Digital Sound Recorder Buyer’s Guide

2011/03/07

digital-sound-recorder-buyers-guide

Update: I’ve revised the info here to reflect gear options and prices from mid 2017.

One of the most common questions beginning sound effects recordists ask is which equipment to buy for field recording. What is the best digital audio recorder? In this article I’ll review the options for buying digital field recorders.

To begin field recording you’ll need a recorder, headphones, a microphone and cabling. Optionally you may add a separate preamp. And let's not forget your most important equipment: your ears.

Today we'll discuss how to choose a recorder, and what features to look for.

Background

The digital audio recorder market exploded around 2006. Recorders were once made only by large companies such as Fostex, Nagra, Tascam, or HHB. Now we're now seeing smaller companies produce inexpensive versions of recorders. Many of them are marketed to musicians. In this article we'll look at choosing digital recorders for field recording sound effects.

There are dozens of recorders available. Some may be obsolete six months from now. So, instead of providing a detailed list of the best recorders today, I’ll post a checklist of features to look for when buying a digital audio recorder.

Broad concerns

How can you begin choosing an audio recorder? Start by thinking about global considerations:

  • Budget. Digital audio recorders appear to be classified in four categories: below $500, $500-$1,000, $1,000-$10,000, and $10,000 plus.
  • Purpose. Consider how you’re planning to use the recorder. Think about your needs. This could include:
    • Are you planning on field recording?
    • Will you travel extensively?
    • Will you record mostly foley in a studio?
    • Are you working with a variety of microphones (condenser, dynamic, etc.)?

Bear these things in mind when considering the checklist below.

Basic Features

  • Preamp. Pretty much more important than anything else if you are using condenser microphones. If the preamp isn't clean or quiet, even the Cadillac of microphones will be affected. Test the quality of the preamp with condenser microphones at low, medium, and high levels and listen to the noise floor. Is the noise floor high even at low levels? How thick or present is the noise?
  • Recording format. Which file format can the recorder capture? Typical options are WAV and MP3. Some offer space-saving FLAC files, or high-resolution DSD formats.
    Additional considerations are bit depth and sampling rate. Is CD-quality (44.1 kHz 16-bit) sufficient, or do you require high-resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit audio, or even 192 kHz? Although CD-quality sounds fine, 24-bit recordings produce a notable difference. Usually 96 kHz and above is important if you expect to be processing the file (time twisting, pitching the file multiple octaves, etc.). 96 kHz remains the standard for sound fx libraries, however.
  • Portability. Are you planning to take your recorder into the field? Will you be recording solely in a studio?
  • Construction. Is the recorder built with cheap plastic? Will the buttons wear out in six months? How durable is the recorder?

Advanced Features

  • Multi-track. Some recorders can capture 4 tracks. More expensive recorders, such as the Deva series or the Sound Devices 688 ($5,998) can capture 12 or more tracks.
    Sound Devices 688

    Sound Devices 688

    If the recorder has multi-track capabilities, check at which sample rate multi-track recording is available. For instance, a recorder may be capable of recording 10 tracks, but only 48 kHz/24-bit. Higher sample rates are restricted to a smaller amount of tracks. Sound Devices' 633 ($3,229) is an example.

    Sound Devices 633

    Sound Devices 633

  • External inputs/outputs. High-end recorders will offer multiple inputs. XLR inputs are often preferred. Ensure that the XLR jacks are lockable so that the connectors cannot be pulled out from the recorder. Less expensive recorders offer mini connectors, which may not be grounded and could pick up electromagnetic interference, such as radio waves or hum.
  • Design. Size, weight, and construction are important considerations if you plan to be mobile. “Run-and-gun” field recordists will need a light and durable option. This is less of an issue if the recorder is staying safe in the studio, where a less sturdy countertop recorder will do.
  • Interface/controls. Is it easy to change the recording levels? Is it easy to record, review, and play the sound? Touchscreen recorders, like the Deva series, are interesting, but if you're guerrilla recording, tactile cues are essential. Each function should have a separate button with a distinct shape. The record button in particular should be different than any other.
  • Media. Recorders use memory cards, hard drives, exterior DVD-RAM drives, or a combination. Removable media is nice to have if you expect to be away from a workstation and may need to swap out your media for additional storage.

