Community Field Recording Equipment – Audio Recorders

2016/11/09

The posts last month taught us a lot about what gear field recordists use in the field. Those 23 interviews, as well as the 26 from the year before, gave us a comprehensive overview of what those field recording fans choose when capturing sound effects beyond the studio.

That series showed us how those 49 sound pros explore field recording. Last week’s post dissected their equipment preferences. Of course, there are field recording fans all over the globe performing the craft in their own way. I wanted to give everyone a chance to share their views. So, I set up a brief survey to learn what kit you use, what equipment you crave, and your advice for beginners. I curious to learn if pro choices matched the reality on the street.

Thank you very much to everyone who participated. And participate you did. There was lots of fascinating information, so much so that I’ll share your ideas in three, quick posts:

  1. Audio recorders.
  2. Microphones and favourite kits.
  3. Community tips.

Let’s get rolling.

Survey Participation and Choices

One hundred and thirty five people contributed to the anonymous survey. On average, most people took around 8:30 to finish the 10 questions. I appreciate everyone taking so much time to share their thoughts with the community. As we all know, formal knowledge about field recording is not common. Your insight is invaluable. It helps everyone.

The first four questions were multiple choice. We’ll look at those today. Note that it was possible to select more than one multiple choice selection. For instance, the question, “Which portable recorder do you own?” allowed someone to choose both “Zoom H4n” and “Sony PCM-M10.” That means the total votes and percentages won’t add to 135 or 100% and aren’t meant to. Instead, they reflect the ratio of choices.

A lot of equipment choices are dictated by budget. Because of this, I wanted to remove budget from the answers. So, I allowed people to choose options that they wished for in addition to what they owned.

What was the result?

Which portable recorder do you own?

I wanted to start the survey asking about the most affordable equipment and grow from there. In the analysis post last week we learned that many pros began with portable, handheld all-in-one recorders with microphones attached. They later evolved their kit. Would the community mirror what the pros described?

Here is a pie chart of the total number of selections (click to enlarge):

Portable audio recorder choices

Portable audio recorder choices

And here is their selections listed in chart form. It includes the total number of selections, and the percentage of responders who choose each recorder:

Model Votes Percentage
Sony PCM-D100 36 27%
Sony PCM-M10 36 27%
Zoom H4n 23 17%
Sony PCM-D50 20 15%
Zoom H2n 17 13%
Zoom H6 13 10%
Other 11 8%
Tascam DR-100 8 6%
Zoom H5 8 6%
Tascam DR-40 7 7%
Zoom H4 7 7%
Olympus LS-10 6 5%
Zoom H2 6 5%
Zoom H1 5 %
Sony PCM-D100

Sony PCM-D100

The responses were the first case of community results mirroring pro choices from the “A Month of Field Recordist” series. Sony is the most popular portable audio recorder. The elite PCM-D100 held the top spot at 27%, match by the lower-budget PCM-M10. Zoom’s H4n claimed the third place at 17%, followed closely by the D100’s older brother, Sony’s PCM-D50 at 15%. The top 5 was rounded out by another Zoom entry, the H2n at 13%. The H6, Zoom’s multi-capsule 4-channel offering held the final prominent place at 13% with the remainder of the list below 10% ownership.

In general, those choices matched the popularity of portables from the series. A few interesting observations:

What's the best thing about your favourite portable recorder?

Why do people choose their portable recorders? Here is a bar graph of people’s top features:

Portable audio recorder features

Portable audio recorder features

And here’s a chart of the number of selections and their percentages:

Feature Votes Percentage
Portability 86 66%
Battery Life 65 50%
Microphone Quality 57 44%
Preamp Clarity 50 38%
Build 37 28%
Price 37 28%
Channels/Multi-Track 19 15%
External Inputs 17 13%
Interface 17 13%
Storage 14 11%
Other 4 3%

Unsurprisingly, the most popular choice is portability. After all, the point of these units is to be able to carry them easily and present them quickly to capture field recordings on demand. Two thirds of people valued portability.

