Zach’s Recorder Recommendations

Last Update: February 2020

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.)

What to look for:

  • “Quiet” mic preamps: Quiet in this context means the recorder adds minimum hiss to your recordings. It is expressed as “A-weighted EIN” and lower numbers are better (example: -128 dB is fantastic but -112 dB is pretty noisy)
  • Clear and responsive level meters
  • Manual level controls that are accessible during recording (not buried under menus)
  • Uncompressed WAV format recordings (not MP3)
  • No special software (like iTunes, etc) 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 using a snap-on accessory like the Rode iXY that bypasses the phone’s mic and preamp. These often cost as much as a dedicated audio recorder though.)
  • The voice-recording app on your phone probably doesn’t support live headphone monitoring, so you have no idea what you recorded until you play it back. (There are apps that can enable this feature, but many have other annoying problems.)
  • There’s an excellent roundup of smartphone recording info on the Wild Mountain Echoes field-recording blog. (When I checked in 2017 it hadn’t been updated to reflect the unfortunate disappearance of headphone jacks on many phones.)

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 have noisier preamps than their larger cousins. (There are several great discontinued recorders like the Roland R-05 and Sony PCM-M10 that have great preamps. Nice if you can find one used.)

Zoom H1n

$120

  • A good value for micro budgets. Zoom recorders are popular because they’re cheap, not necessarily because they sound good. The H1n is the 2018 update to the previous H1. There are many user-interface improvements and it’s a great all-around recorder for beginners.
  • Hissy compared to more expensive recorders. (It’s predecessor had A-weighted EIN: -112 dBu, but the H1n sounds a few dB better to me.) As far as I know, there are no similarly-sized recorders with better preamps, so we’ll need to take what we can get.
  • Decent built-in stereo mics, but not recommended for quiet sources due to preamp noise and handling 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.
  • Transom has an in-depth review


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.

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.)


Zoom H5

$270

  • 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.

Zoom H6

$350

  • 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 for quiet sources).
  • Same noise performance as H5 (A-weighted EIN: -121 dBu)
  • 6 tracks of simultaneous recording (nice for surround recording, panel discussions…)
  • Weird physical design: seems like it should be camera-mounted but it’s huge, has a color LCD that you can’t see well 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.
  • Battery life isn’t great, and there are some user-interface quirks, but it’s the cheapest way to get 4 excellent preamps.
  • 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 case, and generally thoughtful design.
  • Note: There may be trouble with reliability and repair. Read recent reviews before purchase.
  • Great low-noise mic preamps (A-weighted EIN: -126 dBu – better than Zoom H5/H6)
  • Supports 192kHz sampling for ultrasonic recording
  • Has some thoughtful 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.


Pro “Field Mixer” Recorders

The following recorders are on the affordable end of the spectrum of professional film sound machines. They’re designed to hang from the shoulder with all controls facing up so you can operate them in a bag. (This leaves your hands free to hold mics and such.) They have better preamps and ergonomics than all the recorders above, but they’re more expensive. They record each input to its own “iso” track and also produce a stereo mix. The physical knobs can usually be mapped to control the input gain of each track (called “trim”) or the track’s presence in the stereo mix (called “fader”). Each recorder has its own way of handling these assignments, some better than others.

Sound Devices MixPre Recorders

This company have been the standard on film sets and field-recording locations for years. They have the best preamps and ergonomics you can buy. They are expensive but they hold their value on the used market. NOTE: In late 2019 Sound Devices released version II of these recorders, which are described here. They added 32-bit recording and internal timecode generators. The original series sounds just as good. They are common on the used market – a great option if your budget is tight and you don’t need the new features of the version II recorders.

