There are hundreds of portable digital recorders on the market and choosing the right one for you can be a frustrating and confusing experience. Over the years, I have used many different types of recorders in a wide variety of locations and conditions, and I’ve learned which features are desirable and which are not. Here are a few tips to help you make the right purchase.
Don't skip the headphones if you're recording an audio program like a podcast.
1. What is it for?
If you just want to make notes then I suggest you spend $20 on a basic Dictaphone-type gadget or use the voice memo app on your smartphone. However, if you plan to make podcasts or anything for public consumption then you’re going to need something more sophisticated. At this point, I could send you to sleep with a series of tedious consumer electronics reviews. Instead, let me simplify things greatly: For podcasts, you’ll struggle to beat the Tascam DR05 portable digital recording device at around $100; for programmes on a professional broadcast network, look at the Marantz PMD561 professional handheld solid-state audio recorder at $300.
2. Get something weighty
One thing the Tascam and Marantz portable audio recorders have in common is that they’re fairly heavy, which contributes to a reduction in handling noise. Handling noise is the crunching, scraping and banging made by your fingers when you adjust your grip while recording. I own a Zoom H1 – one of the top-selling digital audio recorders – and the handling noise is awful because it’s a very lightweight, plastic-bodied device with a glossy surface that tends to stick to your skin a little. As a result, it’s no good unless fixed to a mini-tripod or used with an external microphone. Believe me, handling noise is an important consideration.
The majority of digital recorders feature built-in microphones, however, for professional results I suggest you pair them with an external mic. As with digital recorders, the choice of mics can be bewildering and will be the subject of my next blog post. If you can’t wait until then, let me save you a lot of time: buy a Røde Reporter. They’re hefty, they’re durable, they deliver quality audio and they’re only $130. A cable to connect the mic to the recorder will set you back about $10. Aim to get something in the 1.5 to 2m range. Any longer and you’ll end up tripping over it.
If you plan to record outside, you must buy windshields for both your recorder and your mic. For the mic, get a foam ball. They’re usually black, red or blue and cost a couple of bucks apiece. For the digital recorder, get a hairy top cover. They look like a crazy little wig and they’re almost always a kind of silver fox grey. They cost around $17 each, which seems expensive until you hear the extraordinary difference they make to recordings made in windy conditions. I often record on boats so I’ve had a lot of problems with wind. Trust me – buy the wig.
5. Stereo or mono?
Are you recording musical instruments, steam trains, airplanes, a football match, a cock fight or a motorcycle race? No? If you’re recording only interviews or monologues, you don’t need to worry about the stereo or mono question. Not yet, anyway.
Buy a couple of 16Gb or larger SD cards. That way, your batteries are going to run out way before you run out of memory.
I’m going to shout so you don’t forget: HEADPHONES! Recording without headphones is like taking photographs without looking. You don’t have to spend too much money. I use Philips SHP1900s, which are $15 a pair, cover the ears completely and deliver a sound quality that’s more than adequate. Don’t be tempted by fancy wireless kit. Wireless devices need batteries and you don’t need yet another power drain.
A few digital recorders offer WiFi as an additional feature. To be clear, this does not enable you to access web pages from your device, it simply allows you to control it remotely using a smartphone. Take my advice and avoid WiFi. It’s a huge drain on your batteries.
And that brings me neatly to my final point. One or two of the digital recorders on the market are rechargeable units. Forget them. Buy a battery-powered device, always take spare batteries with you and always keep an eye on your battery level indicator. The moment it drops to the last bar, interrupt your recording and insert new batteries. A pair of double-As costs a couple of dollars, a great interview is priceless.
Have a question? Leave it below in the comments.
About the author
Mike McDowall makes podcasts. Already this year, more than 124-million adults in the US alone have listened to a podcast and worldwide audience numbers are set to double in the next two years. (Listen to Boat Radio).
To find out how a podcast could launch your company or client into the stratosphere, drop Mike a line: firstname.lastname@example.org