Exploring The Field Recording Gear Gap

2018/02/14

Are you just beginning field recording? Unsure of what gear to use to start capturing sound effects beyond the studio? New field recordists face a common dilemma: is it best to buy cheap gear and begin recording now, or wait and invest in a superior kit later?

It isn’t an easy question to answer. In fact, the previous post was dedicated to exploring both approaches. That article was designed to help people new to field recording choose what’s best for them.

Still having trouble deciding? You’re not alone. The truth is that the decision is inherently challenging because of what I call the gear gap.

What is this? Today’s article explains. It explores an unusual intersection of circuitry and craft. It’s an aspect of field recording that beginners and pros alike often forget, and manufacturers have yet to grasp.

This post is designed to further explore the thought process behind gear selection. It’s meant to help people think about both field recording gear strategies – fast and cheap, and slow and pricey – and why these challenging decisions exist.

Want more than theory? No problem. The next post will offer concrete gear suggestions for beginners to help bridge the gear gap and make satisfying equipment choices.

The Field Recording Gear Dilemma

Is it better to begin with inexpensive gear? Perhaps it’s wiser to buy elite equipment once? The last post contrasted the broad extremes between “cheap and fast” and “expensive and slow” field recording purchases. Those are the two most common possibilities beginning field recordists consider.

However, there are problems with each approach. Cheap equipment will produce relatively low-fidelity field recordings. Pro equipment is expensive and saving the cash to buy it takes a long time.

Hobbyist field recordists are understandably cautious about investing a lot into a craft they don’t yet know. And there’s more: starting recording sound effects with equipment people know lacks quality is disappointing if they are aware of the possibility, and an unpleasant surprise if they are not.

This highlights an interesting dilemma for field recordists choosing equipment: the craft has a gear gap. What is this?

Put simply, there is no middle tier of field recording gear. There is a large gap between consumer, beginning gear and expensive professional kits.

Contrasting Beginner and Pro Kits

I mean this in terms of price, features, and user experience. Most beginning gear is under $300 (a Zoom H6 is $299). That budget will be able to purchase 90% of portable recorders on the market. These units are popular for a good reason: they are a self-contained method of capturing audio. No cables, extra microphones, or other significant accessories are required to begin capturing introductory field recordings. That’s prized since it allows novice field recordists to record any subject quickly and effortlessly. This has the effect of bringing new people closer to the sound effects they are capturing. It serves a larger purpose, too: it avoids the hassle of caring for, setting up, and arranging elaborate kits that may annoy people not yet deeply invested in the craft.

But what if a recordist wants to avoid the problems of entry-level gear? Perhaps they do not want to begin recording with equipment they know will be hissy or lack rich soundstage and clarity.

This is when gear choice becomes difficult. With few exceptions, there is a pricing wasteland between that $300 budget and what is required to increase sound quality by even a marginal amount. Why?

The Source of The Problem

This is because of the main limiting aspect of portable recorders: noise. Because of their price points, portable recorders must use low-quality components: chips, transistors, capacitors, and more. Each of these introduce noise, and cheaper ones contribute more. There are factors that increase price, too: industrial design, usability, durability, and so on. So, while component noise has perhaps the most impact, these “soft” attributes add to the bill, too.

As a result, quiet or delicate field recordings are generally not possible without spending substantially more for equipment with better or quieter components. How much?

The Price of Exponential Upgrades

Well, consider this example:

That will give a field recordist a “complete” easy-to-use field-ready stereo kit. It improves upon both a portable recorder’s preamp and microphones. The problem? The upgrade ranges from $1,587 – $1,867. That’s at least a difference in price of $1,200 beyond a portable kit. Or, looked at another way, it is an increased investment of almost six times the price of their original recorder. Plus, many field recordists would demand better microphone options than the examples I chose. Want crisp Sennheiser or lush Neumann microphones? Be prepared to add $1,500+ to the final bill of sale. Even respectable microphones such as the Audio-Technica BP4029 ($749) or Shure VP88 ($791) add at least $200 to the microphone budget above.

The Gear Gap

The point of all this? The gap of the price, feature set, and recording experience between a portable recorder and a starter professional kit is very wide.

The impact? Beginners find it is challenging to incrementally improve sound quality. Either you spend a little and have entry-level quality, or you spend a substantial amount for a vast improvement. That means after even a small amount of experience, new field recordists are faced with the prospect of continuing months or years capturing field recordings they know could be better, or take a use leap purchasing expensive, delicate gear at a considerable financial and technical risk.

