Tuesday, 5 May 2020


I first posted about this during the 1st week of lockdown here in the UK and its fair to say it drew comments both positive and negative. My thoughts, as everyones no doubt, are shifting as we all try to adjust to this crisis so I withdrew my initial post and have spent a few weeks now thinking about the questions and concerns I have to see what core aspects remain. I also joined, briefly, a project that although not created around CV19 has had to change shape because of it. I did that to see if I could find a way, in terms of sound, in to some of the motivations I have felt somewhat uneasy about. 

I’ve rewritten and edited my thoughts a number of times until I have reached a point where I might begin to chip away too much. In fact I think i've already gone passed that point.  

This isn’t a concise, tidy ‘essay’ but rather a shared diary of my attempts to work through sections of that original post, add, delete, reconfigure; a process, reflecting on sound and visual cultures at this time and my own creative and emotive responses. It’s long and to add to that i’ll say that the older I get the more I realise that my struggles with the written word are to do with the disconnection from that sense of who a person is when one spends time with them, a lack of skills with written language (all manner of things tied up in that), having experienced an emotionally controlling relationship and how that leaves a knot of worry that anything one says can be taken any number of ways; the desire to openly communicate from a positive position combined with the realisation that ones words might be taken very differently. So, here are the thoughts; the knots and meshes. 

‘the recordings of "nature" made by predominantly white men are dangerous precisely because how we as recordists hear the world becomes how the world is heard for others. the sounds we record stand in for places. you listen to the world through an ear that cant help but colonise. this is not inconsequential. i remember finding out that the people (white foley artists) who invented the sounds of dinosaurs literally shaped how everyone thinks dinosaurs sounded. the screeches, the roars. all fabricated by their imaginations. their imaginations formed our imaginations. just like the imaginations of field recordists: what we as recordists put our attention toward, informs others imaginations of the world through the sounds we bring to them. our actions perpetuate legacies. we need to reckon with this. we know how to talk about the white gaze and how it shapes representations of the world, recordists need to talk more about the white ear, because it’s no different’ 
                                  - Anja Kanngieser (Twitter 5/5/20)

Thanks to Anja for sharing her thoughts on twitter. 


Documenting the pandemic and the possibility of a fetishisation of the sound of privilege

caveat: I am white, male and, as some see it, I have a ‘position’ within the arts. I am what is often referred to as ‘self taught’. I am aware of my privilege and aware that speaking now also involves aspects of that. 

Projects have been cropping up every week to document the sounds or sights of empty streets, cities and towns. To share recordings of being in lockdown or in isolation. I understand the various motivations, whether via the avid sound collector who is fascinated by the changing soundscape, or the impulse to document a, hopefully, unique event. It can be argued that there is in fact a need for such documentation. 

As an artist it is part of my responsibility to ask questions, both of myself and of the wider contexts. In doing so there is always the risk that one forgets the balance between that and giving equal, if not greater space to the intuitive impulse, the pleasures and passions. I’m not an academic so this often takes the form of private research rather than a public attempt to express this process within an arts environment still unfortunately dominated by ‘art speak’ and tied to an academic model. It is however part of who I am to share some of my thoughts and this often includes discussing complex and nuanced subjects where the mere act of questioning can be seen as problematic by some. In the context of CV19 I ask whether we have really leant from the progress we have made in challenging problematic histories and distorted archives. 

29/3/20 (added to 2/5/20)

(- I am 100% in favour of anyone and everyone taking pleasure from listening. That goes, I would hope, without saying) 

