Wildlife sound specialist and audio engineer Gregory Ovenden offers his advice and recommendations on selecting quality portable, handheld and field recording equipment.
As a field and wildlife recordist, I consider several factors when choosing a portable recorder. Preamp quality is probably the most important consideration as I am often required to record quiet sounds. Having noisy preamps while capturing low-level sound leads to unwanted hiss spoiling the recording. Of course, microphone specifications such as signal-to-noise ratio do factor in, but decent preamps help. This does affect the cost of the recorder. As a rule, the more you pay, the better the amps.
Portability is very important. Lugging cumbersome equipment can be a hindrance, especially if you’re constantly on the move. My first recorder was a Zoom H4N; although it did have a hand strap, it was still a nightmare having to operate a boom, press record and monitor levels. These days I go for recorders with shoulder straps, which are far more practical.
Battery life should be considered before purchasing a portable recorder. Batteries are costly, and have the habit of running dry at inconvenient times. I find AA battery-powered recorders don’t last long enough when phantom power is switched on. Most of the recorders I use these days are powered by heavy-duty batteries, lasting up to eight hours.
Sample rates and microphone powering options (Phantom, Plug-in-power) are other factors I look at. In some situations I like to record above the standard 48k 24-bit sample rate to allow more flexibility in post-production. Fortunately, most recorders go beyond this. Plug-in power (PIP) for microphones that only require 3-5V to operate is a feature not all recorders have. I have a pair of Microphone Madness omni-mics that only run with PIP. Of the three recorders in my inventory – an Olympus LS5, Fostex FR2 LE and Sound Devices 744T – only one of them has this feature.
A recorder I cannot recommend enough is the Olympus LS5. It’s lightweight, fits nicely in my pocket and can be thrown about a bit. It has a plug-in-power facility and good quality built-in stereo mics for recording ambiences. It doesn’t have phantom power, however, so I combine it with a Sound Devices MixPre-D via the unbalanced mini XLR connector on the mixer to Line-In on the recorder, creating the perfect lightweight and easy-to-pack recording setup. I use it as a backup recorder, carry it around everywhere I go and if I need to use phantom power with it, I can connect it up to the mixer. Line-In sockets are typically 3.5mm stereo inputs and can be found on pretty much all handheld recorders. It’s a really useful feature and definitely one to check for.
When out recording wildlife, I often leave a microphone recording up a tree somewhere to capture a close recording of birdsong. Invariably I’d use the LS5 as a recorder with the MixPre to power a microphone. It’s a small and inconspicuous set up and can be hidden well. I can then wander off with a parabolic reflector connected to a recorder I’m less comfortable leaving laying about.
Not a handheld recorder, but definitely worth considering, is the Fostex FR2 LE. Costing around the £500 mark, it is excellent for wildlife sound recording. It has two clean, quiet preamps, phantom power, a shoulder strap and easily visible metering. The two XLR inputs have independent gain and trim controls and although it has a plastic casing, it’s a sturdy piece of kit. Battery life is excellent, particularly if using remote control car battery packs – they last a good six to eight hours with continuous use.
At the top end of the price scale and for situations where two channels of recording aren’t quite enough, the Sound Devices 744T recorder fits the bill. It has the ability to record four channels of audio, an M/S decoder for mid/side stereo recording, several high pass filter options and a whole host of other features. Its 10-second pre-record function has been a lifesaver on many occasions, the preamps are top notch as well and seem to do wonders with even the cheapest microphones, and the recorder is built to last. The metering is easy to read with adjustable light brightness for low and high level light situations. The only thing it doesn’t have is built-in microphones.
As with all digital technology, there’s always something new on the market. Pocket recorders seem to come in all shapes and sizes these days but all in all, they have pretty similar features. Preamp quality probably differentiates them the most. I recently tried Zoom’s new H6 modular six-channel recorder. You can change the built-in microphones to the setup of your choice, and have up to six XLR inputs. This would be perfect for me when I want to record with lots of microphones but I can’t see the battery life lasting very long at all without keeping it plugged in to a power supply. This is definitely an issue for recording in the field. I imagine it’d be perfect for recording a band or orchestra in a concert hall with electricity, but not out in woodland somewhere.
More portable recorders are being produced featuring multiple built-in microphone capsules with switchable pickup patterns and stereo recording facilities too – for example the Zoom H2N and Tascam DR100. This is particularly exciting for those who wish to record bands/orchestras or wildlife ambiences outdoors in glorious surround sound.
Gregory Ovenden is an audio engineer, working in outside broadcast, and an award-winning wildlife sound recordist. He has worked on various feature films and animation and TV programmes in location and post-production sound.