This is why classifying a “middle tier” of field recording gear in challenging. Consider:

Gear Tier Example Kit Price
Integrated entry recorder Zoom H6 $300
Dedicated entry kit Zoom F4 & Røde NT-4 & Windshield etc. $1867
Dedicated pro kit Sound Devices MixPre-3 & Sennheiser MKH 30 & 50 & Windshield etc. $4047

A large gap appears between each tier. There is no gradual increase between them in either price or sound quality.

The Missing Upgrade Path

From a commercial perspective, this is actually highly unusual. Most manufacturers will offer a range of products with carefully selected features for two goals: to avoid a gear gap and also offer a price to every possible customer in the market.

Consider Apple’s iPhone:

iPhone Model Memory (GB) Price
SE 32 $349
SE 128 $449
6s 32 $449
6s 128 $549
6s Plus 32 $549
6s Plus 128 $649
7 32 $549
7 128 $649
7 Plus 32 $669
7 Plus 128 $769
8 64 $699
8 256 $849
8 Plus 64 $799
8 Plus 256 $949
X 64 $999
X 256 $1149

Excessive product line? Perhaps. The point, though, is that Apple has cleverly cornered every budget from $349 to $1,149. The pricing strategy also makes it enticing to spend “just a bit more” for a considerable upgrade; an investment of $100-$130 more rewards a buyer with a newer generation of phone. It’s easy to view this as a cash grab by Apple. However, seen another way, it’s a helpful method of guiding buyers through their product lines as their budgets and feature needs grow.

No, field recording gear isn’t like a mobile phone. Their features and uses are vastly different. What this is meant to highlight is that a gap between field recording gear features and prices is unusual. There is nothing like Apple’s iPhone feature set and pricing progression for field recordists. The closest example is Zoom’s field recorders:

Well, wouldn’t that solve the problem, then?

Unfortunately not. Zoom’s line adds pre-packaged channel increases and expandability up to the H6. That’s admirable. However, after that, the F models cease to be a complete beginner’s solution. They require additional, discrete microphones, cabling, and other accessories that create the exponential upgrade cost we saw above. That lacks the gradual increase in features and pricing beginners need, and what leaves new fans of the craft bewildered.

Field Recording Gear At First Glance

Let’s look at the gear gap table shared above.

Gear Tier Example Kit Price
Integrated entry recorder Zoom H6 $300
Dedicated entry kit Zoom F4 & Røde NT-4 & Windshield etc. $1867
Dedicated pro kit Sound Devices MixPre-3 & Sennheiser MKH 30 & 50 & Windshield etc. $4047

Are those numbers absolute? Of course not. There are indeed options to narrow the gap between tiers. Experienced field recordists will know esoteric options. The next post will share some of these.

Just the same, it’s important to note that these suggestions are the most apparent options. The most common field recorder recommended on places like Reddit and Facebook is the Zoom H4n. New people won’t know where to dig to find more creative solutions. Want to move beyond a portable recorder? The marketing heft of Røde and Zoom dominate. Other options, such as Sound Devices, Sennheiser, and others tend to focus exclusively on professionals.

The upshot is it is hard for new people to find unconventional solutions to bridge the gear gap. This is what contributes to the perception that there are two choices for beginners: cheap and quick, or risky, expensive, and slow.

Why do manufacturers not grasp this? It’s hard to say, but I do have a few guesses:

  • Field recording remains a niche craft. Recordists adopt gear typically meant for live sound, studio recording, or production sound. Most of this gear is marketed towards those disciplines and the budgets of those pros. You’ll notice manufacturer ad copy and images reflect this. Manufacturers may not know or want to provide for the special needs of sound pros who work alone beyond the studio.
  • Lack of integrated kits. Few manufacturers offer solutions that bundle an exceptional microphone, a robust recorder, and a whisper-quiet preamp in a single package that satisfies the needs of every field recording mission. That makes it difficult to offer a tiered feature set like Zoom does with their portables, and Apple does with their phones.
  • There are likely technical limitations, too: it may be challenging to design a growing array of features that fill more gradual increases in price between $300 and $1,800 and increase sound quality incrementally to match.

The Impact of the Gear Gap

What does this mean for field recordists?

Well, it makes it difficult for beginners to start the craft. Why? As we learned earlier, beginners are mostly restricted to either a $300 or $1,800+ budget. A lack of middle tier field recording gear means curious beginners remain in a technical purgatory with sound quality they know can be better, or restrict themselves to capturing a limited amount of subjects. That’s obviously not appealing. Creative motivation is easily smothered if inspired people are restricted by their tools.

In the end, what can beginning field recordists do?

Like most other aspects about field recording, the solution involves a hack. It draws upon unintuitive decisions, off-brand choices, and unusual workflows. What is this?

We’re finished with theory for this week. In the next post, I’ll offer three ways to help beginners bridge the gear gap.





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