You’re committed. You’ve decided to improve the audio for your next project. Maybe you want to record your band practice next week on something better than an iPhone. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about capturing cleaner location audio for your film. There may be other reasons: getting the cleanest interviews for your podcast, documenting naturing recording, or iOS video recording.

The upshot? You want to supercharge your sound recordings, avoid breaking the bank, and sidestep getting tangled in the maze of gear options in the jumbled market today.

The quickest and easiest way to do this is to add a portable audio recorder to your kit. These all-in-one units feature built-in microphones, an intuitive interface, and superior sound in a form factor that’s built to fit in your pocket.

There are dozens or portable recorders released every year. What’s the best for you? How to you choose? Today’s post is here to help.

 

What Are Portable Audio Recorders?

For years, capturing digital audio was limited to expensive and bulky professional recorders. Things have changed. It’s now possible to record professional audio for under $300 (or less!) from a kit no larger than your hand.

Portable recorders differ in features, price, and form factor. Generally though, they are:

  • Inexpensive: from $99 to $500.
  • Self-contained: microphones, interface, display, power, and storage are all packed into a single kit.
  • Small: digital recorders are designed to be compact and portable, ranging from the size of a candy bar to paperback book.
  • Simple: easy to use with intuitive controls, and designed to get up and running quickly.

These features make them perfect for beginners wishing to experiment with professional audio for the first time.

 

A Creative Explosion

Portable audio recorders have exploded in popularity in the last five years.

One reason portable audio recorders have become so widespread is that there are many different people that use them. Musicians capture inspired riffs during jam sessions. Field recordists carry them to record impromptu sound effects. Filmmakers may strap a portable to a DSLR to collect improved audio for their indie film.

In response, the portable audio recorder market has grown to a half dozen manufacturers that offer a handful of models each. For beginners interested in recording better audio, that is a problem. Which model is best? It’s difficult to know.

Here’s the short answer: there isn’t a single audio recorder that is perfect for everyone.

That makes sense, of course. Each pro has their own needs.

So, instead of telling you what recorder is best, today’s article will teach you how to choose. Let’s learn how.

 

Portable Recorder First Choices

While everyone’s needs differ, people tend to think of portable recorders three ways.

The first is price. If you’re dipping your toes into the world of pro audio you likely won’t have the same knowledge as veteran production sound mixers. So, it makes sense that you want to make every dollar count until you learn more.

The second is purpose. A band that records in the studio has different needs than a field recordist recording in a jungle.

The third is feature set. A field recordist will want sterling audio for the quietest nature sounds. Musicians may want to mix tracks on the recorder itself. A podcaster will need inputs for lavalier microphones. Filmmakers may need their recorders to be compatible with the cameras they use.

Let’s learn how to choose.

 

Getting Started Recording Audio

Are you a casual audio fan? Interested in experimenting without breaking the bank? If you have a mobile phone and a few hundred dollars you can get started. How?

 

portable audio recorder

 

Start by connecting a detachable pro microphone directly to your mobile phone. The pro microphone gathers audio better than a phone could ever record. An app on the phone collects and saves the audio. It’s a simple solution for people who want to improve audio without adding bulky gear or emptying their wallet. Australia’s Røde offers the i-XY ($199) for iPhones. The budget-minded Zoom brand shares two flavours of iPhone microphones: the iQ6 in X/Y and the iQ7 in M/S ($99 each). Shure released the MV88 which is a bit pricier at $149.

 

Budget-Minded Portable Recorders

Planning more serious recording sessions? Just a little more cash will buy you a dedicated portable recorder with improved features.

The most inexpensive option is Zoom’s H1n ($99), an ultra-compact recorder which captures 96 kHz audio in X/Y stereo with pre-record, auto record, and a mini-jack for external microphone expandability.

 

portable audio recorder 2

 

Japan’s Tascam offers the DR-05 ($85) boasting the ability to record louder sounds (125 dB SPL) while contributing less noise (92 dB signal-to-noise ratio), and up to 40 kHz. More recently released from Tascam is the DR-22WL ($119). Sporting a camera-inspired “Scene Dial” designed for no-nonsense recording in typical situations (music, speech, band recording), it also is one of the first recorders with WiFi app remote control, as well as uploading to Soundcloud. This is a good option for musicians.