Sound Devices MixPre-3 II: $650

Sound Devices MixPre-6 II: $850

 (There are more recorders in the MixPre series but I focus on these because they’re the most affordable)

 

  • Awesome preamps.  (A-weighted EIN: -130 dBu)
  • All-metal construction, thoughtfully designed.
  • The MixPre-3 has 3 XLR inputs (no 1/4″ inputs) & an 1/8″ stereo input with plugin-power. It can record a maximum of 3 inputs simultaneously.
  • The MixPre-6 has 4 XLR inputs (each accepts 1/4″ too) & an 1/8″ stereo input with plugin-power. It can record all 6 simultaneously. It can also record in ambisonic formats with headphone decoding to stereo.
  • In 16 or 24-bit mode, the limiters are analog and very transparent, so unexpected loud signals generally won’t overload the digital section of the recorder. (This video illustrates why this is important.)
  • Optional 32-bit recording modes means you don’t need to set input levels anymore. Loud sounds won’t clip and cause distortion (and limiters are disabled). Great for unattended recordings or very dynamic situations.
  • Internal timecode generator for syncing with cameras.
  • Both recorders support 192kHz sample-rates, so you could capture ultrasound signals and slow them down to become audible.
  • Touch-screen interface is very intuitive, and channel setup is very quick. (Push a channel knob to immediately access its settings like routing, HPF, phantom power, linking…)  Unfortunately the headphone knob is difficult to reach when recorder is in a bag.
  • The gain adjustment is very configurable: In “advanced” mode the physical knobs are faders and you need to click them to adjust trim. In “basic” mode the knobs control trim and the faders are basically locked at unity gain. This is great if you care more about the ISO’s rather than the stereo mix. Transom has a very thorough explanation of this in their MixPre User’s Guide.
  • Very power-hungry. The included 4xAA battery sled will only last about 2hrs. Most people buy the adapter to mount Sony camcorder batteries on the back, but it costs extra and it’s physically awkward (see reviews).
  • Both recorders function as “class compliant” USB audio interfaces, so they generally don’t need drivers. (The max sample-rate in this mode is 96kHz for both recorders.)
  • I have extensively used the MixPre-6 (original version). See my notes about it here
  • Review from Transom (focused on journalism and podcasting) (original version)
  • Short review from sound artist Jez Riley French (original version)
  • Review from SFX field-recordist Zdravko Djordjevic (original version)
  • Video review from Curtis Judd (version II)

Zoom F Series Recorders

These are an attempt to steal the “pro” market away from Sound Devices. They are doing a good job too! The preamps beat the cheaper Zoom recorders handily. They have smart physical and user-interface design, good display and metering, and they’re designed for ergonomic over the shoulder operation. Build quality is better than cheaper Zoom recorders but probably not as durable as the Sound Devices MixPre series.

Zoom F4

$550

  • 4 XLR inputs (each accepts 1/4″ too) with phantom power + a special connector for Zoom’s mic modules, for total of 6 tracks of simultaneous recording.
  • Awesome preamps.  (A-weighted EIN: -127 dBu)
  • The limiters and low-cut filters are not very useful, since they’re actually just software. This video illustrates the problem.
  • It costs less than the cheapest Sound devices recorder, but has more inputs.
  • Internal timecode generator for syncing with cameras.
  • This recorder is larger but easier to use compared to the newer F6 below. The knobs are larger, it has more dedicated buttons, and the menu and metering are very clear and intuitive.
  • You can assign the front panel knobs to be either trims or faders, depending on which view is selected on the screen.
  • Review

Zoom F6

$650

  • This tiny recorder was release several years after its F series siblings. It has identical preamps but differs in other important ways. At the moment I don’t particularly recommend it, but it may improve with firmware upgrades?
  • 6 XLR inputs (No 1/4″ or 1/8″ inputs so you’ll need adapters for those).
  • Awesome preamps.  (A-weighted EIN: -127 dBu)
  • Optional 32-bit recording means that you don’t need to set input levels anymore. Loud sounds won’t clip and cause distortion. Great for unattended recordings or very dynamic situations.
  • Internal timecode generator for syncing with cameras.
  • Excellent battery life (4x internal AA batteries last over 3 hours with all 6 channels running at 32bit / 192kHz + phantom power. Put a Sony camcorder battery on the back for much longer runtime, or use USB-C power.)
  • BEWARE. The user-interface is terrible! It has no relationship to the reasonable controls of the F4 or F8, or the wonderful interface of the Sound Devices recorders. The knobs are tiny and function as faders only.
    – Adjusting trim requires clicking 2 pages deep into the menu (no touch screen) and using up/down buttons to adjust. Imagine doing this frantically while your signal is clipping! (Irrelevant in 32-bit mode.)
    – Linking channels requires lots of menu wrangling and the trim linking is totally separate so you need to do everything twice.
    – Not all buttons are backlit, so it’s hard to see in the dark
    – The red indicators on each channel knob don’t blink when the signal clips (like they do on other Zoom recorders) and the screen is very small, so it’s hard to notice clipping if you’re far away. (Irrelevant in 32-bit mode.)
  • Review by Curtis Judd.

