There are a lot of options for nature sound recording on the market today, ranging from a couple of bucks for a microphone for your iPhone or Android phone up to more than $6k for a professional field recorder (I’m excluding analog and tape recorders). They also vary greatly in weight, with the professional versions in excess of 2 lbs., NOT including microphones, cables, batteries, wind covers and all the other goodies you need to make a decent recording.
So selecting the proper recorder takes some research. There are a couple of schools of thought on choosing a sound recorder. The first, which usually comes from nature recordists who had a previous life in professional audio or music production, is to save your money and buy professional equipment. This usually means a Sound Designs 702 or 722 or higher and Sennheiser mics. The recorder alone will set you back more than $2500. The other school of thought is to buy what you can afford and save for better stuff later. I subscribe to the latter school for a couple of reasons. The first is strictly financial. Saving for professional gear may mean you never get around to actually recording. Second, the gear is only part of recording, the rest is technique and post-production (editing). Sub-professional gear forces you to learn lots of tricks to compensate for noisier recorders and microphones. It also allows you to decide how much you really want to get involved with nature recording before spending too much money. If you become addicted, like many of us, then you can start figuring out ways to feed your addiction. Of course, I’m talking about people who are approaching nature recording as a hobby. If you are professional videographer or sound effects artist who needs to increase the quality of the sound production, your needs are a bit different.
What’s the difference between recording on your iPhone and recording using a professional recorder? The first, and most important, is the quality of the sound. Professional recorders can record at a higher bit rate (analogous to more pixels in a digital photograph), the recorders themselves introduce less noise into the recording, and they can record in a format that preserves more of the sounds (i.e., no compression). They also have more connectors and jacks for more microphones and mixers and most importantly, they contain good pre-amplifiers, which boosts the sound level coming through the microphone above the noise of the recorder. Most of them can provide “phantom” power (48v) for professional-grade microphones. For more about recording using a smartphone, see “Audio recording with a smartphone.”
Most recorders made today were made for the music industry or for voice recording. In general, a nature recordist’s needs are different. Nature is usually much quieter than a recording studio, and unwanted noise, in the form of wind or distant machinery, is much harder to control.
But before you even worry about cost, you need to ask yourself what you are planning on recording. This is even more important when choosing a microphone (see “Microphones for nature recording”), but also important with a recorder. If you are recording in noisy environments, you don’t need expensive pre-amps. If you are only interested in recording bats, there are specialized bat recorders and detectors for that, although some of the professional gear can handle that, too (and see my page, “Options for recording ultrasounds“). But if you want to record in quiet environments, or extremely wet or cold environments, then you need to give serious consideration to the quality of your gear.
1. Identify your needs
These will differ depending on whether you are recording professionally or as a hobby, what sampling rate you want to capture, and what inherent noise level you can tolerate. The type of microphone is also important, as professional-level mics often require phantom power, and not all recorders supply it. Higher sampling rates (to 192 kHz or higher) record more detail in the sound, and they can record much higher frequencies, including many bats. But the files are much larger, too, requiring more storage space and transfer time moving files around. As mentioned above, recorders vary in size and weight, so consider how you will be using the equipment and who gets to cart it around.
2. Identify your budget
Sound recording gear can get very expensive. Do you need the best equipment, and related, do you need it now? Can you buy lower or middle-end equipment now and upgrade later? In metropolitan areas it is possible to rent equipment, which will allow you to “try before you buy.”
3. Balance your needs and your budget
Don’t forget to budget for the costs of microphones (often way more expensive than recorders), cables, adapters, power supplies and batteries, tripods, wind protection (can also be pricey if you don’t make your own), carrying cases, and possibly pre-amplifiers or mixers. All of these add to the space needs of your equipment.
4. Periodically reassess your needs.
Keep an eye out for deals (I hear some good deals are available on EBay, but I’ve been outbid every time I try to buy something). Also, your needs may change – you may need lighter gear, or you may find that you’re not taking those 10 mile hikes with sound equipment filling your backpack any more, so heavier equipment would work fine now. You may decide that you’re not using those professional-level mics, but have switched to plug-in-power mics and can get away with a pocket recorder.
If you have the budget and weight of the gear isn’t an issue for you, by all means go for the professional-level gear. You will save a significant amount of time messing with equipment and recordings in order to make them sounds as good as the pros do. However, if money is tight, or you like do things the hard way, there are less expensive options. In addition to the Avisoft website, good reviews of the recorders can be found on commercial sites, including Amazon, Wingfieldaudio.com, Sweetwater.com, B & H Photo, and other gear dealers. I especially recommend the reviews on Wingfieldaudio.com. The Wildlife Sound Society of the UK also provides some equipment reviews, but they are a little dated. Theater of Noise just produced a list comparing a variety of new recorders on the market.
IN A NUTSHELL: Choosing a sound recorder for nature recording may be different than choosing one for the studio. Portability, durability, and quiet pre-amps are important features. The choice of recorder also depends upon what external mics you will be using with the recorder, and what type of recording you will be doing. The choice of recorders often means balancing features and cost.
I hope this was useful. Please feel free to leave comments.
Last modified June 2016.