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 serious sound recording. There are links to other people’s advice at the bottom of the page.
(Any links to merchants are for reference only. I don’t get referral kick-backs for your clicks)
UPDATED March 2017
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 main advantage of these recorders is their small size. (The best recorder is the one you brought with you!) The microphone inputs are small 3.5mm jacks (like headphones), not professional XLR jacks, so most good mics will require adapters. These recorders typically run a long time on each set of batteries, but most have noisier preamps than their larger cousins.
- Great noise performance (A-weighted EIN: -122 dBu) when using external mics, but internal mics are omni so there’s virtually no stereo spread.
- See review
- has physical switches for bass roll-off, limiter, mic sens (very useful).
- (I own this recorder and have been very happy with its tiny size, great battery life, and remarkable preamps that sound better than many larger recorders.)
- A good value for micro budgets. Zoom recorders are popular because they’re cheap, not because they sound good. The H1 continues this trend.
- Quite hissy compared to the Roland listed above (A-weighted EIN: -112 dBu) and has some funky steps in the level control as reported here.
- Better built-in mics than the Roland above, but not recommended for quiet sources due to preamp noise.
- All Zoom recorders also function as USB audio interfaces, so you can connect mics to your computer and record live to Reaper, Logic, Pro Tools ,etc.
- A special-purpose recorder intended as a “set and forget” device, replacing a wireless lav for interview scenarios. It records only in mono and includes a lav mic. (Tiny size, belt clip and locking mic connector are nice touches.)
- It runs for 8 hours on a single AAA battery
Best Recorders With XLR Inputs <$400:
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.
About the Zoom H Series Recorders
Historically, Zoom recorders have been popular because they’re cheap. The Zoom H4 (and later H4n) had the low end market cornered despite being hissy, flimsy, and full of weird user-interface quirks. Thankfully they started releasing much smarter H series recorders in 2013 with improved preamps, smarter user-interfaces, and snap-on interchangeable mic modules. (They also released the H4n Pro which includes the updated preamps but retains the other quirks, so I don’t recommend it.)
- Best mix of small size, reasonable price, low noise (A-weighted EIN: -121 dBu), good battery life, and good user interface
- 2 XLR inputs with phantom power
- Includes a snap-on XY cardioid mic module with a nice stereo spread (+ 1/8″ input with plug-in power). The XLR and snap-on module inputs can be recorded simultaneously for a total of 4 tracks.
- If you buy the snap-on EXH-6 input module to replace the XY mics you can record 4 XLR inputs simultaneously (without phantom power on the second pair).
- 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 and limiter are digital, and thus worthless (since a low rumble from your mic will clip the digital converter before the signal gets filtered or limited). This is a sad oversight indeed.
- Like the H5 but bigger: It has 4 onboard XLR inputs, plus an included XY mic module (and an MS mic module that is too hissy to use).
- Same noise performance as H5 (A-weighted EIN: -121 dBu)
- 6 tracks of simultaneous recording (nice for lavs)
- Weird physical design: seems like it should be camera-mounted but it’s huge, has a color LCD that you can’t read outside, wires coming out of all sides, no easy way to use it over the shoulder
- Like the H5 above, the low-cut filter and limiter are digital, and thus worthless (since a low rumble from your mic will clip the digital converter before the signal gets filtered or limited).
- 4 XLR mic inputs with phantom power + stereo 1/8″ mic input with plug-in-power (any 4 recordable simultaneously)
- Great low-noise mic preamps (A-weighted EIN: -126 dBu – better than Zoom H5/H6)
- Designed to mount on/under a DSLR, but also has rails for a shoulder strap, so it hangs with the meters facing you, which is crucial for many situations.
- Sadly, the internal mics are omnis and mediocre, but it’s not really shaped for hand-holding anyway.
- in-depth reviews from transom.org and Sam Mallery.
- This handheld machine is expensive considering that it’s stereo only, but it has great XY stereo mics, durable metal construction, and generally thoughtful design
- Great low-noise mic preamps (A-weighted EIN: -126 dBu – better than Zoom H5/H6)
- Supports 192kHz sampling for ultrasonic recording
- Has some hardware switches (fewer trips to the menu)
- Main LCD is hidden when hung from the shoulder, so they included a 3-stage LED meter on the edge that faces up: a pretty good compromise between handheld and shoulder ergonomics.
Serious Recorders >$400
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 recorders
$650 and up
- The best preamps and ergonomics you can buy. No contest. (A-weighted EIN: -130 dBu)
- These recorders are ubiquitous in professional location sound and FX work.
