Holiday 2012: Portable Digital Recorders
What is a portable digital recorder?
A portable digital recorder is a compact, battery-powered device that’s capable of creating high-resolution digital audio recordings. Most portable digital recorders feature built-in microphones, but some only have inputs for connecting external audio signals. Recordings are stored on either internal memory or removable media (such as SD cards) making it easy to transfer the audio files to a computer .
Why would I use a portable digital recorder?
Portable digital recorders can be used for many different purposes. Musicians use them to record rehearsals and performances, while independent filmmakers use them as part of a dual audio recording system. Journalists use them to record interviews and ambient sound, students to record lectures and to take notes, and podcasters to record in the field; there are many practical applications for these recorders. Being able to create and share high-quality recordings benefits a wide range of users.
Is there a difference between a “portable digital recorder” and a “voice recorder”?
There’s a different product category of small handheld gadgets called “voice recorders,” which are often confused with portable digital recorders. Voice recorders are designed solely to capture low-quality voice memos. Portable digital recorders are devices with better sounding built-in microphones, better signal-to-noise ratios, more inputs and outputs and more options for recording high-resolution or compressed audio files.
What kind of inputs and outputs will I find on portable digital recorders?
There are a number of different kinds of jacks found on portable digital recorders in various combinations: XLR inputs and outputs, “combo” inputs, line-level inputs and outputs, S/PDIF inputs and outputs, headphone outputs, mini-plug mic inputs, RCA phono jacks, remote control ports, USB ports and external AC power connections.
What are XLR inputs and outputs, and why would I need them?
An XLR jack is a three-pin connector that is used on professional microphones and other kinds of equipment. XLR jacks are desirable because they lock into place and provide a secure connection. If you’re using a portable digital recorder to capture the audio for an HDSLR video shoot, you’ll likely want a recorder that features either XLR microphone inputs or a combo input, enabling you to connect professional shotgun and wireless microphones to the recorder.
What are combo inputs, and why would I need them?
This kind of jack combines a three-pin XLR input and a 1/4" input in a single socket that accepts both kinds of plugs. You can use them to connect either external microphones or various kinds of line level equipment to the recorder.
What are mini-plug mic inputs, and why would I need them?
Some recorders do not have XLR inputs or phantom powering for external condenser microphone use. In that case they will generally provide a 3.5mm (1/8” input) that can be used for self-powered or electret condenser microphones, or for connecting the receiver of a wireless system.
What are line-level inputs and outputs, and why would I need them?
Microphone signals are, by nature, low-level signals and need a preamp to boost them to normal recordable levels. On the other hand, line-level signals are much higher and if inserted into a mic-level input, will distort the input, hence the need for a separate line-level input. Depending on the kind of connector, line inputs can be used for connecting consumer devices such as CD players (RCA or 3.5 mm stereo mini), or for connecting a field mixer at wedding or live event (XLR or 1/4”), or for connecting instruments (1/4").
Line-level outputs are useful for connecting powered speakers to the recorder. On many handheld portable digital recorders, a single output acts as both the headphone output and as the line-level output.
What are S/PDIF connectors, and why would I need them?
S/PDIF (Sony/Phillips Digital Interconnect Format) is a digital audio format that carries a two-channel stereo signal. S/PDIF connectors aren’t widely used on portable digital recorders, but you do see them on occasion. The most common S/PDIF connector is an RCA coaxial jack (looks exactly like analog RCA jacks), but an S/PDIF signal can also be sent through an optical TOSLink connector. Either way, the feature is only useful if you have other equipment with S/PDIF jacks, which enables you to pass a digital audio signal to or from the portable digital recorder without needing to convert the signal to analog.
What kind of microphones can I use with a portable digital recorder?
As already mentioned, the kind of inputs provided by the recorder will determine what kind of microphone can be connected. If XLR inputs are available and you want to use a condenser microphone, check to see if phantom power is delivered—without it the microphone will not function. The other connector featured on many compact models is a 3.5mm (1/8”) input that will accept either self-powered or electret condenser microphones.
So, what is “Phantom Power” and what does it do?
Phantom power supplies condenser microphones with the necessary power to operate their active electronic circuitry, without which they cannot function. Although the standard level is 48V, other microphones designed for use in electronic news gathering, or lavalier microphones, are able to operate with much lower levels, includings 6-, 12- or 24V. The advantage here is that the power drain on the portable device’s battery is greatly reduced, allowing for longer recording times.
How many tracks can a portable digital recorder record?
Typically, a portable digital recorder will record a stereo signal on two separate tracks. There might only be a single gain control for controlling both sides of the input, while other recorders provide discrete gain controls for either track. However, there are some portable digital recorders that can record four, six or eight individual tracks of audio simultaneously.
How long can I record on a portable digital recorder?
The amount of audio that you can record into a portable digital recorder is dependent on the amount of memory that’s available—internal as well as memory cards—and the amount of life in your batteries. If you’re recording CD-quality audio (16-bit/44.1 kHz), you can typically fit about 90 minutes of audio onto 1GB of memory. If you’re recording compressed MP3 audio, you can typically fit about 17 hours of audio onto 1GB of memory. Resolution and compression settings make a big impact on file sizes.
The latest recorder from Tascam has a dual-battery power feature, operating on either its built-in Li-Ion battery or everyday AA batteries. During long recording sessions, as long as the Li-Ion battery has a charge, you can replace the AA batteries seamlessly, without stopping the recorder.
How does a portable digital recorder connect to my computer?
Most portable digital recorders feature a USB port to connect to a computer. However, there are some models that feature FireWire connectivity. If you’re recording onto a removable media card, it’s also a common practice to extract the card from the portable digital recorder and slide it into a card reader that’s connected to a computer.
Can I mount a portable digital recorder on my camera or tripod?
Some recorders come with a built-in 1/4"-20 tripod thread, which makes it possible to mount them directly to a tripod (or to the shoe of a camera with the addition of an accessory shoe adapter).
Can I connect the output of a portable digital recorder to my camera?
If a camera features a mini-plug mic input, you can connect the headphone or line output of a portable digital recorder to that input, but only if you use a specially designed cable. As was explained earlier in this guide, if you connect a line-level signal to a mic-level input, you’re going to get overdriven and distorted sound. That’s why you need to use a cable that has a built-in signal attenuator.
There are special cables made by Sescom and Whirlwind specifically for this purpose. The cables have attenuators that reduce the level of the audio signal by 25dB or even 35dB, and they’re labeled to show you which end to plug into the portable digital recorder and which end to plug into the camera. Because the cable takes over the headphone output jack of your portable digital recorder, there are versions of this cable available that offer a “headphone tap,” which will enable you to monitor the sound of the portable recorder.
What are some useful features to look for in a portable digital recorder?
Because different kinds of people use portable digital recorders for varied purposes, there are features that may appeal to some more than others. If you’re a musician, there are many recorders that feature built-in effects like reverb and echo, guitar tuners and the ability to loop a section of audio and slow it down (which is useful for learning how to play a piece of music). The ability to slow down the playback of a recording is also useful for people who use their recorder to take notes, so you can listen to rapid-fire oratory at your own pace.
If your recordings will contain sensitive or confidential content, data encryption is an invaluable feature, as included in the Marantz PMD620MKII and PMD661MKII digital recorders.
Another handy feature to have is larger hardware dials to control the input levels. When you need to adjust the gain up or down on the fly during a recording, it’s very satisfying to be able to do so without having to search for the level controls.
What accessories should I get for my portable digital recorder?
Batteries and memory cards: It’s always good to have extra batteries and memory cards on hand when you’re recording in the field.
Cases: Because you usually bring a portable digital recorder along with you on your travels, it’s also a good idea to have a case for it.
Wind Protection: Some portable digital recorders come with a foam windscreen to keep wind noise from disrupting the audio quality when used outdoors, but it’s a good idea to buy additional wind protection (such as a fuzzy topper) for these mics.
Which Portable Digital Recorder is right for me?
Check out our Portable Digital Recorder Roundup for the 2012 holiday shopping season. This article takes a close look at the functionality and features of several different models. This should help you narrow it down to the recorder that best fits your needs.
- Portable digital recorders are battery-powered devices that can create high-resolution recordings.
- Recordings are stored on either internal memory or removable media.
- Portable digital recorders are more versatile and provide better sound than “voice recorders."
- An XLR is a three-pin connector for professional microphones.
- A combo input combines a three-pin XLR input and a 1/4" input into a single socket.
- S/PDIF jacks are only useful if you have other equipment with S/PDIF jacks.
- A wide variety of wired and wireless handheld, lavalier, shotgun, headset and stereo mics can be used with portable digital recorders that feature external microphone inputs.
- Phantom power is required when using external condenser microphones.
- You can fit about 90 minutes of CD-quality audio onto 1GB of memory.
- Some portable digital recorders feature built-in 1/4"-20 tripod threads for mounting on-camera.