Half of respondents cited a feature that to me was a surprising choice: battery life. People loved being able to power their recorders for a long time. I didn’t expect that. Don’t mistake me: substantial battery life is an important bonus. However, I can’t imagine a typical field recording session requiring so much time that batteries run out or cause a serious problem when recording. Most of my field recording shoots are about 4-6 hours, more than enough to record continuously and return to the studio to recharge. It seems like I’m an outlier, however. The community loves extended powering options or has longer, protracted sessions that demand sustained battery life.

This was a bit surprising given the options that followed. Microphone quality ranked third after battery life at 44% of respondents. These people valued the ability of the hardware to capture sound accurately with a broad frequency spectrum using a desirable pickup pattern. This was followed by preamp quality (38%). Together these two features contribute the greatest impact on the sound quality a recorder captures. Rounding out the top five was a tie between build and construction and price at 28%.

The implication of the top six favourite features was interesting: portable users are more concerned with using a recorder a lot than the sound quality the unit produces. Valuing portability and battery life highly implies they want to carry the unit easily and use it often. While I believe sound quality is highly important, the choices suggest inspiring behaviour. People are going outside recording, and recording a lot. That matches the target market: portables are priced comparably lower than dedicated recorders. That encourages beginners to start experimenting with sound. At that point in their practice, sound quality is not as important as simply experimenting with field recording and doing so often. And, while portables are lower-priced options compared to studio gear, affordability wasn’t as critical as the ability to simply just head out and record.

Other interesting observations:

  • I see the Zoom H4n mentioned frequently. I see it on forums and in discussion threads. Most people praise its ability to use external microphones via the TRS/XLR jacks. That anecdotal info clashed with how much people valued external inputs: only 13%.
  • A commonly mentioned “Other” feature mentioned was exchangeable capsules. This is seen in the latest Zoom offerings, the H5 and H6 (as well as their dedicated recorders, the F4 and F8). Those units allow owners to swap X/Y for shotgun capsules, and so on. Perhaps that’s why XLR jacks are valued less; users swap capsules instead of using external microphones.

Which dedicated recorder do you own?

Field recording fans often upgrade from portable units to more robust, feature-packed dedicated recorders. Which of these units did respondents prefer? Let’s see.

Dedicated audio recorder models

Dedicated audio recorder models

And here is a chart of the same information:

Model Votes Percentage
Don’t Own One 35 27%
Sound Devices 744T 28 22%
Sound Devices 702 15 12%
Sound Devices 633 14 11%
Zoom F8 14 11%
Other 12 9%
Sound Devices 788T 11 9%
Fostex FR-2LE 9 7%
Sound Devices 702T 7 5%
Sound Devices 722 7 5%
Tascam DR-680 5 4%
Fostex FR-2 4 3%
Tascam DR-70D 3 2%
Nagra LB 2 2%

Well, over a quarter don’t own one yet. In a way, that makes sense. These units are pricey, with most priced over $1,000. But, for those that do have the needs and means, which is their first choice?

Sound Devices 744T

Sound Devices 744T

We again see parallels with pro responses from the series. Sound Devices recorders are the most popular, with the 744T taking the lead at 22%. The least expensive offering, the Compact Flash 702, follows at 12%. The 633 is an integrated mixer/recorder that has been generating a lot of buzz. It slid into the next spot at 11%. This was matched evenly by Zoom’s premier pro recorder, the 8-track F8.

Sound Devices 633

Sound Devices 633

Some notes:

  • Sound Devices take three more spots in the top 10, consuming a total of 60% of choices in that ranking spread.
  • The Fostex FR-2 LE makes a notable appearance in spot 8. While the plastic build of the FR-2 LE contrasts with other recorders in the top 10, it’s a capable recorder with a decent preamp at a good price point.
  • For such a new recorder, the 633 has a relatively quick adoption rate.
  • There was a great variation of “Other” choices: Tascam DR-60D MKii, Sound Devices 688, Nagra IV-S, Tascam DR-680 MKii, AETA MIXY, Aaton Cantar X2, Boss BR-800, Korg MR-1000.

What's the best thing about your favourite dedicated recorder?

Why do people choose dedicated recorders? You would expect that people choose these units for reasons different than portable recorders. And you’d be correct.

