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How to Use a Portable Audio Recorder in Field Production

By Sam Mallery

A portable field recorder is one of the most commonly used tools in electronic field production, but how it connects to other field equipment (such as video cameras, portable field mixers, wireless microphones, etc.) isn't terribly obvious. There are so many different models available with varying capabilities (some have time code, and others do not, some have multi-tracking, and others do not, and so on) that it can be confusing as to which recorder would best suit your needs. This article will hopefully show you some of the ways you can use a portable audio recorder, and to explain its various controls and features.

A Basic Overview

A portable digital recorder is a compact device that runs on batteries and allows you to create high-quality audio recordings on removable digital media and/or internal drives. Portable digital recorders can be used to make recordings on their own, or you can connect them to other equipment and record audio from outside sources. Many models feature USB or FireWire ports that allow you to connect them to a computer in order to transfer the recordings you create onto the connected computer's hard drive. Most models allow you to select the quality of file you want to record in (WAV files, MP3 files, etc.).

A basic workflow with two condenser microphones plugged directly into a portable recorder.

Portable recorders are commonly used in conjunction with other field production equipment. They are often placed in an audio bag alongside portable field mixers, wireless microphone receivers, IFB systems, etc. Field mixers usually have multiple outputs. Their multiple outputs make it possible to send the same audio to more than one device. It's a common practice to send one output of the mixer to a portable audio recorder, and another output to the audio inputs of a video camera. Doing so creates two copies of the audio, one on the portable recorder and the other on the video camera:

A mic is plugged into the audio mixer. The mixer's multiple outputs send audio to both the camera and the portable recorder.

The audio recorded into the portable recorder typically sounds better than the audio recorded into the camera. The audio circuitry built into the video camera isn't nearly as elegant as the guts of a portable audio recorder. Video cameras also compress audio as they record, which further decreases the quality of the sound. So why should you bother patching audio cables over to the video camera if it doesn't sound as good? In a production you never know when a piece of electronic equipment is going to malfunction. If the audio fails on either end, you will have a second copy to cover you. When you're shooting extensive amounts of footage, it can get increasingly taxing to keep track of what audio files are supposed to accompany what video files or video tapes. Syncing the externally-recorded audio with the video in post production can be very time consuming. This is where time code really comes in handy.

Time Code

The very mention of the term "time code" tends to strike fear in the hearts of those unaccustomed to working with it. Time code is simply a protocol that gets encoded into audio and video footage that allows you to sync and lock the recorded audio with the video in post production. For a deeper understanding of the subject be sure to check out this informative B&H educational article.

Portable recorders with built-in time code generators capable of syncing with other devices are expensive. To keep costs down, most portable field recorders do not include internal time-code generators. However, some portable audio recorders will feature inputs that enable them to sync with external time code generators. The Tascam HD-P2 is a good example of this kind of recorder. It's a nice option for someone who doesn't need time code currently, but may need to sync with it in the future.

A video camera and a portable recorder with time code inputs sync to an external time code generator:
The green line represents the audio from the sound kit. The red lines represent time code.

Many higher end professional video cameras feature internal time-code generators with outputs to sync external devices. Common devices that will often be synced with cameras and portable recorders are time code slates. These peculiar-looking tools should be familiar if you've ever seen footage of a professional production crew at work. The digital screen on the face of the slate displays the time code. This is useful for editors in post production to be able to visually check if the time code of the footage is synced properly.

A video camera generates time code and syncs with a portable digital recorder and a time code slate:
The green line represents the audio from the sound kit. The red lines represent time code.

Some of the more professional portable audio recorders will feature internal time code generators with the ability to sync external devices. Devices with built-in time code generators often also have the ability to sync to external time code generators. There are never two time code generators operating at once. One generator will be the master, and the other devices will slave to it. All time-code generators are not created equal. The generator in may not be as accurate as the generator in the portable recorder, or vice versa. External time code generators (also referred to as Sync Boxes) like the Denecke SB-T are generally considered to be more accurate.

