Portable Recorder Lineup

April 8, 2014

Portable, affordable and amazing quality

There are many forms of portable recording options, and they range from a device the size of a cell phone to a laptop to racks of equipment. In most cases, radio usually requires the smaller form factor to capture an interview, sound byte or impromptu performance. With this more common use in mind, we'll focus on the smaller options.

One attribute of portable recorders that continues to change rapidly is the amount of storage space. The cost of solid-state storage has continued to drop to the point that 32GB of memory can be bought for less than $5/GB. Because of the low cost of storage, many recorders that are only a few years old may be at a disadvantage with limited storage capacity.

All recorders now include USB connectivity as well. Some can function as audio interfaces (sound cards), too. This simple interface makes it easy to access the captured audio events.

Other common features of many recorders include automatic record levels, multiple file formats (WAV and MP3 being the most common), mic and line inputs, and clear metering. Some recorders provide basic editing functions for field editing. Many have some type of built-in microphone.

Form factors

Portable recorders take several shapes, but the dedicated recording device is the most common. Handheld and compact, these small boxes place a great number of features in a tiny package. Their bright displays and simple transport functions allow even the most inexperienced user to record quality audio.

The squarish devices typically have some type of mounting option available, whether it's a camera tripod thread or a custom clip. This makes it easy to place the recorder on a desk or podium during an event.

Some recorders have features that musicians will value, such as a metronome and tuner. Some offer 4-track recording, which may be suitable for live music. Many have some option to remotely control the device. There are cases where a wired remote could be handy, although some models offer a wireless remote, which would be useful if the recorder is placed in an inaccessible spot. One example would be on a podium at a news conference.

There are two models that have packaged the recorder into a microphone handle. For interviews, this can look more natural than holding a little box, but it has the advantage that it can hold a mic flag to make the station's call letters visible. The mic-style recorders have simplified transport buttons and minimal displays. For a user, knowing the sequences is not as simple as reading a display, but they are still easy to use.

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Portable, affordable and amazing quality

The internal mics on most recorders will provide audio quality ranging from good to great. Except for the stick-mic recorders, all recorders provide at least mic inputs. Personally, I like the robustness of an XLR connector for a mic. Many inputs use 3.5mm connectors.

Both styles of recorders may offer fixed (internal) or removable storage. Some have both. There are pros and cons to either. Fixed storage has the advantage of never being lost or the recorder not be loaded when it's used. With internal storage, power on and record. One drawback to internal storage is filling the capacity. If the recorder is used for long interviews or periods where it is not possible to offload material, the recorder can't record any more. With removable storage, a new card can be plugged in and recording can go on.

Many recorders with removable storage accept cards nearing 32GB. This allows for recording times that can approach days in length when a compressed audio format is used.

Power is another important consideration. Standard batteries and internal rechargeables have considerations similar to storage. Non-removable batteries typically charge when the recorder is plugged in to a USB port. This makes it easy to keep the recorder charged, but limits the time the recorder can be used in the field without being returned to a USB port. With common batteries, fresh cells can be installed on the fly. The Yellowtec IXM has fixed and removable batteries.

Since the first handheld personal devices (PDAs) were introduced in the late 1990s, there have been efforts to turn them into professional field recorders. The first attempts usually required add-on hardware making them awkward and bulky. Now that Ipods have become so ubiquitous, using them to record is natural. There are several software programs available for the Ipod Touch and Iphone. Adding a mic, such as the Blue Mikey, creates a practical option for field recording.

Going one step further with an Ipod, there are options to add metering and enhanced connectors to the Ipod. These docking adapters are bulkier than dedicated recorders, but if you're set on using an Ipod, there are choices. The two noted on our list are still compact.

View the comparison chart of various portable recorders.