Field Recording Gear Buyer’s Guide

2015/11/18

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So, we’ve completed the “A Month of Field Recordists” series from both 2015 and 2016. That explored the gear that 49 sound pros prefer. We’ve also heard the opinions about recorders and microphones from a community field recording survey.

How can you use this info? What equipment is best for you?

Well, it depends on your budget, the features you want, and the sound quality you prefer. So, it’s hard to give a concrete answer.

However, I’ll share some viable options in today’s post, drawn from the wisdom of many of the sound pro’s choices as well as community tips, too.

Update: this post has now been updated to include suggestions from both the 2015 and 2016 “A Month Field Recordist Series” with responses from the community field recording series as well.

Ways to Choose Field Recording Equipment

What is the best field recording gear choice?

The truth is that field recording selection doesn’t occur in distinct steps. It depends on the sounds your pursue, your budget, your upgrade path, and more.

For example, you may be just starting out capturing audio beyond the studio. Perhaps you wish to supplement your studio gear with a portable kit. You may be growing from a hand held recorder and want more sophisticated options. So, it’s entirely possible that a field recordist could be anywhere along this spectrum, or perhaps exploring a few pursuits at once.

To consider each of these possibilities, I’ll organize choices into seven categories:

  1. Inexpensive and ultra-portable.
  2. Standalone portable recorder.
  3. Portable recorder and microphone combo.
  4. Portable recorder, microphone, and preamp combo.
  5. Dedicated field recorder.
  6. Dedicated microphone.
  7. Foley microphones.

Now, it’s important to note that the suggestions below are not rigid. They’re suggestions drawn from the experiences and preferences of the pros in the “A Month of Field Recordists” series as well as input from the community. So, the goal instead is to show that there’s a viable kit for every point upon the arc of a field recordist’s career.

Each option from 1-6 adds better sound quality, recording options, superior build, and so on. Naturally, a $200 recording solution can't compete with one at ten times its price. So, the options from 1-6 are meant to indicate two things:

  • An increase in financial investment.
  • A typical arc of gear acquisition.

The seventh category didn't really come into discussion during the series. I added it as a helpful resource to those interested in recording Foley.

Because field recording is such a broad craft, it’s understandable to differ with the list below. There are dozens of viable options to record sound beyond the studio, many of which were not mentioned in the series at all. So, take what ideas you like from each category to explore the best options for you.

Note: prices and models are current as of December, 2016.

  1. Inexpensive and Ultra-Portable

  2. Røde i-XY and iPhone

    Røde i-XY and iPhone

    Do you have an iPhone? Thinking about dabbling in field recording? Willing to record predominantly prominent sounds? Purchase an i-XY ($199). You’ll have a 96 kHz/24-bit quality X/Y Røde microphone for $199, and far cheaper if you buy used on eBay. Other mobile recording models include Tascam’s iM2 ($9.99), Zoom’s iQ5 ($70), and Shure’s MOTIVE ($149$199) systems.

    These options won’t capture crystal-clear representations of the softest sounds. They aren’t designed to. Instead, they serve as always-with-you add-ons that can be crammed into a pocket with the phone that’s usually in most field recordists pockets anyway. So, for not much cash and very little additional space, these microphones become a no-hassle entry into the world of field recording.

  3. Standalone Portable Recorder

  4. Many sound pros begin field recording by choosing a compact solution: portable handheld field recorders. These small units fit in a pocket and can be whipped out to record sounds at moment’s notice. There are dozens of these handheld portable recorders now on the market.

    Sony PCM-M10

    Sony PCM-M10

    The Sony PCM-M10 is a reliable option noted by many pros. This portable recorder is a strong unit with good sound quality. It’s discontinued now, however you can find one on eBay for under $300. The M10 is generally considered to have superior preamps and sound quality for this price point.

    Zoom H4nPro

    Zoom H4nPro

    Another popular option is Zoom H4n Pro ($199). Its rugged design takes a lot of punishment. The XLR inputs serve as an upgrade path for adding external microphones in the future.

    Adding roughly $200 dollars to your budget brings you to the territory of portables from veteran gear manufacturers. The Olympus LS-100 ($399) and the Tascam DR-100 mkii ($229) are additional options with XLR jacks. The Marantz PMD 661 MkII ($379) lacks these jacks, but was quite popular among pros and community recordists alike.