Zoom F8n

$999

  • 8 XLR inputs (each accepts 1/4″ too) with phantom power + a special connector for Zoom’s mic modules, for total of 10 tracks of simultaneous recording.
  • Awesome preamps.  (A-weighted EIN: -127 dBu)
  • The limiters and low-cut filters are not very useful, since they’re actually just software. This video illustrates the problem.
  • Changes from the older F8 (without the “n”) version are not too drastic if the older machine is updated to newest firmware. Here’s a comparison chart.
  • Internal timecode generator for syncing with cameras.
  • This recorder is larger than the newer F6 above, but much easier to use. The knobs are larger, it has more dedicated buttons, and the menu and metering are very clear and intuitive.
  • You can assign the front panel knobs to be either trims or faders, depending on which view is selected on the screen.
  • It has a “slate mic” (a tiny onboard mic so you can “voice-slate” your takes each time you press record). This sounds small but it’s really useful, especially if your mics are far from your recorder (underwater?) so there’s no other way to verbally mark your takes.
  • Review


Radio Lav Replacements:

These tiny recorders are designed to replace expensive wireless lavaliere mics. You set the levels, start recording, and conceal it on an actor’s body as they perform. Then you sync the sound to picture later. They can be useful for other purposes too, like environmental monitoring.

Zoom F1

$170

  • Includes a mono lav mic (but supports external stereo mics with 1/8″ plugs)
  • This is basically the same electronics and great user-interface as the Zoom H1n described above, but in a more rugged package and no built-in mics.
  • A little bigger than the Tascam below.
  • Runs for 10 hours on 2x AAA batteries

  • It records only in mono
  • Includes a mono lav mic.
  • The user-interface is pretty clumsy. It’s hard to set levels.
  • Runs for 8 hours on a single AAA battery


Binaural and Lav Microphones:

These are not the expensive industry-standard production lavs (Countryman B6, Sanken Cos11, etc). Instead I’m listing inexpensive tiny mics that are more appropriate for putting in your ears, or under rocks, or tied to kites! Transom has a great guide to Lavelier Mics to get you started.


Microphone Madness binaural mics
$99 stereo pair … or

Stereo Lavelier Mics
$65 stereo pair

  • The binaural version 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. (ASMR folks looove binaural recording.) You can’t wear headphones while you record (unless you buy/build a dummy head to hold your mics!)
  • The stereo lav version are the same capsules, but in a conventional lav format with little mic clips. These are more versatile (and cheaper) but you’ll need to find a way to clip them to your head if you want to record binaural stereo. (clip them to sunglasses, 3D print some fake 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 stereo 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. Very similar mics are available online from Sound Professionals, Cold Gold, Core Sound and others.
  • You can build something similar by soldering inexpensive mic capsules in place of the drivers in cheap “earbud” headphones.)

Naint X-X microphones

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 mics above.
  • Very professional build quality for a low price (custom-built by a small manufacturer)
  • Options are available for XLR (phantom power required), 1/8″, mono, stereo, etc.


FEL Clippy stereo pair mic set

$95 (3.5mm version)
$150 (XLR version)

  • These small omnidirectional mics are based on Primo EM172 capsules so they have very low noise (14 dB). (see below for a DIY alternative)
  • They are a little too big to fit into your ears, but they can be clipped to glasses or a headband to produce binaural-style recordings.
  • The 3.5mm version requires “Plug-in Power” (for small recorders)
  • The XLR version requires phantom power
  • There are mono and quad versions too.
  • Ships from the UK

 

  • Follow the link for my post about building very low noise omnidirectional mics from inexpensive capsules. They will sound identical to the 3.5mm version of the FEL Clippy mics above.


