The Field Recorder Buyer’s Guide

What Is A Field Recorder?

A field recorder is a battery-operated portable audio recorder equipped with a microphone, storage space, various in and outputs as well as a speaker (for playback). Some of them have more bells and whistles than others such as; multiple mics/mic patterns and XLR I/O for 3rd party mic expandability.

For field recording (SFX for video games and film) you’ll need a field recorder, headphones, cables, microphones as well as memory cards and batteries.

Some recorders can be AC-powered, but batteries are a must-have when going out in the field. I’ll walk you through what you need to consider before purchasing a field recorder.

1. Your Budget: How Much Can You Invest?

What’s your budget? $100…$700? What you can afford will determine what type of sounds you’ll be able to record. Technically, you can record whatever you want, but you won’t always get good results.

Another thing to consider is what you’ll be recording

  • Loud sounds?
  • Power tools?
  • Your animals?
  • Nature sounds?
  • Will you be recording in the field?
  • Will you be recording sounds in your studio or around your home?
  • Are you ok with the internal mics or do you want flexibility?

Those are things to think about while going through this guide.

2. Features A Field Recorder Must Have

Preamp – If you can afford it, make sure you have a recorder with XLR inputs. This will allow you to use external microphones which will increase your audio recording quality. Shotgun Microphones or Small Diaphram Condenser Mics are ideal.

When it comes to the preamp, test the noise. Listen to how noisy the preamp is at all settings, the less noise, the easier time you’ll have when editing.

Recording format – 96k/24 Wav and up. This will give you the most flexibility when editing and mangling the sound.

Portability – Make sure the recorder feels comfortable as you’ll be lugging this thing around a lot. You also want to make sure it easy to set up and operate

Nothing sucks more than hearing a good sound, then missing it because it takes 10 minutes to get everything up and running.

3. Build Quality

Make sure the build quality is up to par with your standards. This is more important for some than others. Me personally, I’m okay with cheap-feeling equipment because I’m very delicate with my gear.

4. Sound Quality

Above, I mentioned that XLR inputs are important for connecting additional microphones to the recorder. If this isn’t something you want to do then it’s highly recommended that you make sure that the onboard stock microphones are quality enough for your purpose of use. You also want to make sure the preamp sounds good.

5.  Easy To Use

Some field recorders come with a lot of bells and whistles which can make them a little hard to use on the fly as they may need to be preconfigured beforehand. Recording devices with a lot of soft menus options can slow you down even though they offer a lot of functionality.


Field Recorders I’d Suggest Getting (pick one)

$100 – Zoom H1

  • pros: Cheap, easy to use, lightweight. 96Khz/24 recording
  • cons: No preamps/XLR inputs

$200 – DR-40

  • Pros: 2 XLR inputs, 4 channel 96Khz/24 recording
  • Cons: Preamp could be cleaner, but does get the job done.

$500 – Fostex FR-LE

  • pros: 2 XLR inputs, good preamps (pretty clean), lightweight
  • cons: flimsy construction, convoluted interface


Field Recorders vs Audio Interfaces

Audio interfaces can definitely be taken into the field and used with the computer to record amazing sounding audio the downside is they’re not built for outside use and could be damaged. Here are some differences between both field recorders and audio interfaces.

Field Recorder

  1. Functions easily accessible
  2. Battery Operated
  3. Lightweight which makes them very portable
  4. No software needed
  5. Meant for outdoors (humid or cold weather)
  6. No computer needed

Audio Interface

  1. Lots of connection peripheral choices: USBC, USB, Firewire, etc
  2. can sometimes be rackmount
  3. Some come with mixing/routing software
  4. Requires power cable as most aren’t battery operated
  5. Computer dependent

Additional Recording Accessories

Batteries – All 3 of these recorders can run on AA batteries. Make sure they’re rechargeable, this will allow you to get the most from your money.

Memory Cards – Yep, a must-have for field recorders. Below I’ve broken down the types each recorder needs.

H1 Zoom: mini sd card. Go with an 8-16gig

DR40: SD card, go with a 16 gig or 32gig

Fostex FR2-Le: – Compact Flash. 8-16 gig

I own all three of these units and have used them on various projects. If you have any questions about them, feel free to ask.


So we’ve gone over what field recorders are, features you may want to have, what to consider when purchasing a portable field recorder and the difference is between audio interfaces and field recorders. Please, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions.



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3 thoughts on “The Field Recorder Buyer’s Guide

  1. I’m looking into getting a field recorder, can you think of anything 2-4 channels that is better than the Fostex FR-2LE for around the same price? It’s 7 years old now, surely something better has come along by now?? (No Sound Devices though, too far out of budget)

    1. Hi James,

      In this price range, for field recorders, there aren’t many unless you get lucky finding something used. Unlike the recording industry (home studios), the gear in this field doesn’t need change to often. People are still using the FR’s and FRLe’s models as they are industry standards in this field of work based on the quality of their preamps. You could try the, it has nice preamps, slight more or less than the LE, depending on where you get it and it has 4 mic ins.

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