UPDATED: The $300 Recorder Question, or, "Which cheap audio recorder should I get?"

Alex H.

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UPDATED: The $300 Recorder Question, or, "Which cheap audio recorder should I get?"

The original title to this article references “The $300 Recorder Question”. That price point is still here, but the solutions available in that range are now a bit different. If you’re in the market for your first sound recorder, or you’re looking to move up to something else, this is for you.

When I first posted this article, we were in a state of over-saturation when it came to portable digital recorders. It seemed like every possible brand was tossing out its own slew of awkwardly-designed recorders, really designed for musicians, and touting them as solutions for film/TV/video sound production. It’s been 10 years (!!!), and quite a bit has changed. Several of the options have disappeared. Fortunately, that actually works in our favor and makes this question a bit easier to answer.

So, you want to buy a sound recorder for your video production. There are options: quite a few options. Which one is the right one? Where do we even begin to figure that out?

The first thing to consider is form factor. For the sake of this article, I’ll break these down into four types: belt/pocket, handheld, bag-friendly, and cart-based. Each has its usefulness, but there’s no one-size-fits-all. Other considerations are budget, number of needed inputs, and other features essential to your workflow such as time code and 32-bit recording. These can all be addressed within the four types of sound recorder.

BELT/POCKET RECORDERS

The belt/pocket form factor of recorder has been recently popularized. They’re compact devices, roughly the size of a wireless transmitter (though some are smaller), and some options can jam to time code. These recorders are designed for a lavaliere mic to be plugged directly in, then placed on the talent either clipped to a belt or dropped into a pocket.

The advantage of these recorders is that they eliminate wireless transmission and thus the potential for RF interference and dropouts. For this reason, they’ve become popular with wedding videographers who can put them on bride, groom, and officiant and not have to deal with managing several wireless channels in unpredictable environments. But this also brings up the biggest disadvantage: control.

There’s an old adage in production sound: “If you aren’t listening, you aren’t recording.” Placing a recorder on talent and just letting it roll means there’s no way to hear if problems pop up mid-take. Some of these recorders come with apps for monitoring levels, but level meters only tell a small part of the story. The meters may be moving, but what’s making them move? Clean dialog, or noise? Post-production is too late to find out that the audio recorded with lots of fabric rub, or that the mic dropped out of place and everything was muffled, or that your levels were way too low or so high they’re distorted or clipped. (32-bit float recording can allow for correcting levels that are too low or too high, but that also requires some extra effort in your post workflow.)

I carry a couple of these in my kit, though. I find them handy as backup plant mics for things like driving shots with bag drops (the sound bag is left recording unattended in the vehicle), where I can pop one in the visor just in case something goes wrong in my bag. Personally, I would never rely on them as my primary recording devices, especially since I can’t listen to them while they record.

Also of note in the US, due to Zaxcom’s patent, is that these recorders do not pass signal through the headphone output while in record.

Options under $300 at time of writing are the Tascam DR-10L and the Zoom F1 and F2. The F2 utilizes 32-bit float and also offers an upgraded model, the F2-BT, that allows Bluetooth setup and time code sync. The time code sync function is compatible only with Time Code Systems’ Blue TC box. It doesn’t work with Tentacle Sync.
Just above the $300 mark is the Tentacle Sync TRACK E. Also utilizing 32-bit float, if you’re already using Tentacle Sync E as your time code system, the recorder nestles fully into that ecosystem and jams time code through the same app along with all the Sync E boxes in the kit.

On the higher end are the Lectrosonics MTCR (single-channel) and SPDR (stereo) recorders, with time code. The MTCR offers 32-bit float while the SPDR offers up to 24-bit/96KHz.

HANDHELD RECORDERS

Handheld recorders originally came about as tools for musicians to record rehearsals and working versions (sketchpads) of their music. It didn’t take long for amateur and indie filmmakers to adopt them for use on set. These recorders are still very popular and offer many options for those looking for a recorder on a budget. The form factor, however, comes with some caveats.

The first thing to examine in a handheld recorder is its connectivity. There are handhelds that come with XLR inputs for use with better microphones, and there are handhelds that are more focused on their built-in stereo mic array and have no XLR inputs. If you’re planning on using a mic that uses XLR connection, trying to adapt for use with a small handheld that has only a 3.5mm (1/8”) input is going to cause some frustration.