    The most popular and expensive portable field recorder was Sony’s PCM-D100 ($795). While lacking XLR inputs, that unit was widely respected for its superior sound quality. It replaced the PCM-D50 (discontinued, $650), which still retained a good reputation after years of service. It remains a good option if found used.

    A number of field recordists in the series choose portable recorders that offered channels beyond the standard stereo most handhelds provided. Zoom had a lot of flexibility here with their H2n (5 microphones, $159), H5 (swappable capsules, $269), and H6 (swappable capsules, $299). Tascam’s DR-40 (four tracks, $179) was a option from an alternative manufacturer.

    Tascam DR-40

    Tascam DR-40

    Overall, this category is well suited to field recording fans who want a small kit they can toss into their backpack to carry with them wherever they go. Except for the higher-priced options, the sound won’t rival fully dedicated kits, however the portability and easy of use are excellent ways to begin exploring field recording on a sub-$500 budget.

  5. Portable Recorder & Microphone Combo

  6. Perhaps you want a bit more flexibility. Maybe you’d like to add a dedicated microphone to portable recorder you already have.

    In that case, buy a Sony PCM-M10 or Zoom H4n Pro ($199) as the recording device. Supplement this with an inexpensive outboard microphone. Options include:

    These microphones add higher sound quality than the native microphones on most portable recorders below the $500 price range. They’re also small, which means they don’t detract from the portability that handhelds were designed to highlight.

  7. Portable Recorder, Microphone, and Preamp Combo

  8. You gain even more flexibility for a future microphone upgrade path by adding a mixer to your portable recorder kit. The idea is to include a preamp as the bridge between a professional microphone and the recorder.

    Buy a Sony PCM-M10 or Zoom H4nPro as described above. If you have the cash, you’d appreciate the features of a Sony PCM-D50 or PCM-D100 ($795). A Tascam DR–40 is another option at $179.

    Use a Sound Devices MixPre-D ($929) or 302 mixer ($1,649) as a preamp. It’s also possible to find an older MixPre used on eBay for less money.

    You can attach any professional microphone to this arrangement. The sound pros in this series smoothly integrated X/Y kits into this arrangement, including a Røde NT4 ($529), and Audio Technica X/Y microphones (AT2022 ($249), AT8022 ($399) and BP4025 ($649)). The miniature DPA 4060 ($949) microphones were often used in an A/B configuration to provide excellent sound with a bonus of serving as a stealth kit as well.

    DPA 4060

    DPA 4060

  9. Choosing a Dedicated Field Recorder

  10. What options do you have if you’d prefer a dedicated field recorder? After all, dedicated recorders are known to have superior preamps, more features, and better connectivity options.

    The least expensive options pros used in this series included a Roland R–44 (4 tracks, $795), and a Tascam DR–680 (10 tracks, $599). While not mentioned in the articles, there is also an option from Fostex, the FR–2 LE, for $568. Zoom has recently released the F4 (four tracks, $649) in this price range, too.

    A slight cash injection will bring a budget to the $1,000 price point. At this amount, field recordists can add more tracks, timecode, or hard drive storage. One recent example is the Zoom F8 (8+2 tracks, $999). Thereafter, there’s a pricing wasteland until budgets increase to $2,000 which bring the Sound Devices family into view.

    Most field recordists choose Sound Devices recorders for their durability and preamp quality. The 702 (compact flash, $2,049) and the 722 (hard drive, $2,679) are two-channel options. A 744T ($4,319) and 788T ($6,849) add four and eight tracks, respectively. Sound Devices’s 633 (six tracks at 96k, $3,229) field mixer/recorder has become an increasingly popular option with features that improve upon the 7-series recorders and compact form factor.

    Sound Devices 633

    Sound Devices 633

  11. Choosing Dedicated Microphones

  12. Once you own a dedicated recorder, you’ll want to choose dedicated microphones to pair with it. There are dozens of good options. Where do you start?

    DPA 4060

    DPA 4060

    There is plenty of choice, even below a $1,000 price point. Many field recordists recommend the DPA 4060 or 4061 lavalier microphones ($949) which produce excellent sound for their size.

    There are plenty of matched pair options in this price range, too. Line Audio’s CM3s (cardiod, $230/pair) and OM1s (omni, $90/pair) were favoured. A few other stand-alone matched pairs included Rode’s NT5 (cardiod, $219) and Beyerdynamic’s MC930 (cardiod, $999/pair). The Oktava MK-012 (figure-of-eight, $240) was also cited as good value in the category. Matched pairs of interchangeable capsule systems included the Studio Projects C4 ($349/pair) and Rode’s NT55 ($829/pair).

