Field Recording Choices: Start with Cheap Gear or Wait for Pro Kit?

2018/01/10

I’ve seen a growing trend occurring during the past six months. More people are becoming interested in field recording. While that’s exciting, there’s a fascinating theme to the emails I’ve received: the writers know nothing about sound.

Who are these people? They’re photographers, videographers, and hobbyists. We all love heading outdoors to capture the cool sound we hear. It’s encouraging to see the appeal of field recording is spreading beyond classically trained sound pros. These new people are a bit bewildered, though. Why?

They’re not sure what gear to choose. I wrote the Field Recording Gear Buyer’s Guide a while ago. That post aimed to help people browse options and lead them through gear choices. However, it did not answer a few common questions that keep appearing in my email inbox:

  • Is it better to start with inexpensive field recording gear or save for a pro kit?
  • How can you use pro microphones with inexpensive portable recorders?
  • Is it possible to record excellent sound effects using cheap equipment?
  • How can you capture pure nature recordings with novice gear?

So, this month will feature a series that tries to decipher the relationship between equipment, capturing remarkable field recordings, and the kit needed to get the job done.

Today’s post explores the first question: is it better to buy cheap gear now, or wait and buy expensive, better gear, later?

Please note: I explore this idea in detail. This article should take you about 10 minutes to read. Click the button below to email the article to yourself to read later.


The Relationship of Gear to Field Recordings

Gear is essential to capturing field recordings, of course. It’s impossible to capture high quality sound effects without the technically complex microphones, recorders, preamps, and other equipment field recordists use in the wild.

That’s why field recording gear is the main limiting factor between capturing a sound or not recording it all. It would seem common sense that better equipment will capture cleaner, more pure, and evocative clips. That’s why many people beginning field recording wonder if it is better to wait, save cash, and buy an expensive kit to ensure the sounds they capture are the best they can be.

That’s not easy, though. The best equipment costs thousands of dollars. Even experienced sound pros have a hard time finding disposable cash like that. It’s even more difficult for someone who begins field recording as a hobby, first. So, does it make more sense to save and get good field recording microphones and recorders, or buy a $200 portable recorder and begin capturing clips now?

There are two perspectives to the question. I’ll explore both so you can decide what’s best for you.

Wait, Save & Buy Pro Field Recording Equipment Later

The first school of thought focuses on making life easier in the field. How?

The idea is that more sophisticated equipment does two things: improves the quality of sound and reduces technical problems on location. Why?

  • Better gear will fail less in the field. Of course, if everything goes as planned, you won’t experience problems with frail plastic recorders or generic battery brands. More expensive equipment is usually built better and more resilient, and avoids those risks.
  • Improved equipment usually makes workflows easier. Recorders will have better menu layouts and an intuitive user interface, microphones will have standardized connectors, and so on. There will be fewer technical hurdles while working. That means the recordist can focus on capturing cool clips instead.
  • A more advanced kit will capture cleaner, clearer sound. Superior microphones will have lower self noise. Improved recorders and preamps introduce less hiss. That means sound will be objectively better.
  • Expensive gear is often more flexible. For instance, a bigger budget allows for more recorder channels or the ability to choose from a wider range of microphone types. That means Ambisonic or mid-side recording techniques become available, for example.
  • Elite sound recording equipment is often more expressive. More cash unlocks microphones with wider sonic characteristics. Advanced microphones can capture greater soundstage with more accuracy.

Of course, those are all significant benefits. So, this approach may seem like an obvious choice, considering the alternative: why would you intentionally choose not to capture high quality sound?

Well, the reality isn’t so simple. The kits required to capture this fidelity of sound are extremely expensive. While full-featured recorders such as the MixPre-3 ($649) and Zoom F4 ($549) are becoming cheaper, advanced microphones cost typically $1,500 or more. Few casual field recordists have the cash for that combined expense or will want to take the risk on untried gear if they do.

That highlights another aspect: waiting for expensive gear commits a recordist into a single kit. Why? Well, pricey equipment will consume most of a field recordist’s budget. If they spend everything on a single, superstar kit they will be locking themselves into that arrangement for years. That may be a risk for beginning recordists. They may not have the breadth of experience to know if they will like the kit they’re buying, either. Will it suit their personal style? So, from another perspective, it is a gamble commit themselves to single kit.

Is it best to wait and save for ace field recording equipment? Here are the pros and cons:

Pros of Waiting for a Pro Kit

  • Better equipment that will last you for years. More durable.
  • Cleaner and more expressive field recordings.
  • Can capture a wide range of subjects.
  • Easier to use.

Cons of Waiting for a Pro Kit

  • Must wait.
  • Expensive.
  • Investment in untried equipment.
  • Commits to a single kit.
  • May not know how to take advantage of the perks: gear benefits, untrained ear.

Buy Inexpensive Equipment Now

The alternative perspective focuses on growing skill.

The reasoning is that buying inexpensive gear now allows one to begin quickly exploring the craft of field recording itself. How?

  • Inexpensive equipment is more accessible. Most budget handheld recorders are under $500, with some decent options available at $200. Marantz, Zoom, and Tascam offer all-in-one handheld recorders for under $500 (such as the Tascam DR-100MKIII ($399)), with some decent options for only $200 (Zoom H4n Pro, ($199)). There’s no need to eat ramen for 8 months after you splurged on a Sonosax recorder and a sweet-sounding Neumann mic. These lower prices are easily within a casual field recordist’s budget.
  • Cheap, accessible equipment allows a field recordist to begin working immediately. There’s no need to wait months or years for the multi-thousand dollar budget needed to buy elite gear. This has a significant benefit: people can begin to developing field recording skills in the time that would be otherwise lost waiting and saving for top-tier equipment.
  • Buying cheap gear mitigates risk. Perhaps you bought a Marantz PMD660 ($199) but after a few months found yourself longing for the camera-mount form factor and four channels of a Tascam DR-60D for the same price. Switching gear causes less pain than abandoning a Sennheiser mid-side setup you found cumbersome to your recording style after a few weeks.
  • There’s an added perk to working with budget gear: it forces a recordist to compensate for poor gear specifications. It demands problem solving. A recordist will learn to adapt to noisy preamps and wobbly gain knobs. This isn’t a goal to strive towards, of course. No one enjoys struggling with unintuitive interfaces. So, think of this as a hidden benefit to working with budget gear.

