Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10

Choosing a sound recorder for nature recording: the essentials

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, Sweetwater.com, B & H Photo, and other gear dealers.  The Wildlife Sound Society of the UK  also provides some equipment reviews.

Recorders capable of nature recording generally fall into one of several categories.  I refer to these as “pocket recorders,” “handheld recorders,” and “professional recorders.”  Pocket recorders have limited features, and a low price point, which means less expensive (i.e., lower quality) pre-amps.  They are small, light and easy to carry, but often lack the ability to record in multiple formats or attach external mics.  They will, in most cases, do a better job than your smartphone.   Olympus and Sony used to make some very nice pocket recorders (e.g., the Sony PCM-M10, the Olympus LS-11), but they have been discontinued and their replacements don’t seem as high of quality.  Pocket recorders include the Olympus LS-P2, the Sony SX-2000, the Tascam DR-05, and the Zoom H1 and H2:

Handheld recorders are slightly larger than pocket recorders, with more features.  They have better pre-amps (allowing recording in quieter locations), more ability to adjust settings to fine-tune your recordings, and the ability to attach external microphones.  The following group have list prices of under $500 USD (usually), and most have the ability to provide phantom power to professional microphones.   In order of the quietness of their pre-amps, the group includes the Tascam DR100 mkII, the Olympus LS-100, Marantz PMD661, the Zoom H5/H6, the Marantz PMD561, the Tascam DR-44wl, the Tascam DR-40, and the Zoom H4n pro.

A couple of handhelds stand out here, both for their price points (>$700 USD) and the lack of xlr jacks and phantom power.  Both powered plug-in power to 3.5 mm jacks and have very good on-board mics, however, and are popular among field and nature recordists.  They include the Sony PCM-D100 and the Nagra SD:

And some professional recorders with all the bells and whistles include Sound Devices 702, Sound Devices 722, Sound Devices 744T, Tascam DR-680MKII, Tascam HS-P82, Zoom F8, and Roland R-44.  Especially exciting are recent releases by Sound Devices (the MixPre-3 and MixPre-6) and Zoom (F4 and F8) that provide very quiet pre-amps along with more options like Bluetooth and USB connectivity.  All provide power for XLR and PIP mics.  Check YouTube for some nice video reviews of these models.  If you always use external mics, the Zoom F4 and SD MixPre-3 are a step up from the Sony D100 at a lower cost.

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 November 2017.

36 thoughts on “Choosing a sound recorder for nature recording: the essentials

  1. [email protected]

    Hi!
    Is there an handy recorder anywhere near the quality of the Sony PCM-M10 battery life, mic preamp, low noise, etc? Finding an M10 at a good price is near impossible. Damn Sony!
    Or something like a smaller Sound Devices MixPre-3 for external mics….I don’t now.
    Something ultraportable but with no compromise sound/preamp!
    Discontinued M10 whyyyyy 🙁

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      My thoughts exactly, especially since my M10 is starting to die. Sony came out with a replacement (https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1305530-REG/sony_icd_sx2000_high_resolution_portable_audio.html). It’s getting good reviews for recording music, but I haven’t heard of anyone using it for nature recording yet. My next recorder will be a MixPre-3, but the new Sony recorder is tempting, as something to keep handy for spontaneous recording.

      Reply
      1. C.B.

        I’ve read the SX2000 is more in the voice recorder line, no great mic/line input or other strong features of the M10. Different type i think.
        What’s insane is the fact that the “big” PCM-D100 is still at a nonsense price: MixPre-3 at 650$ and a couple of good basic external mics and you spend the same money but with pro quality preamps with XLR for easy upgrade with stellar mics in the future. the only downside is size….and battery life.

        Reply
        1. Christine Hass Post author

          I still don’t know what to think about the SX2000. I does appear to be in the voice recorder line, but it is rumored to replace the M10. Could Sony have missed the mark that much? I agree about the D100. Even after using it for awhile, it seems like good equipment poorly thought out. The MixPre 3 doesn’t seem that much bigger than the D100. I see it’s biggest downsides as the lack of onboard mics and battery life. Both of which make it non-comparable to the D100, which I guess means you need to have both, rather than one or the other;) Some of the Tascams, or even the Olympus L100 seem to have better feature sets at better prices, but they seem a bit noisier.

