Knight Digital Media Center Multimedia Training

Tutorial: Audio Recorders

By Jeremy Rue

For updates and discussion on this tutorial, visit:
http://kdmc.berkeley.edu/tutorials/audio-recorders/

Introduction

Portable digital audio recorders are designed for many different uses. Some are geared specifically for musical recording artists, others are built for electronic news gathering in the field. It is important to understand the differences in the features each recorder offers.

Portable digital audio recorders are still in their infancy in terms of cost and ubiquity. There is a large gap between cheap "consumer" audio recorders that do not provide quality high enough for general broadcast standards, and professional audio recorders of acceptable quality. Although, every year the gap narrows, and a growing "prosumer" market begins to fill that void.

It is important to understand the unique differences among all of the different recorders, and what each one offers in terms of features.

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 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.

Inputs

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 connector

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.

Tip Ring Sleeve Connector
(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.

Format

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.

Durability

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.

Power

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. 

Audio Devices

Here are some reviews of different audio recorders that we have gathered from our own experiences and from participants of our workshops.

Olympus WS-300 series dictation recorder ~ $75 - $150

Olympus WS Series Digital Dictation Audio Recorder

Click image to see larger version

Olympus makes a range of WS Series dictation recorders that are really designed for note taking. Expect a slight "hiss" sound on your recordings. Great for note taking not so much for media production. If you're on a budget, we recommend using a professional microphone. It won't be perfect, but the difference will be dramatic.

Samson Zoom H1 ~ $100

Samson H1 Zoom Audio Recorder

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A great sounding recorder that offers very high quality audio at a great price. The portability is extremely nice for attaching this recorder to a DSLR Video camera to use as a two system audio setup. The only drawbacks are that it uses a mini mic input instead of the higher quality XLR connectors. These inputs are susceptible to interference.

Tascam DR-1 ~ $250

Tascam DR-1 Digital Audio Recorder

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A good recorder at a very good price. It has a "balanced" tip-ring sleeve (TRS 1/4" Stereo Jack) mic input which is just like XLR, except that it's easier to pull it out of the socket by accident. We don't have a lot of personal reports on this device, but on paper it looks like a really good deal. The only possible issue is that it takes special rechargeble batteries that could die in the field. But, they are removable so you can buy several backups.

Samson Zoom H4n ~ $300

Samson Zoom H4 Digital Audio Recorder

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Likely one of the cheapest (if not the cheapest) recorder that includes XLR inputs. These XLR inputs really lift the quality of the signal from microphones, and to top it off, the inputs double as TRS inputs. The audio quality is also really good, and this recorder is fully capable of field reporting. The Zoom company corrected many of the issues the previous model had, including making a sturdier casing, larger display an better controls.

M-Audio Microtrack II ~ $300

M-Audio Microtrack II Digital Audio Recorder

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This is a really good sounding recorder that consistently gets great reviews for its ability to capture clear, crisp audio and its inclusion of a TRS 1/4" Stereo Jack. However, this recorder suffers from one fatal flaw: its non-removable rechargeble battery. If this device dies on you in the field, you're pretty much out of luck. However, we have heard of one work-around that many organizations have used: you can charge this device with a mini-USB plug - the same type of plug used on many cell phones. So, this allows you to use a portable cell phone charger and gives you some extra time.

Marantz PMD 620 ~ $400

Marantz PMD 620 Digital Audio Recorder

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Marantz's higher end PMD 660 is considered the bread-and-butter of audio recorders. The 620 is Marantz's attempt at courting a prosumer market, however this device's first debut was plagued with some issues. The monitor sound in the earphones was delayed from the real sound, which drove operators crazy. Reports are that this was fixed in a firmware upgrade. Otherwise reviews have been good. The 1/8" mini jack is located at the top of the device which makes it easier to use while in a pocket or small bag.

Edirol by Roland R-09 ~ $400

Edirol R-09 Digital Audio Recorder

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Edirol has always been well known in the audio industry as making some of the top tier equipment, and this model is no different. High quality audio, easy to read LCD displays and plenty of features make this recorder one of the better of the bunch. But, at this price range it lacks some of the features one would typically like to see, like TRS or XLR inputs. However, the mini 1/8" stereo jack is conveniently located at the top of the device, so that it can be used in a pocket or pouch. The built-in condenser eletret mics are touted by the manufacture as superior quality, however in our tests we found that an external hand-held dynamic mic did a much better job hands down.