It’s an exciting prospect to beginning field recording quickly. That’s natural for people who first hear about the craft and are eager to experiment and learn more. Just the same, there are important things to keep in mind when pursuing this approach.

The most significant? Sound quality suffers when using inexpensive gear. Budget portable recorders are priced low because they stock their units with low-cost preamp chips. While that keeps prices below $500, it means that considerable noise will be added to field recordings when the gain is cranked. Forests, fields, room tones, whispers, cat purrs, breathing, writing, computer mouse clicks, and much more cannot be recorded with cheap gear with any satisfying clarity. The result? If you use inexpensive gear you will be limited to the subjects you can record. Most quiet subjects cannot be recorded well with budget gear.

This has an important side effect: field recording with budget gear can be debilitating. Why? It’s discouraging to hear that your hours of dawn chorus field recordings are soaked in hiss, and are unusable. I’ve received countless emails from beginning field recordists that have tried recording advanced subjects with entry-level gear and have become frustrated with the result.

The next step? Well, it’s not easy to force oneself to avoid certain field recording subjects or accept substandard results. It’s especially difficult for new field recordists who are excited to record every sound around them. So, beginners with inexpensive gear may feel compelled to upgrade to pro gear for better results. That means they spend twice, often earlier than they planned. Even if that’s not the case, a field recordist will need to upgrade beyond a Zoom H6 later in their career. They’ll want to advance to superior gear at some point. Buying inexpensive gear means a pro will inevitably have to spend twice.

Is it better to buy an cheap field recording kit and get started now?

Pros to Buying Inexpensive Gear Now

  • Inexpensive.
  • Can start immediately.
  • Poor equipment forces you to learn.
  • Can afford many different types to explore styles.

Cons to Buying Inexpensive Gear Now

  • Limited to what you can record.
  • Frustration when trying to record advanced subjects.
  • May have to upgrade equipment later.

Of course, the two approaches are not completely exclusive. Beginners with pro gear will learn about the craft. It is possible to capture remarkable field recordings with budget equipment. The idea is to explore the pros and cons above to weigh the advantages and disadvantages for yourself.

A Deeper Consideration of Field Recording Gear

It’s possible to think about these choices more deeply, too.

These approaches distil into two fundamental considerations: do you want sound quality or do you want to learn technique?

Elite gear will capture the best sound possible. Fewer technical issues will come between the field recordist’s intent, the sound itself, and how it is collected by the recorder. The positive side to that decision? Superior results will keep a field recordist invested in the craft. Sound recordings will be more satisfying. It’s easier and more rewarding to share those results. Choosing premium gear recognizes that sonic clarity has a vital affect on recording, experiencing, and enjoying field recordings. This is a long-term perspective, and commits a recordist deeply to the craft.

Budget gear allows a field recordist to immediately learn valuable lessons about perspective, positioning, pick-up patterns, and more by beginning capturing sound right away. They’ll also learn the valuable skill of adaptation by trying to achieve great results with weaker equipment. To these recordists, gear matters less than the knowledge they’ll acquire. Yes, it’s important to recognize beginning gear cannot record quiet sounds. However, by refocusing on more appropriate, louder subjects, field recordists will have skills ready for when they can afford more expensive, quieter gear later. Later, they’ll apply the skills they’ve learned while practicing on entry-level equipment.

There’s a broader impact to these decisions, too. Advanced gear may be more fun, but inexperienced people won’t really know why. They won’t have the background to know why their recordings are superior. It’s like driving in a Ferrari as the only car you’ve ever tried. Driving a hatchback for years makes riding in the sports car more rewarding. So, there’s a risk of lacking perspective of advanced gear without having experimented with novice equipment, first. What’s more, without practicing on basic gear, beginners won’t have the finer skills to use advanced gear properly. This is compounded if a beginner waits to save before practicing on any field recording equipment at all.

Are there deeper implications to using inexpensive gear, as well? Yes, absolutely. The gains of learning field recording skill won’t matter as much if the recordist becomes frustrated when hearing the inspiring subjects they capture saturated with noise. So, it’s possible the recordist loses motivation when using inexpensive gear.

Are any of these perspectives rigid? No. Instead, use these ideas to think about field recording, the gear you want, the style you’ll use to gather sound effects. With care, a field recordist can avoid the challenges of each approach and benefit from the advantages of both.

Exploring Other Options

While reading these approaches, you may have wondered if there are other options. Here are two:

The first: isn’t is possible to buy expensive gear without waiting? Sure. Just charge a recorder and microphone to your credit card. You’ll get the best of both worlds: pristine sound without spending anything at all. But is it worth going into debt for advanced field recording gear?

Elite gear will total at least $2,000. That’s a considerable investment. It’s unlikely that a beginner will earn enough from sound fx sales or field recording gigs to recoup that cost for years. However, with other income it is possible to recover from investing in pro gear.

There’s another option available to beginners, too. It’s one that splits the difference between buying beginning gear and a spending a lot on a pro kit. What is it? It involves an innovative combination of pro gear and budget portable recorders.

We’ll explore that option in the next article.





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