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One of the easiest ways to improve your production, be it podcast, radio, film, or music, is to take a look at the type of device into which you are recording your audio. Most pros know—and will tell you—not all audio is captured equally. Integrating a portable digital recorder into your rig may seem like an obvious solution, but it is often overlooked, and is an excellent way to improve your audio quality.
As the audio needs of professionals and hobbyists alike run a gamut of complexity, from simple to intricate, a generous array of portable digital recorders has been spawned. These numerous recorders have vastly differing feature sets, and some will make more sense for certain applications than others. There are recorders with built-in microphones, some that can record directly to internal flash memory, and others that track to external SD cards. So, which ones will work for your audio needs?
A good place to start dividing up the pack is to examine your audio needs. What are you recording? Do you require built-in mics, inputs for external mics, or both? If you shoot DSLR video, you will likely want something that is camera mountable with a built-in mic (or two) that can incorporate an external mic, such as a shotgun or lavalier.
Let’s take a look at some of the larger portable recorders available. These selections tend to feature multiple inputs and built-in mics, and can be used for mounting on cameras, or recording speakers or musicians.
For years now, the Zoom H4n Handy has become a go-to solution in this sort of application (among others). Its built-in XY stereo mics can be set to 90 or 120 degrees, depending on how wide a field you want to pick up. The H4n also has two XLR/TRS mic pres that allow you to hook up additional mics for close miking or shotgun applications. It will record your audio to external SD cards up to 32GB.
The Tascam DR-40, like the H4n, is capable of recording up to four tracks simultaneously via its built-in stereo mics and two XLR/TRS combo inputs. The DR-40’s internal stereo mics, however, can be switched between XY and AB recording patterns. Also from Tascam, the DR-100mkII has dual cardioid and dual omnidirectional mics built in, and supports external mics via its two XLR inputs. It is geared toward musicians, podcasters, and broadcast applications and includes a wired remote control.
When Zoom released the H6 Handy, the company really upped the ante for feature-dense portable recorders, delivering a unit that can easily be used for both DSLR audio, as well as tracking musicians and bands. Capable of tracking up to six channels of audio at a time, the H6 features four combination XLR/TRS inputs for external mics and a stereo mic capsule. The real standout feature of the H6 is its modular mic system. You can swap its “built-in” stereo mic between the included XY and Mid-Side capsules as you would lenses on a camera. Zoom also has an optional shotgun capsule and a dual XLR/TRS capsule that allows you to connect up to 6 external mics to the system.
More recently, Zoom has brought us the H5 Handy, a little brother to the H6 that is capable of four-track recording as opposed to six, but still features the same interchangeable, modular microphone system. The recorder ships with an XY microphone capsule and is fully compatible with the existing line of H6 modules, including the optional shotgun mic and XLR/TRS input modules.
Like the H6, the Roland R-26 boasts a total of six channels of simultaneous recording, as well, and marks itself as another solid option for musicians and sound designers. Its I/O is provided through its two built-in stereo mics and dual XLR/TRS inputs. Its omnidirectional stereo mic and directional stereo mic can be used together to capture a broad field of audio, making the R-26 shine at capturing field sounds and ambience. Its menu system can be navigated through its front-panel touchscreen LCD.
The Olympus LS-100 Multi-Track PCM Recorder features 96kHz / 24-bit recording, dual 90° directional stereo condenser microphones, and maximum sound pressure level (SPL) of up to 140dB. Plus, the LS-100's integrated stereo condenser microphones have independent left and right recording level dials, so you'll be able to maintain optimal balance, as well as make adjustments on the fly.
Tascam’s DR-60DmkII is geared toward someone with their own mic collection and is looking for a reliable solution that will offer improved sound quality over their camera’s built-in audio recording. It has no built-in mics, but features two combo XLR/TRS inputs, a stereo 3.5mm mic input, and a stereo 3.5mm camera input. It also has a 3.5mm headphone output, as well as a 3.5mm camera output. Its I/O routing allows to you switch your monitoring between playback from your camera and the live feed from your mics. The DR-60DmkII can be mounted on the bottom of your DSLR, on a tripod, or worn with an optional harness.
Designed specifically as an audio recording solution for DSLR video applications, the DR-701D Field Recorder from Tascam features dual built-in omnidirectional microphones and four XLR/TRS inputs with phantom power. The recorder has an HDMI input that can be connected to your camera's HDMI output, allowing you to start and stop recording remotely via the camera's record button if your camera supports HDMI signal triggering. If your camera sends timecode via HDMI, the DR-701D will follow it and write it to the recorded file. Your NLE software will then read that embedded timecode to lock sound and picture together in post.
Nagra has a hard-fought reputation for producing high-quality equipment, and the Nagra SD is a testament to that. Catering to those who demand versatility and portability, it has an aluminum body, can track linear PCM files, MP3s, or MP2s, and you can swap its mics out. But, unlike the H6, the SD does not come with a mic module.
Not every application and user requires multiple input options and menus upon menus of options from which to select. Sometimes, you need something that is a bit smaller and good to go quickly. These “grab-and-go” portables play to those strengths.
Broadcast radio professionals, podcasters, musicians, and field recorders may find that their desired feature sets differ slightly. The Zoom H1 is a little straightforward feature-wise, but is ideal for interviews, recording band rehearsals, or quickly getting down new musical ideas. It has a built-in stereo XY mic, as well as a stereo 3.5mm selectable mic or line input. It tracks to microSD cards and has a straightforward, single-button record feature.
The Tascam DR-05 also boasts built-in stereo mics, but with an omnidirectional polar pattern. Like the H1, it is a smaller sized recorder, and will record your audio to microSD cards. Providing Wi-Fi enabled transport control and file sharing, the DR-22WL features a built-in XY stereo microphone and is capable of recording in up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. The Wi-Fi, which requires no external network, allows for control of all transport functions via a free iOS and Android app. You can also stream playback, as well as transfer files directly to your smart device or computer, for quick upload to social media.
Zoom’s H2n is amply equipped with five built-in mics that can be switched between two-channel surround, four-channel surround, XY, and Mid-Side tracking modes, making it a solid choice for sound designers and musicians alike. It also has a cool data-recovery function that is designed to restore your files in case of an accidental power-down. This touch of added security is reassuring, especially when you only have one chance to capture your audio.
The Sony PCM-M10 is a bit more streamlined, featuring 3.5mm mic and line-level inputs (no XLR) and 2 built-in condenser mics. It has 4GB of internal flash memory and supports external SD cards, as well, making it a high-quality, go-to recorder for students looking to record lectures, and for interviewers or musicians.
Though it is by no means a uni-tasker, the Roland R-05 is definitely geared toward musicians, such as singer/songwriters. It has an internal stereo mic, as well as built-in effects, such as four types of reverb. The R-05 can change the playback speed of your tracks without changing their pitch, to help you learn new songs. You can even do some basic editing, trimming, dividing, or combining tracks on this unit.
The LS-14, from Olympus, is designed as an all-in-one portable recording solution, featuring built-in stereo directional microphones and an omni-pattern center microphone. Its three-microphone array is designed for accurate audio capture for high-fidelity recordings. In addition to the internal mics, there are 3.5mm stereo mini-jack mic and line inputs for connecting external audio equipment, such as microphones or CD players. There is also a USB port for interfacing with your computer.
If the security of your files is a concern, check out the Marantz PMD661 mkII. Its setup is similar to many of the other digital recorders, featuring dual built-in mics and two XLR inputs. However, it sets itself apart from the pack by offering pass-code protection for the device and providing the ability to encrypt your files with a four-digit code. This is a great feature for reporters and interviewers who need to keep their stories safe, prior to airing.
For the audiophiles (or just everyday users) who demand higher-fidelity audio, the Sony PCM-D100 can record up to 192kHz/24-bit quality, but also supports 1-bit DSD @ 2.8224MHz. This makes the PCM-D100 a great choice for anyone looking for a portable DSD playback device.
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