For months you’ve been shooting video using your camera’s onboard microphone. Then today you’ve landed a great gig. It has a bigger budget with more cash for the sound department.

However, the shoot is more demanding. This time, you’ll need better, cleaner sound. You must accommodate for distant talent and prolonged Steadicam takes. Recording audio direct-to-camera isn’t going to cut it any longer. What are your options?

The first step is to upgrade to better microphones. We explored shotgun and lav microphone options under $1,000 in the last post. The next step? Amplify your indie film sound quality with a dedicated audio recorder. Today’s post explores the best indie film audio recorders for under $1,000.

Audio Recorder Must-Have Features

image of sound devices mixpre-6, one of the best audio recorders for filmmakers under $1000
Sound Devices is the name to beat in terms of both build and sound quality.

Like any other pro sound gear, choices are endless with an unlimited credit card limit. That’s rarely the case when working on indie films. That means indie production sound mixers must make careful choices. What are the absolute deal breakers when choosing audio recorders to record for film and video? Let’s learn:

  • File format. Ensure an audio recorder can capture at least 48 kHz audio in the uncompressed BWAV or WAV format.
  • Phantom power. Required for powering microphones.
  • XLR input. Allows professional microphone connections. If you’re using boom and lav microphones, you’ll want at least 3-4 inputs.
  • Multi-track. Capture multiple microphones simultaneously on discrete channels.
  • Timecode. Timecode is a way of synchronizing multiple cameras and audio recorders. Budget recorders lack timecode, others are able to read timecode but not generate it, and higher-end recorders generate timecode themselves. Some offer time-stamping the starting timecode into a BWAV file. While many low-budget cameras will not have timecode sync options either, this may not be a necessity.

Nice-to-have features:

  • Slate microphone. This is a small, low-quality microphone built into the recorder itself. It allows the production sound mixer to dictate info to the track even if the microphones are being used far away.
  • Reference tone. Creates a tone on the recorder at a standard specification to ensure post-production pros are monitoring levels to match what was recorded on set.
  • Power redundancy. It may be a challenge powering audio equipment for the long days on set. Power redundancy switches to a second power source after the first expires.
  • Storage redundancy. Allow the recorder to spool to a second storage medium after the first fills.

Of course, audio recorders have dozens of other options. The features above can be considered basic requirements for capturing decent sound on set.

Now that we have our list of essential features, let’s see what our options are.

Digital Audio Recorders for Indie Filmmakers

Of course, the sky’s the limit if your bank account is flush. Let’s look at options for recording sound on a budget.

Emergency Audio Recorders

image of zoom h5, one of the best audio recorders for filmmakers under $1000
The Zoom H5 is a great audio recorder to keep in your bag along with a shotgun mic capsule and XLR input expansion module

 

Did your main recorder run out of power? No backup batteries? Perhaps someone carelessly knocked your recorder to the ground, smashing it to pieces.

Of course, these situations will be rare if you are well prepared. Just the same, many sound mixers pack a backup recorder in case of emergencies.

I’ve heard of absolutely catastrophic situations where a director is thrilled that sound crew can capture dialogue on a mobile phone. Pro kits will have backup audio recorders that outshine an indie filmmaker’s main kit. For all other situations, inexpensive portable recorders such as the Zoom H4n Pro ($199) with onboard microphones will capture audio when all else fails.

Want other economical options? Last resort backups can include Rode’s i-XY ($159) or Shure’s MOTIV ($149) mobile phone systems.



Low-Budget Field Audio Recorders (Under $300)

image of tascam dr60d mkii, one of the best audio recorders for filmmakers under $1000
The DR60d MKii is built for on-the-go videographers tackling their own sound

Let’s hope you’ll not encounter a disaster necessary to use a backup recorder. In all other cases, indie filmmakers can begin exploring options under $300.

  • Zoom H5 ($269). This compact portable recorder can capture 4 channels of audio. The combined XLR/TRS input allows flexible connectivity, as does the modular microphone-mounting ability. This is also a great on-the-go choice for recording sound effects!
  • Tascam DR-40 ($179). The DR-40 arrives with two onboard microphones and two XLR/TRS input jacks, allowing 4 channels of audio to be captured.
  • Tascam DR-60D MKii ($188). Another option from Tascam with a box-like form-factor designed be mounted beneath a DSLR camera. Includes two XLR/TRS connectors, a 3.5mm input, 3.5mm camera input, and flexible monitoring options designed for indie filmmakers.