It can be said that most of the artists and audience currently taking part in the various CV projects sit within layers of privilege, as do I, being a white male living in a developed country. As sound is the area of the arts I am perhaps most associated with I think about whether recordings taken now specifically for the various ‘the sound of…’ projects are documents of sound and situation or inevitably weighted with an imposition, a colonisation of any attempt to represent a reality. Of course all ‘field recording’ involves imposition, whether of intent or how each recordist shapes the situation or material to fit their ideas of some communicated sense of reality or other creative outcomes, but I am equally sure that most will have a negative, or at least aware, sense of how other global situations have been documented in the past. We will all, hopefully, have an awareness of a colonial reading of ethnicity in museums, galleries, education texts of the past, fiction and cinema for example. No doubt most reading this will know about the “Alan Lomax Archive’, but not perhaps that it was / is, in reality, the Elizabeth Goodman, Mary Barnicle, Zora Hurston, Jean Ritchie, Antionette Marchand, Joan Halifax, Anne / Anna Lomax and Alan Lomax archive. Or perhaps, when it comes to ‘nature’ (a human construct based largely still on a 17th/18th century upper class idea of environment as idyll) studies and recordings names such as Ludwig Koch, Thoreau, even McFarlane spring easily to mind. Less so, for many, Nan Shepherd, Magdalena Heinroth, Annie Meinertzhagen, Beryl Hall, Emilie Snethlage and the many other female pioneers whose names are only now remerging from the dusty layers of a patriarchal shaping of history. And that doesn’t even begin to draw in the vast numbers of, mostly lost or hidden names from non-western cultures.  Are we, yet, more able to apply a better, more inclusive and representative insight to what we do now, in the making of a history and as active players within it ? Can we do that even, and if not how can that feed into the various projects so that it is at least recognised and reflected in the outcomes? 

Some of the same biases that have plagued historical and creative archives, whether it be patriarchal bias, access decided by physical or mental ability, class, gender, ethnicity etc. have formed quickly in a number of the  projects. They were, of course, there even at the start in terms of the instigators and curators of such spaces, and yes, even in subtle aspects of how the projects were framed or presented.  I say that not to be needlessly negative but to recognise that we can see even our most sincere efforts as a way to continue to learn and to question how we, as artists and audience, shape experience and outcome. That, I argue, is part of our job as artists, as is the recognition that some of these complex meshes are almost impossible to untangle in the present at least. It is also important, no, essential to retain the ability to simply allow the creative impulse, but surely within that there should always be the possibility to recognise what we learn from both the simple and the complex fields that surround our activities ?


Of course most projects around CV19 will begin with positive motivations and most people taking part or accessing them will want to focus on the important benefits they might bring, either personally or to a wider population. Indeed that is also why I am doing what I can to add to ‘community’ at this time, all be it in different ways. However several projects  have already drifted into marketing models for some contributors ‘skills’ or a kind of dystopian Tarkovsky-esque objectification of the situation. There’s a sense that, as often the case with photography and audio field recording, a distinctly male element, without being aware, can sideline contributions from others by implying borders based on a stereotypical technology driven, ‘clean’ approach to sound or image, forgetting that the world isn't ordered along those lines and when we impose ourselves into the documentation of it there needs to be an awareness of that, not an easy belief that our personal preferences don't also have the potential to filter, to distort even.

I look at pages and pages of images of empty streets and I don’t see anything of ‘place’ in the carefully framed, photoshopped and ‘cinematic’ results. I listen to recordings, recorded on expensive equipment and in locations chosen again for some sense of the cinematic.  Of course it is possible to also find the opposite but it fights to be heard / seen. The thing is Covid isn’t clean. It isn’t cinematic. For most of the world it is nothing like how we in the west or in other developed countries experience it and even within these developed countries there are vast areas of reality not represented. Don’t we all role our eyes when we hear the privileged giving us their thoughts on what struggle or hardship means without displaying some natural sense of self-awareness? Don’t we all roll our eyes when we hear right leaning, capitalism flag waving  politicians using phrases such as ‘we are all in this together’? Where is the ‘roll’ of our ears? Can we have that and also keep these creative acts of listening and seeing open and inclusive? 


If i'm honest (and i'm not happy to say this) on occasion recently I have felt uneasy when i've seen some of the audio based projects trending on social media. Not because they are getting attention, after all spreading the benefits is part of their aim, but rather in how sometimes the language used has appeared insensitive to the seriousness of the situation they stem from. An emoji celebration when a project is featured in a national paper seems out of place at a time of global pandemic. I feel this way because I can understand why we would want to do it and I am disappointed to find that realisation, in part, seems to have more power than it should when compared to the ethical imperative. It's uncomfortable, it should be uncomfortable and one of my concerns is that often some projects seem too comfortable, too untroubled by the grit and dirt of this situation. I should add that this thought takes the form of a struggle, a long, drawn out niggling thought in the back of my mind as to whether online language can ever accurately convey both the positive and the serious in a way that does a decent job of avoiding an imbalance.

