I’ve had three emails today from people asking advice as to what gear to buy when starting out doing field recording, and rather reply to them directly I thought I’d write some ideas down here, primarily so I don’t have to keep answering a recurring question but also so others can comment with their advice, experiences & to also reccomend other resources online. But here is my take on it….
To give advice there are a few questions that must be answered first:
1. Whats your budget?
2. Whats the intended purpose of your recordings?
3. How long term are you thinking? Is this a hobby, a whim or the start of a career?
These three questions are all related. Your immediate budget will be the primary limit of your options, but Q2 and Q3 will inform how that budget should be considered. One scenario is that you are considering a one off purchase with no intention to spend further money. Option two is that this purchase will be the first of many. In fact if sound recording is to be an important part of your career then you will be starting a journey of endless upgrades, and this fact (because it IS a fact) means it is worth thinking & planning long term, from the outset.
1. So the easier scenario to discuss is the one-off
e.g. you’re a muso who would like to do some field recording for your own work; whether its recording your acoustic guitar/whatever while on holiday or away from computers, or recording demoes, or collecting some ambient or found sounds, or a student on a budget. Likely in this case the best option is a portable handheld recorder, the make and model of which I don’t have time to research & make specific reccomendations, but one thing worth considering is that while most portable handheld recorders have built in mics, if you want the option of using other external mics then you likely have to pay a little more to get a portable handheld recorder with XLR mic inputs, and it may be worthwhile pursuing…..
Another bit of advice when buying any audio gear: try it before you buy it! Chances are you wont be buying a serious bit of audio gear very often, so you don’t want any surprises when you do – you want to know what you are buying and you also want to have tested it, handled it, recorded something with it & have a feel for how it behaves & performs. Tell the company you are potentially buying from that you need to test it, if they don’t have a test model available try another company or ask around and find someone local who has one & ask to borrow/rent it for a day. Go record some stuff, load the recordings and have a listen.
Also: when you have settled on which portable recorder to buy, do some more research and budget for some proper wind protection for it, like these mini Rycotes. These little recorders often come with a thin foam cover which is maybe useable in very light wind but you do not want to ruin a good recording by discovering the limitations of thin crappy foam. And wind takes many forms apart from the literal eg the woosh/wind gust of a train passing or a bamboo stick swishing or whatever…..
Now before you dive into researching which model, a little bit of pragmatic advice: you get what you pay for. When I bought my Zoom H2 I was on holiday in Japan and I bought it because when travelling light it was impossible to take my full record kit. I’d done a bit of recording in Tokyo and met up with David Vranken, a good friend who I’ve worked on a couple of films with (Number 2, 30 Days of Night) – he was in Japan working on a film and collecting sounds for it, so he DID have his full record kit, a Sound Devices 744 and Schoeps MS rig. I was buzzing out about having the Zoom recorder and made him have a listen, he smiled and gave me his headphones have to a listen….. and well, it was like chalk and cheese.
You get what you pay for. Don’t go expecting miracles from a tiny cheap recorder with built in mics. If my Zoom h2 cost US$300, then the mic capsules might be worth US$50. You do not get miracles with a $50 mic capsule. You defintiely can record useable sound with them but don’t expect to be recording very quiet ambiences or very quiet sounds where you need to crank a lot of gain and don’t expect to have the same clarity and definition of professional microphones. You get what you pay for. But in my situation on holiday: without the Zoom h2 I would have recorded no sound, and any sound is better than no sound, even if its only useful as a reference.
Zoom H2 on holiday at Naoshima, Japan
So here’s a few sites to read reviews and compare portable recorders, just be aware new models are being released all the time.
2. So the second scenario: you’re in it for the long term.
I’ll bore you with my history of recorders & mics just so you can see where I’m coming from…
When I started out my first recorder was a Nagra 4.2 and Sennhesiser MKH416 shotgun mic, borrowed via a friend from Film School. I had to buy my own 1/4″ tape and batteries, and OMG did that Nagra weigh a ton! But I learned lots using it and still have the recordings I made with it, and I also learned the value of reversing sounds (playing tape backwards) and repitching sounds, by recording at 15ips and replay at 7.5ips or 3.75ips.