Stereo Microphones:

Many recorders have great stereo mics already built-in, but external options encourage more creative mic placements and (often) less hiss too.

  • 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 Stereo VideoMic Pro 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 Stereo VideoMic X 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.
  • I modified mine to make it shorter/lighter and 3D-printed some wind protection.

 


Camera-Top Shotgun Microphones:

These mics are designed to mount on top of your camera (although that’s the worst place to put a mic – get it closer to the action!). Previous camera-top shotguns have tended to be hissy, harsh, and not very directional. The ones below are much better. Both have 1/8″ outputs with special circuitry to accommodate the different wiring for mobile devices, cameras, and audio recorders. They both have manual audio levels and other pro features but they don’t sound as good as larger shotguns.

  • Deity is a new-ish Chinese company that has been making very impressive microphones.
  • Includes an XLR adapter for use with professional recorders
  • Built-in Li-Ion battery (Not replaceable!)
  • Self-noise: not specified, but seems to be a few dB more hiss than Rode below.
  • Slightly more susceptible to RF interference than Rode below.
  • Curtis Judd video review

  • Rode made this in response to competition from Deity mic above. It has the same basic features but also functions as a USB mic (for laptops or mobile devices).
  • Built-in Li-Ion battery (Not replaceable!)
  • More adjustable shockmount than Deity mic above.
  • Self-noise: 13 dB (A-weighted)
  • 10 year warranty (if you buy from a legit reseller and register the mic online)
  • Curtis Judd video review


Small XLR Shotgun Microphones:

In recent years there have been several shotguns that are shorter & lighter than the traditional foot-long form factor but sound fantastic.

  • Deity is a new-ish Chinese company that has been making very impressive microphones. This is a shorter version of their well-regarded S-Mic 2 (see below).
  • The tone is more muffled than the NTG5 below, and it’s slightly noisier, but it’s tiny, cheap, and sounds good.
  • Self-noise: 15 dB (A-weighted)
  • Very moisture-resistant
  • 6″ long
  • Curtis Judd video review

Rode NTG5

$500

  • This is my overall recommendation for best shotgun mic.
  • This mic is shorter, lighter and cheaper than Rode’s “flagship” NTG3 shotgun, and sounds slightly better too (less exaggerated bass, more clarity). It’s quite amazing, comparing very favorably with the Sennheiser MKH416 (> $1000).
  • Exceptionally low self-noise: 10 dB (A-weighted)
  • RF-biased technology is immune to high humidity.
  • Includes softie and shock-mount, so it’s a really good deal.
  • 10 year warranty (if you buy from a legit reseller and register the mic online)
  • 8″ long
  • Curtis Judd video review


Traditional Shotgun Microphones:

This is a selection of common “foot-long” shotguns that have been used for years in motion picture work.

Deity S-MIC 2

$360
(or $430 with shockmount and softie)

  • Deity is a new-ish Chinese company that has been making very impressive microphones. This one is a blatant ripoff of the venerated Sennheiser MKH416 (see below) and it sounds really good.
  • Self-noise: 12 dB (A-weighted)
  • Curtis Judd has an excellent “first impressions” review comparing it to the much more expensive DPA 4017B and the similarly-priced Rode NTG4+.
  • One question: Will you be able to get it repaired 10 years from now, like Sennheiser & Rode? Hmm.

 

Rode NTG3 

$700

  • This “RF biased” shotgun sounds similar to the Sennheiser MKH series below, with a different noise character and more bass (which can be a problem if your recorder lacks an analog high-pass filter option).
  • Self-noise: 13 dB (A-weighted)
  • Rode mics have 10 year warranties and excellent support
  • (Rode’s cheaper NTG2 mic has much less gain and is noisier and less directional – avoid it)

 

Sennheiser MKH series (MKH416, MKH60, MKH8060)

$1000 – $1300

  • These expensive “RF biased” mics set the gold standard for shotguns for 30 years. They sound amazing and are very moisture-resistant and durable. However, the cheaper options above are generally just as good.
  • Self-noise: 13 dB (A-weighted)
  • The 416,60, and 8060 are from different eras with different sounds, but they all sound great.


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