Portable Recording

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a few years ago it was like four maybe five portable recorders to choose from. today there are over a hundred ways to record audio to a digital format. there are devices for any level doing any job. and there are devices that are made specifically for one job. as much as some of these devices try to be there is no one-size-fits-all. there are too many tasks to cover.

the Fatal Flaw
there will be something about a device that makes it unusable for your project. we call this the Fatal Flaw. and it is what you have to look out for as you are evaluating new gear. every one of portable recording devices that we have looked at has has one fatal flaw and sometimes more. but the thing about the FF is that it’s defined by how you are going to use a device. meaning one person’s flaw is another person’s BEST feature. some examples of a Fatal Flaw include:

    the H4 record button
    you have to press it twice to start recording. press it too fast and it won’t record. you have to press it twice otherwise it won’t record. it will just blink it’s red button until you do.

    H4 tiny screen
    the screen on the H4 has to has to be one of the smallest screen ever put on a recording device. Zoom did do some things to fix this with firmware releases. the timecode numbers got bold for example. for older people this is especially problematic.

    M-Audio model built in battery
    there is nothing more horrible then having a battery go dead in the middle of your recording. but even worse is not being able to do something about it. that said, the MicroTrack can record for a very long time before it goes dead. just don’t accidently leave it on.

    Sony PCM-D50
    it costs 2X more compared to other recorders.

just because one device has a flaw isn’t the end of the road. there are lots of companies making recording devices including Alesis, Edirol, Korg, M-Audio, Marantz, Olympus, Roland, Sony, Tascam, Yamaha, Zoom. they range from the cheap to the very expensive. there are other companies that specialize in high end portable recorders such as Fostex, Tascam and Sound Devices. these recorders meet or exceed the needs of the most professional recording production needs.

every recorder we’ve used in production has done its job. if you aren’t finding the features you need with your trusted brand don’t hesitate to look at everything else. we think you’ll find what you are looking for.

what is the mission?
that said, the answer to the question as to what to get depends on what you are recording. a film production has totally different requirements compared to the on the street interview. just like all of these jobs are different: filmmaking, interviews, SFX (foley) recording, music, dictation. you have to define the mission before you can evaluate what is best.

the example we gave on the show came from a person who was making a indy film. he asked which is better the Sony PCM-D50 or the Tascam DR-680. both recorders are competent devices. but the Sony doesn’t have external microphone connectors so it’s automatically out. while the Tascam is a better choice it’s also about a thousand dollars. so we asked, “what else could work given the budget?”

the biggest differences that you will find when using portable recorders is essentially this short list:

    XLR or external Mic connectors
    number of recording tracks
    mic arrangement
    SD or CF card
    battery type
    run time
    external power
    displays
    start up time!
    ease of use / handling

okay it’s not so short. and some of the devices that you consider won’t be available for you to try out locally. you will have to go by specs and reviews. and of course the numbers.

lots of numbers!
so what about all the numbers? 1, 2, 4, 16, 22, 24, 32, 44, 48, 96, 192. there sure are a lot of them aren’t there? there are only a few that we really care about which are 16, 24, 44, and 48.

the first two, 16 and 24, are the sample size in bit. a 16 bit sample has been the recording standard from the CD point of view for the last 25 years. a 16 bit sample gives a resolution of 65,536 possible sample levels. this makes a pretty smooth wave although audiophiles will argue otherwise. for recording voices for podcasts or making indy movies it’s just fine. however, if your portable recorder can record a 24 bit sample you should always use this setting. your sample then has 16,777,216 possible samples. this is obviously better. and the good news is that the file size is just 33% larger per track.

the other numbers are the number of samples that are made in 1 second. 44.1KHz is the CD standard. a 16-bit 44KHz voice recording will sound very good. so you can stop there right? marketing tells you have bigger numbers are better numbers. and 48KHz is a bigger number! 48KHz was introduced with the DV video codec. there isn’t an incentive to record in 48KHz from a hearing point of view. your ear cannot hear the difference of 4KHz sampling. and it could be argued that the downsample from 48 to 44 might introduce noise because the conversion is not 1:1 because of 44 is actually 44.1KHz. but that doesn’t make 48 a bad number just a different number. so 96KHz ought to be a great number right? now you’re just going for bragging rights.

in either case of those two (err 3) number they translate into 44 or 48 thousand samples a second. that’s a lot of samples. and this is why a 16bit 22KHz recording will sound really good. it’s the bit depth not the sample rate that influences the overall quality of the recording.

but sometimes these numbers just don’t matter because the recording it being done in a noisy bar or street. you will be recording all that background noise at the highest possible sample.

hey so what’s this 1-bit recording?
it’s stupid is what it is. 1-bit sound was the basis for making any sound on an old computer. a location in memory was connected to speaker and loading a 1 or a 0 to that address would cause it to click. if you wrote loops at different speeds you could make tones.

the Korg MR-1000 and MR-1 doesn’t record and play sound like that at all. it’s far from being a 1 bit recording. but it is a very interesting way to sample sound. the problem with digital sound recording is that it doesn’t pay attention so any of the frequencies about 22KHz. people simply cannot hear sound above that frequency. it’s not to say that sound isn’t there. lots of things play above that range. this is what gets the audiophiles in a bunch. some claim that recordings sound dead because none of that was recorded. enter the “1 bit recorder”. this device records the whole spectrum sound up to 100KHz using a 5MHz sample clock. it stores each sample of that spectrum scan as a bit. which is where marketing gets the counter intuitive 1 bit from. dummies. so yeah, the 1 bit recorders are pretty cool but they may never get traction because everyone knows a 1 bit sound is crap.

portable recorders mentioned on the show:


Sony PCM-D50

Zoom Q3

Olympus LS-10

Alesis Pro Track

Tascam DR-680

Tascam DR-07

Tascam DR-100

Alesis PalmTrack

Edirol R-09

Zoom H2

Zoom H4

Marantz PMD 620

Zoom H4n

M-Audio MicroTrack II

Korg MR-1000

Korg MR-1

Marantz PMD 661


Fostex FR2LE


Sony PCM-D1