Thursday, 15 December 2016

a quick guide to entry level recorders + some pro-sumer options

this guide is meant as a quick reference for those looking to buy perhaps their first recorder. In it I simply try to highlight some of the main strengths and weaknesses of each model currently on the market. These observations are based on years of field recording experience + being fortunate that I get to meet hundreds of other recordists, all with different interests in field recording, each year whilst running workshops / giving talks and lectures etc.   Whilst I am drawing on my own knowledge and experience, with the added benefit of access to 1000's of other recordists feedback, this guide attempts to stick to facts or at least opinions based on practical issues.

As I often say, even with the recorders that, shall we say, aren't exactly the best of the bunch, considering how far the technology has come in the last 20 years they still offer a lot for their money. Having said that if one is spending a couple of hundred quid on one you might as well avoid recorders that have been bettered by newer models or have known issues for use in field recording. Its worth remembering that most of these were not designed for field recording - they were built for the home studio / music market and therefore some of the compromises involved might not be noticeable in those situations but are when it comes to what we'll be using them for. In general terms field recording is pushing this technology hard in terms of volume levels, pre-amp performance, audio and build quality etc.

if you have already bought your hand held recorder perhaps don't read this guide ! all of them have good points and not so good so you might read something negative about your choice.

for clarity the definition of 'hand held recorder' is simply a recorder designed to fit into the palm of one hand or ones coat pocket. Small and lightweight, usually running on conventional batteries or small re-chargeable ones. The term 'hand held' is quite misleading though, as holding them in your hand is often not the best thing to do when field recording, mainly because you'll get handling noise, especially if using the built-in mics.

basic key points about hand held recorders:

handy to carry at all times
easy to use without being noticed
mostly between £100-£400

can be rather plastic-y in terms of build quality
low quality, noisy pre-amps
reduced input / output options
quality of built in mics varies (sound wise)
battery performance can vary

MR2 when first launched the MR2 was the only 1bit hand held recorder, an invention aimed at sound design for the games industry (in basic terms it allowed various audio options whilst keeping file sizes on the small side), however advances in the budget for sound in that area of the industry and indeed a general shift to higher quality sound all round meant that this feature was no longer as important. 
So, how does it stack up in general: its rather good. The built in mics are amongst the best in this category of recorder and its pre-amps perform well also. Its possible to save up to 10 settings configurations, which some might find useful. However it only has a mini-jack input for external mics and is, imo, overpriced.

known mostly for their 'brick recorders that now look and feel dated + have a bit of a reputation for card read errors and poor battery performance.
PMD620mkII the only pocket size recorder in their range, this is 'ok' but feels a bit clunky compared to others at the same price point. 
PMD661mkII large for a handheld, decent pre-amps and marantz have improved battery performance but its still lags behind other manufacturers.

Nagra have been at the forefront of mobile sound recording technology for a very long time and their professional recorders are amongst the very best. It smaller entry level recorders however are a bit disappointing given their usual standards. They're still well built and perform ok, but its simply that one rather expects something from Nagra to knock the socks of its competition.
pico designed as an upmarket dictaphone really and ok for this type of recorder. build quality is higher than others at this level and the built-in mics sound good. Battery life is impressive but those with an interest in field recording will perhaps do better by spending their money elsewhere.
mezzo another dictaphone style recorder from Nagra. Again, ok but folks with an interest in field recording in a wider sense perhaps should look elsewhere.
lino good build quality and built in mics. no xlr inputs. not the cheapest hand held or indeed the cheapest good hand held, but it is a Nagra.
sd the SD is Nagra's premium hand held recorder and though its the most expensive by quite some way it is a professional piece of equipment. All metal casing and sturdy as heck. It doesn't have xlr inputs but Nagra have concentrated on building a high quality recorder and not trying to cram everything in. 