How do we take pleasure in what appears to be one of the few positives now; the lowering of human impact on environments, sonically and visually at least, without imprinting onto it an impression of relatively safe privilege? I don’t have the answers, that is part of the point. Perhaps there are no answers but the questions can be perhaps be important. 


In this time of social reorientation we are searching for comfort, and because most of us are fascinated by it, we are drawn to the sound of our urban or rural spaces being reclaimed by the non-human, or by the stasis of architectural forms within our neighbourhoods. On my once per day walk for exercise, like many, I listen and am often moved or excited by what I both hear and by what I don’t hear. As I have tried to explain, I totally understand the lure of the sonic, and visual changes in this time and I agree that this is history and probably has to be documented. I mean, it is already anyway, even without art based projects; by the news media for example. At its best the arts can flesh out that narrow view, can expand, dramatically, the range of narratives. It can, and is, even with projects I feel are somewhat problematic, painting a picture of a far wider demographic of our human selves. I am simply asking whether all the positive progress we have made as a species is as present in the way some of us are documenting and creating with the material of history at this time. I argue not, or rather not as obviously as we might have imagined. 

If we look or listen back in terms of historical events through archives we all, no doubt, feel uneasy about certain aspects. We see the white ruling elite documenting the slave trade. We see a conservative spin on the industrial revolution. We see the winning side giving itself the least complicated story in times of war. We even see that the histories of the arts, right up to the present day, are skewed by a patriarchal, white influence, even if there has been progress in addressing that issue. Not that any of us really could have imagined the current situation but i’m sure if we’d have been asked how art would seek to document a global event that involved suffering on a massive scale we would all have replied ‘better than we have before’. I am finding it hard to really see that clearly, naturally occurring in some of the projects springing up. Does this imply that our perceived evolution as sensitive and inclusive creative players is really as advanced as we believe it to be?  Again it is important that I make it clear that I am not accusing anyone involved, myself included as I listen, of being consciously reckless or insensitive. Of course some will be, as always there are good artists and bad artists, sensitive and insensitive artists and there will be audience that uses what the arts can offer to be helpful to them and some who might use it to manipulate their own sense of self importance. In a way recognising that forces me to ask another question, one that might seem to counteract everything I have said so far; if we are creating distorted or problematic histories and archives then isn’t that, in effect, an accurate representation of our species? Not always caring, not always self-aware, not always devoid of narcissistic outlooks and damaged egos? We fail, as indeed is now blatantly obvious. We fail as a global community because we have built systems that benefit some and disadvantage others and at the same time don’t even provide the privileged with total protection against a tiny virus that shouts back at us that we are not the dominant species that we are still, largely, educated to think we are. This is not our planet. We are not owners but mere tenants amongst many and with an inflated and dangerous sense of power and control. 


With the distance of time we can dip in and out of archives and take from them what we feel is valid or that we enjoy, and, importantly, consciously or not we assess the problems, or at least are beginning to. Information is speeding up; we now have access to vast amounts of material from varying perspectives and within seconds of history being made. We all hope that means more voices are being heard, more realities reflected. If we take a fairly recent example of a global story, namely climate change and protest actions around it, then perhaps we all would like to think the story is safely being represented from all sides in what will become ‘archive’. It isn’t that simple though. A white writer, all be it female, which is a change from how most histories are biased, is credited as being the first to really advance environmentalism; Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962) and yet it was a Japanese researcher of glacial melt in the 1940’s, Ukichiro Nakaya (father of the artist Fujiko Nakaya) that first discussed the idea of global warming and climate change in detail. Other than the ethnic bias on world history, we have to look at palatable models of mainstream literature to understand why his research isn’t as globally well known as the ideas expressed by Carson. It’s a valid reason at that. After all Nakaya’s scientific papers were never going to become a bestseller, but even with the advanced discussions and vast archives around human impact on the environment Nakaya’s science and words are almost entirely unknown to most. 

