Saturday, July 06, 2024

Field recorders in 2024

I am a trained audio engineer who wrote extensively on field recorders over many years. You can access these articles from my field recording landing page. Two years ago I provided a detailed summary of the state of the art in portable field recording devices. This article brings my research up to date for 2024. 

First, download the PDF that charts every available portable field recorder priced at under a grand. I also include a table of defunct models for historical comparison.

Marketing and the numbers problem

In the mass market numbers sell but quality doesn't. Case in point: the vast majority of untrained recordists now believe that a 32-bit PCM encoding input stage will give them a better recording. While 32 bits is convenient, it's not an instant panacea. Indeed, this feature has certain disadvantages. Being unable to manually gain stage means it's difficult to compare recordings made at different times for absolute volume and noise floor levels. 

The marketing obsession with 32-bit obscures more important factors. First among these is pre-amplifier quality. This is measured using equivalent input noise (EIN). Newer recorders do not necessarily provide better pre-amps. 

An interesting data point is provided by Sony Minidisc recorders. The final line of these hand-held devices, released way back in 2004, was branded Hi-MD. These models finally allowed uncompressed recording after years of Sony's stubborn insistence on their own compression standard. Remarkably, Hi-MD recorders had better microphone pre-amps than most gear today. Despite the input encoding being "only" 16-bit, they achieved -124 dBu EIN. This is close to Sound Devices quality!

It's remarkable that many contemporary 24-bit and 32-bit recorders don't match the quality of old 16-bit Minidisc technology. 

This is why certain older recorders, for example the Sony PCM-D100, are still prized. But it's difficult to recommend purchasing a discontinued unit with inflated used prices. Such a device is likely to have a short working life and there will be no support from the manufacturer.

The state of the art?

Many inexpensive recorders are fine for recording a band rehearsal, an interview, or other sources with high signal levels. The popular Zoom H series are feature-rich but the EIN maxes out at -120 dBu. This is not ideal for field recordings of quiet sources. Instead I recommend the Zoom F series which have 8 dB less noise... a significant difference! (Check out my comparison table for other options).

While such recorders provide both incredible features and excellent recording quality for the money, they lack the long-term customer support that is characteristic of professional gear. That category remains the domain of Nagra, Sonosax, and the Sound Devices 700 series. These cost big money for a reason. If your career depends on a recording, there's no substitute. But I omitted these options from my comparison table, since if you're reading this, you likely aren't in that market!

The Sound Devices MixPre series exists in a middle ground, compromising the brand's name in order to compete on price. The noise figures are excellent but the Zoom F8 provides a higher track count, more features, and dual card recording.

Summary

Once upon a time we could buy pocket-sized audio recorders of good quality. I have made many published recordings using my Olympus LS-10 and the Sony PCM-M10 was also excellent. In 2024 all available models in this smaller form factor are plagued with inferior pre-amps. One exception is the Zoom F3... though this has an annoying interface and lacks the convenience of plug-in-power.

If you are happy with a larger device, several models are suitable for field recording of quiet sources. Buy based on the features you need and the EIN figure. Ignore other marketing hype. 

32-bit recording won't give you better results. Learning your craft will. That's the lesson I wish to drive home in 2024.

Note

I significantly rewrote this article two days after initial posting, to make my points clearer and provide the updated recorder table.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently tried the zoom m4 and was very surprised by it's built-in mic as I belive no worse than ls-11 or m10.

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