you'll see less reviews of Olympus recorders than other brands perhaps but this is not a reflection of their quality, rather that the don't tend to court the music press in the same way as some others. Their hand held recorders are actually some of the better ones - in simply mic tests on workshops for example we've often found that the Olympus built in mics have a more natural, uncoloured sound than other manufacturers in this range. The RSPB used their LS10's for documenting bird song for example.
LS3 this is a basic dictaphone style recorder and as such I wouldn't suggest it for anyone wanting to get into field recording per say.
LS5 again, a dictaphone - a good dictaphone but again, I would suggest spending a bit more on a recorder that'll perform better in the field
LS10 (discontinued) a rather good, small recorder. Olympus have some of the best sounding built in mics in this class and their pre-amps are ok also. Again, only has built in mics & a mini-jack for external mics.
LS11 an 'ok' step up from the LS10 - but not much of an improvement. Overpriced imo.
LS12 intended to replace the LS10 and its very similar in performance but the build is less impressive and more plastic-y. 
LS14 again, decent build, built in mics and pre-amps. Reliable and easy to use.
LS100 one of the best 2 channel hand helds on the market. Built well, good built in mics, xlr inputs, decent pre-amps. On the downside the headphone amp is a bit on the quiet side and it has its own rechargeable battery, so less easy to replace if you're out and about and it runs out of charge.

R05 not bad for its size and price but quite dull really and certainly not the best build or sound. That said the battery life is impressive.
R09 (discontinued) again, it was ok for its price and size but it does now look and feel a bit old.
R26 lots of folks were attracted to this because, when it was launched, it was the only 6 channel hand held recorder - however as is often the case, in cramming multi-channels into a small, low cost unit corners have been cut. Firstly its very plastic-y and brittle. Drop it even a few inches and you stand a good chance of breaking it. The built in mics are ok, but not as good as the ones on some other hand helds, and its pre-amps whilst not the worst performing aren't the best either. It has a different way of handling inputs (impedance etc) and some other technical factors and so it can be problematic when using unconventional mics (contact mics, hydrophones etc). Its also quite large for a hand held recorder - you certainly couldn't fit it in most jacket pockets for example.

Sony hand held recorders have a good reputation for build and sound quality. None have xlr inputs but other than that they are certainly one of the brands to consider.
PCM-10 quite a good small recorder for the price. Good build quality and the built in mics sound good also. 
PCM-50 (discontinued) again, a good recorder for the price. Reliable, well built and good battery life.
PCM-100 lots of folks who liked the PCM-50 were looking forward to the 100 but at its current price point it does seem rather overpriced for a recorder without xlr inputs. Having said that its the usual Sony quality.

Sound Devices
with a solid reputation for build & sound quality SD were bound to see the signs & launch something into the smaller recorder sector. With some niggles around channel linking they've done this with the new mixpre 3 & 6 mixer / recorders.
mixpre 3 / 6 very impressive and for those willing to spend a bit more, coming in at around £690 for the 3 (three channels) & £940 for the 6 (6 channels) what you get is professional quality sound and design. They eat standard AA batteries fast but you can get a sled that allows powering via l-mount batteries for several hours of recording or use a decent usb-c battery pack for days of recording. 

DR05 another small dictaphone style recorder. as with the others I would suggest not ideal for a first recorder for those interested in wider field recording.
DR-100 (discontinued) better build quality than the Zoom H4N, which was its main rival for a time and better sounding built-in mics and pre-amps, though it now seems a bit on the weal side compared to newer models. Common issue is that connecting xlr's / xlr adaptors that don't have specific locking tab slots to the xlr inputs results in them getting stuck in place.
DR-100mkII a decent upgrade to the mkI, with improved pre-amps. Same common issue as with mkI.
DR-40 again, an 'ok' recorder for the price but with the same issue of jacks and adaptors getting stuck in the combo sockets. This seems to be a common feature of Tascam recorders.
DR22-wl it's ok. nothing really exciting, unless you think having wi-fi on your recorder is a good idea ! It's cheap and the pre-amps are about the same as some others at this price point. Again, my advice would be to perhaps spend a bit more for better performance.
DR44-wl if you want a 4 channel recorder for around £200 with ok pre-amps and xlr inputs then this is worth considering. Again, its ok for the price. 
DR-60dmkII 4 channel recorder, designed for use with camera's, but in a practical sense that's more to do with the shape of the unit than it's features. Has Tascam's latest pre-amps, which are good for this level.
DR-70d 4 channel recorder, again designed for use with DSLR camera's. Similar performance to the DR-60mkII but with a different layout allowing for easier adjustment of the tracks in the field. 

for a while Zoom marketed some of the most affordable digital recorders all be it with some issues with noisy pre-amps and build quality (at their price point, as with all recorders in this range, there are compromises). Their market was home recording for musicians but as the field has expanded and developed they are now looking at the features that non-exclusively music recordists value. 