    Sound Devices MixPre-3

  • Manufacturer. A fly-by-night company may abandon the recorder in a few years when a new model is released. More established manufacturers will have established lines of support.
  • Firmware updates. Are you able to update the firmware after purchase? Some manufacturers update the firmware software over time, which can fix bugs and offer additional features.
  • Warranty. A good company will allow you to register the recorder via mail or the Internet allowing for a window of tech support or repair. This also indicates a company's faith in the quality of their recorder.
  • Connectivity. Can the recorder connect directly to a computer? Does it use USB, FireWire, or a proprietary connection? How fast will data transfer over this connection? Does it lack a connection and require memory cards to be used directly with a workstation?
  • Timecode. Some recorders also imprint every sound recording with timecode. Typically this is designed for production location recordists (i.e., on set) so that the recordings will be in sync with the camera. Note that some recorders support timecode, but are not able to generate it themselves. Instead, they must have timecode supplied from a camera or another recorder.

    Time code can be very useful when multiple recorders are far from each other, and marking a recording with a vocal slate is impossible. For example, imagine recording a car with three recorders: one inside the car, one on the side of the road and a third in the distance. When it is time to master the sounds, matching timecode on all the recorders will help you line up the recordings in a session easily.

Zaxcom Fusion

Zaxcom Fusion

Fancy Bonus Features

  • Menu design. Can you delete or mark recordings quickly? Find settings easily? Change options quickly when in a challenging situation?
  • Start up. Lower-end recorders take longer to start up. This is not absolutely essential, but when you miss your first rare effect because your recorder takes 20 seconds to boot, you'll wish you had a faster start up time.
  • Pre-roll. Often an unplanned take or recording can spring up on you. Pre-roll is handy in these situations. The feature begins capturing a buffer of audio while it is armed, then commit it to the file when recording begins. It essentially allows a field recordist to capture 5-10 seconds of audio “in the past,” prior to pressing the recording. This option is usually limited by sample rate – the higher sample rate you record at, the less pre-roll time is available.
  • Digital interface. Some recorders double as a digital interface or breakout box. This allows you to capture audio through the recorder directly into a supported sound editing application on your computer.
  • Neverclip. A feature included in Zaxcom recorders that prevents clipping.
  • MARF. Another Zaxcom feature. The Mobile Audio Recording Format protects sound files during improper shut downs.
  • Storage redundancy. Records to multiple formats simultaneously. Good for backup. A godsend when a hard drive fails or or a SD card becomes corrupted.
  • Power redundancy. Multiple powering options: AAs, battery packs, AC, or advanced options such as NP powering systems.
  • Power termination protection. Keeps a field recorder alive for a few precious extra seconds to allow the unit to shut down gracefully and save recordings from becoming damaged.
  • Power switching. Allows swapping between power sources instantaneously if one power source fails.
  • Remote control. Operate the recorder and name tracks from a distance using smartphones or tablets.
  • Ambisonic support. Does the recorder allow smooth operation when recording four channels of Ambisonic sound effects?

Sonosax SX-R4+

Extra Considerations

  • Usability. Considering what the recorder was created for, how well does it function in this role? Usability also considers features like: intuitiveness, training required, balancing the role of the user and the recorder. Does a portable recorder work well as a device meant to be carried around, or does its design relegate it to desktop use? Good usability will depend on how well the recorder functions in this role, as well as how easily a recorder lets the recordist actually record instead of operating the device.

Options and Selections, Mid-2017

Audio Recorders Under $500

Zoom H6

Zoom H6

The Zoom H6 ($319) is the flagship of Zoom's handheld portable models. It captures six tracks of audio (4 x XLR, 2 x onboard microphones). Taking a page from professional camera lenses, the H6 allows 4 different types of microphone capsules to be swapped out quickly. The amount of flexibility this unit offers at its price makes it a winner. And the preamp's not too bad, either.

Listen to a recording of thunder, rain, and birds:

Listen to a quiet hall atmosphere recorded with the Zoom H6:

Other Options

  • Zoom H2n ($159). Small 4-channel handheld recorder.
  • Zoom H4n Pro ($199). Two-channel recorder (plus two external inputs) with decent rubberized construction. XLR/1/4" jacks. Great price. Watch for preamp quality.
  • Zoom H5 (4 channels, $269). Similar to the H4n Pro, but also offers the interchangeable capsules of the more expensive H6.
  • Tascam DR-70D ($299). Four-channel dedicated recorder designed to work with cameras.
  • Marantz PMD 661 MkII ($459). Two-track portable recorder with XLR/1/4" inputs popular with the field recording community. Works well with outboard microphones.

