Zach’s Recorder Recommendations


My students sometimes ask me for advice about purchasing their own recorders and mics. Here are my recommendations for flexible recording equipment that is appropriate for somebody just getting into sound recording. There are links to other people’s advice at the bottom of the page.

What to look for:

  • “Quiet” mic preamps (Quiet in this context means the recorder adds minimum hiss to your recordings)
  • Clear and responsive level meters
  • Manual level controls that are accessible during recording (not buried under menus)
  • Uncompressed WAV format recordings
  • No special software required to transfer recordings to computer
  • Quick startup (so you don’t miss important opportunities)
  • backlit display for dark environments, but also readable in bright sun

Why not use a smartphone?

  • The built-in mic and preamp on a smartphone has no wind protection, does not support stereo recording, and adds considerable hiss to quiet sources. (You can get better quality by plugging a professional external mic into an XLR adapter like the iRig Pre, or using snap-on accessory microphones like the Rode iXY that bypass the phone’s mic and preamp.)
  • The voice-recording app on your phone does not support live headphone monitoring, so you have no idea what you recorded until you play it back. (There are apps that do live monitoring, but there are other shortcomings to using them. Some crash when you record long files. Some can’t bypass the automatic gain control of the phone’s electronics.)
  • There’s an excellent roundup of smartphone recording info on the Wild Mountain Echoes field-recording blog.

Best Tiny Hand-Held Recorders:

The microphone inputs on these recorders are small 3.5mm jacks (like headphones), not professional XLR jacks. Cheaper mics will plug right in, but better professional mics will require adapters. These recorders typically run a long time on each set of batteries. Their preamps are usually noisier than the ones on large recorders, but the two I recommend actually have better preamps than most larger recorders.

Sony PCM-M10 $250

  • Released in 2009.
  • Best noise performance for the money.
  • 4gigs of internal memory plus card slot
  • user-interface is unfortunately mostly menus (with real switches for mic sens & man/auto rec level)
  • extremely long battery life
  • built-in mics have very low noise, but very little stereo spread (omni capsules placed close together).
  • review
  • Another review

Roland R-05 $200

  • Great noise performance for the money (see review). Similar to Sony PCM-M10 or slightly noisier.
  • has physical switches for bass roll-off, limiter, mic sens (very useful).
  • Slightly smaller than Sony PCM-M10.
  • Internal mics are not as good as PCM-M10.
  • (I own this recorder and have been very happy with it.)

Other hand-helds to consider:

Olympus LS-12 ($150) & LS-14 ($200) (priced April 2013)

  • built-in memory + SD slot
  • pretty good mic preamps considering price/size
  • good battery life (not as long as recorders above)
  • taller and narrower than recorders above (not much room for the display/meters)
  • built-in mics are noisier than recorders above, but have much better stereo spread (cardioid capsules placed in X/Y pattern).
  • when using internal mics the LS-14 has more bass response than the LS-12 due to strange 3-mic setup that also adds hiss and stereo imaging problems. Thus the cheaper LS-12 actually seems smarter to me. (Using external mics they both sound identical)
  • cheap plastic construction is a step down from previous generation of Olympus recorders
  • voice navigation for blind users

Tascam DR-05 ($76), DR-07mkII ($116)(priced April 2013)

  • Tascam’s small recorders are more hissy than the ones above, but they’re cheap and have generally good user-interfaces. (They sound better than the similarly priced Zoom H1.)
  • The DR-05 with a cheap lavalier would make a good alternative to a wireless lav. (You can leave it rolling and sync the sound to picture later.)

Zoom H1 ($85-$100) (priced August 2016)

  • Zoom recorders are popular because they’re cheap. The H1 is tiny and easy to use, but hissy compared to the others listed here, and very plasticy and toy-like.
  • All Zoom recorders also function as USB audio interfaces, so you can connect mics to your computer.

Best Recorders With XLR Inputs:

These recorders are slightly larger, but they have XLR inputs (with phantom power) for professional mics. Battery life is usually not as impressive as the tiny hand-helds.