Mid-Budget Field Audio Recorders ($300+)

image of tascam dr70d, one of the best audio recorders for filmmakers under $1000
For skeleton indie crews, it’s size and ability to rig this to camera is a winner

A slight cash injection will offer more options and flexibility at the $300 price point.

  • Zoom H6 ($299). The H6 is capable of recording 6 channels at once: 4 XLR inputs and 2 more from the onboard microphones. Like the H5 above, it allows Zoom’s modular mounting system to attach various microphones to the device, including a shotgun microphone option.
  • Tascam DR-70D ($299). The DR-70D departs from the handheld size with a broader, more user-friendly form factor. Just the same, it can be mounted above or beneath cameras and includes 4 XLR inputs, and audio out for the camera, 3.5mm in, and a tone generator option.


Semi-Pro Field Audio Recorders ($500+)

image of zoom f8, one of the best audio recorders for filmmakers under $1000
The Zoom F8 is a beast for its price. One of the best values in field recording.

An indie filmmaker’s life becomes considerably easier if they are willing to spend over $500. Improved preamps produce better sound. Additional features help get the job done more easily. These units also begin to include a feature that is usually limited to upper-end recorders: timecode. These higher quality recorders will only sound their best when using decent microphones. Check out our recommended microphones for filmmakers on a budget.

Let’s look at our options.

  • Tascam DR-680 MKii ($499). This 8-track recorder features 6 phantom-powered XLR/TRS inputs and a two-channel digital input which can be swapped for a two-channel mixdown. It has a digital out and 6 unbalanced outputs. What’s more, it writes to the BWAV format and can print starting timecode to each file. Other nice features include safety track recording, ganged channels, and more. This is the lowest price you’ll find for an 8-track recorder with a timecode option.
  • Zoom F8 ($999). Zoom surprised the location recording world by releasing this rugged, attractive touch-screen recorder at a jaw-dropping price. It offers 8 XLR/TRS inputs with preamps that have earned the respect of recordists worldwide. It generates timecode in both drop and non-drop frame formats, records to dual SD cards, and is powered by 3 power sources. There’s a slate mic built-in, and the F8 even allows attaching Zoom’s modular microphones. It is tiny, robust, and has shaken up the recording world with its attractive mix of features and reliability at an unheard-of price. For those looking to record background sound effects in ambisonics for VR or surround, this recorder has built-in software for that very purpose.
  • Zoom F4 ($649). Zoom’s F4 is a scaled-down version of the F8. The difference? Four tracks, a monochrome screen, and XLR outs. It also drops mobile phone app connectivity and the slate microphone but puts $350 back in your pocket.
  • Sound Devices MixPre-6 ($899). Respected field recorder manufacturer Sound Devices responded to Zoom’s F8 by releasing their own sub-$1,000 recorder. It sports a variety of inputs (XLR/TRS, 3.5mm, USB), records to a single SD card at up to 192 kHz/24-bit, and can mix down to two channels and output them to a 3.5mm jack. It accepts timecode via an HDMI input (but cannot create it). What’s most notable about the unit are its whisper-quiet “Kashmir” preamps, designed to amplify just about any signal without introducing noise. This has inspired even experienced pros to adopt the MixPre-6 as an economical solution. It’s these kinds of preamps that allow recordist to record proper roomtone, and ambience sound effects.
  • Sound Devices MixPre-3 ($649). The MixPre-3 is a lower-priced version of the MixPre-6. What’s changed? Well, the sampling rate tops out at 96 kHz on this unit. It features 3 channels. There are a few smaller features dropped, but at $250, the MixPre-3 is an excellent option for smaller productions.

 

What is your favorite production sound audio recorder? Is there a unit you love that’s not on this list? Share your ideas in our social media post.

Featured image courtesy of soundevices.com featuring aerospace engineer, visual effects expert, and cinematographer, Dan Slater.

 

If you’re working on a project and are in need of professional sound effects, but don’t have the budget or time to record your own, consider trying out Soundsnap. You could have unlimited download access to over 250,000 professionally recorded sound effects for less than 54 cents a day. You can even search and browse around first to see what’s available before you pay anything. Give it a try!