Best discontinued options:

  • Sony PCM-M10 ($199+). Once Sony’s entry-level handheld recorder. Produces good sound for its price.
  • Sony PCM-D50 ($400). Semi-pro portable recorder with adjustable microphones and excellent sound.

Audio Recorders $500 – $1,000

Portable Recorder

Sony PCM-D100

Sony PCM-D100

Sony PCM-D100 ($725) Two-track handheld recorder with adjustable microphones, excellent sound, clean preamp, strong metal housing. Generous onboard memory (32 GB). Lacks XLR input jacks.

Listen to a train field recording captured with the Sony PCM-D100:

Dedicated Recorder

Zoom F8

Zoom F8

Zoom F8 ($899). Eight-track recorder with best features in its class. Notably includes XLR jacks and can generate timecode.

Sound Devices MixPre-6

Sound Devices MixPre-6 ($899). A new 6+2 channel recorder that doubles as an audio interface. Tiny form factor. Quiet, crisp, and clear preamps, and clean headphone amp.

Other Options

  • Zoom F4 ($599). Four-channel version of the F8 dedicated recorder with fewer features and a monochrome screen.
  • Sound Devices MixPre-3 ($649). The little brother to the new MixPre-6 with 3+2 channels that can record up to 96 kHz/24-bit.
  • Fostex FR–2 LE ($599). Two-channel recorder. This can be found used for under $500.
  • Tascam DR-680MKII ($505). The most inexpensive 8-channel dedicated recorder on the market (6 + 2 digital).

Best discontinued or used options:

  • Fostex FR–2. Dedicated recorder. Not the most robust construction but smooth preamps.
  • Sony PCM-D50. The big brother to the more modern D100. While a bit older, its sound quality for handhelds ranks second only to the D100.

Audio Recorders $1,000 – $10,000

Sound Devices 722

Sound Devices 722

Sound Devices 7xx family ($2,649 – $6,849). Featuring 2–8 channels, these recorders have bullet-proof construction, excellent preamps, and are flexible. A slight downside: you need to pack a lunch to find your way through the menus.

Other Options

  • Tascam HD-P82 ($1,999). An 8-track option that is the cheapest in this price bracket.
  • Zaxcom family. The Maxx, (8 channels, $4,100), Nomad (10–12 channels, $6,195). Sturdy build with outstanding preamps. Heavy and bulky, and relies on touch screen for some functions.
  • Sonosax SX-R4+ ($5,499). One of the most inexpensive sixteen-channel recorders (albeit with some non-standard input jacks).
  • Sound Devices also offers a line of production mixers with integrated recorders ($3,328 – $5,998). These units are designed with production mixing in mind with technologies such as Dugan automixing and MixAssist to help manage multiple, diverse sources, timecode, multiple powering sources, Bluetooth remote recording control, and power redundancy. Not every field recordist will need these features, of course, but the basic recording capabilities from a Sound Devices unit and preamps are prized.

Audio Recorders $10,000+

Cantar X3

Cantar X3

Aaton Cantar X3 ($16,580). The Rolls Royce of dedicated recorders. Perhaps the priciest on the market. Known to have some of the quietest preamps available. The form factor lends itself more toward desktop or cart usage, instead of a field recording bag. Is its colour scheme hideous or a refreshing take on field recording gear? That’s up to you.

Other Options

  • Zaxcom Deva 58 (10 tracks, $12,999). Differs from its lower-priced Zaxcom siblings with an onboard hard drive, dedicated mixing knobs, DVD-RAM drive, and luscious display. Built like a tank, but unfortunately built like a tank: heavy and cumbersome for field use.

Please note that this article is not a list of endorsements or recommendations – after all, there’s no way to I could personally test every model listed here! Instead, the post is an intended as a handy list of options you can explore yourself. It’s always best to rent and test field recording gear before making an investment, if you can.

Read More

Do you have a favorite recorder? Any important features I’ve missed? Share in the comments below.