H1 dictaphone-style recorder. cheap and fun perhaps but spend a bit more.
H2N in general this is a Zoom recorder I think is ok value. Its cheap enough to be fun and it has a decent go at providing 4 channel sound (although you can't adjust each channel fully). The built in mics can be set to capture stereo, mid/side etc.  Its small and the batteries last for a good amount of time. 
H4N / H4NSP for a time this was probably the most common hand held recorder. When it was launched, for the price it appeared to offer a lot but the somewhat noisy pre-amps, build quality and boxy sounding built-in mics soon showed their limitations. The newer version (H4NSP) improves the pre-amps and the build quality a bit though other recorders in their range are perhaps more suited to field recording.
H5 with the H5 Zoom are trying to improve their reputation in terms of FR. Build quality is better and the pre-amps have been improved and the built in mics (modular) are a bit better also. 
H6 The H6 is a 6 track recorder with interchangeable mic units. As with the H5 there are improvements in terms of pre-amps, build quality and mics. With the H6 Zoom have edged up in the ratings. With the H5 and H6 its now more about looking at similar recorders in this price range and working out which has the features you want / need. The menu layout that Zoom use isn't the most user friendly but to be honest most recorders in this category have the same issue.
F4/F8 ok, so these aren't 'hand held' recorders and i'll be writing a separate guide to mid-level / pro-sumer devices soon, but their price point and features mean that those looking for a step up from hand held but who can't stretch to Sound Devices, Nagra, Sonosax, Zaxcom etc now have a two new and interesting options.

to sum up:

In conclusion what I will say is that any recorder will get you started. If you can only afford one of the lower cost ones then getting hold of one and starting to record will begin your journey and you will learn a lot from any recorder. Perhaps a key consideration is how quickly do you want to learn that you want a better recorder ! 

Whichever recorder you buy have fun with it. Understand that it won't give you the same sound quality as a mid-level or professional recorder but compared to the tape recorders some of us started out with you will be able to get some impressive results. Its actually a good way to learn to use cheaper equipment - it allows you to push the technology and find out what you need and want from the equipment you use. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

well, I have to see I do feel rather chuffed that JrF hydrophones are being used on Planet Earth II with Attenborough & have been used to identify & record, for the first time, a new species of river dolphin !

50 minutes in:

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

JrF contact mics & hydrophones - built specially for the acoustic garden display at this years Chelsea Flower show, in collaboration with the Peter Eustance, Papworth Trust & Evelyn Glennie:

Thursday, 5 May 2016

digital reissue of 'estonian strings'
(nb. headphones / conventional speakers advised)

review by Cheryl Tipp (British Library):
Estonian Strings.  Jez riley French is well known for his work exploring sounds that are normally hidden from the general listener. His recordings bring forth new life into environments that are not actively forthcoming when it comes to sharing their acoustic qualities, thereby opening up new sound environments to explore. "Estonian Strings" is the latest offering from French and takes the form of a 42 minute composition based on recordings made during his first trip to Estonia in the spring of 2009. With his constant desire to investigate new sonic sources, French applied his contact microphones to a variety of "found strings". "I found transmitter cables, long chimney support cables, disused piano wires stretched across old farm utensils, rust covered fences -- each one a surprise, a discovery and a joy to listen to." The result of this foray into the unknown is a select series of field recordings that have been patiently worked together to create a pulsating, otherworldly piece that quietly beckons to the listener. Headphones are a definite must if you want to fully appreciate the multilayered intricacies of this work. With headphones, 'Estonian Strings' takes on an almost mesmeric quality; the piece is unhurried and minimal, yet it seems almost impossible to remove oneself from this strange world. The changing tone of the work is unquestionably subtle, but there is enough happening to retain more than a passing interest in the content. With his ear for the unusual and an unflinching curiosity, French once again opens up a portal to reveal a wealth of usually concealed sounds. Just the right balance has been struck between content and composition here, making 'Estonian Strings' an intriguing and enjoyable listening experience. ct