          Reply
  2. Xoán-Xil

    Hi,

    I am planning to setup an equipment for leave-and-drop recordings in a natural space.

    My idea is to use a not expensive recorder (i woudn´t like to risk my best equipment leaving it alone in the forest), a preamp (maybe this DIY: https://dxarts.washington.edu/wiki/electret-preamp-circuit) or the Soundman A3 adapter and two primo EM172 electret caps.

    I am specting to find very soft noises and I would like to get the better relation between the cost and the sound. So, here are my questions:

    – Does exist any cheap hand recorder with the possibility of bypassing internal preamps?

    – If it does not, could I improve my recording using the external preamp even passing the signal through the recorder preamp?

    I really appreciate any clues, tips, and experience about this practice.

    Thanks in advance

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi, thanks for the question. Several small recorders offer a separate line-in jack, or share the line-in with the 3.5 mic jack (in which case, you can specify whether or not you want plug-in power), so you can bypass the internal pre-amps. My Zoom H4n had the combo jack, and both my Sony PCM-M10 and PCM-D100 have separate line-in jacks. I have heard conflicting reports about the need for more power on the EM-172 capsules. Some people say they work great with the power provided by the small recorders; other say they benefit from more power. I haven’t tested an external pre-amp with my EM-172s.
      One other thing to consider with leave-and-drop recordings is the battery life of the recorder, which can vary tremendously. My little M10 could get several overnight recordings on a set of batteries, whereas my old Zoom H4n only got a few hours (newer models probably have better battery life). If you are supplying the power to the capsules externally, battery life may be less of an issue, but it’s worth researching before you buy a recorder. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  3. Bruce Van Deuson

    Hi, I’m experiencing a bit of a problem with my recordings. My equipment: a Tascam DR-P2 recorder. A Sennhiser mic mounted in a parabolic with both foam and fur windscreens. A Cloudlifter at the mic and new 3-pin balanced cables. Time is at dawn with no discernible wind.

    My setup: Mic, parabolic, and Cloudlifter are on a tripod outside the building, about 10′ away and aimed at a nearby lake for recording Loons. Cable through a mostly closed window. Recorder is on a table inside the building. Mic is using it’s own battery power. Using a 1Khz tone, mic position was adjusted in the parabolic for maximum output as indicated on VU meter.

    Problem: Recording has a low frequency base sound throughout the entire recording, not quite like wind but more of a steady tone.

    Any ideas?

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi Bruce, a couple of possibilities spring to mind. First is just the 60 Hz hum that often plagues electronics. Second is some distant machinery or road that the mics might be picking up but that your brain is filtering out. That happens to be fairly often, where I’m certain there are no distant low frequency hums, but the mics find them (my Sony mics are heavy on the low end anyway). Is it something you can filter out, either with a low cut filter on the mic or recorder, or in post?

      Reply
  4. Tyler H

    I have a zoom H2. I had assumed, since you set start and stop thresholds for the “auto-record” function, that it would START when the sound hits a certain level, stop when it fell below that, and then start again when it hit that level again.
    Instead, it just seems to start when you actually hit record, and then stops automatically, but will NEVER restart again automatically. It seems to be designed this way deliberately. I don’t want to record 3 days solid of the silence of the forest, I want a trigger that starts recording when a sound is picked up (a pre-record function of a couple seconds is handy to have with this as well.)

    Any suggestions for me? I don’t suppose this can be jury-rigged, so I assume I need to get a different recorder?

    thanks much

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      I would expect it to start and stop according to threshold, too. You might try to find any forums for Zoom recorders, or even try contacting Zoom, before getting a different recorder. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

      Reply
  5. Phil Brown

    Thanks for the great article Christine! I purchased a Sony PCM-D100 and wanted to say it does provide phantom power. The recorder asks if I want to turn phantom power on when I plug in my Audio Technica 8022 (which has it’s own battery so I don’t use it for that) but I also purchased the 20db pre-amp you mentioned and the Sony PCM-D100 powers that via phantom power every time I use it.