A portable recorder generates time code and syncs with a video camera and a time code slate:
The green line represents the audio from the sound kit. The red lines represent time code.

Since audio is such an important element of video and film production, there are often production scenarios that call for more than two tracks of recorded sound. Reality programs are among the most popular shows on television. These shows will regularly have numerous people wandering around, all of them wearing wireless microphones. Since their actions are unscripted, the challenge of mixing all of those separate wireless microphones down to two tracks is often too risky. One solution is to use a portable audio recorder with multi-track capabilities.

Edirol R-44
The Edirol R-44 records four separate tracks of audio

 

Multi-Track Portable Recorders

A standard audio recorder typically has two tracks. The two tracks are most commonly used for recording left and right of the stereo spectrum. Multi-track recorders have the ability to record separate tracks beyond just left and right. Portable multi-track recorders feature separate inputs for each separate track. In a reality television shoot where you have four contestants scrambling around a parking lot, you can have each of their wireless microphones recorded onto its own audio track. It's a smart way to work in a production environment when using multiple microphones because you're a lot less likely to miss important dialog or sounds.

Sound Devices 788T
The Sound Devices 788T records eight separate tracks of audio.

 

Special purpose portable audio recorders

There are a couple of portable audio recorders that have been designed to act as both the portable audio mixer and recorder built into one. The Fostex PD-606 and the PD-204 are both integrated field mixers/recorders with built-in time-code generators. The difference between the two models is that the 606 is also a multi-track recorder. The 204 has four inputs and allows you to mix them down and record them to two tracks, while the 606 has six inputs and records onto six separate tracks.

Zaxcom ZFR100
The pocket-sized Zaxcom ZFR100 includes time code.

 

The Zaxcom ZFR100 is a small beltpack-sized device that records high-quality audio with time code. You can plug a lavalier microphone directly into it, or keep one in your bag and send the audio to it for a failsafe copy. The addition of the STA-100 accessory expands the device into a two track line input recorder, and gives it time code and audio outputs.

What about all those buttons and controls?

Portable audio recorders tend to be fairly simple machines, they just don't always look that way. Some models enable you to edit the audio directly inside the recorder, so navigation and editing buttons are needed. Most recorders give you some way to name the files you create to keep things organized, and more buttons are needed for these functions. It's not uncommon for portable recorders with microphone inputs to have basic controls like preamp gain knobs, phantom power buttons, and mic/line switches.

Below we have created a chart with some of the popular portable audio recorders sold at B&H. If you're interested in smaller, handheld portable recorders that are capable of making high-quality recordings, check out the B&H Handheld Digital Audio Recorders Buyer's Guide.

Portable audio recorders without time code:

Model
Channels
Size and Weight
Input / Output
Features
Multi-source
Price Range

Marantz PMD-660

B&H# MAPMD660

2

4.5 x 1.9 x 7.2"

1.1 lbs

2 XLR mic, mini stereo line I/O. Built-in mics, on board editing. Records to Compact Flash only $300 - $500

Fostex FR-2LE

B&H# FOFR2LE

2

2.2 x 8.1 x 5.2"

1.76 lbs

2 XLR + 1/4" TRS combo inputs Phantom power, onboard editing, USB 2.0 Records to Compact Flash only $400 - $600

Marantz PMD-670

B&H# MAPMD670

2

2.0 x 10.4 x 7.3"

2.14 lbs

2 XLR + RCA, S/PDIF digital Track marking, 44.1kHz 16 bit recording Records to Compact Flash only $500 - $700

Marantz PMD-671

B&H# MAPMD671

2

2.16 x 10.4 x 7.3"

2.86 lbs

2 XLR + RCA, S/PDIF digital Track marking, 48kHz 24- bit recording Records to Compact Flash only $800- $1000

Edirol R44

B&H# EDR44

4

6.2 x 7.25 x 2.4"

2.9 lbs

4 XLR + 1/4" TRS combo inputs Link two units together for 8 tracks Records to SD Cards only $800- $1000

Edirol R4

B&H# EDR4

4

10 x 8.7 x 2.84"

