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Caught My Eye: Nagra Field Recorder

Note: This is a guest post by John Fenn.  John is the new head of the Research and Programs section of the American Folklife Center.

Photo of a portable reel-to-reel tape deck

“A Nagra IV-S owned by the American Folklife Center” by John Fenn, 2017. This is the machine that caught my eye.

My first weeks here at the American Folklife Center have been a whirlwind of meetings, trainings, and orientations to all aspects of the Library of Congress. As I’ve wandered through the stacks or the Folklife Center’s Reading Room, myriad items have grabbed my attention or piqued my curiosity. For the most part, I’ve felt like a kid in a candy shop. There is one object, though, that repeatedly has caught my eye: a Nagra IV-S reel-to-reel field recorder. Perched atop a filing cabinet full of reference materials, it’s a photogenic device and likely holds within its circuitry a host of tales about the places it’s been.

Portable Nagra tape machines have been central to on-site professional audio recording since the Switzerland-based Kudelski SA company revealed the first production model in 1953, the Nagra II. Designed by Polish inventor, Stefan Kudelski, over the years the Nagra line has proven to be rugged and sturdy, favored by motion picture recordists, reporters, and ethnographers around the world. The name “Nagra” derives from the Polish verb nargrac, and translates as “it will record.” Folklorists have made good on this name by using Nagra machines to document music and song, verbal art, cultural soundscapes, and interviews around the world.

The IV-S model is a stereo recorder introduced in 1971. The American Folklife Center acquired several IV-S machines to support our own field projects, and there is a good chance that the very machine I’ve admired in the Reading Room ran tapes that are in the Montana Folklife Survey, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, the Omaha Indian Music presentation, and a number of fieldwork collections created by our founding director, the late Alan Jabbour.

Ron Wolcott records Anund Roheim

“Anund Roheim” by Carl Fleischhauer, 1979. In this photo, Ron Walcott records hardanger fiddle player Anund Roheim, in the Whittall Pavilion here in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, DC. The tape machine is a Nagra III, a model first introduced in 1958 and manufactured through the late 1960s. The photo and associated audio recordings are part of the Montana Folklife Survey collection.

In addition to using Nagras for its own fieldwork efforts, the Center provided these machines and other field recording gear to folklorists through the Library of Congress Equipment Loan Program.  Emerging in the early 1930s, this program tracked the arc of portable recording technologies—from instantaneous disc cutters weighing several hundred pounds to the relatively “light” Nagra IV-S (tipping the scales at about 15 pounds, fully loaded with batteries and tape). As described in the American Folklife Center illustrated Guide, “The strategy of lending equipment and recording supplies to a network of regional collectors was enormously productive, both in building the collection and in creating a community of folklorists with ties to the Library.”

nagras2

“Two Nagras” by Carl Fleischhauer, 1983. This shot features two Nagra IV-S recorders on site at the Omaha Powwow in Macy, Nebraska. The photo is part of the online presentation Omaha Indian Music.  (Permanent Image URL:  hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/afcomaha.0215)

 

With advances in portable audio technology starting in the cassette era of the late 1980s and on through the current digital era, reliable field recording gear has become much lighter and less expensive. But the American Folklife Center holds onto Nagras in acknowledgment of the history of our field. The few we have on display at the AFC embody the material culture behind folklife fieldwork, representing examples of the technological heritage of the Center and the important documentation efforts we have supported over the years. They have traveled around the U.S., from Ohio to Louisiana to Montana to Illinois, with Center staff and non-staff folklorists alike. And, they are beautiful to behold.

11 Comments

  1. Larry Cohn
    February 1, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    OMG: I owned one, mint, and stupidly sold it for peanuts.
    One of my dumbest moves, ever! A sensational piece of
    recording equipment!

  2. Carl Fleischhauer
    February 1, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    Thanks for the nifty glimpse at, um, our analog past! I see that my caption information for the photos of my setup at the Omaha powwow failed to name critical part of the two-recorder setup: the Nagra QSQC parallel connector. (I am pretty sure that the little QSQC is at the far left corner of our equipment carrying-case-cum-table, although I can’t explain why all of the QSQC cabling does not seem to be connected.) This small device permitted me to (a) use four microphones without a mixer, two via the input and preamps in each stereo recorder, and (b) run tape in an “endless” mode, i.e., when machine one was down to the last few winds on the reel, I could roll machine two and keep recording. For the wonderful and long (by our pop music standards) Omaha songs, this meant we got all of each performance, with a bit of overlap from tape one to tape two.

    I discuss the setup and mike cabling in my fieldnotes, also online: //www.loc.gov/item/omhbib000497/. Here are a couple of highlights: “I set up three microphones (all Beyer M201N dynamic cardioids) in the center, a stereo pair for the host drum, and one “floating” microphone for women singers or second drums. Then, we had fourth microphone (an Electro-Voice DO56 self-wind-screened, shockproof dynamic omni) at the speaker’s stand. I taped it to the speaker’s own mike. A fifth mike (another Beyer) was set up on a stand for the sound of the crowd and the dancers. . . . I got out the Yamaha mixer we had brought, and the two stereo Nagras. But the mixer added a noise to the signal. It was clear when monitored at the mixer, but noisy when it got to the Nagras. This discovery, of course, was made at the very last minute, just before the grand entry. At the same time, it started to rain . . . . [Luckily] I had brought the Nagra [QSQC] parallel connector, which permitted me to link the two Nagras and have four mike inputs. Thus, we had the stereo pair, the extra mike at the center, and the speaker’s mike. All in all, this worked well. The dancer’s bells were loud enough to penetrate the extra mike, and the speaker’s voice came through clearly. (The speaker spoke throughout almost all the dances, either exhorting folks to dance or react, or announcing the next dance, or seeking drivers of cars blocking the road, etc. etc.) The only significant shortcoming of our system was that we had to settle for mono sound on the second drum, and we were not always able to move the ‘extra’ mike properly for them, or for the women.”

