Find out if they would mind whether you called again and, if so, when would suit them best.


It is often good to record singers in their natural performance environment, i.e. a pub, and if lucky you may get some very atmospheric and spirited performances. You may also hear the singer’s friends joining in the chorus or laughing at the humorous points of a song, all of which can add colour to a recording. Also, it is probable that the contributor will sing more comfortably with an appreciative audience than in a quiet recording session. In the case of English Gypsy singers, you might get other people from the Gypsy community in the bar calling out encouragement at the end of each verse, such as “Go on, my babby,” etc. This is all part of the singing experience and context and is far from spoiling any recording.

On the other hand, in places such as pubs, you run the risk of distracting noise, such as a raucous laughter from the next bar when the singer is in the middle of a lyrical love song, banging doors, clinking glasses, loud conversations and so on.

Background noise is sometimes easy to ignore by the people there, but the audio recorder isn’t as clever so will pick up everything.

So by all means record singers in such circumstances but also try to record them in a quiet but familiar environment, such as their home. If you record in a home, be very aware of sounds which might spoil the recording, such as clocks, voices from the next room, passing motorbikes or jet planes, flushing toilets, pets, etc. Be prepared to ask the contributor to restart a song if you experience any of this noise or ask if doors or windows can be closed if it is reasonable to do so. Also check that the contributor is not drumming fingers on the table or jingling jewellery or coins in their pocket (it happens and you’ll probably regret not having the courage to mention it). When you begin the recording at least, listen to the recording through headphones to make sure the level is good and the position of the microphone is suitable.


Don’t miss the start of the song! Recordings made in pubs have often suffered from vital words at the start being missed out. If possible, communicate with the contributor and make them aware that you want a good recording and then tell them when you are set to record. Don’t be afraid to (tactfully) stop the singer if you are not ready, though in a public performance this might be inappropriate. If the recording device is hand-held then don’t fidget – the rustling noise will spoil the recording. Remember to monitor the recording with headphones when you can. Don’t join in the chorus or hum along as this will get picked up louder than other voices on the recording if you are the closest one to the microphone. When the song finishes, leave a sound gap of at least a few seconds before switching off or speaking.

Whatever your equipment, you should familiarise yourself with the technicalities. You don’t need to go reading the manual or anything as in depth as that! But don’t waste time when you need to be recording as this won’t put the contributors at ease or reassure them that you know what you’re doing.

When recording audio, get the input levels right, get the microphone in the right place and check with your headphones at the beginning and then again regularly to make sure that it’s sounding good.

When recording video, check that it is in focus, that the exposure is good (not too bright and not too dark) and have a framing that is appealing without trying to make the video a work of art in itself. It is primarily a document of the performance. Keep movement to a minimum and get the performance in frame. A camera tripod will also help you to keep the video steady.


Find out what you can about the contributor’s personal life without being too intrusive. Use your common sense to be polite and not make personal enquiries until you’ve at least had a general chat and got to know each other better. Think about how you would react if a stranger arrived unannounced and asked you for personal information.

Essential information is:

  • Singer’s full name, age, address. (Ask about any nicknames too, but be sensitive when asking an older woman her age.)
  • Contact details (Many Travellers and Gypsies have mobile phones, email addresses and even websites, so don’t make naive assumptions!)

Other very useful information is:

  • Place of birth
  • What they did or do for a job
  • Where their parents were from and what they did for a living
  • Where they learnt their songs, from whom (or from what source), when and in what circumstances (e.g. pubs, home, campfire, school, recordings, radio, etc)
  • Where and when they perform/used to perform the songs

Also, get some idea of the contributor’s attitude towards the songs. This can vary greatly. It was told that a singer, having sung a great version of ‘Mariners All’, was surprised in the collector’s interest in the song, as he regarded it as “a bit of a dirge”. You may find that they have an interpretation of what the song is about that to your knowledge is totally incorrect. Don’t feel obliged to correct them if they may be embarrassed to have got it wrong. You’re there as a collector, not a teacher.


Material to look for includes, but is not limited to:

  • Songs, particularly old and rare songs such as songs from the locality or community and songs learned within their family
  • Rhymes, riddles and poems, particularly rare ones such as those only used in the locality or community, perhaps ones which are uttered only at certain times of year, such as Christmas, New Year, May Day or other religious days
  • Stories, anecdotes and lore such as superstitions handed down in the family
  • Dialect words and phrases
  • Old recordings of family or friends, for example, Christmas parties.

Of course, a singer may want to sing material to you that you do not particularly want. Record it thankfully anyway, as this will give a balanced view of their total repertoire.

Many thanks to experienced song collector Gwilym Davies for these guidelines on recording.

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