Within the context of this text, the role of the arts in the making of history, the irony is that it was an arts festival, Ultima, Oslo, Norway, in 2017 that I, and many others who attended the exhibition, first heard in more detail of Nakaya’s research in this area, and it was a timely and obviously needed slap on the wrist. I believed myself to be reasonably familiar with the accepted timeline of environmental writing. At least I thought I knew the main cultural and scientific markers, whilst always having an awareness that we usually only ever know a tiny fraction of any subject. As my daughter, Pheobe, and I read Nakaya’s text we found ourselves asking the obvious question ‘why didn’t we know about this already?’ and the additional; why isn’t this taught, reprinted, reflected in the work and research of seemingly aware writers, artists, scientists and philosophers? The answers are obvious; access and bias. Of course no one can know everything about a subject and I dare say at some point an obscure paper from the 18th or 17th century, or earlier, will emerge as ‘the first to use the term global warming…’, but where is the living, breathing awareness within ourselves and the projects we create that we know next to nothing, at best? Is it visible, audible? Should it be?   

I reminded here of a radio series that had the premise of allowing someone to listen back to the BBC archives of a time in their life. Sometimes this was a ‘celebrity’ and sometimes a member of the wider public who had been interviewed decades ago during a particular national or international event. Often they would comment how different the mood was in the recordings to how they actually remember feeling or experiencing said event. This cuts to one of the main issues I believe we are seeing, again, in this new situation; Why is it we are still so unable to see problems now?. Perhaps right there behind the finger pressing 'record' whilst millions around the world are struggling in different ways. 

The historically minded might reply "that's the point. As with war photographers we have a duty to document what is happening". I get that and I totally agree. It's simply that I see patterns emerging that are disappointing, or in some instances insensitive. I can spin all of that the other way and say that perhaps this does mean we are capturing human nature as it really is; sometimes selfish, led by ego, acting without consideration for others, as well as the positives, but I am, at least surprised that certain key lessons have been so easily forgotten around the subject of equity, inclusion and the power of documentation to skew current and historical perspectives.


Lets not fool ourselves that a decent percentage of these recordings or photographs are taken on the front line, where the fighting is most savage and direct. On several of the projects the majority of recordings so far have been recorded using hundreds or thousands of pounds / euros / dollars worth of equipment, then edited or, with image based work, photoshopped for added cinematic impact.  In that sense there is still a wide border between 'news journalism' and creative projects that begin with the belief that they can document events somehow unfiltered. Technically a reasonable percentage of the worlds population should be able to contribute to these projects; millions can record using a phone, or a simple audio recorder / camera if they have them, and they can then upload the results to the various sound maps or image libraries. There's the idea that eventually we'll be able to look back at news archives and these other archives and somehow knit them together to form a representative understanding of this history. That's a worthwhile aim of course, but I am asking whether we have really considered the various filters that we are applying. In that sense all of these questions can be extrapolated out to all field recording, all street or nature photography. We are always filtering. I hope by now I am at least giving the reader the sense that all of this is a process of trying to untangle the various strands and recognise that asking the questions is coming from a place of concern for how far the initial intentions of such projects can be sidetracked. These questions might have no answer but there is something in the process of questioning that matters. I’m also not arguing that everyone has to ask these questions. After all often the most creative and positive outcomes arrive when intuition, inspiration and situation come together ‘naturally’, so to speak. I’m all for the argument of setting aside critical thinking often, or at least gaining the ability to hold it in balance with an openness. 


We are all fighting this particular virus of course but we are not all equal and these projects, thus far, are becoming increasingly biased in favour of a narrow, mostly white, largely western view. That is a problem. Those who might perhaps be watching their likes and retweets going up and, if they're honest, knowing their career or profile might be enhanced or their opportunity for funding improved, are complicit in the problem. We all are. These projects might well start with good, democratic intentions but I argue that we can already see familiar patterns of dominance and exclusion being established. Not in terms of guarded access but by the sheer volume of recordings coming from a limited demographic. I understand the contradiction in appearing to suggest that democracy is important and at the same time that some way to avoid said biases could be a solution. To do that would in itself be a distortion of how our society still behaves all too often. As I said earlier perhaps by not doing that these projects can actually also be seen as a representation of the failures of the west to be equitable in our global thinking, but i'm interested in whether that has been given much thought, and how that can become apparent to some at least. I am also interested in something that appears to be still out of reach; some collection of material that is truly representative.