    Again, thanks very much or the great article, you nudged me down the road of nature recording with this and your mention of the 20db pre-amp is greatly appreciated!!!!

    Keep those wonderful recordings coming, I truly enjoy them!

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi Phil, The PCM-D100 does not provide phantom power (48v), but it does provide PIP (plug-in power), which is 2.5-5 v. Phantom power is usually provided with XLR jacks and larger cables. I just purchased the D100 and have been truly impressed by how quiet the pre-amps are, even without an additional boost. But you should be able to get some really quiet recordings with that mic and additional pre-amp. What do you think of the mic?

      Reply
  6. Eamon

    Hi! This is a great source of information. I am a graduate student hoping to record some clapper rail vocalizations and potentially analyze them. These birds can be loud but usually call from the cover of dense vegetation. I have a mid-range budget and was hoping you could recommend a portable and durable digital recorder that offers reasonable battery life, a good pre-amp, phantom power, 24-bit recording and any other features you think important! Thank you for the help.

    Reply
      1. Eamon

        Great! Thanks. I was hoping to use a shotgun mike simply because it would be easier to carry into the marsh, but if a parabolic reflector would be better I would consider one.

        Reply
        1. Christine Hass Post author

          You’re certainly right that a shotgun is easier to carry than a dish. A dish might get you better sound, though. And you can put together a nice dish with PIP mics. But they are a pain to haul around. Telinga makes a nice roll-up one, though. Nice thing about the Tascams is that they’ll work with either an XLR shotgun or a PIP mic.

          Reply
          1. Eamon

            Ok! I will look into the Telinga option! Thank you for the help. I will let you know how I make out with the recordings

            Reply
  7. John Moore

    I want a battery powered recording device to hang on my bird feeder and hear the songs inside my home. Can’t seem to find anything on the net. Can you help?

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi John, it sounds like what your looking for is not a recording device, but a microphone with a transmitter. It might even be possible to run a cable into the house and to a speaker. It’s a bit beyond my expertise, but maybe some of the other visitors to the site can chime in.

      Reply
  8. Rachel

    Hello! I am a biologist and musician interested in soundscapes and am wanting to purchase equipment. Field sites would include wetlands and grasslands (potentially very windy!) and eventually deciduous and rain forests. I am limited at the present moment financially and was wondering if I could get your opinion. Currently, I have a SONY IC recorder and am wondering about microphone(s). Is it preferable to have 2 microphones? Or will one suffice? There is a Rode NT1 available at a local music shop for a reasonable price, but I am wondering if I should wait and invest in either NT4 or NT5 since there are 2 microphones included. I am also hoping to use these microphone(s) while performing and I will need something that can pick up guitar, violin and vocals. Should I be looking for something dual purpose or find separate equipment? I appreciate your help! And I have found your blog extremely helpful so far!

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi Rachel, thanks for your comments. The Sony IC is a digital voice recorder, and not well suited to nature recording or music recording. Both of those require greater dynamic range and better pre-amps than the recorder can supply. In addition, regarding external mics, all of the mics you listed require phantom power through XLR, and the digital voice recorder supplies, at most, plug-in-power through a mini-jack (3.5 mm). In other words, there is no place to plug those mics in. Given the diverse needs you are looking for, you might look at something like the Zoom H5 or H6. They are not super for nature recording, but some of the most flexible out there in terms of their own built-in mics and types of external microphones you can add. The Zooms are also quite popular among musicians. You might be able to do everything you need with the built-in mics. I would suggest starting with a better recorder, getting to know it well, and then picking up external microphones. Good luck!

      Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      It depends upon if it’s in good working order, and what kind of mics you intend to use with it. It only takes professional (xlr) mics. So if it’s in good shape, and you have or intend to get professional mics, than that is a great price! I’ve heard some incredible recordings from that recorder.