3.75 lbs

4 XLR + 1/4" TRS combo inputs 40 GB internal hard drive Yes. Hard drive and CF $800- $1000

Sound Devices 702

B&H# SO702

2

8.2 x 4.9 x 1.8"

2.1 lbs

2 XLR, 2 BNC, 2 TA3, 2 1/8" mini 192kHz 24- bit recording, FireWire port Records to Compact Flash only $1800- $2000

Sound Devices 722

B&H# SO722

2

8.2 x 4.9 x 1.8"

2.6 lbs

2 XLR, 2 BNC, 2 TA3, 2 1/8" mini, 1 hirose 80 GB drive, 192kHz 24- bit, FireWire port Yes. Hard drive, CF card, external drives $2000- $2500

 

Portable audio recorders with time code:

 

Model Channels Size and Weight Input / output Features Multi-source Price Range

Tascam HD-P2

B&H# TAHDP2

2

9.6 x 7.4 x 2.4"

2.6 lbs

2 XLR, 2 RCA, 1 S/PDIF I/O, 1 BNC Time code I/O, digital I/O Records to Compact Flash only $800- $1000

Zaxcom ZFR100

B&H# ZAZFR100H

2

2.3 x 0.75 x 3"

3.5 oz

2 lemo Ultra compact, optional accessories Records to micro SD cards only $800- $1000

Edirol R-4 Pro

B&H# EDR4PRO

4

10 x 8.7 x 2.8"

3.75 lbs

4 XLR, 4 RCA, 2 BNC, 2 AES/EBU 80 GB hard drive, effects, built in speakers Records to hard drive only $1800- $2000

Fostex PD204

B&H# FOPD204

2 track recording 4 inputs

4.6 x 12.8 x 9.2"

7.28 lbs

4 XLR mic+ line inputs, 2 XLR out Time code I/O, digital I/O Yes. Hard drive and DVD $3500- $4000

Fostex PD606

B&H# FOPD606

6 track recording 6 inputs

4.6 x 12.8 x 9.2"

7.5 lbs

6 XLR mic+ line inputs, 2 XLR out Time code I/O, digital I/O Yes. Hard drive and DVD $7500- $8000

Sound Devices 702T

B&H# SO702

2

1.8 x 8.2 x 4.9"

2.1 lbs

2 XLR mic+line ins, 2 mini XLR outs, 1/8" out Time code I/O, digital I/O, link to CL1 remote Records to Compact Flash and ext. FW drive $1800- $2000

Sound Devices 744T

B&H# SO744T

4

1.8 x 8.2 x 4.9"

2.6 lbs

2 XLR mic+line ins, 2 mini XLR ins+outs, 1/8" out Time code I/O, digital I/O, link to CL1 remote Yes. Hard drive, CF card, external drives $3500- $5000

Sound Devices 788T

B&H# SO788T

8

1.8 x 10.1 x 6.4"

3.75 lbs

4 XLR + 4 mini XLR mic+line ins, 4 mini XLR outs, 1/8" out Time code I/O, digital I/O, link to CL1 remote Yes. Hard drive, CF card, external drives $5500- $6000

If you'd like to learn more about electronic field production, be sure to check out these other B&H educational articles:

The B&H Guide to Portable Wireless Systems

The B&H Guide to Portable Field Mixers

The B&H Handheld Digital Audio Recorders Buyer's Guide

The B&H Guide to Boompoles

The B&H Guide to Choosing a Shotgun Microphone

How-to Minimize Wind Noise When Using a Shotgun Microphone

The B&H Guide to Choosing a Shockmount for a Shotgun Microphone

The B&H Guide to Alternative Microphones for use on Boompoles

The B&H Guide to Lavalier Microphones

How-to Use a Plug On Transmitter with a Portable Wireless System

Thanks for reading this Pro Audio Insight article! Naturally, if you have any further questions about portable audio recorders, electronic field production, or any questions about professional audio in general, don't hesitate to contact us at 1-800-416-5090


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