Olympus LS-10 ~ $300

Olympus LS-10 digital audio recorder

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This is one of the best audio recorders for its size. It is very highly reviewed, incredibly compact, and performs phenomenally. It comes with 2 gigabytes of built-in memory, but with an SD expandable memory slot. The display is easy to read, and the built-in mic is pretty good considering it's a hand-held. The biggest drawback of course is the price. This recorder will easily put a hole in your wallet, but it's compact nature makes it an attractive option for reporters who may want to use it for both note-taking and clear multimedia audio capture.

Sony PCM D50 ~ $500

Sony PCM D-50 Digital Audio Recorder

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This recorder just feels good in the hand. It's aluminum body screams durability, the knobs are incredibly smooth and the buttons are very accessible. While the form factor is the high point of this device, the price doesn't really justify the features when comparing this to other recorders in its price range. It does come with four gigabytes of built-in memory; something that would have probably been more attractive before the price of 2gb of SD memory dropped to under $20. The mini plug is built of metal making it more durable than other recorders with this same jack. This recorder also only records in Stereo tracks. It's a great recorder all around and people who buy it seem to be very happy with its purchase. It has a very loyal following among audiophiles.

Marantz PMD 660 ~ $500

Marantz PMD 660 Digital Audio Recorder

Click image to see larger version

Currently, one of the most common digital audio recorders used for professional news gathering. Used by almost all of the staff at National Public Radio for field recording, this device pretty much has it all. Two XLR inputs, phantom power, CF card slot and to top it off it uses AA batteries. It's a very simple device to use, and it's really easy to set the audio levels using a knob on the top. It's bulkier than some of the newer hand-held recorders on the market, and it has a very plastic feel to it. The built-in speaker is pretty much worthless, and the built-in mic is very susceptible to handling noise and button presses. The School of Journalism at UC Berkeley purchased about a dozen of these, and we found that the earphone jack has consistently broken on several of these devices. Also, the radio program here at the school has detected high EQ hiss that occurs due to a hardware flaw in the preamp. A company called Oade Brothers will sell these devices with a hardware modification for an extra fee.

Microphones

If one were to analogize audio recording to photography, the microphone would be like the lens of a camera. While the body of the camera remains an important component of the system, it is the lens that ultimately is the primary factor in determining quality. Microphones similarly play an crucial roll in the sound quality of audio recording. Using a cheap microphone on even the most advanced audio recorders will result in terrible sound.

Type

While there are many types of microphone technologies on the market today, there are two fundamental microphone types that you will find at most stores. Both types range from cheap throw-away models to very high-end professional grade models. It's important to purchase a professional microphone of a reputable brand. These generally range about $100 - $300.

Condenser - These types of microphones require an external power source, and are usually used in studio environments. They can also use something called "Phantom Power" where the microphone input will add electricity to help power the microphone. The drawback for these types of microphones is that they are not very durable, and are susceptible to moisture and the elements. They are not ideal for field reporting.

Dynamic - These types of microphones are very durable. They range from cheap to expensive, but the major benefit is that these microphones can withstand moisture and the elements quite well.

Note: ENG stands for Electronic News Gathering. Consider this when shopping for audio equipment. 

Both types of microphones have a particular "pick up pattern" which defines the area it is most sensitive to capturing audio. Omni-directional microphones will pick up sound from every direction equally, making them great microphones for ambient capture. Cardioid microphones are more directional, and allows the recorder to point the microphone the direction in which they wish to capture audio. Both have their advantages and disadvantages in various situations. It is important to purchase a microphone that is suited for the environment you will be recording in.

Polar patterns of microphones

Generally, directional microphones are good for interviews because they help to eliminate surrounding ambient noise. However, very directional microphones, like shotgun microphones, can be tricky if they are not pointed exactly at their targets.

Omni-directional microphones are good for capturing environments and ambient sounds. If you wanted to record a room, or say a band where the source of the sound is coming from various directions, omni-directional would provide the best coverage.

Products

There are so many types of microphones on the market today, it is hard to specifically make a list of all of the best brands. At the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, we use Sennheiser MD 46 dynamic handheld microphones, which have proven to be extremely reliable, and of high quality.

Sennheiser MD46 dynamic cardioid microphone

About this Tutorial

Buying guide for audio recorders

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