Last Update: March 2019
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.)
- “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. You might pay as much as a dedicated audio recorder though.)
- 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. (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 most 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.)
- 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.)
- 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
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.
- 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
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.)
- 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.
No Compromise Recorders
These recorders 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.
- Awesome preamps. (A-weighted EIN: -130 dBu)
- 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.)
- All-metal construction, thoughtfully designed.
- Sound Devices has a longstanding reputation in professional film sound and FX work, based on their classic 7 series and 6 series mixer/recorders. ($2500-$4000) They released the drastically cheaper MixPre series in 2017, probably due to competition from Zoom (see below). These cheaper recorders sound just as good, and they’re smaller and lighter too.
- The MixPre-3 can record a maximum of 3 inputs simultaneously, and has a max sample-rate of 96kHz
- The MixPre-6 can record a maximum of 6 inputs simultaneously, and has a max sample-rate of 192kHz. It can also record in ambisonic formats with headphone decoding to stereo.
- 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 the MixPre-6. See my notes about it here
- Review from Transom (focused on journalism and podcasting)
- Short review from sound artist Jez Riley French
- Review from SFX field-recordist Zdravko Djordjevic
- Video review from Curtis Judd
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 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. Build quality is better than cheaper Zoom recorders but not as durable as the Sound Devices MixPre series. The limiters and low-cut filters are not very useful, since they’re actually just software. This video illustrates the problem.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 mics above.
- Very professional build quality for a low price
- These mics have XLR plugs and require phantom power
$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.
about $25 DIY
- 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.
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. (If you want to save weight you could theoretically take it apart and remove the handle. The electronics are all inside the mic head, so the handle just contains wires and the 5-pin XLR output connector. Some clever re-engineering could shrink everything down to fit in a tiny blimp.)
- This mid-range shotgun is very popular for video, but sounds pretty brittle to my ears, and has a decent amount of hiss.
- It can run on a AA battery, which helps preserve your recorder batteries. (All the other shotguns in this list require phantom power.)
- The shotgun members of the expensive Sennheiser MKH series are “RF biased” and sound much better than the ME mics.
- The 416,60, and 8060 are from different eras with different sounds, but they all sound better than the ME series: mid-range is thicker and more robust and the high-end is accurate without being over-hyped and “fizzy”. They also have lower noise and are almost immune to humidity (which can cause hissing and popping sounds in many condenser mics).
- This “RF biased” shotgun sounds similar to the MKH series, with a little more noise and more bass (which can be a problem if your recorder lacks an analog high-pass filter option).
- The pickup pattern is a little wider than the MKH416
- Rode mics have 10 year warranties and excellent support
- (Rode’s cheaper NTG2 mic has much less gain and is noisier and less directional)
(or $430 with shockmount and softie)
- In 2017 the Chinese company Aputure released a clone of the Sennheiser MKH416 called the “Aputure Deity”. It sounded good, with excellent build-quality and moisture-resistance, but the noise floor was higher than the Sennheiser mics. They released this new version in 2018 with a much better noise floor. The price is the same, and it appears to be a great mic.
- 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.
- 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
- Field recording in South-East Asia – practical advice from the LOM recordings site
- Paul Virostek’s creativefieldrecording.com has in-depth articles about choosing gear, based on interviews with prominent recordists. I especially like his description of the “gear gap” between affordable and expensive recording technology, and his suggestions for how to fill that gap by identifying goals, developing skills, and pursuing a modular approach to your equipment.