Saturday, October 13, 2012

Choosing a Recorder

There are many differences in recorders, both in features and quality. In this post I will be discussing some of the key differences in field recorders, and what the benefits of each are.

First and foremost, you need to decide what kind of recordings you will be primarily using it for. That will often dictate a lot of the key features of what recorder you should consider, assuming that you only want to pay for what you need. However if money is no object, then pick out the top few and draw one out of a hat.

If the bulk of your work is Reality TV, and you are one of the last kids out there still mixing to camera or just a two track, then there are some great options out there for you. If you primarily do Feature Films and Narrative work, your options are going to be more expensive because your line of work is very demanding as far as various services that you are expected to provide on set. If you are a Sound Effects recordist, then you may have a variety of needs depending on what kind of things you record, and how intricate you get. For documentaries, there are also a number of options. Is there a recorder good for all occasions? Yes of course, but it may be out of your price range if you do not really need many of its features. Lets discuss the options.

Feature Films and Narrative work is very demanding on the Sound Dept because it requires a great many things, and naturally we have to provide a ton of very expensive equipment. This is one of the reasons why Sound is among the highest paid people on set; because of the advanced knowledge and experience they need to have on a great many levels, and because they provide a lot of expensive equipment. Some of the things that a Production Mixer for a Narrative will do aside from recording the various audio tracks (Boom, Wireless, Plant mics, etc..) is make a Mix Track. This is an on-the-fly mix that is being recorded as the action is actually happening. This is why we are called Production Mixers, and not just Recordists. Why do we do this? Well it is simple really, because we always have. Before the era of multi-track field recorders, the most you could record were two tracks, and most of Production Audio has been a single mono track from a historical standpoint. So if we have two booms, and three plant mics, we would have to make a usable mix track of all of those elements because there was no option of recording them all individually. We still do this today because it can save the production tons of time and money in Post Production. Another thing that we do is provide Time Code, so the sound and picture are in sync. Later, in Post Production, the Assistant Editor will go through all of the audio and film takes and re sync them so that they both play at the same time. Time Code makes it so that they just snap together, instead of having to look for the Slate marker and line it up manually, which can be very time consuming if you have a lot of takes. We also provide a feed known as IFB so that the Director, Script Supervisor, and possibly others can hear what is happening on set, because some times they cannot all be in the same room, and if they can, they cannot always hear whats going on. We also sometimes send a scratch track to camera to be used for Dailies (so that people can look at the take and have some audio on it to know which is the best take to be used in the edit). We also generate Sound Reports, so that the Assistant Editor and Post Sound Depts can see information of each take, which is very helpful when you have to do a lot of dialogue editing, or the production decided to use a take that was good for camera, but not for sound. Aside from all of these things, you need to have a way to communicate with your Boom Operator and Audio Tech without sending your communications out to all the feeds or onto the recording. So you need a versatile mixer/recorder with a lot of options. Most recorders designed for Narrative work do little in regards to mixing, so you will often see guys with a mixer in front of their recorders.

Reality TV is its own animal, and I can safely say that it was entirely designed to be cheap, but time and technology has made it expensive for us, and productions are having a hard time keeping up with what they need to be paying. Once upon a time, Reality TV was invented mainly because it was an inexpensive way to make a television program. If it takes (hypothetically... these are not real numbers) $800,000 to make one episode of Dexter, you can make an episode of Jersey Shore for $280,000. Smaller crews, no actor's unions (no actors really...), quick turnaround. Originally, a Reality Sound Mixer had a boom and maybe a couple of other mics, and a portable mixer, and he was tethered to the camera via a "break-away cable", which was a cable with various sends and returns, that had a connector in the middle that the camera operator could detach and run off to follow the action while the Sound Mixer could catch up, re attach, and keep going. Then two channel recorders were made available, and they began recording audio as a backup, still recording mainly to camera (this is so they didnt have to re sync audio in post production. Early reality TV was shows like COPS where the sound didnt need to be perfect, so camera audio was fine). These days we can record all the tracks separately, record mix tracks, and have time code so re syncing the audio takes no time at all, as long as the camera has time code as well. The problem today is that we need more expensive and feature rich recorders, we still have to send to camera, but wirelessly now, we need time code accessories, and we need lots of wireless mics. So our costs have gone up, and productions are trying to pay us less than when we basically just provided a mixer, boom, and some cables. You still need to make that on the fly mix to camera though because production is still trying to be cheap and not have to re sync audio or mix it in post, but you dont necessarily have to make detailed sound reports or anything like that. You may still need to send IFB feeds to the producer/director.