Sunday, 24 April 2016

'glen buck loch' + photographic score

0℃ exhibition, BlanClass, Yokohama, Japan
27-29 / 5 / 2016

exhibition also includes work by:
Sawako Kato
Hafdís Bjarnadóttir
Akio Suzuki
Jana Winderen
Francisco Lopez
Leah Beeferman
Yukio Fujimoto
Katie Paterson
Philip Samatzis
& more

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Orford Ness 

Sound Recording field trip to an internationally important coastal nature reserve, with a fascinating
20th-century history
with Chris Watson and Jez riley French

5-7th July, 2016

A unique mid-week field trip to the National Trust’s Orford Ness National Nature Reserve with access to areas normally off limits to visitors (with careful guidelines as site has fragile habitats and was used as a military testing facility) and two nights on Orford Ness! 
During the trip there will be extensive exploration of recording the Ness and its abandoned military structures with conventional microphones (inc. surround and ambisonic options), parabolic arrays, contact mics, hydrophones, ultrasonic detectors, coils and geophones.
To ensure the best experience for all we are limiting the number of places to 10 participants.
This is an amazing opportunity to explore and record one of the most historically fascinating sites in the UK important in the development of military techniques and equipment from WWI to the Atomic age. Whilst the Ness has plenty of nature to record, this particular trip is likely to also appeal strongly to those interested in architectural acoustics, psychogeography and various approaches to the use of field recording in the wider sound arts. 
For more information on the site visit:

The trip is, of course, suitable for participants interested in any aspect of field recording, sound and the act and art of listening, however due to the unique aspects of the site the trip might be of particularly interest to those working with field recording as a process in the wider arts (sound, installation, video art). Chris and Jez will be on hand to instigate discussions on the various subtle aspects of working with found sound, diffusion or recordings and interacting with environments. In addition, linking with Framework (Resonance FM's field recording based show) participants will be invited to contribute to a special edition of the show based around this trip.

Accommodation is in the ‘basic’, self-catering building on the ness itself. There are 3 bunk rooms so we will book participants based on availability in male and female rooms. Participants will need to bring their own sheets, quilt or sleeping bag and pillows + food and drink for the duration. There is no catering element to this trip so we will all have to pitch in & prepare meals together. If we can persuade the ferry operator there might be one evening trip back to the mainland so we can go to the pub for a meal.  

day one: please aim to arrive at Orford Quay at 2:00pm. We will then ferry everyone to the ness and be transported to the accommodation building to settle in. 
We’ll hold a welcome meeting, giving us all the chance to get to know each other and discuss our aims for the trip and begin exploring the ness, recording during the afternoon, evening and through the night.
day two: further exploration of the ness, including access to the various abandoned buildings + the option for playback sessions in the evening.
day three: further exploration of the ness, including access to buildings. We’ll aim to be ready to leave the ness by the ferry at 5pm or before if you wish.

Cost: £350 per person 

what’s included: 
. access to Orford Ness, including various military structures and natural 
. accommodation for 3 days / 2 nights on Orford Ness
. parking in the public car park and ferry crossings on National Trust’s Octavia
. access to help, assistance and advice from Chris and Jez 
. two NT guides, with in-depth knowledge of the Ness and on site transport
. Chris and Jez will also bring extensive recording equipment with them, which participants will also
  be able to try alongside their own kit.

what’s not included:
. food and drink
. bed linen (please bring your own)
. travel to and from Orford
. travel / personal insurance
  nb. it is envisaged that participants will have some experience of field recording and have their own   recording equipment

suggestions of what you should bring:
. clothes for all weather conditions
. decent boots capable of coping with different weather conditions 
. bed linen or sleeping bag and pillow cases, towel, toiletries
. recording equipment inc. headphones
. batteries, chargers etc.
. camera
. food and drink for the duration  
. notebook and pen
. head torch
. laptop for editing and playback of recordings

There is some mobile signal on the ness, but it can be patchy. It is unlikely there will be any internet access on the ness.

