by Karen Frazier

A Samson Zoom H4n high-definition audio recorder

When I first started investigating the paranormal, I tried a number of audio recording devices. What I quickly discovered was how much the sound quality varied from recorder to recorder. Audio recorders range widely in price and quality, from about $40 to over $200. 

My first audio recorder was a cheap one - I spent around $40 for it. Using that audio recorder, I noticed I captured a lot of whispery voices. So many whispers, in fact, that I began to suspect there was something wrong with the recorder and what I was hearing weren't whispers at all.

The Olympus DS-40 audio recorder

With this suspicion in mind, I moved up to a more expensive recorder with stereo microphones. The Olympus DS-40 cost about $100. For a few investigations, I ran it side-by-side with my previous recorder, and then I reviewed the audio from both. Much as I'd suspected, what I thought were whispers on my cheaper recorder turned out to be things like a foot shuffling, a zipper, or even just an exhalation of breath. 

Still, I was capturing quite a few audio anomalies on the new recorder, and some remained quite indistinct. I reasoned if the change from an inexpensive recorder to a better device helped me filter out many of the false anomalies I'd noticed, then perhaps moving up to a high-definition device might bring me even more clarity. With that in mind, I purchased the Samson Zoom H4 high-definition audio recorder and performed the same type of test - using all three devices side-by-side to test variations in sound. The disparity between the Zoom and the $40 recorder was significant, but so was the difference between the Zoom and the Olympus DS-40.

High Definition Audio Recorders

The Zoom H4 (and other high-definition recorders) has X/Y directional stereo microphones that record clear, crisp sound. The definition of sound on these recorders would compare, in audio terms, to the difference between regular television and high-definition television. It's just a whole lot easier to make out what you are hearing on a Zoom H4, which makes it much more difficult to misidentify natural and environmental sounds as anomalous. 

File Formats: WAV vs Mp3 vs WMA
High definition recorders also capture sound in a non-compressed WAV format. Less expensive audio devices record audio in the highly compressed mp3 or WMA formats, which filter out portions of sound that aren't as important to human hearing. The result, while great for creating small files, is that there can be minor distortions in sound or missing information from compressed formats that just aren't there in WAV. Those compressed elements in WMA and mp3 files can mean the difference between hearing someone scratching their shoulder or an EVP apparently whispering, "Hello!"

Many investigators export mp3 or WMA file formats to .wav, believing they are then creating an uncompressed version of the audio file. While this stops further compression of audio files, it doesn't undo the compression used in capturing the audio in the first place. The only way to maintain 100 percent of the sound is by recording in a .WAV format and then keeping it in that format during analysis.

While the Samson Zoom hasn't cornered the market on high-definition audio devices, it is the one I use. Other companies make a similar recorder, such as the Sony PCMM10, which gets good reviews.

High-Def Audio/Video

The Zoom Q3-HD high-def audio/video recorder
One of the issues a number of paranormal investigators face is not having enough hands! When we carry everything along with us for an investigation, we often wind up with multiple devices in each hand. I've simplified, relying on the team's digital video recorder (DVR) system for video and my own recorder for audio. I don't typically carry an EMF meter (except during baseline sweeps) if I can help it. Still, occasionally a hand-held camera is desirable on an investigation, and I think I've found the perfect solution. 

Just as high-definition audio can help you make out hard to define sounds, high-definition video allows you to see things more crisply and clearly, rendering object misidentification much more difficult. Now, several manufacturers (including Samson Zoom) have come out with a combination high-def audio/video recorder. Made for recording concerts, I believe these devices can be extremely handy in the paranormal, providing both high-def audio and video in one device. The limitation, of course, when you're recording uncompressed audio and 1080p video, is file size. Zoom's Q3HD can record about 45 minutes with a 2 GB card, so storing the files on your computer from a long investigation can gobble up memory fast. The Olympus LS-20M has similar capacity.

Is High-Def Really Better?

When it comes to paranormal investigation, I can answer the above question with an unequivocal yes. The integrity of the data and evidence we obtain is very important to SSPR. Our group uses Zoom H4 recorders because it ensures the sounds we capture are as identifiable as possible given the uncompressed file format (WAV), as well as the quality of the microphones. This helps us minimize the potential for false positives in our audio files.