    A number of X/Y microphones were mentioned as more compact stereo recording options. The Røde NT4 ($529) was commonly included in best-of lists. Audio Technica’s array of X/Y microphones (AT2022 ($249), AT8022 ($399) and BP4025 ($649)) also appeared as lower-priced options.

    If you have a larger budget, you may wish to explore microphone combos, such as Senneheiser’s MKH 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70 mics ($1,199 – $1,749 each), all of which were popular with many sound pros in the series. A Schoeps CMC 6 U system ($1,912) with MK microphones ($755+) is another flexible option.

    Finally, the Sennheiser MKH 8040 was universally enjoyed by all pros that used it for its clarity and low noise. That’s much more expensive at $2,399 for a stereo pair, but guarantees to deliver a lifetime of exceptional field recording quality.

    Sennheiser MKH 8040

    Sennheiser MKH 8040

    Most microphones are generally limited to one purpose. For example, omnidirectional microphones won’t work well when a sound effect requires a hyper-cardiod. So, another option is a multi-pattern microphone. Switches or matrix boxes on these microphones allow changing the sensitivity pattern, ensuring that it can be used for many subjects.

    Options in the sub-$1000 range included the sE 4400a ($499) and AKG C414 XLR ($1,099) multi-pattern microphones. Audio Technica produces the BP4029 (also know as the AT835ST, $749). Shure’s VP88 ($791.25) is a another multi-pattern microphone option.

    Shure VP88

    Shure VP88

    Those with more generous budgets will consider the X/Y and M/S multi-pattern Neumann RSM-191i stereo shotgun (discontinued, used $2,500+), Sennheiser’s MKH-418S ($1,549), and Sanken’s 3-pattern CSS-5 ($2,300). TSL’s ST450 MKii ambisonic microphone was a popular wish-list item within the community. It offers the ultimate recording flexibility with a price tag to match: $9,435.

  13. Choosing Foley Microphones
  14. Field recording captures sound effects beyond the studio. However, many sound pros featured in the series supplement their worldwide sound fx with studio sound design recordings. These clips, captured in Foley theatres, require a different approach to recording sound effects. So, for the sake of comprehensiveness, I’ve included an editorialized list of “popular” microphones for Foley recording. Of course, choosing a microphone for Foley recording depends on the acoustics of the room, and often the Foley artist’s style. Use this chart as a general guide:

    Manufacturer Model Pattern Price Notes
    Neumann KMR 81 i Supercardiod $1599.95 A highly-respected shotgun microphone, known for its low noise and more natural, excellent sound quality. Balanced and clear sound with exceptional off-axis rejection. Rich and detailed.
    Neumann U87 Omnidirectional, Cardiod, Figure-of-eight $3199.00 The U87 is famous for providing a smooth, warm and natural sound.
    Røde NTG1 Supercardiod $249.00 An entry-level shotgun microphone with a decent reputation.
    Røde NTG2 Supercardiod $269.00 A shotgun which competes with the Sennheiser ME 66. Pros appear to prefer the NTG2 over the ME 66.
    Røde NTG3 Supercardiod $699.00 Seen as an affordable, comparable option to the Sennheiser MKH 416 with a slightly wider pattern. Rugged, with an emphasis on higher frequencies. Popular
    Sanken CS-3e Supercardiod $1450.00 A shotgun of a linear array of three capsules, considered at the same level as the MKH 416 and the MKH 60. Has slightly higher noise than other options, but has a smooth and detailed sound and a decent off-axis rejection.
    Schoeps CMIT 5 U Supercardiod $2199.00 This microphone is known for its generous axis handling and smooth, full sound that avoids the characteristic “thin” sound that may accompany some shotgun mics.
    Sennheiser MKH 40 Cardiod $1199.00 A low-noise cardiod option.
    Sennheiser MKH 60 Supercardiod $1499.95 A particularly quiet shotgun option with high sensitivity and a clear sound.
    Sennheiser MKH 416 Supercardiod, Hypercardiod $999.95 The industry gold standard for shotgun microphones, albeit with an older design. Popular. Emphasis on higher frequencies. Good performance in humid conditions.
    Sennheiser ME 66/K6 Supercardiod $459.00 The ME66 is a highly directional “neutral” capsule powered by the K6 preamp. Pros comment that it lacks the typical Sennheiser quality of more pricey models.

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