Documentary Sound is interesting because technically, you do not need cinema quality sound, as long as you can hear and understand what people are saying. Obviously getting the best sound as possible is the goal, but if you really pay attention to the audio on a lot of documentaries, it is usually pretty bad. This is often because they have the camera person also running the audio instead of raising enough money to pay someone who knows what they are doing and has the proper equipment. Realistically, you can choose any sort of recorder for this type of work, but the more features you get, the more options you have. I suggest getting something designed for Reality TV, because it is meant to be portable, and still feature rich without necessarily making you pay for a bunch of features you wont need. The flip side to that are the big budget documentaries like those that National Geographic and the BBC are famous for making. If you want to make that kind of a product, you need some serious funds, so dont try to do everything yourself.

Sound Effects recordists can often make due with a two channel recorder, but some guys get crazy with how detailed they want to get, and will use up to eight mics just to get a simple sound effect. On the other hand, a lot of these guys also record Surround Sound effects and ambiances, and need a good amount of channels to record to. So you really need to know what exactly it is you are trying to do. When I record sound effects, I try to get a mono version of it, and a stereo version of it. If the project has a real budget, and they plan on releasing a surround sound mix of the film, then recording ambiances and effects in surround is important, and sounds really cool!


Next I will discuss a few popular recorders, and talk about their different features, and pluses and minuses.

Sound Devices 788T

This is the flag-ship recorder from Sound Devices. It is feature rich and a beast of a recorder. I own one, and am proud of it! This machine has eight mic/line/digital inputs, four recordable mix tracks, six different outputs that you can send different mixes out of at variable levels, including digital out. You can input meta data for sound reports, which it generates automatically (so you do not have to bring a clip board with you!), has rock solid tri-level time code by Ambient, word clock, and you can buy accessories for it like a bag control surface, cart control surface, wireless control surface for you iPhone or iPad (yes, you can control this thing from your phone!), and on top of that it has a built in hard drive, CF card slot, USB and Firewire ports so you can record onto three different things at once (internal drive, CF card, and external hard drive). There really is very little this thing cant do. It is popular on Feature and Narrative work because it is so feature rich and versatile, but also popular for Reality because it is also portable. With up to eight inputs, you can run a ton of things into it, so you really can use this for just about any project and be happy with it. The main drawback to this guy is that when you have the mixer panel on it, and you are using it in a bag along with a bunch of wireless receivers, it gets bulky and heavy. Not a fun day at the office for anyone who has to wear all of that around their neck all day. Some guys have weekly chiropractor visits written into their contracts because of that! Along with a big list of features comes a big price tag. On its own this puppy goes for about $7,000, but the custom cables and accessories you will need can run you up to $10,000 pretty easily.

Sound Devices 664

The Sound Devices 664 was the answer to Zaxcom's Nomad. Six inputs with four mix tracks, time code, lots of nifty features, and an add-on accessory that you can buy that will give you six more audio inputs and record tracks, as well as more fader knobs, and a few other features. This thing is really big and heavy, but also has some features stripped down so that it could be more affordable. No internal media, only card slots, among other differences. The basic unit is not a bad item, and I think it a great solution for a lot of people, but the extra accessory just makes it really big, and I would really draw the limit as to how many tracks you want to be able to record. Realistically, when producers get wind that you can record 10-12 tracks using a bag recorder, they are going to want you to carry around that many wireless receivers, and before you know it your back will be in constant pain from carrying around all of that weight. It does seem like a very fine machine though, and I am sure that the ENG/Documentary/Reality worlds will enjoy it very much. The basic unit goes for about $4,500.

Sound Devices 744T

This is a small four-track recorder that has two mic/line inputs, and two line inputs. All four can also be digital inputs. It has an internal hard drive, and can also record to an external drive via firewire, and has a CF card slot. It also has time code, and lots of other features that make this a very handy little machine. The down side to it is that you need a mixer to use with it to make use of those two line inputs, and there is no mix track or faders, so it is basically only good for recording purposes. However this was the first really high end four channel digital field recorder, and is still very popular. It retails for about $4,000.

Sound Devices 722/702/702T
I group these together because they have minor differences. Primarily, they are all two channel recorders (mic, line, digital) that boast the same features as the 744T. The 722 records onto a CF card with no time code generator (but can read/output TC from a TC source), and no hard drive. The 702 has a hard drive and CF slot, but no time code, and the 702T has a hard drive, CF slot, and time code. These range from $2,000-$2,500.

Zaxcom Deva
The first digital field recorders, and a long time favorite for Production Sound Mixers in Narrative work, these puppies are also feature rich, built well, and very expensive. They come in a variety of models, mostly eight channel inputs with multiple outputs, hard disc recording, sometimes DVD-Ram recording (this was a standard delivery format for many years) built in, time code, meta data entry, essentially most of the same features as the 788T. In fact the 788T was designed to directly compete with the Deva, but also to add better portability. Devas are mostly used on Sound Carts, where the Production Mixer can concentrate on making their mix track without having to worry about anything else. Their mix is really important because every useable mix track they create is days in the studio that production doesnt have to spend, which can get very expensive. The Devas range from about $10,000-$15,000 depending on which model you get.