Let’s look at a bar graph of their selections:

Dedicated audio recorder model features

Dedicated audio recorder model features

And a chart of those choices:

Feature Number Percentage
Preamp Clarity 81 77%
Build 60 57%
Channels/Multi-Track 55 52%
Interface 33 31%
External Inputs 32 30%
Portability 32 30%
Battery Life 28 27%
Price 21 20%
Storage 14 13%
Other 9 9%

Preamp clarity was the overwhelmingly most popular choice, with over three quarters valuing this feature. That makes sense. One of the major defining features between portables and dedicated recorders is the ability to pack elite hardware into their chassis. Since dedicated recorders are designed to produce better sound via their preamps, people select them for that reason. One could also make the assumption that if owners are willing to invest thousands of dollars into a dedicated recorder, it better have the sound quality to match.

Build and form-factor construction was rated quite highly as well, at 57%. The ability for the unit to support multiple tracks (i.e., beyond stereo) was also in demand at 52%. How well a field recordist could use a the unit (i.e., interface) was rated just as highly as portability. Battery life followed shortly behind (27%), with price and storage trailing after.

To my eye, these choices seem to align with what pros mentioned during last month’s series. The community selects dedicated recorders for longevity; giving a high importance to build indicates that people want a sturdy unit that will provide for them for a long time. The relatively high ranking interface selection would align with that. People plan on using these units for a long time and as a result want them to be a usable, user-friendly tool they use often.

Interestingly, the importance on multi-track suggests that field recordists are capturing more complex shoots with multiple channels and microphones. That makes sense given that the 744T and 633 were popular choices from the previous question.

Some intriguing “Other” features included: Neverclip + MARF, DSD128, and digital signal paths from other units.

Some interesting notes:

  • I found the portability rating surprising at first. After some thought, it made more sense. While many dedicated recorders are designed to fit in a shoulder bag, quite a few are designed for production sound mixers. These types are built to sit on a cart, are heavier, and are designed for seated users. Field recordists are different. They prefer a form-factor that can be carried. So, rating portability highly makes sense.

View the multiple choice results online.

Do you have a favourite audio recorder? Comments about the survey results? Share them in the comments below.

Next up: a look at community microphone choices and favourite kits.

Read More About Field Recording Equipment





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7 responses to Community Field Recording Equipment – Audio Recorders

  1. Evan Jerred 2016/11/09 at 15:14

    Glad to see Apogee’s MetaRecorder mentioned which I love on my iPhone 6, but the real magic to me is that it works with my MixPre-D. In my experience this is the best, cheapest two channel portable mixer/recorder available (especially if you already have an iDevice).

    • Evan, that sounds very cool. So you connect the two using Apogee’s lightning to 1/8″, then the 1/8″ to the MixPre-D’s tape out?

    • I’m really curious about this setup as well! Have you found a way to connect the MixPre-D digitally with the iPhone?

  2. Really interesting analysis Paul (as always!). Regarding the battery life on portable recorders, I was one of those that added this feature as important to me. To add some context on this, I previously owned a Sony PCM D50 (still do though now as a backup) and now own a D100. For the time I owned the D50 I think I changed the batteries maybe three or four times in about two and a half years. And I haven’t yet had to change the D100s batteries, that’s going on nearly two years. Admittedly I’m not using this recorder every day, nor have I done much in the way of long recording sessions with it (prob 45 mins / 1 hour max). But I find it amazing how long these batteries can last when you consider how most modern devices (eg phones) loose battery pretty quickly.

    • Thank you, Colin. Agreed! The Sony’s battery life is stunning. I do the same. I change my D100’s batteries maybe every 1-2 months, depending on how often I use it (which is a lot, lately). The long battery life is very helpful when you need to have a unit you can just grab and use without a fuss. It can sit, ready to go, for ages.

    • Fred Pearson 2016/11/16 at 04:56

      I agree with Colin, I also filled out the survey and selected battery life as an important feature. I use an M10 as my portable rig which I bought just over a year ago and I’ve yet to change the batteries. The recorder sits in my pocket all of the time (I take it everywhere with me) and being able to get it out and record time and time again without changing batteries is where the value is for me, rather than long continuous recording sessions.

      • Very cool, Fred. Accessibility is a huge benefit. The M10’s size in particular seems perfect for that (combined with the battery). And thanks for filling out the survey!