Zoom H5 ($270)

  • good mix of low price, low noise, good battery life, and good user interface
  • 2 XLR inputs with phantom power (but also has 1/8″ input with plug-in power)
  • You can record 4 XLR inputs simultaneously if you buy an optional input module to replace the internal mics. (no phantom power though)
  • The first Zoom recorder that sounds good! (The popular Zoom H4n was incredibly hissy and had a terrible user interface. The H5 sounds much better and is easy to use.)
  • Includes a snap-on XY cardioid mic module, so it has a nice stereo spread. (You can buy other mic modules, but they are pretty terrible.)
  • Good battery life considering it runs on 2x AA batteries
  • All Zoom recorders also function as USB audio interfaces, so you can connect mics to your computer.
  • In-depth review from transom.org.
  • I’ve noticed that the low-cut filter seems to be digital, and thus worthless (since a low rumble from your mic will clip the digital converter before the signal gets filtered).
  • Also see the Zoom H6 ($400) with more inputs but it’s bigger and has a color LCD that you can’t read outside.

Tascam DR-70D ($300)

  • 4 XLR mic inputs with phantom power + stereo 1/8″ mic input with plug-in-power (any 4 recordable simultaneously)
  • Good low-noise mic preamps (less hiss than Zoom H5, more hiss than DR-680)
  • Designed to mount on/under a DSLR, but also has rails for a shoulder strap, so it hangs with the meters facing you. This is more important than it sounds!
  • Sadly, the internal mics are omnis and mediocre, but it’s not really a hand-held recorder anyway.
  • in-depth review from transom.org

Other recorders with XLR inputs to consider:

Tascam DR-60D mkII $200

  • 2 XLR mic inputs with phantom power + stereo 1/8″ mic input with plug-in-power (all 4 recordable simultaneously)
  • Good low-noise mic preamps (less hiss than Zoom H5, more hiss than DR-680)
  • Designed to mount on/under a DSLR, but also has rails for a shoulder strap, so it hangs with the meters facing you. This is more important than it sounds!
  • No internal mics at all!
  • Battery life is not good
  • in-depth review (of the earlier “mkI” version) from transom.org

Tascam DR-680 $435 or mkII version $600 (priced October 2015)

  • A large recorder with 4 XLR mic inputs with phantom power (+ 2 more on 1/4″ jacks) so you can record multichannel surround
  • Amazing low-noise mic preamps
  • Battery life isn’t great (8 alkaline AA batteries last 3-5 hours, rechargeables even less)
  • Supports 192kHz recording for ultrasonic work

Fostex FR-2 LE $570 (priced October 2015)

  • best sound and best ergonomics of any < $1000 recorder
  • It’s at least twice the size of any other recorder listed here. Doh!

Really Serious Recorders

All of my above recommendations are based on the assumption that you want to balance cost and performance. But, if you’re spending somebody else’s money…

Sound Devices 702 $2000

  • 2 of the best preamps and ergonomics you can buy. No contest. These are common recorders for professional location sound and FX work.
  • All-metal construction, thoughtfully designed.
  • Also available in 4 channel and 8 channel flavors, or cheaper field mixers that can be used as front-ends for other recorders.

Zoom F8 $1000

  • This is Zoom’s attempt to steal the market from Sound Devices.
  • 8 XLR inputs with phantom power, far surpassing the preamps that Zoom uses on their other recorders.

Microphones:

Microphone Madness binaural stereo mics $65 (priced April 2013)

  • These are basically identical to the ones I built for Cooper Union. (tiny omnidirectional mics mounted inside headphones [they don’t work as headphones, just mics])
  • They are the only binaural mics you can get locally in the NYC area, and they plug directly into a 3.5mm input with no powering box.
  • You can build something similar for about $10. (They are made with Panasonic WM-61a mic capsules which are easily soldered onto existing headphone cables.)

Build Mics using Primo EM-172 Mic Capsules (about $20 DIY)

  • Follow the link above for my article about building very low noise omnidirectional mics from these inexpensive capsules.

Audio Technica AT8022 stereo mic $390 (priced April 2013)

  • This is similar to the “Stereo Mics” we use at Cooper Union (durable one-piece “hammerhead” design, cardioid capsules in XY configuration)
  • It has less hiss than the built-in mics in most of the recorders listed above

Rode NT4 $530 (priced April 2013)

  • This has less hiss than the Audio Technica above
  • It can run from phantom power or a built-in 9V battery
  • The thick metal body is quite heavy

You can also use a cable like this to plug any professional XLR mic into a small recorder.

Links: