Portable digital recorders are really popular these days, yet there aren’t many models designed specifically for over-the-shoulder bag work, which is often favored for recording audio in video productions. Most of today’s portable digital recorders are small and designed for handheld use, but their compact and ergonomic designs aren’t what most location sound people need in their bags. In this article we’ll take a close look at the design elements that make a portable digital recorder better suited for bag use, and list some of the models (and their features) that are popular in this category.
If you want to learn more about all of the equipment inside an audio person’s location audio bag, be sure to check out the B&H InDepth article entitled Building the Perfect Audio Bag.
The Size of the Machine
One thing that sets bag-friendly audio recorders apart is their size. Many location sound people prefer using larger recorders, as opposed to more compact options. It may seem ironic that someone who straps a piece of equipment to their chest would prefer a bigger box, but the additional girth allows the recorder to sit in the bag more securely. Another reason bag-friendly recorders are larger is that they usually have several XLR inputs and outputs, which demand a certain amount of physical space on the machine. The more XLR inputs and outputs a device has, the larger it needs to be.
The Location of the Buttons and Switches
Another factor that makes portable digital recorders more bag friendly is the location of their controls. If you think about how a larger portable digital recorder sits in an audio bag, it makes sense to put the display and the most important controls on the top-facing panel that sticks out of the open bag. This way, the audio person wearing the bag can quickly adjust a control without having to dig through the bag to access buttons and switches on the sides and the rear of the machine.
While it’s important to have the most useful controls on the top-facing panel of the recorder, it’s also crucial not to make this area too crowded. That’s why bag-friendly audio recorders don’t cramp all of the physical controls onto the top panel. The operator needs to be able to clearly see and quickly adjust the most important controls without unintentionally altering any others.
One feature that you’ll find in more advanced, bag-friendly portable digital recorders is the ability to sync with and/or generate time code. Time code is a signal that can be recorded with audio or video footage that will identify each frame of video with a time based numerical code (hours, minutes, seconds and frames). It’s useful because it makes it easy to sync externally recorded audio with video in post production. Currently, there are no compact handheld portable digital recorders with time-code capabilities. It’s a feature found exclusively on larger, bag-friendly field recorders.
The Fostex FR-2 LE
Just because the Fostex FR-2 LE is the most affordably priced, bag-friendly portable digital recorder at B&H doesn’t mean it’s not a good option. This recorder has a good reputation among field-production professionals for being reliable and providing great sound quality. Its relative simplicity is one of its strengths. The FR-2 LE has two XLR inputs (it only records two tracks of audio) and records Broadcast Wave Files at resolutions up to 24-bit 86 kHz onto Type II CompactFlash cards.
The Tascam HD-P2
Another good quality, bag ready, two-channel portable digital recorder is the Tascam HD-P2. Like the Fostex FR-2 LE, the Tascam HD-P2 is known for reliably providing great sounding field recordings. In addition to having digital S/PDIF inputs and outputs, the HD-P2 features a three pin time code input, as well as a word-clock port. The HD-P2 cannot generate time code, but it’s a rarity to see any time-code capabilities at all in a recorder in this price range.
The Tascam DR-680
Another rare feature in the lower price range is the ability to record more than two independent tracks of audio. In this regard, the Tascam DR-680 is a standout. It can record up to six audio signals from microphones (four XLR inputs, and two balanced ¼” TRS inputs—all with phantom power). The other two inputs that can be simultaneously recorded are from its digital S/PDIF inputs. Instead of having gain control knobs for each of the inputs, the Tascam DR-680 has a single knob to control them all.
The Edirol R-44
Another bag-friendly multitrack field recorder to consider is the Edirol R-44. It’s capable of recording four independent channels of audio simultaneously, and features dedicated hardware level controls for each track. Each of the four channels also has a dedicated RCA output (which is useful for sharing the signals with additional equipment). It has an intuitive, easy-to-use interface and can record high-resolution audio at 24-bit 192 kHz.
The Sound Devices 702
Sound Devices is among the most respected manufacturers in field-recording equipment, and the 702 is the entry-level model in its acclaimed 700 series of recorders. Like all Sound Devices products, the 702 is built like a tactical assault weapon. It’s fully prepared for the harsh conditions often encountered in the field. This two-channel recorder is easy to operate and writes to CompactFlash cards and external FireWire drives. It features Word Clock ports to jam to external time code sources.
The Edirol R-4 Pro
Think of the Edirol R-4 Pro as the big brother of the Edirol R-44. Both recorders can record four independent channels of audio with dedicated hardware level controls, but the R-4 Pro steps things up quite a bit by including the ability to generate SMPTE time code, and features an 80GB internal hard drive. In addition to having four XLR inputs, the R-4 Pro also includes AES/EBU in and out on XLR connectors.
The Remainder of the Sound Devices 700 Series
Like the aforementioned Sound Devices 702, there is a range of other models in the 700 series that are all at home inside location audio bags. If you take the 702 and add a built-in 160GB hard drive, you have the Sound Devices 722. Sound Devices 702T is also very much like the 702, except that the “T” designates that this model features an onboard time code generator. Bump things up to a field recorder with the ability to record four independent channels with time code and a 160GB hard drive and you have the Sound Devices 744T. From there, notch things up to eight individual channels (with the ability to record four more channels internally—a total of 12) with the token 160GB hard drive and time code generator, and you have the Sound Devices 788T. Swap the 788T’s SATA hard drive for a 256GB solid-state hard drive and you have the Sound Devices 788T-SSD. These recorders are favorites in reality-TV production.
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