"Recording Equipment Guide & Reviews"


Part I - Reviews, Computer Recording Interfaces User Reviews, Harmony Central.

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Part II Recording Equiopment Guide

Disclaimer: Be Sure To Read The Reviews At HarmonyCentral.com, Electronic Musician, Mix Magazine, EQ Magazine, and Recording Magazine Before You Make An Informed Decision As to Purchase Or Use Of Your Recording Equipment. Reading and Review Of The Aforementioned Magazines And Periodicals Along With Google Of Internet Web Sites Have Proven To Be An Indispensable Source In Providing A Wealth Of Education And Information Prior To Purchase Or Use Of Electronics Instruments And Equipment . Harmony Central Makes Available Online To The Consumer And User A Wealth And Variety Of User Opinion Which Is Invaluable. This Article Titled Above "Recording Equipment Guide" As Provided Here Is One Man's Opinion Source Of Opinion From Which You May Gain Some Insight And Guidance To Overall Equipment Available For Your Further Research And Consideration.

Digital Audio Field Recording Equipment Guide

Vermont Folklife Center
88 Main Street
Middlebury, Vermont 05753

Prepared by Andy Kolovos, Last Updated 2009-11-20

In response to popular request, you can now download this entire resource as a PDF file. I can't promise that the PDF will be updated as often as the HTML, but I'll try. You can download the PDF :: here.

Table of Contents

 Introduction [top]

This document is designed to offer guidance to researchers interested in obtaining digital audio recording equipment for conducting ethnographic fieldwork. It is primarily focused on the needs of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and oral historians, although anthropologists and anyone working in an ethnographic discipline or conducting ethnographic research will find some information of use here.

I have some strong opinions about what constitutes appropriate equipment for these sorts of applications: 1. I am a staunch advocate for using external microphones. Any recorder to which one cannot connect an external microphone of some sort will not be listed here. 2. I feel very strongly that fieldworkers should record in an uncompressed, standard format such as WAV or Broadcast WAV. Any recorder that will not allow for recording in WAV/BWF will not be listed here. 3. My focus is on mono and stereo recorders. With a few exceptions, I do not address multitrack field recording equipment here. 4. I have a bias toward equipment manufactured for the professional market. While it is more expensive, pro gear is generally more durable and will produce better results. Are there exceptions? Sure, but more often than not you get what you pay for. 5. Finally, I feel completely free to make fun of any recorder with large, pokey microphones emerging like eye stalks from its top. It's a weird trend. They look silly.

All that stated, my basic rule is as follows: No matter what kind of equipment you ultimately work with--be it a $5,000 CompactFlash/hard drive recorder or a $40.00 Olympus digital voice recorder--it is most important that you are well acquainted with it and know how to use it optimally before setting out.

Many of the machines listed here can be found used for a fraction of their new price. There are many dealers in used audio equipment online these days, and Ebay (www.ebay.com) can be a great place to pick up bargains. When purchasing used equipment be sure the seller will guarantee that the equipment works and that he or she is willing to back up that guarantee with a full refund, repair or replacement. Caveat Emptor!

And, in the end, what matters most is not how fancy your toys are, but the relationships you develop through talking with other human beings and the legacy of their lives that you leave for the future.


iPod [top]

A few years back (I guess we'd say several generations ago in iPod terms) this ubiquitous cultural icon was a totally lame field recorder. Using one of two microphone interfaces then available--Belkin's Universal Microphone Adaptor and Griffin's iTalk--one could record WAV audio via a microphone, however only at the embarrassing sample rate of 8kHz. Things have changed, at long last. Now instead of being Totally Lame, the iPod is, not quite as lame.

At the time of this writing (November 2009) Apple has several iPods on the market including the iPod Touch and the iPod Classic and even the iPhone capable of decent audio recording. Both the iPod Classic and the previous generation hard drive-based iPod, the iPod Video (Gen 5 for those Apple Geeks out there) can indeed record stereo 16bit/44.1kHz audio. I'm still trying to figure out what the iPod Touch and iPhone create. I'll keep bugging John Fenn until he tells me.