Are these projects merely building an archive of insensitivity or passivity that, again with distance, will be seen as proof that society is divided not by those that live in different circumstances than 'us', but by the 'us' as the catalyst of division, as we point our digital recorders, microphones and cameras at the sounds and sights of our privilege?

Then there's how such projects often seem to celebrate a situation bringing hardship and ill health to massive numbers of people. Is it 'good' that people can enjoy listening to the sounds, looking at the images, especially during a situation that for many is emotionally taxing? Yes...probably and it might well be that even if certain people involved have less than sensitive motivations we can still extract what we want or need, but again, I am interested in asking what effect the insensitive has in the long term as well as right now to those struggling or who don't have the same privilege. Can we really imagine a sound map of a conventional war or indeed pieces of war art being celebrated with social media emojis? I think most of us would hope not. 


If someone reading this feels annoyed, feeling that the historical necessity defeats my argument then can I add this thought?; if we look at the audio and visual archives of other world wide events, such as war, slavery or the great depression what we can see, and hear, includes a large percentage of the mundane, the every day. We have footage of people going about their daily lives, putting on a brave face, curating the reality, then and now. Of course there are also the images and sounds of suffering in those times. Uncomfortable material that has a power. Compare those archives with these current projects and they often don't appear to be any better at reflecting a wide reality. Where is the grit and dirt of this pandemic? Can they be said to be holding up a mirror to this time or, once again, filtering it? Perhaps what i'm getting at here is that it isn't about the potential in the projects themselves but how they are colonised and yes, that does tend to be by white males (*I am white and male, I recognise the aspect of me calling this out whilst being in that same demographic).

Where are the, at least equal signs of what most of us claim this situation is teaching us? The unity and equity with our fellow human, and indeed with the planet? Could a recording of, for example, the clapping for the NHS in the UK or the balcony concerts in Italy show that? perhaps some part of it at least but as an unfortunate effect of how audio and visual culture often works, the projects collecting this material often become spaces marked out not by the immediate, visceral capture of sounds and images, but by cleaned content. Some have both of course but the balance almost always tips in one direction. 

It's uncomfortable to admit, uncomfortable to say, but these sounds are also, partly, the sounds of our failure to be any more sensitive than we have been thus far. They are the sounds of our status as users, com-modifiers, capitalists. As they progress they become a curation of reality. I know probably most of the people behind them genuinely don't want that to happen and some will navigate all of this better than others, but isn't it ok to ask if the failures now are actually part of the reason we keep stumbling and knocking away other voices? 

As for the historical question it is fair to say that we are only now beginning, slowly, to decolonise vast swathes of problematic histories and indeed of colonialism itself. Most of us, hopefully, like to think we'd deal with the history being created in the now differently, but we don't. Or at least we appear not to be. Still white, still wealthy in comparison to those who are affected most by this situation and yes, from what i've been able to research, mostly male in terms of running the various projects and contributing to them.

Perhaps time, in terms of distance, is important and is missing with the technology we have now, both of the equipment and how quickly, and constant, is the sharing of material.

Before CV19: Had we been asked, 6 or 12 months ago, how the field recordist or artist should document a world wide event, including the climate crisis, effecting everyone somehow, we would have answered 'better than we have in the past. Fairer. With more sensitivity and understanding'. Am I seeing, hearing that happening now? mostly, no.


After CV19 / after 'human': If we imagine a future where 'human' is history and some new sentient species find our sound archives from, lets say, 1900 to 2021, when listening back how would they perceive us as a species and the time of CV19? In terms of a general assessment of al the material they would think planes were much rarer than they are and hardly ever fly over forests and other 'natural' environments. Why? Because that area of recording / art cleans such sounds out in pursuit of 'the best' recording, in the mind of the artist / recordist. They would think 'nature' was a calm and tranquil place with only an occasional hint of danger in one or two places on our past-map. Of our cities they would hear, I argue, order and similar levels of passivity. The time of CV19 would be presented to them as an even more bucolic, still idyll, and, as with a large percentage of the other recordings, overwhelmingly white, male and from the view point of countries amongst the wealthier on the planet. On the issue of gender for example, looking at all of the current websites / projects documenting the CV19 crisis in sound around 91%, currently, of the sounds have been submitted by men and that cannot help but distort them as historical contexts. In terms of ethnicity it's slightly harder to tell as names alone aren't always reliable indicators but I think it is possible to say that the majority will be white. The sounds themselves are almost entirely European or American with the next most common seeming to represent to this future species something called 'the Chinese' or 'the Asian', who appear to be either shouting / protesting or being blamed and shunned. In short our sound archive of this time would perhaps not be something to be proud of. It might even be, through the process of archive editing and access, as distorted and as problematic as the educational text books written through the lens of colonialism that we now find so deeply flawed and, importantly, that we all think we would never replicate in any context.