- All-metal construction, thoughtfully designed.
- The classic workhorse machines like the 702 (>$2000 ) were joined by the drastically cheaper MixPre 3 and MixPre 6 in 2017, probably due to competition from Zoom (see below).
Zoom’s F series machines are an attempt to steal the market from Sound Devices. They are doing a good job too! The preamps, limiters, and lo-cut beat other Zoom recorders handily (A-weighted EIN: -127 dBu). They have smart physical and user-interface design, good display and metering, and they’re designed for ergonomic over the shoulder operation.
- 8 XLR inputs with phantom power + snap-on mic connector supports same mic and XLR modules as H series recorders, for total of 10 tracks of simultaneous recording.
- 4 XLR inputs with phantom power + snap-on mic connector supports same mic and XLR modules as H series recorders, for total of 6 tracks of simultaneous recording.
- It costs less than the cheapest Sound devices recorder, but has more inputs.
Binaural and Lav Microphones:
$65 stereo pair
- These tiny omnidirectional mics are mounted inside headphones (they don’t work as headphones, just mics). When you put them in your ears you’ll get stereo recordings that sound amazingly 3D if your listener wears headphones.
- The noise floor is relatively high (23dB self noise) so they will be hissy if you are recording very quiet sounds.
- They plug directly into any 3.5mm (1/8″) mic input that supplies “Plug-in Power”. You’ll need an adapter or battery box to plug them into XLR inputs.
- These are the only binaural mics you can get locally in the NYC area, or you can get them online from the manufacturer. Very similar mics are available from Core Sound and other sources.
- 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.)
about $70 per mono mic
- Use 2 to make a binaural pair, or use them as conventional lavaliere mics
- The “low noise” capsule option has noticeably less hiss than the cheaper binaural pairs.
- Very professional build quality for a low price
- These mics have XLR plugs and require phantom power
about $25 DIY
- Follow the link above for my post about building very low noise omnidirectional mics from inexpensive capsules.
Many recorders have great stereo mics already built-in, but external options encourage more creative mic placements and (often) less hiss too.
$300 and $600 respectively
- These Rode stereo mics are designed for camera mounting (which is usually the worst place for a mic). They are reasonably small and light, and can be easily adapted for hand-holding or mounting on a boom pole.
- The Pro version is a good price/performance compromise, and it comes with a shockmount and windscreen. It’s powered by a common 9v battery and it sounds great for the price. It has an 1/8″ output so you’ll need an adapter to plug into the XLR inputs on some recorders.
- The X version is extremely flexible (9v power or phantom, XLR or 1/8″ outputs) and lower noise (12 dB) for extremely clean recordings in quiet settings.
- This one-piece stereo mic is expensive but it has remarkable stereo imaging and low noise (similar to the Rode Stereo Mic X above).
- It has much less hiss than the built-in mics in most of the recorders I’ve mentioned, and the stereo imaging is excellent. It requires phantom power and is a bit heavy for field use.
(just notes for now)
The ubiquitous Sennheiser K6/ME66 mid-range shotgun sounds pretty brittle to my ears, and has a decent amount of hiss. It has a battery power option, though, which helps preserve recorder batteries.
The ultra-expensive Sennheiser MKH series (MKH416) sounds much better (more transparent, lower noise) but costs over $1k.
Rode’s NTG3 shotgun sounds like an MKH but costs about $700
The Chinese company Aputure released a MKH416 clone called the Deity in 2017. It sounds fantastic and seems quite robust. Remarkably, it costs about $400! (But can you get it repaired 10 years from now, like Sennheiser & Rode?)
- Quiet American Links Page
excellent advice from field-recordist Aaron Ximm (aka Quiet American)
- Transom Tools Portable Digital Recorder Comparison
Recorders reviewed from the perspective of radio journalism
- Microphone Input Noise Comparison from avisoft.com
comparison of mic preamp hiss levels for many recorders – very important stuff!
- Sound Recording in the Field from avisoft.com
great tutorial about selecting and using mics and recorders for field-recording
- naturerecordists Yahoo group
an email group archive with tons of specific info about mikes and recorders
- Portable Recorder Sound Samples from Wingfield Audio
samples recorded with built-in mikes, which doesn’t necessarily reflect how they would sound with “real” mikes
- Great recorder advice from Robin Parmar’s “Theatre of Noise” site
- Microphone Comparison table from Rob Danielson at UWM
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