I have yet to hear what audio recordings on the iPod Classic or iPod Video sound like. I can't imagine they'll really hold water next to even the cheapest of decent recorders (such as your modified PMD660 or an FR2-LE), but I feel pretty sure it'll do a better job than anything you can buy at Staples. You still need an interface, such as the Griffin iTalk Pro (which I imagine is still a pretty weak micpre), and I'd strongly encourage you to use an external mic as well.

Then there's the Alesis Protrack. I've only seen pictures of this thing, but it looks like it could be miles ahead of the older iPod interfaces. It's essentially a frame you click the iPod into, a frame that features (in addition to the dopey X/Y attached mics) XLR inputs, a limiter, a 48V phantom power option and even what appear to be external level controls! What gives? I'm sure the thing doesn't sound pristine, but then again if you've got an iPod and a limited budget, it might be a better option than the iTalk.

So if you're itching to do some interview recording, already have a newer iPod and don't want to spend a pile of money on a decent field recorder, consider plunking down the $35 or so bucks for the iTalk Pro and between $50 and $100 for a less-crappy mini plug mic (perhaps a Sony ECM-MS907 or an Audio-Technica Pro 24) or go the Alesis Protrack ($199) plus-a-heartier-mic route, and you're in business. Is it great? No. Would I buy an iPod specifically with this in mind? No. But if you've got one already, it might not be a bad place to begin

Solid State Memory Card Recorders [top]

Over the past few years solid state field recorders have come to the fore. These machines contain no moving parts and record audio directly to memory cards such as CompactFlash (CF), Secure Digital (SD) and Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) cards of the sort used in various digital cameras. From the cards, recordings can be directly transferred to a PC and stored on hard disc, redundant file storage servers, burned to CD-R, etc. The cards can be re-used over and over again. Best of all, when using Flash cards, there are no moving parts. No moving parts means less power draw on batteries and fewer things that can jam, bend, wear or break! No moving parts also means there is no machine noise to intrude upon your recording!

On the downside, with an hour of CD-quality audio (16bit/44.1kHz stereo) requiring 630 megabytes of memory, even a 512 megabyte CompactFlash card would allow for less than an hour of uninterrupted, uncompressed audio at these settings. However, these cards are both expanding in size and dropping in price. At the time of this writing (May 2009), depending on the brand 2 gig CompactFlash cards can be had for less than $15.00 and 4 gig cards for less than $25.00. And a similar situation exists for SD (Secure Digital) cards as well. Times Have Changed.

Also, keep in mind something we learned the hard way: not all brands of solid state memory card will work well with every brand of recorder (or vice-versa!). Before dropping bucks on a high capacity card, contact the manufacturer of the recorder you are interested in to obtain a list of compatible brands.

And one more thing. A colleague of mine recently stopped into BestBuy to pick up some additional CF cards for her PMD660 prior to heading abroad for fieldwork. She inquired after them only to have the a helpful sale's clerk inform her that BestBuy no longer sold them because they are "obsolete."

Before you all start freaking out, they're not.

Although there has been a sharp decrease in the use of CF cards as a storage medium for consumer-grade digital cameras, they are still deeply entrenched in the world of professional digital photography. To put various fears to rest I contacted my digital photography guru Dan Havlik to get his perspective on the matter. He concurred. As the BestBuy experience recounted above indicates, they're probably going to become hard to find a brick-and-mortar stores that focus on consumer-grade photo equipment, but will continue to be readily available at stores that cater to the professional photo market as well as on the Web. And honestly the Web is probably your best bet.

Still, with the PMD661 Marantz made the switch from CF to SD, so who knows what's coming down the pike. At this point companies that cater to the "more" professional wing of audio recording (Sound Devices, Fostex and others) are still supporting CF. Something to keep an eye on is all.

If you are contemplating a solid state recorder for you work, there are some practical considerations. Since you need to upload the data off the card and securely store the audio, you need to have access to a PC with ample storage space and, to be more safe, some kind of optical disc burner to create additional back ups. With that in mind, if you're going to be living in a tent off in the bush for 6 months, a solid state recorder might not be the best choice for you. However if you have regular (or at least semi-regular) access to a computer and reliable power, a flash-memory based recorder is a great recording option.

For more details on working with solid state memory recorders, please see the page we created on working with the Marantz PMD660, Field Recording in the Digital Age. Although it focuses on the PMD660, the suggestions provided will transfer to any solid state recorder.