For the handheld recorders that have XLR inputs with phantom power, there are also options: how many inputs? Some offer two, some offer up to 8. It all depends on how many channels you need for the work you do, especially if you’re using several channels of wireless for your talent.

But here’s the big caveat for these devices: they’re clumsy, especially the more XLR inputs they have. Two XLR ins on the bottom can be handy, and the connectors keep streamlined with the length of the recorder. There are handhelds out there that offer lots of XLR ins and, fully-loaded, end up looking like an arachnid. At that point, it’s best left sitting on a table or desk (fine for podcasting, but not so much for location sound).

The clumsiness really comes down to viewing and access. Handheld recorders are meant to be, well... handheld, or set up on a tripod. When it comes to location sound recording, it’s important to be mobile, agile, able to keep an eye on the display screen, and able to access the controls quickly and efficiently. The challenge is that there’s no elegant way to set up one of these recorders in a bag that allows all of those things to happen. Simply, these recorders are not at all bag-friendly.

I do keep a handheld recorder in my kit, one without XLR inputs, as it makes snagging quick sound effects and ambient sound beds very easy when I don’t have time to set up my full SFX recording kit. I can take it anywhere, and be up and recording in no time if I happen upon interesting sounds as a I travel.

Under-$300 options abound from Tascam and Zoom, with and without XLR inputs. Roland even still has one option here, no XLR. Both Tascam and Zoom also offer options just above $300. Sony has a few options above and below $300, but only one offers XLR inputs. If sound design is your thing and you want to spend more on a very good-quality handheld (no XLR), look to the Sony PCM-D100.

Please note: if you think you’ve found a bargain with a digital voice/memo recorder, think again. These are low-resolution recorders that are more about maximizing recording time at the expense of sound quality. They don’t typically record uncompressed. They’re great for office dictation, but aren’t worth the investment for production sound.

Continued below with Part II.
 
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Part II, Continued from Above

BAG RECORDERS

Here we enter the standard and, honestly, preferred form factor for location sound recording. Bag recorders come in different shapes and sizes, but they all share the same design principles: a face panel that features a clear display screen, tactile transport and menu navigation controls, and rotary level controls for input sources; flexible inputs and outputs on the left and right side panels; and (ideally) external powering options. This is also the category that has the biggest range of prices and features.

The term “bag recorder” comes from the design fitting easily into a traditional sound bag that places the display and controls facing up toward the operator, keeping the I/O connections down inside the bag for clean cable management. Sound bags allow for storage and organization of mixer/recorder, power supply, wireless receivers, and more that can be easily work with a shoulder strap or harness. For the one-person-band sound department that is booming while also managing everything else, the bag is a standard accessory.

Because there are so many options, from quite inexpensive to top-of-the-line, which recorder to buy comes down to budget, needed number of inputs, and specialty needs like time code or 32-bit float. Let’s first address the specialty needs: do you need time code, or 32-bit float? Honestly, probably not.

Time code can be helpful, but unless you’re working on a production where post has specifically requested it, it’s not necessarily... necessary. Especially if you’re creating your own content, many NLEs now automatically link separate audio and video files based on the sound. A good, ol’-fashioned dumb slate (clapper) is a great way to keep track of your takes and to be able to locate clear sync marks. Full use of time code requires a smart slate that is jammed to the sound recorder (or to the same TC source that the recorder is using), as well as a camera that can jam to external TC. Additionally, time code sync boxes are an extra expense that are crucial to a stable time-code-based workflow.

32-bit float is also something that isn’t likely needed. It can be helpful, but proper gain staging and level control are still important skills to develop. Managing 32-bit audio is something most post houses aren’t built for, and professional film and TV productions still require 24-bit/48kHz audio. If you’re doing sound design and recording custom sound effects, 32-bit float can be extremely useful. For traditional location sound (dialog), it may be more trouble than it’s worth.

For the $300 price point, there are non-time-code options like the DR-60DmkII and DR-70D from Tascam, and the Marantz PMD-706. These recorders are also designed to be able to mount under a camera, but they do all enjoy physical designs that can drop easily into a small bag.

Above $300 and under $1000 opens up some semi-professional options that are more suited to location sound bag work. Sound Devices offer the MixPre-3 II and the MixPre-6 II, both equipped with time code and 32-bit float options. Their Kashmir pre-amps come with true analog input limiting to prevent clipping without damaging the signal in the process. They offer 3 and 4 XLR inputs, respectively. The Zoom F6 offers 6 XLR inputs, time code, and 32-bit float. The Zoom F8n offers time code and 8 XLR inputs (plus two with a proprietary add-on module), but does not have 32-bit float. Input limiters for both the F6 and F8n are analog/digital hybrid.