In late 2018 Sony added the PCM-A10 ($149) to its popular line of recorders. It also features an app for remove control, and has built-in rechargeable batteries, and over 6 hours of 96 kHz recording. The A10 wins points for adjustable microphones that allow the unit to be used a wider range of projects. Field recordists will appreciate its ability to capture narrow specific sounds as well broader ambiences.

 

portable audio recorder 3

Zoom’s H2n ($169) is a specialist’s choice. It is designed to record in four modes: X/Y, M/S, and surround in 2 or 4 channels. That’s helpful for filmmakers or multimedia pros that want to dabble in VR or spatial audio. It doubles as an audio interface for sound editing apps.

 

Expandable Audio Recorder Options

Do you find yourself working on more challenging projects? Need cleaner sound, expert features, and expanded options?

Both Tascam’s DR-40 ($172) and DR-44WL ($201, WiFi option) as well as Zoom’s refreshed H4n Pro ($199) offer 4-track recording with an important new feature set: two channels are provided by the onboard microphones while the second pair are added via external microphones connected their XLR/TRS inputs. Want to add a lavalier or shotgun boom microphone to your mix? These recorders allow valuable expandability for more complex filmmaking or podcast projects.

 

portable audio recorder 4

 

The Zoom H5 and H6’s higher price points ($249 and $399, respectively) reflect the top tier of their portable recorder options. Are you working on projects that demand quality and flexibility? The H5 and H6 were designed to help. The onboard microphones are detachable, and can be swapped for X/Y, shotgun, and M/S capsules. Special care was made to ensure they have the cleanest sound and greatest sound floor of any portables on the market. The difference between the two? The H6 offers 4 XLR/TRS inputs over the H5’s two, provides onboard mixing, a colour screen, and a form factor made to be paired with a camera.

Interested in delving into 360 audio? Zoom’s recently-released H3-VR ($299) captures Ambisonic, binaural, surround, and stereo recordings with options to stream, control via mobile app, and format conversion.

 

Professional Portable Recorder Choices

Do you need to record quiet forests, distant birdsong, or subtle soundscapes?

If so, one feature is essential: a clean preamp. Budget recorders are capable of recording loud sounds. However, recording quiet ambiences reveals the limitations of the thermal noise present in any electronic device. Cheaper recorders have more of it: a broad, coarse, hiss. If you plan to record nature soundscapes and avoid this sound intruding on our recordings, you will need the top tier of portable recorders.

 

 

The king of portable recorders is Sony’s PCM-D100 ($774). It provides the most detailed, quietest sound at the highest resolution possible. Tascam DR-100mkIII ($399) is another option with an added bonus: it includes XLR/TRS jacks for external microphone connectivity. Which should you choose?

The D100 provides cleaner sound, while the DR-100mkIII offers better expandability with its external jacks.

Both capture sound that surpass the other recorders in this list.

 

How to Choose a Portable Recorder

Ini this post we explored many portable recorder options. How do you choose what’s right for you? Let’s review:

  • Budget. Consider how much you are willing to spend. Generally, recorders fall into these tiers of price, quality, and feature set: less than $150, $150 to $400, and over $400. If you have cash to spare, even $50 will access more features and better sound.
  • Purpose. What are you planning to record? Music, crowds, interviews, or nature sounds? Will you work inside where form factor isn’t as critical, or in the field where every ounce counts?
  • Features. What features do you need to get the job done? How many channels of audio will you capture? Are you recording quiet sounds, or loud ones? Will you add microphones to your recorder, or will the onboard ones be enough? Do you need an audio interface to edit sound afterwards?

As we learned earlier, there isn’t a single recorder that’s perfect for everyone. Each recorder’s price, purpose, and features vary. Just the same, choosing any of them contributes something vital: the ability to share your creativity and inspiration, through sound, to the projects you join.

 

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Need some quick tips? Here are some recommendations for typical projects;

Filmmaking

  • Standard project: Zoom H5
  • Elaborate project: Zoom H6

Field Recording

  • Casual or entry-level recording: Zoom H4n Pro, Tascam DR-40, Sony PCM-A10
  • Standard recording: Zoom H5
  • Elite recording: Sony PCM-D100, Tascam DR-100mkIII

Music Recording

  • Solo, casual recording: Zoom H1n
  • Standard recording: Zoom H4n Pro, Tascam DR-40, Sony PCM-A10
  • Multi-instrument recording: Zoom H5, Tascam DR-44WL

Exploring Audio/Beginners

  • Low budget: Røde i-XY, Zoom iQ6
  • Mid budget: Tascam DR-05, Tascam DR-22WL