Saturday 1 July 2023

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 were actually decent - 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. However, they now tend to only make smaller, dictophone style recorders that are very basic.
LSP4 slightly overpriced compared to some of the other options at this level but Olympus do tend to be well built, reliable & with built in mics that sound a bit better than some at the same price point
DM720 cheaper than the LSP4 but with the same built in mics and pre-amps that sound very similar. 

discontinued products:
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 this was one of the better 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.

R07 The most recent small recorder from Roland & its quite good. It doesn't have XLR inputs but if you want a small, decent recorder with good sounding built in mics, this one is worth considering.
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. They've done this with the new mixpre 3, 6 and 10 mixer / recorders. They are small, though not 'hand sized' but are a considerable step-up in terms of quality of build & pre-amps.
mixpre 3 / 6 / 10 very impressive and for those willing to spend a bit more, coming in at around £900 for the 3 (three channels), £1150 for the 6 (6 channels) & £1900 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 pro for a time the H4N 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 (H4N pro) improves the pre-amps and the build quality a bit though other recorders in their range are similar.
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.
F1/ F3 / F6 the latest recorders from Zoom and perhaps the issues could be easily described by the adage that if a company is trying to cram all the spec they claim into a very small device, there will be compromises. There are issues with routing of signals, shielding of circuits and most problematic in this context, they don't perform well with extended techniques. For use with conventional ambient mics and simple methods they are 'ok' but otherwise I wouldn't recommend them.
F4/F8 (discontinued) 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. 


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Interesting appraisal of many devices I've been researching.

I'm a professional broadcaster setting off on a podcast adventure. Used to the best TV kit and when doing radio shows recently used a Nagra SD in the field for long-form interviews.

Do not want to splash out on a Nagra SD. Would like to keep down costs for now.

What digital recorder to go for then?

You don't seem to like any of them all that much. Will be doing one-on-one interviews as well as group discussions with lav mics in noisy and/or studio settings.

Looking forward to hearing what you would recommend buying for professional sound.

Jez riley French said...

well, entry level / hand held recorders have plus points but they do also have drawbacks. Depending on your definition of 'professional sound' you might want to look at pro-sumer (mid level) recorders or professional ones from Sound Devices, Zaxcom, Sonosax, Nagra etc - but thats a step up budget wise.