One of the most common questions I get from students is “what recorder should I buy?”. There are a few ways of answering this question as the right recorder depends on your circumstance, goals and budget.
Are you wanting to pursue location recording as a career?
If this the case, then you will want to invest in something that works really well and is either professional level or is customisable that it would be useful in a professional environment. Just like pre-amps in a studio-based environment, the quality of the gear influences the quality of the recording. Having a Neumann U47 won’t guarantee a great product, but a great large-cap condenser mic is worth investing in if you want to work as a professional. And price isn’t always an indicator of quality or a professional level tool. The Shure SM57 is a great example.
So, going for the professional top-end location recorders and mixers, aim for: Sound Devices, Zaxcom, Aaton and Nagra. These are some of the top of the line brands. The consumer or semi-professional level recorders can also be really great. Zoom, Tascam, Roland, Edirol and Sony all make great recorders in different forms.
If this is going to be your main career path, its worth investing a few thousand dollars in getting something that will last and will sound great. However, you can start small and go with a modular style setup that won’t break the bank.
For example, grabbing a Zoom H4n and a Sound Devices 302 Mixer. The mixer has a couple of nice sounding pre-amps which you can then run into the Zoom and use that as the recorder (as the 302 can’t do recordings). I’ve used this setup a number of times (and I have my students use this setup as an intro to location recording) and it works well for something that sounds solid. If you’re going to go with this type of setup then you can upgrade different parts to improve it over time.
Do I need timecode? (aka What is timecode?)
Short answer yes with an if; long answer no with a but. (c) The Simpsons. You need a recorder that can handle timecode if you are working on productions that are running timecode. Timecode is a piece of information that we can record with our media that allows us to sync up our picture and audio based on the data and there is plenty of different gear that is associated with working with timecoe
Having a recorder that runs timecode (or the timecode version of a recorder) will always be more expensive than something that otherwise has the same feature set. So I’d only recommend investing in the timecode side once you have got the type of work that requires it. (This results in a bit of a chicken-egg situation; “I can’t take this job because I don’t have the right gear. But I need the jobs to justify buying the gear.”)
If you are planning on working on student or indie films, its unlikely they’ll use timecode. Also if you are shooting on film, you won’t use timecode as you can’t record timecode to analogue film. Also also, you might be shooting digital, but the cameras might not be running timecode … So it really depends.
So, my recommendation is; If you are starting out, rent the gear if you need it. Have your own recorder, if they want to shoot timecode, then rent it. If its a one-off then you should have the budget for the production cover it (this should be organised when you come on board to the project and be really upfront about it). If you are repeatedly doing this, then invest in the gear.
Do you want it for location sound effects recording?
This is where timecode is much less of an issue and realistically, you don’t need to worry about it. Here, you aren’t usually ever working with picture and even if you are it would usually just be for reference, rather than shooting.
Have a couple of channels for a nice mono mic and a stereo rig will get you through most sound hunting adventures. A good mic with a good pre is key here as these will be effects that you master and use in a specific production or into a sound library for use later or for selling (which is becoming a bigger and bigger market). You’ll also need only one headphone out.
Do you want it for working on film sets for recording production sound?
Here is where timecode can potentially be a factor. If you primarily want to be a production sound mixer (or a sound recordist or boom operator), then you need a fairly flexible and variable setup depending on what the requirements of the shoot are going to be.
Likely you’ll need multiple channels of recording (4+) to handle booms and wireless receivers as well as needing to provide headphone mixes for yourself, boom operator, director and host of others. Depending on the type of shoot, you’ll be going with a bag setup or a cart setup. Bags are great for small agile productions (shorts, commercials, docos, etc). Television and features can potentially need a sound cart with a larger mixer to manage the signal flow required on a larger set.
Here, flexibility with signal flow is key. Your focus should be on mixing features as this will give you more options. For example, the Sound Devices 552 or 664 gives you either 2 or 4 tracks of recording, but has more options with inputs and outputs. This would allow you to dump a mono mix live onto the camera for the editors reference before post starts. If you need more channels of recording, add a small 2-track handheld to get another couple of channels of recording.
So, which one do I buy?
Whichever one is right for you. The best piece of advice is; go for quality, relative to your requirements, because it will make a difference in the long run.
Other great resources on this topic:
- Sound 101: Building Your Sound Kit
- Top 10 Best Portable Audio Recorders
- Parade of Sound Carts (Cinema Audio Society)