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14 responses to Digital Sound Recorder Buyer’s Guide

  1. Personally, in the “Bonus” section I’d suggest the Zaxcom Fusion 10 over the Deva 5.8. There’s no internal hard drive, so that cuts down on weight and power requirements. Downside being you’re relying on Compact Flash cards for storage (if you consider that a downside). Honestly though, that’s the best method to get audio off of the Deva 5.8. So, I don’t see that as a huge issue.

    • Hi Shaun, great points. One of the biggest issues I had with the 5.8 was the weight. I also found that transferring the data off the 5.8 via direct connection seemed to take longer than it should have – though I didn’t try Compact Flash. So I agree, compact flash sounds like a great “no-loss” solution… I’ll have to rent the Fusion 10 and give it a spin.

      • Yeah, that firewire mirroring offload takes forever, and don’t even get me started on waiting for the drive to mount. Completely baffling considering how easy it is with the 744T. The compact flash transfer from the 5.8 is much faster than to an external drive. I’ve been wanting to try out a Fusion 10/12 myself. Simultaneous record to two compact flash cards seems like a much better solution.

  2. Enos Desjardins 2011/03/07 at 12:04

    Hi Paul! Another cool post! For me the most important part of a good recorder are its preamps. They have to be quiet and need to have at least two if you want to do at least stereo field recordings. The next most important thing are the microphones used!

    I’ve personally owned a Sound Devices 744T for about a year now and love it to bits!

    • Hey Enos! I completely agree. I use Sound Devices myself (as well as the MixPre) – great control interface. The durability is a major benefit in less-controled field recording situations. I hauled a 722 through 20 cities in Europe over 90 intensive days and it held up perfectly.

  3. Rene Coronado 2011/03/07 at 18:47

    Hi Paul,

    I’d love to see runers up on your selections. thx!

    • HI Rene. Hmmm. That’s a great idea. Let me put some thought into that. I’ll likely write another post about this… perhaps elaborating on my favourites and some others like you suggest.

  4. JesterMgee 2011/03/08 at 16:36

    Great post and definitely a great hetp for new comers. My aim is to sell a heap of unwanted/needed stuff I have and save for an SD702. I have a H4n, Rode NT4 and blimp system with a MixPre on the way. Hearing examples from the SD with an NT4 just makes me need an SD. Doesn’t look like you can go wrong with one of those.

    Under the Advanced Features up there perhaps add “Time Code”? I know that it’s not a needed feature but certainly makes things a lot easier if used with video work. Probably a whole nother topic but there are so many areas for recorders to be used.

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post.

      I haven’t used the 702 personally but friends say it is excellent. I have a Sound Devices 722 and seeing as it is essentially a 702 without the hard drive I can highly recommend it. I do like the NT4 and with the MixPre you’ll have a great set up.

      Time code is an excellent idea, thanks! It is certainly worth a mention and I will add that to the post in the next few days.

  5. I wonder why the pre-amps on the deva are “ourstanding” while those on the SD are not. I have used both and would say the SD pre-amps are are at least par with the deva’s if not better.
    even the FR-2 on your list is mentioned with “good pre-amps”. I think the SD series has some of the quietest mic pres available on a portable device.

    • You’re right, Hans, the quality of Sound Devices’ preamps is well known. I use Sound Devices myself.

      I personally find the Deva preamps cleaner, but the Sound Devices pres are very good, it is true.

      As for the Fostex, the preamp stands out to me primarily for the quality at its price point, which is less than a 722. Not necessarily better than a 722, but, in my opinion good for its class, which is why I noted that specially by price.

  6. Andres Montaña 2011/03/14 at 10:25

    Hey Paul, great article!! I’m also a fan Sound Devices preamps. I’ve been thinking about getting a NT4 to combine it with my SD 302 mainly for stereo atmos recordings. Do you think this mic will do a god job for this application, or should I be looking at a different mic? Thanks for the advice.

    • Thanks Andres, glad you enjoyed the article.

      I would definitely recommend the NT4. For the price, I found that the NT4 captures a surprising amount of depth and breadth and soundstage. The 302 I also think is a great unit and I think they will work well together.

      Good luck and let us know how it turns out for you.

      • Andres Montaña 2011/03/16 at 00:00

        Paul thanks for the advice, it is very helpful as I won’t have the chance to test the mic myself before buying (ordering abroad). Will let you know how it goes. All the best.