It wasn’t until I’d been working in the film industry for 3 or 4 years that I could afford a recorder of my own, and that was a new Tascam DAP1 portable DAT machine (approx US$1000) that I got via a group buy we did (we, the sound editors on Peter Jacksons The Frighteners) and a secondhand 416 shogun mic (approx US$1000). The DAP1 was only 16 bit and had fairly noisy preamps if you cranked them too much. But I recorded a LOT of sounds with them that have been in films and are in my library and will be used in other films in the future. (And an interesting factoid for any snobs who disregard gear if its not high 24bit 96k etc: all the sound editing for many Oscar winning films was done 16bit 44.1kHz, just as before that many great films were edited using analogue tape)
But its an important side note to remember: its not the gear that records interesting sounds, its the person operating it. I bought my first recorder after spending 3 or 4 years of working full time in sound post. If you are starting out, you need to learn to walk, get some experience, make a lot of mistakes, get frustrated & find determination to keep learning before you should dream of running. Aspirations are good and important, but reality dictates you need to learn through experience, through doing, a lot!
My first disk based recorder was a Fostex FR2 – the leap up to 24 bit was instantly apparent and so was recording at higher sample rates. The preamps were way better than the DAP1 and at last I could load my sounds faster than real time (although there IS a benefit to loading off DAT – you were forced to listen to all your recordings in a pass without being about to mess with it). I think it cost me more like US$1500 new. About this time I also bought my Sanken CSS5 mic (secondhand US$2k) After 18 months or so the FR2 died, it was during 30 Days of Night and I remember the moment: we had gone on a field trip to one of the most revolting places I’ve ever been – a factory that disposes of medical wastes by incinerating it at very high temperatures. We needed these sounds for the ‘Muffin Muncher’ in the film and I was recording with a contact mic on a pipe when it made this weird frequency ramping sound followed by silence… As it turns out it was an ominous silence, after getting it checked out it became apparent it was not worth fixing – the cost was prohibitive. So I was forced to upgrade again.
My FR2 – rest in peace!
By this time Sound Devices were getting a lot of respect for their recorders so I bought a 722 (US$3000 new). It felt way better built than the Fostex, like driving a BMW after driving a Toyota (the Toyota still gets you there but the differences are very significant in operation and results)
Slowly I picked up more mics – a pair of Oktavia MK012s (new), a Trance Audio Contact mic (new), some dynamic mics EV RE27, AKG D112, a cheap AKG (secondhand) then a Barcus Berry contact mic (new) then a Sennheiser MKH70 (secondhand). then I bought a second recorder last year, a secondhand Sound Devices 744. Then a Sennhesier MKH816 (secondhand), then sold it and bought a second MKH70 (secondhand) and also bought a pair of DPA 4060s (new).
The reason I recite all this crap is this: do you see any patterns?
Firstly, on the advice of my friend, who recently did an eToro review uk, I’ve upgraded my recorder four times but the mics I’ve generally added to my collection but (mostly) not sold them. Microphones for a sound recordist are like lenses for a photographer or cinematographer, you may only have one recorder but half a dozen mics. Investing in a good recorder means it will last longer, but they are based on technology that is still advancing fairly rapidly and 2 years after your purchase you may well be replacing your recorder, and its resale value will have plummeted.
Another thing to note: microphones are a bit like cars, you pay a premium to buy them new. As soon as you take them out of the store they lose their value drastically. The last MKH70 I bought I paid US$1500 for it, with full Rycote fluffies etc. Thats a US$1800 mic new, and the Rycote and fluffies would probably add another $750 to it, so I saved approx US$1000 by going secondhand! And other than when a mic is newly released or idiosyncratic/rare & not available secondhand, I would always prefer to buy a better mic secondhand than a lesser mic new. But thats just me, trying to make my budget go as far as possible, and get the best gear that I can afford.