The solid state recorders discussed below are very different from the smaller digital voice and dictation recorders available at office supply stores. While the smaller digital voice recorders create sound files in heavily compressed, proprietary formats (such as the Olympus .dss file format), these pro machines can record in uncompressed, standard formats such as .wav and broadcast wave, and do so at resolutions ranging from at least 16bit/44.1kHz to, in some cases, even 24bit/192kHz. My advice: from both audio quality and digital file management perspectives, stay the heck away from rinky-dink digital dictation and voice recorders if you have an interest in creating quality audio.

Solid state recording technology is one of the best digital audio field recording options currently available, and may well represent the future of field recording in general.

Hard Disc and "Hybrid" Recorders top]

This category includes digital audio recorders that write to hard disc or that record to more than one format--hard disc and CD-R or CompactFlash and built in hard disc, for example. It's kind of a place to fit stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere, so I didn't know what else to call it. I'm open to suggestions.

Microphones [top]

Using an external microphone is vital to making high-quality recordings. This is something we cannot stress enough. Built-in microphones complicate recording by requiring one to place the machine as close to the speaker as possible, they limit the amount of monitoring one can do to the recording because any contact with the machine while recording is underway will be picked up by the mic, and internal mics pick up an enormous amount of machine noise from the recorder itself.

Two distinct classes of microphones are dynamic and condenser mics. While condenser mics tend to be more sensitive, they also require a power supply (either a battery or what is called "phantom power" which is drawn from the recording device) to function and tend to be somewhat fragile. Dynamic mics are generally not as sensitive, but are more durable and do not require additional power of any sort.

Another distinction in mics comes in the way they pick up sound--the distinction between "directional" and "omni-directional" mics. Directional mics of various stripes pick up audio in an area directly in front of the microphone. Omni-directional mics pick up audio equally from all directions. The most common sort of directional mic is called a "cardioid" mic because it picks up audio in a somewhat heart-shaped pattern emanating out from the front of the microphone.

A further distinction can be made between mono and stereo mics. Mono mics record a single channel of audio, stereo mics record slightly different signals to each channel of a recording, creating a stereo effect when used with a stereo field recorder. With stereo recording devices, a stereo signal can be created through the use of two appropriately positioned mono mics or with a stereo mic.

Those of you interested in recording live music should consider the merits of a stereo mic (assuming, of course, that you will be using a recording device that can record in stereo to begin with!). Although stereo mics are more expensive, a field recording of a musical event made with stereo equipment will more faithfully reproduce the experience of the live performance than will a mono set up.

On another note, we advise against using lavaliere mics--the tiny clip-on lapel mics one often sees on television. Although they have the virtue of being less-obtrusive, the tiny electronics in most lavaliere mic canêt match the dynamic range of larger, hand held mics.

Depending to some degree on the recorder you use, for most ethnographic and oral history interviewing a decent dynamic mono mic, whether directional or omni-directional, will work great. They are sturdy, less expensive and, since they donêt require an external power supply, less of a potential hassle than condenser mics.

For a more in-depth discussion of microphones for field recording, including comparisons between various models, visit: www.transom.org and the Oade Brothers Mic FAQ in their "Taper's" section.

Mono Dynamic mics:

Mono Condenser mics:


Stereo Condenser mics:

Microphone Stands [top]

Microphone stands make the job of interviewing and music recording much simpler, and can greatly improve the quality of the audio you record. Most mics will require a clip or adaptor to attach to any stand. New mics frequently come with the proper stand adaptor. If not, any retailer from whom you buy your mic should sell appropriate adaptors. Radio Shack sells a clamp-on adaptor (catalog number 33-372) for $5.00, which will clamp on to most smaller and larger microphones.

Cables and Accessories [top]

Cable: Prices on cable vary depending on the brand, the quality of the cable, quantity of cable and types of connectors, but on average good cable seems to cost in the range of 75 cents through $2.00 or so a foot. Make sure you tell your salesperson what mic and recording deck you will be using so you end up with the right connectors.

