Four under $300 audio recorders for double-system sound

With the rising tide of small cameras shooting spectacular HD video suitable for documentary work, along with D-SLRs like the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 7D whose images rival much more expensive (and heavy) cameras, I’ve observed a spectacular rise in gorgeous video, but good sound is not something that seems to go along with this trend. Small HD camcorders and D-SLRs are primarily image machines, and their audio inputs and controls are lacking.

But the camera itself has never really been the ideal place to record audio, since ideal microphone placement is rarely at the camera position, so double system (a.k.a. double or dual source) sound recording (which was the standard in the days of film cameras) is coming back in vogue. Double system is the practice of recording sound and image separately in production, and then synchronizing them in post production. This used to be a laborious process, but thanks to new tools like Dual Eyes or Plural Eyes from Singular Software, this process can be automated in Final Cut Pro.

So what to record with? Professional location sound recorders can cost thousands of dollars. If you’re on a tight budget, don’t fret, you can record excellent sound with one of several portable audio recorders on the market. For example, the following four units are all under $300. and can produce good results. In the end, microphone placement is at the top of the list of those factors contributing to the quality of location sound recording for your documentary.

In a future post, I’ll look at some higher-end recorders (the downside of these little puppies is they are not as quiet as you would like them to be). In my next post, I’ll talk in some detail about some microphones to use with these small recorders and how to automatically synchronize the audio from them to the audio and video recorded with your camera using Dual Eyes or Plural Eyes from Singular Software. One comment about formats: for video editing, I suggest setting these recorders to WAV, 16-bit, 48kHz recording. Don’t use the MP3 format for location sound recording. It’s fine for notes, meetings, etc. but you want to start off with the cleanest, uncompressed recording. Better formats like 24-bit and higher sampling rates are overkill for dialog and don’t produce significantly better recordings with these little puppies due to other limitations in their design.

Manufacturer Zoom (Samson) M-Audio Roland Zoom (Samson)
ZoomH2 MicrotrackII RolandR09HR ZoomH4N
Model Zoom H2 Microtrack II R-09HR Zoom H4n
Street Price (U.S.) $140 $180 $265 $299
Manufacturer’s web site [link] [link] [link] [link]
Recording formats WAV (BWF): 16 or 24-bit @ 44.1, 48, 96kHz (Stereo) and 44.1, 48kHz (4 Channel)
MP3: 48 to 320 kbps, @ 44.1kHz
WAV (BWF): 16 or 24 bit @ 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96kHz; MP3: 96 to 320kbps @ 44.1 or 48kHz WAV: 16 or 24-bit @ 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96kHz; MP3: 64 to 320kbps @ 44.1 or 48kHz WAV: 16 or 24-bit @ 44.1, 48, 96kHz; MP3: 48kbps to 320kbps @ 44.1kHz
Channels 2 or 4 2 2 2 or 4
Limiter/AGC Limiter or Automatic Gain Control Analog input limiter with bypass Limiter or Automatic Gain Control Compressor/Limiter
Low-cut Filter Yes No Yes Yes
Balanced inputs: No Yes (TRS, Mic or Line) No Yes (XLR/TRS combo)
Phantom Power: No Yes (48V) No Yes (48V or 24V)
3.5mm mini-jack audio input Yes (Mic and Line) Yes (Mic) Yes (Mic and Line) Yes (Mic)
Plug-in Power on 3.5mm mic input Yes (2.5 V) Yes (5V) Yes (5V) Yes (2.92 V)
Built-in Microphone Yes (W-XY mic patterns with 4 mic capsules and signal processing allows Front 90° cardioid, Rear 120° cardioid and 360° polar patterns) No Yes (Stereo 2 mic in T configuration) Yes (X/Y stereo configuration can be configured with 90° or 120° recording pattern)
Headphone output 3.5mm mini-jack 3.5mm mini-jack 3.5mm mini-jack 3.5mm mini-jack
Additional inputs or outputs Line in, Line out (via headphone jack) S/PDIF coaxial digital input, line out (RCA connectors) Line out (3.5mm mini-jack) Line out (3.5mm mini-jack)
Recording Media SD or SDHC flash cards up to 32GB CompactFlash (CF) or Microdrives SD or SDHC flash cards up to 8GB SD or SDHC cards up to 32GB
Display Screen Backlit LCD Backlit LCD 1.5″ OLED Backlit LCD
Interface USB-2 USB-2 USB-2
Power AA Batteries or AC adapter Built in Li-Ion battery (charges battery and can be powered via USB port) AC to USB power adapter included. AA Batteries or AC adapter AA Batteries or AC adapter (or USB adapter, not included)
Additional features Awesome stereo imaging with 4 microphone capsules and clever signal processing. Add markers to BWF recordings easily, includes electret t-shaped stereo microphone, software for
editing and file format conversion, 1/8″ stereo extension cable with lapel clip.
Wireless remote included; speed adjustment effects; Cakewalk Pyro Audio Creator software included Built in reference speaker, optional remote control, can be mounted on a standard camera tripod threaded mount. Four track recording takes two channels from the built-in mic and two channels from the XLR/TRS inputs. Can be used as an USB audio interface (sampling rate 44.1 kHz)
Commentary Popular, value priced contender, great for recording live music and ambience tracks. If you need XLR inputs, check out it’s big brother, the H4n. A solid performer. If you are looking for a small recorder to use with separate phantom-powered condenser mics, this might be the one for you, the built-in battery is it’s Achilles heel, it will not hold much of a charge after a couple of years of use. M-Audio charges about $75. for a battery replacement. If this recorder worked with AA batteries, it would the perfect portable recorder in this price category. The first Microtrack had issues with low phantom power voltage and did not have a limiter (essential for professional recording), and those issues got fixed with this model, I hope the battery issue will be resolved in version 3. A solid performer, if it had balanced TRS inputs with phantom power, it would be the perfect portable recorder in this price category. While I own a Microtrack v.1, I use these a lot in a educational context and they have held up well with student use and are good for teaching with their nicely organized menu, logical set of controls, and crisp, easily to read display. Having a choice between AGC or Limiter is nice. With X-Y microphones, 4 channel recording (so you can record stereo ambience with the built-in mic and dialog from condenser microphones or mixer at the same time, what’s there not to like about this nice update to the H4? One strange thing about the design is that the 3.5mm microphone jack is located on the back of the device, and the plug-in power voltage is not a full 5 volts, but does seems to work with a reasonable number of Plug-in Power microphones.