The Field Recorder Buyer’s Guide (Sound Design & Film)

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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.

What to Consider when Purchasing a Field Recorder

  1. Your Budget
  2. Field Recorder’s Features
  3. Field Recorder’s Build Quality
  4. Field Recorder’s Sound Quality
  5. Ease Of Use

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 In A Field Recorder?

What’s your budget? $100…$700? The type of recording you can afford does matter, depending on what you’re looking to do. Today, there are numerous models of recorders, all quality but each with different perks and drawbacks. Having the best recorder is always nice, but not a must, and a complete waste if you don’t need the features being offered.

With that being said, think about some things you’d like to record.

  • Loud sounds?
  • Power tools?
  • Animals?
  • Fireworks?
  • Nature sounds?
  • Ambient 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 is easy to set up and operate.

3. Field Recorder’s 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 and the price is right!

4. Sound Quality Of Field Recorder

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 microphones are quality enough for your purpose of use.

Most onboard microphones are okay for recording, they’re not necessarily the best and they’re very susceptible to noise. You have to ask yourself, if the recorder itself is $100 retail how good can the microphones be? How quiet is the device?

5.  Easy To Use

Nothing sucks more than hearing good sounds and missing them because it takes too long to get everything up and running. 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)

Classic Zoom H1 Handy Digital Recorder

This is the handheld recorder I cut my teeth with learning how to field record and sound design. it’s affordable, lightweight, and it could break easily if it were ever dropped or sat on but the audio quality is good especially for the price. I purchased two to three between 2012 and 2013 because I liked it!

Every year, I set them outside to record 4th of July fireworks. I once left one of them outside for years and didn’t realize it. One day while doing some landscaping I ran into it and surprisingly it still worked. There was a little corrosion where the AA battery goes but it still worked perfectly and the recordings were intact.

Zoom H1 $100 or less

Pros (The good)

  • Cheap: Very affordable and easy on the pockets, easy to use,
  • Lightweight: Lighter than any smartphone on the market
  • High-Quality Recording: 96Khz/24 recording (Max)
  • 1 Battery: Only needs one AA battery
  • Easy to Use: One-button operation, good for capturing recordings quickly

Cons (The Bad)

  • Plastic Build: Easy to break
  • No Preamps/XLR inputs: Limited expandability
  • Handling Noise: The whole body squeaks if held too tight (its cheap plastic)
  • Safety Takes: No way to insure takes aren’t lost.

New Zoom H1n Handy Digital Recorder

Very similar to the original H1 end except for there is a new design it looks better it feels better the handling noise is reduced. There is a nice feature that lets you check levels with a test tone, great for gain staging audio especially if you’re sending audio into a DSLR camera.

I like that the level dial is now directly on the front of the recorder. This way you don’t have to feel around on the side or look to the side to adjust your levels. Everything is right in front of you.

I recommend getting the bundled version as it comes with a Windjammer as well as an anti-vibration device/shock mount which is also good for reduction of handling noise and a grip this way you don’t have to hold the device in your hand perfect 4 capturing sound effects on a budget.

Zoom H1n (Bundle) $150 or less

Pros (The good)

  • New Design: Looks better, feels better easier to use.
  • Cheap: Still very affordable (get a couple of them)
  • Lightweight: Making it easy to carry with you everywhere you go
  • High-Quality Recording: 96Khz/24 recording (Max)
  • Audio Quality: Better sounding than the original H1 Zoom
  • Bundled: Windjammer, grip, shock absorber (all great additions)

Cons (The Bad)

  • Plastic Build: Better than the first generation
  • No Preamps/XLR inputs: Limited expandability
  • Handling Noise: Not as much as the first model
  • Safety Takes: No way to insure takes aren’t lost.

Tascam DR40 Portable Field Recorder

The Tascam DR40 was my second field recorder and has been my go-to for almost a decade. It’s very similar to the Zoom H4n but better quality in my opinion. It’s very affordable and you can connect external mics to it. Also, very easy to operate. 

Even the internal mics are good for capturing sound to be used in-game audio. One of my favorite features is the Dual Recording Mode

Tascam DR-40 $120-$200

Pros (The good)

  • 2 XLR inputs: Expandability great for using high-end microphones
  • 4 channels: Multi-channel recording. 2 stock and 2 external
  • High-Quality Recording: 96Khz/24 recording (Max)
  • Mic Position(s): XY or AB (stock mics). Great options
  • Audition: You can check recording levels of the source before committing to record
  • Safety Takes: Limit each channel’s dB level to avoid losing takes

Cons (The Bad)

  • Preamp: could be cleaner but does get the job done.
  • Soft Menu: It’s not terrible, they could condense this a bit

Field Recorders vs Audio Interfaces

Audio interfaces can definitely be taken into the field with a 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 <<–recently sold

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

Conclusion

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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