To book a place:
  1. please email Jez at: to reserve your place.
  2. you will then be sent a link to the NT booking process and will be required to pay in full for your place (this is because demand will be very high for places and due to the NT booking process. In the event that you have to cancel your place up to 2 months before the trip the NT will refund your payment minus a £50 cancellation fee. Cancellation after this will only trigger a refund if we can fill your place on the trip, minus the cancellation fee).
  3. please also email Jez your full contact information, including mobile number, details of any flights / trains you are taking to reach the meeting point, a brief description of your areas of interest in sound, the equipment you will be bringing and any questions you have. Please also update Jez on any changes to your travel plans in the weeks prior to the trip. 

Chris Watson
Chris Watson has developed a particular and passionate interest in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres from around the world. Most recently Watson has been exploring aspects of spatial sound through Ambisonic installations in collaboration with galleries around the world such as in The Louvre, RMIT Melbourne, Krakow Botanical Gardens, The Millennium Gallery Sheffield, Opera North in Leeds and the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. Chris can be heard regularly on BBC Radio, releases albums for the Touch label and leads workshops on field recording around the world.

Jez riley French
Alongside performances, exhibitions, installations, Jez lectures and runs workshops around the world on field recording and the act and art of listening. His range of JrF specialist microphones have become widely used by recordists, sound artists, musicians and cultural organisations and have had a significant influence on the development of sound culture in recent years. He also curates various other projects exploring the broad ideas surrounding field recording as a primary art of sound / sound art.
Recent work includes commissions for Tate Modern (UK), Artisphere (USA) and for organisations in Italy, Iceland, Japan, Spain and the UK. A section of his piece for Tate Modern was also chosen to be part of the ‘500 years of British Art’ series at Tate Britain.
In recent years he has been working extensively on recordings of surfaces and spaces (natural and man made) and developing the concept of photographic scores. Jez is particularly associated with the development of extended recording techniques, including the recording of structural vibrations, contact microphone recording, ultrasonics, infrasonics, internal electronic signals via coil pick-up's and recordings made with hydrophones.
Amongst his key recent works are pieces capturing the sound of the dolomites dissolving, ants consuming fallen fruit, the Tate Modern building vibrating, the infrasound of domestic spaces around the world, glaciers melting in Iceland and the tonal resonances of natural and human objects in the landscape.

Friday, 25 March 2016

nice web archive of the workshop in Ayr with myself and Chris Watson: 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

the 1st Source film on the subject of the links between sound and photography is now online, featuring myself, Dawn Wilson & Angus Carlyle:

Friday, 11 March 2016

the new issue of Source Photographic review is a fascinating survey of the links between sound and photography including Eve Forrest, writing about the 1980s LPs that make up the 'Photographers' gallery of music and sound', an article on recent books that include sound recordings and portfolios of work by Joséphine Michel who has been photographing birds as sound emitting objects, & myself (Jez riley French) whose photographs are designed as 'scores for listening' and Paul Gaffney whose work is a direct response to a piece of music.

Source have also commissioned a series of films & audio interviews via their website to go along with the print issue, including myself again, Angus Carlyle, Dawn Wilson, Cheryl Tip, Jon Wozencroft, Laura Pannack and Ian Rawes.

a valuable addition to the resources on this rarely covered subject - £6 + p&p from the website:

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

pleased to announce the release of 'portable music' on Touch's Touchline series - three pieces based on structural resonances, close listening to locales and geothermal ultrasonics from Iceland - featuring myself, Pheobe Law​, Sofia Miorelli​, Maria Silvano​, Maddalena Carta, Michele Spanghero​, Sandro Carta, Gabriella Ferrari​, Antonio Della Marina, the audience & villages at Topolo & its locale....

Sunday, 17 January 2016

my article on Sami yoik, featuring interviews with Ande Somby & Chris Watson + audio from Ande, Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, Johan Ander Baer & Ulla Pirttijarvi is now online. As you can hear / read Yoik is a tradition that remains locked to the environment & some of the most powerful recorded examples were (& still are) recorded in the field: