Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-M10

My decisions in choosing a sound recorder

When I first started recording, I started with a specific goal in mind: I wanted to record the vocalizations of white-nosed coatis (Nasua narica), a social member of the raccoon family. Previous research had revealed some evidence that, although most of their vocalizations were in the 100-19,000 Hz range, there might be some vocalizations up to 55,000 Hz. Research on their hearing abilities indicated that their hearing extended to 95,000 Hz – the highest of any carnivore. I also wanted very portable gear, as finding coatis in the wild often means long hikes in the mountains.

My first recorder (not counting lame attempts to record with my mp3 player): Zoom H4n

So I started looking for a recorder that would record up to at least 55,000 Hz. Because the sampling rate is 2X the recorded frequency (Nyquist principle), that would mean a recorder with a sampling rate of 192,000 Hz, as the next lower was 96,000 Hz which might miss the highest suspected vocalizations. But the options in the 192,000 Hz range were limited.

So I looked at the next option – a recorder that would record at 96,000 Hz. This would get me sounds up to 48,000 Hz, which was close to the suspected maximum. I figured if I was able to record sounds above 40,000 Hz, then I had justification for buying a more expensive recorder. Lowering my requirements for sampling rates put me in a larger field – large enough to make the decision much more difficult. There are a number of “pro-sumer” options here, from Sony, Olympus, Zoom, Tascam and others, with prices ranging from around $150 up to $1000. I ended up settling on a Zoom H4n because it was one of the few under $500 that had XLR inputs with phantom power, had onboard stereo mics, a large number of recording formats, and was around $250. Although I had no idea what I would do with phantom power, it sounded important, and I like all of the different options. I had no intention of buying additional mics, and just planned on using the onboard stereo mics.

Although I haven’t used it to record wild coatis, I have used it to record captive coatis and it performed quite well. I recorded vocalizations up to about 25,000 Hz. Then one day, when the birds outside my office were singing up a storm, I set the recorder outside on a patio table and let it run for awhile. The built-in mics, which are set in a x-y stereo pattern, recorded a lovely stereo image. I was hooked. I suddenly wanted to record every natural sound I could find.

I soon found out that the Zoom H4n is a rather noisy recorder. In quieter environments, it’s noisy pre-amps add a noticeable hiss to the recordings. Dealing with the wind on the mics was also an issue, which lead to some creative crafting of wind covers, and a lot of testing. So I picked up a couple of different microphones, trying to override the noise of the on-board mics. But the pre-amps for the plug-in power jack are also noisy. I finally came to the realization that to really record the quiet stuff, which became more fascinating everyday, I would need a quieter recorder.

My second recorder: Sony PCM-M10

My budget hadn’t improved any, and I still wasn’t willing to pack around 2 lbs. of recorder, so I took a closer look at the “pro-sumer” recorders. I follow the Yahoo! Nature Recordists listserv, and the recordists there gave several handheld recorders very good reviews. I also consulted Avisoft’s review of recorders. The Sony PCM-M10 and the Olympus LS-7/10/11 recorders received good ratings from Avisoft and good reviews from the list. Just before I was getting ready to purchase, Olympus released two new recorders, which were to replace the highly rated LS-10 and LS-11. But the reviews of the LS-12 and LS-14 indicated that they were noisier than their predecessors. Not liking the direction Olympus was going, I opted for the Sony PCM-M10.

I compare the Zoom H4n and the Sony PCM-M10 here.

 My third recorder: Acer Iconia W500

In 2012, Dodotronics released its Ultramic 200k, a USB microphone capable of recording up to 100 kHz.  It was designed to use with a Windows tablet, so I found a good deal on an Acer Iconia W500.  Using free software (SEAwave, SoundChaser Discovery and Audacity), I was able to get the high frequency recordings of the coatis.  For more details, see “Options for recording ultrasounds.”  However, when I upgraded the tablet to Windows 8, some software had trouble communicating with the microphone (the exception being SoundChaser Discovery, unfortunately, as the non-professional version has a two-week demo, and the professional version is very expensive).  Upgrading to Windows 10 did not solve the problem, which appears to be related to USB audio.

My fourth recorder: Samsung Galaxy S3

Although the Ultramic had trouble communicating with some Windows 8 systems, it did work on Android devices that have a USB host.  I was looking to upgrade to a Smartphone anyway, so I upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S3, which works great with the Ultramic (see “Audio Recording with a Smartphone“).

My fifth recorder: LG G4

When it came time to upgrade my S3, I chose another phone with a USB host.  The Ultramic works great with this phone, and the Bat Recorder app makes this an incredibly fun way to look at and record sound.  It will work with a variety of other USB mics, but I’m unaware of any that are suitable for nature recording.

My sixth recorder: Sony PCM-D100

Several years into recording now, and I love to record quiet environments.  The new D100 has amazingly quiet pre-amps, and is one of the quietest non-professional recorders on the market.  It is also the backup recorder for many field recordists. I also found a very good deal at B & H Photo on a used model, which was in great shape.  I’ll write up a review of the D100 as a nature recorder soon.

New recorders are coming on the market all of the time, and it’s likely that if I were buying my first recorder today, my choice would have been different.

My dream recorder? The size and build of the Sony, with it’s good pre-amps and battery life, but with a good set of x-y mics. I also would like a GPS chip inside and the ability to geotag files. It would include a timer, so that you could set it to record for, say, 10 minutes every hour. And if it could incorporate a meter that could record actual sound level in addition to relative sound level, you would have a really useful scientific instrument.

 Last modified June 2016.

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6 thoughts on “My decisions in choosing a sound recorder

  1. Great blog for an Semi-amateur sound recordist up in the Arctic, gone from H4 & H4n to the much better H5 & H6 and they are working fine for me! I use a Telinga stereo with PIP for lightweight reasons, and now I bought a Sennheiser to test the P48 as an surround in my (future) soundscapes. Thanks for useful tips and hints! Like to find out more on hydrophones as we have tons of Orcas and Humpbacks every winter here and I’d love to get their vocalisation recorded!
    Stein, Tromsø, Norway
    https://soundcloud.com/stein-rjan-nilsen

  2. Hello
    So you’ve purchased a Sony PCM D100 (M10 model is no longer manufactured) Can you give us your first impressions?

    How will you do to connect XLR microphones?

    The technical aspect interests me very much, there are a variety of recorders but few really suitable devices

    I look forward to your response
    Christian
    France

    • Hi Christian, Yes, I have the D100, which is my favorite recorder at the moment. I am planning on writing up a comparison with some other recorders soon, but in the meanwhile, here are my impressions. The external pre-amps are powerful and very quiet. They work great with the Primo EM-172 capsules, which is what I primarily use for mics now. The downsides of the recorder are that the onboard mics are difficult to use outside because they are difficult to protect from the wind, which is both a function of the x-y capsules and the way the recorder is designed. So far, I’ve tried several different wind muffs, all of which were very difficult to slide over the capsules, and often in doing so, some slider switches for mic/line and attenuation were moved. The wind muffs also failed to provide adequate wind protection. I have not yet tried the Rycote cover, but have heard mixed reviews.
      I don’t use XLR mics, but they could be run through an external power source and into the line port.
      Overall, I have to agree with previous reviewers that it’s kind of an odd recorder, not quite a pocket recorder, but not a professional recorder either. I think it does work well for lightweight external mics, and perhaps the on-board mics work well in a studio setting. If you were looking for a small but sturdy recorder for using with xlr mics, I don’t think it would be my first choice. I managed to find a highly discounted unit – it seems overpriced at the current list price.
      Hope that helps!
      Chris

  3. Someone is torturing me with hi freq sound, I was able to make recordings of it on my iPad, but only the louder blasts. The iPad mic doesn’t work well over 6000 hz, if I have the scale right. For me too hear it I believe the sound is under 20000 hz. It sounds like it is resonating. What is the cheapest way to record this so I can show it as proof. I am forced to live in woods now as the criminals are in the authorities and have closed down my life in there attempt to violently block my case.

    • Stuart, I’m sorry you are in such bad circumstances. There are lots of sound meter and frequency spectrum apps, which can inform you as to what’s going on. For legal action, you would need a profession sound meter, such as https://www.larsondavis.com/products/soundlevelmeters/SoundTrackLxTNForcer.aspx. Many sound meters only go to 8,000-10,000 Hz, as our hearing greatly declines above that, depending on age. Also, high frequency sounds are easily reflected by walls and windows. Low frequency sounds tend to be more problematic as they will travel through many types of building materials (I have this problem with neighbors who like to blast the subwoofers on their stereos – all I hear and feel is an annoying throbbing without hearing the actual music). You might play more with the various sound apps for your iPad to characterize the sound more. Perhaps there is a way to soundproof your dwelling so you can avoid the hassle of legal action. Best of luck!

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