    Fun to remember the 1980s! Thanks again for the blog! Carl

  3. Mike Rivers
    February 2, 2017 at 7:49 am

    I’m glad to see that the Folklife Center still has a Nagra, if only as a museum piece. A dozen or so years ago I had a small consulting job with AFC which, among other things, included inventorying audio gear in a “junk room” upstairs and recommending what was worth keeping and what could be disposed of without too many tears. There were a few Nagra IVs among the keepers. I wonder if they still have all of the microphones that I suggested were worth saving.

    By that time, digital recording was pretty well established and was a good choice for some field recording projects. A portable digital recorder was much more manageable than a bag full of Nagra and accessories, but brought its own set of problems that needed to be dealt with. Today’s handheld digital recorders are better than ever, but a Nagra in good shape is still capable of making fine recordings.

  4. Todd Harvey
    February 2, 2017 at 11:43 am

    John doesn’t yet know that a rite of passage at the American Folklife Center is the venerated Nagra Recombobulation wherein the new staffer is blindfolded and must disassemble and reassemble a Nagra 4S.

  5. Joe Hickerson
    February 4, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    The November 1975 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC includes an article on the Library of Congress.
    Check out the photo by Dick Durrance II on p. 683 of me recording John Jackson at his home in Fairfax Station, Virginia, in June 1974. What model Nagra am I using?

  6. Sam
    February 5, 2017 at 7:52 am

    I noticed you mentioned digital recorders that are in use today. I am doing field research right now and a lot of interviews and some recordings of regional music. I wonder if you could tell me with people on the field are using for recorders now that we have switch to digital ? I’d love to hear a recommendation My set up is all Mac-based so hopefully what you suggest will be Matt compatible

  7. Carl Fleischhauer
    February 6, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Sam’s question is one of those “which is better, Ford or Chevvy” queries. Many people will have well-considered preferences and they will all be right! I will name two folklife and oral history colleagues who have terrific, informative websites on this topic, although I note that both seem to be dated 2012 so there may need to be a little compensating in 2017.

    Andy Kolovos’s site at the Vermont Folklife Center starts here: https://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/fieldwork-guides/

    And the well respected oral history expert Doug Boyd has information that links off this page: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/ask-doug-choosing-a-digital-audio-recorder/

    I’ll bet other readers will have some additional information to share.

  8. John Fenn
    February 6, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Mike and Carl- Thanks for the comments and conversation! I especially appreciate Carl’s illumination on the two-Nagra set up in the photo from the Omaha powwow fieldwork. I was wondering if one of the machines was a backup, but didn’t realize the complexity of the arrangement. And, in my rush to finalize the post, I didn’t dig into Carl’s field notes. Important documentation, for certain

    As for Sam’s question, I’ll add one source to Carl’s answer. Transom.org provides timely and useful information on digital recording gear, which would complement Andy and Doug’s sites.

  9. John Fenn
    February 6, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Joe- It’s hard to tell which model you are using due to the angle of the photo. Do you know if there are other photos from that project?

  10. Mike Rivers
    February 7, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Sam –
    Yours isn’t really a “Ford vs. Chevy” question, it’s more of a sedan vs. SUV vs. van vs. pickup truck question. Each of today’s modern portable digital recorders does an equally good job of moving people and stuff from one place to another, but the difference is in how appropriate each one is for a given pile of people and stuff.

    They all record WAV files, nearly all are capable of recordin 24-bit resolution at 96 kHz sample rate which is what LofC has decided is their preferred format. Which one you choose depends on what you’ll be recording. They all have built-in microphones which are often quite adequate for an interview or a music recording on their own. However, it’s best to think of this arrangement as being a microphone with a recorder built in rather than the other way around, and as anyone with any experience with recording will tell you that the microphone(s) and how you use them are more important than the recording technology.

    Once you get into the $200 range of handheld digital recorders, you’ll be able to make the choice of using the built-in mics or plugging in external mics (sometimes both) or connecting them to an outboard mixer. Your gear collection can evolve in the same way as if you had that Nagra.

    Today you can get a portable, battery powered 8-track recorder that’s the size of a Nagra – in the Nagra era, an 8-track recorder was the size of a washing machine. And when recording audio for a digitally recorded video project, you may not have to worry about synchronization between sound and picture (that took a separate Nagra-sized box) because you’re not dealing with mechanical speed control systems.

    Or you’d be surprised at how good a recording you can make with a modern portable phone under the right circumstances.

    You might get some useful background from a handout I prepared for a one-hour class at a music camp that I give every couple of years. The class evolves with the technology. This link has all of the updates, starting with the latest.

    https://mikeriversaudio.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/choosing_and_using_a_handheld_recorder_all_updates.pdf

    or, if that doesn’t come out intact:
    http://tinyurl.com/zg4wpss

  11. Joe Hickerson
    February 23, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    John – Dick took 300 or so photos that afternoon. When I asked him about obtaining copies, he said they were all the property of National Geographic, and not available. Perhaps they’ve loosened up on their restrictive policy by now.

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