Windscreens: A windscreen is a foam or fabric cover that one pulls over the top of a microphone to reduce noise caused by air blowing across it. A windscreen is a necessity if you will be doing any recording outdoors. They are also very useful for reducing breath noise and "puh" sounds associated with pronouncing words beginning with the letter "P." Windscreens are generally made of one of two kinds of material: foam or a fuzzy stuffed animal/shag carpet-style fabric. The fuzzy kind are much more effective at reducing wind noise. Unfortunately they are also tend to be more expensive and will not necessarily fit every mic. Foam windscreens are frequently sold by manufacturers as matching accessories to particular mics, so there will generally be a proper foam windscreen available for any new mic you purchase. The fuzzy fabric screens and foam screens can also be used in conjunction with one another. Original manufacturer's foam windscreens generally run in the neighborhood of $30.00-$60.00 or more, depending on the microphone model. Rycote makes a line of good-quality fuzzy fabric screens that will fit many mics out there. Prices vary, but windscreens suitable for mics such as those listed above seem to fall in the $60.00 range. Talk to a salesperson to be sure any windscreen you purchase will fit your mic.

Headphones: We strongly recommend using headphones, at least at the start of the interview and periodically throughout, to monitor environmental noise, sound levels and overall recording quality. Better headphones will certainly do a better job, but what is more important is that you simply use them at allã-in other words, almost any pair is better than none. So if you've got a pair of old Walkman headphones, iPod ear buds, a half-way decent set of monitor headphones such as Sony MDR-7502 (around $45.00) or a good set of monitor headphones such as Sony MDR-7506 (around $99.99), bring them along and use them. The one tricky part to using headphones is being sure the plug on the end of the cord matches the input on your recorder. Thankfully Radio Shack sells all sorts of inexpensive adaptors to facilitate this process.

Other Accessories: There are a few other odds and ends that might be useful depending on the type of equipment you choose. A microphone pre-amp boosts the signal from the mic to the recorder, and is a good piece of equipment to consider if you are using a professional-quality microphone with a recorder that sports a single mini-plug mic input (such as the Edirol R-09/R-09HR, Marantz PMD-620, TASCAM DR-1, Zoom H2), an .mp3 player/recorder, a laptop soundcard mic input, a camcorder audio input, or an old consumer-grade MiniDisc machine. Of the gaggle of such devices out there, we have worked with two--both are small, inexpensive and do a good job of compensating for the lower-quality pre-amps built into less expensive recorders.

Shure A96F Line Matching Transformer. Not technically a mic pre-amp, however the A96F will give about a 12db boost to your incoming signal. The A96F is a an in-line device intended for use with camcorders--one end has a female XLR connector, the other a mini-plug. You plug your mic or mic cable into the XLR end, and the mini-plug end right into your recorder--MiniDisc, tape deck, lap-top mic-input port, etc. Wala. For more info, see Transom.org's MiniDisc guide which includes a good discussion of the A96F. Costs around $45.00.

Fel Communications 35MX. Mono microphone preamp (Fel also makes a stereo version) that gives a 20db signal boost and reduces noise problems created by cheap built-in preamps in the aforementioned inexpensive CF recorder, .mp3 player/recorder, laptop, camcorder, and MiniDisc mic inputs. We sported this little guy back in our MiniDisc day and I was quite impressed. An in-line device like the A96F above. For further info, check out their site here. A neat little doo-dad. Made in the UK and apparently only available in the US directly from the manufacturer via the web. Not so cheap as it used to be: £76.00. Note that's GBP, not USD.

Equipment Suppliers [top]

Advice on buying this kind of equipment is pretty simple--check prices everywhere, ask a lot of questions and, as always, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Prices on professional audio equipment can vary greatly from retailer to retailer, as can shipping charges. Many retailers will match another store's prices as well. To get the best deal, shop around. Additionally, the more questions you ask, the more you will learn. A good salesperson will have thorough knowledge of the equipment she or he is selling and be able to answer all or most of your questions. Finally, Caveat Emptor--let the buyer beware.

Inclusion on this list of retailers does not convey an endorsement by me or the Vermont Folklife Center. At one time or another we have, or someone I know has, ordered from each of them. All the retailers below feature good prices, quality customer support and have good reputations, many of very long standing. We present this list to serve as a strong starting point for purchasing field recording equipment and not as the final statement on the matter. Good luck!