The truth is we humans are individuals within communities but not always of them. We record, write, photograph, film, paint and sculpt as individuals and the access of privilege is maintained by our own attempts to find purpose and happiness. We do those things because we enjoy them or they provide some outlet for us. We do them, sometimes, in order to make a living. Can we ever really represent some general, accurate but messy, idea of who we are as a species or our history? Should we even try or set up projects claiming that to be an aim? Or do we always fail, instead presenting what our ego wants to believe is correct for us, and in so doing overriding any hope of being objective to the degree we believe possible? Isn't it better, more real to just be who we are and be confident and happy that in our sharing of material we are individuals, complete with our own strengths and fragilities, with our own need to express.

20/4/20 (2)

There is no hatred or disgust in my words towards the vast majority of the people who might take part in these projects, not towards all of us who take an active interest in how our environments are being changed by CV19. I question myself in all of this as much as anyone else. As always there will be some who create projects mostly to serve their own ego and there will be those who genuinely believe there is an importance in what they are doing. I'm not arguing there isn't. As I said I recognise the motivations. I simply think part of the process has to be asking questions, some of which I have raised here. Has to be an understanding of where we sit within a human history of objectification. Can we 'do better'? I don't know. On a personal note I work through these thoughts when I feel blocked by them, aiming, as ever to get back to the simple creative impulse and the enjoyment of the ecstatic moment. But I can say that because I don't sit within an academic sense of the hierarchies of ordered cultural and historical contexts. I don't see those places / spaces as automatically less compromised now than they have ever been.

I don't have the answers to the questions, except that I think asking them is important.

stay safe 


repetition / redundancy (2020)
Jez riley French

a sound score based on submission data collected on one day from five projects mapping lockdown and the wider context of the covid 19 pandemic.

instruction; using a laptop / mac enable the text-to-voice function, highlight the text below and press the necessary keys to activate the ai voice reading


white male, white male, white male, white male,                 white female, white male, white female, white male, white male, white male, white male, asian male, asian male, white female, white male, white female, unidentified, white male, 
                 white male, white male, white male, white female, white male, white female, 
white male, asian male, white female, south american male, white male, white male, white female, white male, white male, african american male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white female, white male, white female, unidentified, white male, 
                                 unidentified, white male, white female, white male, white female, asian female, white male, white male, white male, white male, unidentified, asian male, white male, white male, white male, asian male, white female, white male, white female, unidentified, white male, 
white female, white male, white female, 
white male, asian male, white female, asian male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white female, asian female, white male, white male, white male, white male, unidentified, black male, asian male, white male, white male, white male, white female, white male, white male, white female, white male, white female, unidentified, white male, white male, white male, african american male, unidentified, black female, white male, white female, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male,                                      white male, white male, white male, white male, white female, white female, white male, white female, white male,

white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, south american male, white male, white male, white male, white male, asian male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white female, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white male, white female…

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

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 (discontinued) 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. 

Marantz (discontinued)
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.
* a new sony to replace the 50 and the 100 will be released in 2020, with xlr inputs.

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 and 10 mixer / recorders.
mixpre 3 / 6 / 10 very impressive and for those willing to spend a bit more, coming in at around £600 for the 3 (three channels), £910 for the 6 (6 channels) & £1500 for the 10 (10 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-100mkIII a further upgrade - not much difference to the pre-amps but they seem to have improved the headphone amp and the clip issue
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. However if you're using contact mics and hydrophones there is a problem with the sound of the card write system being audible (at a very low level) - this is a design flaw with the H5 and H6.
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 - but see the H5 above for one design flaw. 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.