Update: I’ve revised the info here to reflect gear options and prices from mid 2021.
You’ve decided – it’s time leave the comfortable walls of a sound booth and record sound effects in the unpredictable world of audio beyond the studio.
Studio gear is much different from field recording equipment. So which kit is best? How should you choose?
It’s a common question. There are thousands of models of microphones and dozens of audio recorder companies. Which are good? This is complicated by the type of audio you want to record – wildlife sounds, gunshots, falling rain, or racing cars – each of them calls for different gear.
It’s hard to know what’s best. It can be overwhelming to choose. What equipment is best for the sounds you pursue and your style of work?
Today’s post is a field recording buyer’s guide designed to answer this question. It recognizes that everyone records sound distinctly, has varying sound quality needs, and – perhaps most importantly – different budgets. The article will help guide your decision to choose the best, most affordable kit for you.Note: this post contains affiliate links. If you purchase from these links you won't pay a penny more, and we'll get a small commission that helps us keep the lights on. Thank you for your support! Learn more.
Ways to Choose Field Recording Gear
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 you 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 handheld recorder and want more sophisticated options. So, it’s entirely possible that a sound fan 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 six categories:
- Inexpensive and ultra-portable.
- Standalone portable recorder.
- Portable recorder and microphone combo.
- Portable recorder, microphone, and preamp combo.
- Dedicated field recorder.
- Dedicated microphone.
Now, it’s important to note that the suggestions below are not rigid. Instead, 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 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.
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. So, take what ideas you like from each category to explore the best options for you.
Also, 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.
Inexpensive and Ultra-Portable
Do you have an iPhone? Thinking about dabbling in field recording? Willing to record predominantly prominent sounds? Purchase an i-XY ($149.00). You’ll have a 96 kHz/24-bit quality X/Y Røde microphone for under $200, and far cheaper if you buy used on eBay. Other mobile recording models include Zoom’s iQ6 (X/Y, $99.99) and iQ7 (M/S, $99.99), and Shure’s MOTIVE ($149 – $199) systems.
While discontinued, the Sennheiser AMBEO Smart Headset (Price not available) is another option for recording binaural audio. It’s typically found for less than $100.
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 carried by most field recordists anyway. So, for not much cash and very little additional space, these microphones become a no-hassle entry into the world of field recording.
Standalone Portable Recorder
Many sound fans 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, as well as a lively used gear scene populated by well-loved models.
Current Handheld Recorder Models
Perhaps the #1 most recommended handheld recorder is the Zoom H4n Pro ($199.99). It has a long history. First offered as the H4, then evolving to the H4n, and now to the current H4n Pro, this model has received constant attention throughout the years with an improved form factor, better sound quality, and enhanced feature set. With its adjustable 90˙/120˙ X/Y microphone capsules, it is a good unit to record focused specific subjects as well as broader ambient sounds. Like most other recorders in this category, quiet sounds and nature ambiences are usually beyond the abilities of its preamps. However, the dual XLR/TRS inputs allow for growing a kit with professional microphones to further improve sound quality.
Need to add more microphones? Want to swap out microphone capsules on a whim? The rest of Zoom’s handheld line can help. For a roughly $50 increase for each tier, the Zoom H5 (Price not available), H6 Black (Price not available), and H8 (Price not available) add more inputs, swappable capsules, and other bonus features. Check out the chart below for the feature set breakdown.
Finding those options too pricey? Zoom offers more budget-friendly recorders, too: the miniature two-channel H1n ($82.37), as well as the flexible H2n ($179.99) which can record in X/Y, M/S, and 4-channel surround.
Japan’s Tascam also offers a range of recorders seemingly targeted at Zoom’s lower-end models. The DR-05X (fixed mock-ORFT, Price not available), DR-07X (X/Y and AB, $134.22), and DR-40X (X/Y, AB, 2 XLR inputs, $168.00). The DR-05X has a similar price and feature set to Zoom’s H1n, while the DR-40X at $198 is a $50 savings from the similarly spec’d Zoom H4n.
Sony offers a pair of handheld recorders, though by the time you read this, they may be out of stock. The PCM-D10 ($499) sports adjustable onboard microphones and XLR inputs. The more economical PCM-A10 ($229) has similar adjustable microphones without the external inputs – which is nearing the price territory of a Zoom H4n Pro ($199.99), but without the external connectivity. Both units have spotty availability worldwide, but it is possible to find them in some marketplaces.
Used Handheld Recoder Models
Comfortable with refurbished, renewed, or used recorders? Many of the classic upper-tier portable handheld recorders have been retired recently and are only available used.
Once the king of portable handheld recorders, the Sony PCM-D100 (discontinued, $850) was retired in early 2021. While lacking XLR inputs, that unit was widely respected for its superior sound quality. It replaced the Sony PCM-D50 (discontinued, $650), which still retains a good reputation after years of service. It remains a good option if found used.
Often considered a runner-up in best-of portable recorder lists, the Tascam DR-100MKIII ($730.00) was also retired earlier. With sound quality that surpassed most other handheld recorders, the DR-100MKIII was the first choice for recordists that wanted to add external XLR microphones to their device – something the competing D100 couldn’t accomplish. Paired with clean preamps, good quality onboard microphones, and a rechargeable removable battery, the DR-100MKIII was a compelling option for far less money. It is still listed in stock in some marketplaces, but is official listed as discontinued on Tascam’s page. Deals for this unit can be found on eBay.
If you’re willing to dig a bit more deeply, you may find even older models that still produce excellent recordings.
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.
The Marantz PMD 661 MkII (you can find it used for under $200) was also quite popular among pros and community recordists alike. What’s more, the Oade Brothers offer mods to this recorder that improve clarity and detail.
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.
Portable Recorder & Microphone Combo
Try this field recording “hack”: purchase a lower-end recorder and pair it with a high-quality, inexpensive microphone. The result?
Buying a cheaper recorder keeps cash in your pocket. The external microphone bypasses the cheap recorder’s microphones to provide excellent sound quality for very little extra expense.
Here are some recorder options for under $250:
- Tascam DR-05X (Price not available)
- Tascam DR-07X ($134.22)
- Tascam DR-40X ($168.00)
- Sony PCM-A10 ($229.00)
- Zoom H4n Pro ($199.99)
Each of them allows connecting an external microphone via 1/8” line-in or XLR inputs. Options include:
- LOM offers both the Uši ($127) and mikroUši ($109). The “Pro” versions of these microphones include XLR connectors.
- FEL Communications makes the Clippy EM272 ($107) as well as the Clippy XLR 272 version ($159).
- Microphone Madness MM-BSM–9 ($130).
- Sound Professionals SP-TFB–2 ($139).
- Sound Professionals MS-TFB–2 ($249).
- Soundman OKM II Classic Studio Solo ($129).
- Naiant x-x miniature omnidirectional microphones ($34-$150/pair).
- Roland CS-10EM combo ear bud and binaural microphones ($99, discontinued)
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.
Portable Recorder, Microphone, and Preamp Combo
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 Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-40X, or Tascam DR-100MKIII. Each of these have the XLR inputs we need.
Then, dig up a Sound Devices MixPre-D or an older MixPre or a Shure FP24 used on eBay for around $300.
You can attach any professional microphone to this arrangement. Some sound pros smoothly integrate an X/Y microphone into this set up, including a Røde NT4 ($529), and Audio Technica X/Y microphones (AT2022 ($249), AT8022 ($399)) and BP4025 ($649). The miniature DPA 4060 ($1,129) microphones were often used in an A/B configuration to provide excellent sound with a bonus of serving as a stealth kit as well.
Of course, by the time you buy a portable recorder and preamp, you’re getting in the neighbourhood of a dedicated field recorder. However, if you’ve had a handheld recorder for years and wish to supplement your kit bit by bit, adding a preamp and external microphone may work better for your budget than a big splurge all at once.
Choosing a Dedicated Field Recorder
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.
Current Dedicated Field Recorder Models
Tascam offers a lot of choice for entry-level dedicated field recorders at a low price: the DR-60DMKII (4 tracks, camera mount design, $207.24), DR-70D (4 tracks, $299.00), and the DR-701D (6 tracks, $499.00).
Sound Devices shook up the industry in early 2019 with revisions to its MixPre recorder line in the same sub-$1,000 price range. While the MixPre-3 II ($752) and MixPre-6 II ($970) were designed as easy-to-use multi-track audio interfaces and recorders for podcasters and indie film crews, the excellent build quality and legendary preamps make the diminutive units a viable choice for pros, with the added bonus of recording at a "never-peak" 32-bit float rate.
A comparable option from Zoom is its F6 which sports a 32-bit float rate, Ambisonics support, and a shockingly diminutive size for $698.49. It’s a good choice if you need 6 full XLR inputs for each of its channels (the MixPre-6 II has 4).
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 example is the Zoom F8n (8+2 tracks, $1,099.00). A $500 jump brings us to the top tier of the Sound Devices MixPre line, the MixPre-10 II (8 preamps, 12 track, 32-bit, $1,616). Just shy of $2000 is Tascam’s HS-P82 (8 tracks, Price not available).
Thereafter, there’s a pricing wasteland until budgets increase to $3,000+ which bring elite recorders into view.
Used Dedicated Field Recorder Models
Want a dedicated audio recorder but are on a budget? If you can do without the most modern features, earlier generations of recorders are an excellent choice. You can find them used on eBay. Inexpensive options include the Roland R–44 (4 tracks), the Tascam DR–680 (10 tracks), as well as the Fostex FR–2 LE (2 tracks). Older Sound Devices recorders will appeal for their durability: the 702 (compact flash) and the 722 (hard drive) are two-channel options. A 744T and 788T add four and eight tracks, respectively. A discontinued Zoom F4 would be a lucky find, with 32-bit support and 4 XLR inputs.
Choosing Dedicated Microphones
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?
Field Recording Microphones – $1000 and Less
There is plenty of choice, even around a $1,000 price point. Many field recordists recommend the DPA 4060 ($1,129) or 4061 ($1,129) which produce excellent sound for their size.
There are many matched pair choices in this price range, too. Line Audio’s CM4s (cardiod, $270/pair) and OM1s are notable options. A few other stand-alone matched pairs included Rode’s NT5 (cardiod, $219.00) and Beyerdynamic’s MC930 (cardiod, $899.95). The Oktava MK-012 (Price not available) has also been cited as good value in the category. Matched pairs of interchangeable capsule systems included the Studio Projects C4 ($399/pair) and Rode’s NT55 ($829/pair).
X/Y microphones are more compact stereo recording options. The Røde NT4 ($529) has been commonly included in best-of lists. Audio Technica’s array of X/Y microphones (AT2022 ($249), AT8022 ($399) and BP4025 ($649)) also appear as lower-priced options.
Field Recording Microphones – Sennheiser
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 (as well as their 80xx counterparts) ($1,249 – $1,599 each), all of which are popular with many sound pros. A Schoeps CMC 6 U capsule system ($1,865) with MK microphones ($855+) is another flexible option.
Finally, the Sennheiser MKH 8040 has been universally enjoyed by all pros that used it for its clarity and low noise. That’s much more expensive at $2,599 for a stereo pair, but guarantees to deliver a lifetime of exceptional field recording quality.
Multi-Pattern Field Recording Microphones
Most microphones are generally limited to one purpose. For example, omnidirectional microphones won’t work well when a sound effect requires a hypercardioid. Pros who want more flexibility may consider 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-$1,000 range included the sE 4400a ($459.99) and AKG C414 XLR ($1,045.00) multi-pattern microphones. Audio Technica produces the BP4029 (also know as the AT835ST, $799.00). Shure’s VP88 ($799.00) is another multi-pattern microphone option.
Those with more generous budgets will consider the X/Y and M/S multi-pattern Neumann RSM-191i stereo shotgun (discontinued, used at $2,500+), Sennheiser’s MKH-418S ($1,649), and Sanken’s 3-pattern CSS-5 ($2,300), and Sanken’s recently released CMS-50 ($1,795)
- Read an analysis of professional field recordist equipment choices from Year 1 and Year 2.
- Read community kit choices for audio recorders, microphones, favourite kits, and beginner recommendations.
- Learn how to decide upon an audio recorder in the Digital Sound Recorder Buyer’s Guide.
- Wallet a bit thin right now? Learn How to Record Sound Effects on a Budget.
- Learn more about specialized microphones in The Unconventional Microphone Buyer’s Guide.
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