Choosing an Audio Recorder
We have broken down our reviews of audio recorders into five considerations. These are things to consider when purchasing portable digital audio recorders:
- Cost - Generally, newsrooms purchase several audio recorders to supplement their staff. With prices too high, bulk purchases can become very costly. You must also weigh in maintenance and repair costs.
- Quality - Does the recorder give you the ability to use an external microphone? Very few recorders have built-in microphones that are useful for field reporting. Does the recorder have XLR (professional grade) input, Tip-Ring Sleeve (TRS) input or just a mini jack?
- Format - There are two types of audio files: compressed and uncompressed. Cheap audio recorders will compress all of the audio it captures. This not only brings down the quality during the capture process, but when you edit that audio and then re-compressed it, the audio is further degraded in the finished project. Buy a recorder that will allow you to capture uncompressed audio (.wav, .aiff)
- Durability - This is important. Some of these audio recorders are as expensive as a digital SLR camera, and repairs are on par with high-end electronic devices as well.
- Power - Probably one of the most overlooked attributes of audio recorders. Can the batteries be removed? What type of batteries does it take? Can they be easily obtained? What is the power consumption of the device? Will it last a long time on a single set of batteries/charge?
Cost vs. Quality
In the world of multimedia storytelling, a debate is raging over the importance of quality of content on the Web. There is a train of thought that cheap equipment, as long as it does the job, is "good enough for the Web" (a common phrase used in newsrooms). This argument does have some validity in an age where services like YouTube deliver sub par quality video to an audience willing to accept its flaws.
Fortunately, the market of cheap equipment that produces high quality content is growing each day. A broadcast quality 3-chip video camera would have cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago; now it can be purchased for under $2,000. Some of the first SLR digital still photo cameras were over $10,000. Now you can purchase an entry level kit for about $600. Trends in audio recording devices are also following suit.
We, at the Knight Digital Media Center, realize cost is a major concern for newsrooms in these times. We acknowledge this and try to support all news organizations with varying budgets by listing devices from cheap to expensive, and noting both the benefits and flaws of each device.
Furthermore, we believe quality enhances the ability to tell a story in such a way that the viewer forgets about the medium they're consuming. A person entranced in the narrative of a powerful story can just as easily be distracted from it when they become interrupted by a "hiss," some wind noise, or sound drop off. As journalists have perfected their craft in traditional media, we believe they should aim for the highest standards when publishing to the Web. It is quality that will set them apart from the cacophony of bloggers, self-publishers, PR firms and government agencies that are all taking part in news production.
There are three basic microphone inputs that you will find on digital audio recorders. While the type of connector alone doesn't ensure good quality in your recordings, generally audio recorders with higher quality connectors tend to be classified as among the best.
The three types of connectors are:
XLR: This is the highest quality connector. It is called a "balanced" connection, which means both the positive and negative signals are balanced out to prevent interference. The third plug is a ground, which also helps to eliminate unwanted interference. The cable itself is generally high quality and can span long distances. Also, the connector has a locking mechanism that prevents accidental removal.
(Left: Mini jack, Right: Tip Ring Sleeve 1/4" jack. Photos: Wikimedia Commons)
Tip-Ring Sleeve (TRS) or 1/4" jack: This connector is also a balanced line, so you get all of the benefits of an XLR cable. The drawback is the lack of a locking mechanism on the connector, so these plugs are easier to remove. This is great for instruments on stage and sound mixers, as they need to be unplugged often. For audio recorders, however, this could mean accidental disconnects.
Mini or 1/8" jack: This is the worst type of connector. They are generally very low quality, and the plugs are notorious for static/drop-outs. Most of the time, the connector is unbalanced, so the possibility of interference is greatly increased. Often, just moving one of these plugs in their sockets can result in static, or audio drop-out.
Most new digital audio recorders will record "uncompressed" (or lossless compressed) audio. This is important, because the quality of audio can degrade significantly when recording to MP3; and even more so if that MP3 file is to be opened, edited and then re-compressed for use on the Web.
Many photographers also make the mistake of analogizing an .mp3 file with a .jpg -- a compressed photographic file that many photographers still shoot. Jpegs are instant static images that do not change. For that reason, the brain can fill in flaws in areas with colors much better than a streaming linear audio file.
Over-compressing an audio file will result in a garbled metallic sound. It's important to understand what file format your recorder produces and its compatibility with your system.
Here are different file types.
- WAV (.wav) - "Wave" or waveform audio format. An industry standard uncompressed format.
- BWV (.wav) - "Broadcast Wave" format. Uses the same extension as wave, but it includes some additional features for synchronization and larger file management. (also .w01, .w02, .w03, etc.)
- AIFF (.aif) - "Audio Interchange File Format." An Apple proprietary audio file format that uses lossless compression, meaning it doesn't lose any quality.
- MP3 (.mp3) - "MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3" format. The most ubiquitous audio file format. This is a lossy compressed file, meaning you will lose some quality when recording to this file.
- AAC (.m4a or .aac) - "Advanced Audio Coding" format. A very similar type to mp3 used heavily by Apple for its iPod and iPhone players. It also uses lossy compression.
- WMA (.wma) - "Windows Media Audio" a Microsoft Windows proprietary format that can be both compressed or uncompressed.
This is obviously an important aspect. Many digital audio recorders are made of light-weight plastic, while others have metal casings. Metal casings have several advantages. For one they tend to be slightly more resistant to falls and breakage. But they also reduce hand-held noise when using the built-in microphone. This is a characteristic of many audio recorders that most users don't realize until they purchase the unit.
One of the more overlooked aspects of audio recorders. Some audio recorders take rechargeable batteries. And at least one recorder has non-removable rechargeable batteries. This could be very bad should it die in the field.