Similarly when I bought my 744, I only had the budget to buy a new 722, but I knew I wanted to be able to record more than four tracks (for multiple mics/perspectives but also for the inevitable 5.1 mic array that I’ll eventually find & use) So rather than settle for two 722s I bought a secondhand 744 and it has served me well, along with a secondhand 302 preamp. Would I prefer to have bought new? Of course yes, but I am a pragmatist (and I made sure I got a 3 month guarantee with the 744 just to be sure)
So whats my advice?
Recorders: Apart from their build quality, design & features, I personally think the C-Link feature on the Sound Devices recorders is truly genius! It means you can add tracks as you can afford to – start off with a stereo 722 or 702, and when the need arises either buy or borrow another one! And by borrow I really mean contra: its likely you know someone else in the same situation as you locally, so loaning them your 722 when they need it means the same is true vice versa. Buy that C-Link cable! But there are plenty of other options of recorders and everyone has their favourites – my FR2 was a good machine while it lasted. So feel free to suggest others in the comments.
This is where it gets tricky, but you will likely want to get a decent shotgun mic to have the sensitivity & directionality to get satisfying results. My first mic was a 416, I did a lot of recording with it and often borrowed a second one when going ambience recording. I still have the mic but very rarely use it as I like my other mics more – the tone of the Sanken CSS5 is better to my ears and when I need it, the directionality, tonality & reach of the MKH70 is far superior to the 416. But that 416 would still get very good results. Whether you invest in MS or a stereo mic or discrete mics is really a personal choice, and one that you will be making and reconsidering throughout your entire career. I’m very happy with the mics I have, but I would LOVE to try the new Sennhesier MKH8060s and 8070s. I’d also love to trial the Sanken 5.1 mic, and the DPA 5.1 mic. But it will likely take a specific project to justify it.
The other stuff: cables, microphone mounts, wind protection, headphones, bags – these all take research, experience & trial & error to find what best suits you. Its evolutionary, so if you are thinking about starting out and buying some field recording equipment, then know this: you will be going through the same decision making and assessment process constantly. Its not that we are all gear freaks in and of itself, what matters is the results – THAT is what should most inform your evolution. Ease of use & efficiency is important, but if that was all that mattered then we’d be back at scenario one: a pocket sized portable recorder. But the best results come from knowing how to use your gear and evolving it as you learn.
So here are some questions for experienced people:
What would you give higher priority, your first recorder or the mic?
Say you had a US$3000 budget for a starter field kit, how would you spend it?
Option 1: Sound Devices 702 (new US$1800) + Sennhesier 416 w Rycote (secondhand US$1000) + Headphones & bag (US$200)
Option 2: ?
UPDATE: THANKS to all the people who have commented with suggestions!
UPDATE 2: I’m also happy for people to comment with links to trusted equipment suppliers for field recording & production sound, apart from actual manufacturers like Sound Devices or Sennheiser etc I also mean rental and equipment resellers who specialise in production sound.
Here in New Zealand we are blessed to have Sound Techniques which is where I bought both of my Sound Devices recorders as well as Sanken mic and any number of essential accessories
UPDATE 2021, 10 years later!!
recorders: Sound Devices 722 x 2, 744, 788T, MixPre10-II (note: same old 722!)
microphones: Sennheiser MKH8040x2, MKH8020x2, MKH8050, Sanken CUX100K, DPA4060x2, UsiPro x6
dynamic mics: Sennheiser 421 + e602, AKG D112, EV RE27, Beyer M10 x2, Beyer M201 x2
Trance Audio Inducer contact mic + preamp x2, Barcus Berry Planar wave Contact mic + preamp x2
H2A hydrophone x2, Elektroluch EMF sensor