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.