An honorable mention goes to the Tascam DR-701D. This is basically the DR-70D, but with time code capabilities. However, it is well-known that the internal time code on this device drifts terribly, so it requires being fed with a constant, external source like a Tentacle Sync or a Betso.

Around the $1500 mark is the MixPre-10 II from Sound Devices. All the features of the MixPre-6 II, but with an additional 4 XLR inputs and more flexible output options. It also adds BNC connectors for time code/word clock in and out. Just up at the $2000 are the Roland R-88 and the Tascam HS-P82, both with time code and 8 XLR inputs. Neither with 32-bit float.

From there, we jump quite a bit in price to get into the high-end multitrack mixer/recorders used on professional sets. Starting around $3000 and going up toward $10,000, these recorders offer much more durable construction, flexible input and output routing, and more redundancy for both power and recording media. Sound Devices launched their 8-series a couple years ago, introducing the 833 successor to the beloved 633, as well as the 888 and the Scorpio. As a side note, there are deals to be found on used 6-series recorders (633, 644, 688) that fall below this price point. Also on the top-end are offerings from Zaxcom, Sonosax, and Nagra. What these recorders don’t have: 32-bit float. It’s just not something that’s used on high-end sets.

This brings us to the last category, though some of the bag-friendly recorders can also cross into this realm:

CART-BASED RECORDERS

Cart-based sound work is typically found on narrative sets where a sound mixer is able to sit and focus on the mix while a boom op covers on-set and serves as the location mixer’s eyes and ears close to the camera. Cart-based recorders are built into rolling sound carts that range from simple and slim to elegant and complex with both shore-power and battery distribution, video monitoring, and more.

There are bag-friendly recorders that can be just as much at home when part of a sound cart, simply by adding a mixing control surface. Zoom offer a mixing control surface for the F8n. The Sound Devices MixPre series recorders are compatible with several off-the-shelf, USB-based mixing controllers. The 833, 888, and Scorpio are compatible with some third-party control surfaces, and Sound Devices also offer their own native mix control surfaces.

Recorders that are suited for cart work, but aren’t bag-friendly, include the Sound Devices 970 and the Aaton Cantar. I’d argue that the Scorpio is much more suited to cart work; yes, it is certainly bag-friendly, but it makes for a very heavy/bulky bag, especially the more wireless receivers are added. And I have seen the Cantar set up for bag use; personally, I find it a bit awkward;

There are also carts that are made for sound bags, allowing the user to move quickly between mixing from a cart and run-and-gun bag work. This may or may not include a control surface. But that’s another conversation for another thread.

A NOTE ABOUT DRIFT, SAMPLE RATE, AND TIME CODE

When dealing with double-system sound and non-sync recorders, there is a chance that the sound will drift when put up against the video in post-production. Why? Well, it has to do with each device's internal clock.

Put two devices together that don't share a master clock (this is what "non-sync" means) and set them both to record at 48kHz. One might actually be recording at 47,998Hz (47.998kHz) and the other at 48,024Hz (48.024kHz). When these audio files are placed in the time line of an NLE or a DAW, where they play at an actual 48kHz, one will be playing slightly faster than the other. This can cause problems.

Drift isn't usually a huge deal if each shot or clip is fairly short, so most narrative work isn’t a big deal. Longer clips may have noticeable drift over time, impacting documentary interviews and reality TV where sound recording can go uninterrupted for hours. The audio and video will start in sync, but after a few minutes the audio may either lead or fall behind the video. Technology has improved and different clocks seem to be a bit more stable, but for non-sync sound this can still pop up.

Audio depends on sample rate to determine its playback speed, but that doesn’t mean that time code settings cannot have an adverse effect. If your sound recorder allows setting a time base (frame rate), make absolutely sure that you set it to the same frame rate as the camera. Mismatched frame rates between sound and video files, in many NLEs, can actually cause otherwise stable audio to drift.
 
Thank you for the information!

[And I guess this sticky's now unlocked?]

You’re welcome.

This sticky wasn’t ever locked, or shouldn’t have been, but discussion posts were lost in the server migration. Not sure what happened there, but we’re trying to track it down. Also lost was the “Part II” post, but I had a copy on my iPad.
 
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