      Reply
      1. george

        yes i know…its in good working order and of course i’ll take a professional mic like mkh60 which i prefer and i use already in a tv show and it has great results in all conditions…thank you for your opinion.

        Reply
        1. Christine Hass Post author

          I’ve never used either one of these, so I can only go by internet reviews. The FR2 is larger, quieter, has a higher sampling rate (192 kHz) but lower battery life. It appears to have a more robust build. Both appear to be pretty good, so I guess it depends on how much those factors matter to you. Hope that helps.

          Reply
    1. Liam

      wow, thanks, it’s way out of my price range, basically my situation is that I am very sensitive to noise, especially loud neighbors, barking dogs etc… my wife and I are house hunting in the county and the MOST IMPORTANT piece of information I need is – “are there loud neighbors? are there barking dogs?” and the only way I can think of, other than sitting in my car out front for a month straight lol … is to install some kind of device that will turn on and record noise, that is weatherproof etc… and not too expensive etc… any ideas? thanks!

      Reply
      1. Christine Hass Post author

        Hi Liam. Boy am I with you on that request. Although I would add to the list of noise – trains, planes, drag racing tracks, loud motorcycles, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know of an inexpensive way to acquire that info. The automated recorders run towards $1,000. There are Android (and probably iOS) apps that can record sounds based on a threshold (so they only record when noise hits a certain level). You would need an Android device that you would be willing to leave out for an extended period of time, plus a way to power it. If you can access the recorder at least once a day, you might just be able to pick up a small recorder (Sony PCM-M10, Olympus LS-11, etc) that can record for close to a day continuously. But you would have to change the batteries and storage cards frequently, and go through the files, which can be very time consuming. On the plus side, you probably wouldn’t have to do it for a whole month, and continuous recording would tell you a whole lot about the area. If you’re into programming, you could probably create a Raspberry pi device that might do what you want. Maybe someone else will chime in with some solutions. Best of luck and please let me know if you come up with a good solution.

        Reply
        1. Liam

          thank you so much for all your great ideas, I will definitely let you know if I come up something that seems to work!

          Reply
  9. liam

    am very interested in purchasing a recording device that is weather proof and portable, that i could leave outdoors for a week or so then download the recording, preferably one that only records when it “hears” sound, wondering if you might be able to point me in the right direction? thanks!

    Reply
  10. Walter

    Glad to find you again post-Coachella Valley bighorn days! Any advice on sound system to match with Canon 5d Mark III for recording audio associated with extreme weather events (thunderstorms, tornados, flash floods, wildfires?

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi Walter! Thunderstorms are some of the most difficult things to record due to the extreme dynamic range. Choice of mic depends on whether you want mono or stereo. For the former, you want a good shotgun mic, like a Sennheister MKE600 or MKH416. For stereo, something like a Rode NT-4 or an Audio Technica BP4025. Most mics labeled as “video mics” are more for dialog, and are too noisy and lack the dynamic range for what you want to record. You want to make sure you have a good camera mount and wind protection. While these mics can plug directly into the camera, I would add a mixer to help control recording levels, something like a Tascam DR-60d MKII or a Sound Devices MixPre-D. Some people will use a Zoom recorder, like the H4n as a mixer, but that’s a noisy recorder and I would advise against it. All of the sounds you mentioned have a strong low frequency component; make sure any high pass filters are set to “off.” Hope that helps!

      Reply
  11. John Spencer

    I agree with your ideas about choosing gear.
    I saved up to buy the FR2-LE (and later the PortaBrace carry pack for it) and I love it; it is well worth the money. I’m sure that the SoundDevices recorders are even better and also well worth the price, if you could afford one!
    I was thinking of buying the Sony PCM-10 but chose the more expensive recorder because it has a better technical specification.
    With hindsight I think I would have had as much fun sooner, and made good recordings too, if I had bought the PCM-10.

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Thanks for the comment, John. The FR2-LE is reported to be a great machine so I think you made a good choice. I’ve heard some amazing recordings from it, and it provides phantom power which the Sony PCM-M10 does not.

      Reply

What do you think?