Zaxcom Fusion
This device was designed to offer all of the options that the Deva offers, but instead of recording onto an internal hard drive, it has two CF card slots. A primary, and a secondary. They can be used in a number of ways, but most people have the secondary slot automatically back up the primary drive, essentially mirroring it. These are still super feature rich, but considerably lighter in weight because of the lack of internal storage, and some of its features have been omitted or improved in order to bring the cost down. The Fusions range from about $8,500-$10,000 depending upon which model you get.

Zaxcom Nomad

The Nomad was designed to compete with the 788T in the Reality market. It seems that Zaxcom wanted a chunk of that pie as well. It is considerably smaller than any of the other Zaxcom products, but still boasts lots of features and quality. This was really designed for Reality and ENG work because it is small and portable. It allows for meta data entry, and even has a built in IFB transmitter, time code, and lots of other cool options. It too has two CF card slots, record tracks, and a number of recordable ISO tracks, depending on the model you get. You can choose from a four track unit to an eight track unit. The chassis are all the same, it is literally the firmware version that you are paying for, but they are all upgradable. So you can start with the most basic version, and later on upgrade to a bigger version without having to buy a totally new machine. Very cool! These range from $4,000-$8,000.

Edirol/Roland R-4 Pro

This is a four track recorder, with time code, internal hard drive, and direct outs/mix outputs. It isnt super versatile, but offers professional features, while keeping the track count down. I see a lot of guys doing indie features and shorts using these, and is good for a young guy running a "one man show", as it allows for a channel for the boom, and three wireless mics, which is generally enough for a small indie project, yet has some professional features that makes this machine more versatile than most other four channel recorders. These run for about $2,500.

Edirol/Roland R-88

This is Roland's attempt at getting into a more competitive market with big projects. It is basically the big daddy to the R-4 Pro, though it came out years afterwards. This is an eight channel machine with a tactile screen, lots of outputs, time code, and an affordable price. It records onto an SDHC card, and has a USB port and will double as an audio interface for the computer. It is about twice the size of the R-4 Pro, but offers twice the options. However it is best used for cart work. This machine retails at about $2,500.

Edirol/Roland R-44
This is basically a stripped down version of the R-4 Pro. It does not have time code, and records onto an SDHC card. But like the R-4 Pro, does have four recording tracks with knobs for each of them. It is light and easy to use. It retails for about $1,000.

Tascam DR-680
I owned one of these for a long time, and it is a great multi-track field recorder for someone just starting out that doesnt need a lot of advanced options. It has six analog mic/line inputs, two digital inputs, and a stereo mix track. It also works as a mixer, and offers six outputs that can be configured as direct outputs to the six analog inputs, or three stereo pairs. It does not have any time code, and records onto an SDHC card. It is small and light, but only has one toggle knob, so you have to select the track you want to adjust and then you can use the knob to make your adjustments. This is not a big deal if you are simply recording, but if you use this as a mixer, it is a little more difficult. All in all, it is not a bad machine for the price, which is about $800.

Tascam HS-PS2
Roland's R-88 was their answer to this machine. Eight tracks, tactile screen, Metadata, Time Code, dual CF card slots, and you can buy an external control surface with faders on it. This is definitely a cart recorder as it is a big machine, but I think that the overall features/price point ratio are very significant. It retails at about $3,500.

Tascam HD-P2

This is a modern version of Tascam's old DAT field recorder, the DA-P1, which looked and performed pretty much exactly like this machine. The HD-P2 is a two channel digital recorder that records onto an SDHC card, and has a firewire port so you can unload audio onto a computer directly from it. It also has time code, and is a fairly decent little recorder for the price. Obvious limitations however are track count, and the RCA outputs (like most Tascam products have) instead of standard XLR or 1/4" outputs. This retails for about $800.

Hand Held Recorders

There are a large variety of these ranging from $100-$2,000. Most of them offer two mic/line inputs, have a stereo pair of mics on them, and record onto an SDHC or CF card. The Zoom H4n is a popular one among DSLR people, primarily due to its low cost and word of mouth, however Tascam makes a model that is essentially the same thing, but for less, and considerably better quality. Sony makes the flag-ship model as the highest priced one, and Nagra makes one at the mid-point price mark which I am sure is fantastic, as they have been making field recorders longer than anyone, and their current field recorders are very high priced (so much so that I didnt include them in this article). If I had to choose a hand-held recorder, I would probably go with the Nagra. But realistically, I do not believe that any of these are very well suited for production work, as they are essentially dictaphones designed for hand held on the go interviews. Something misleading about the microphones that these machines come with is that they are in what is called an X-Y configuration, and not in a good way either. I wont get into the technicalities of it, but that is basically a miking technique that you use for stereo recording of instruments in the studio, and ambiances, not for dialogue or interviews.


So in the end, your needs may not justify getting an eight channel recorder/mixer with all the bells and whistles, but I would like to remind you that with audio, you really get what you pay for. The reason why a two-channel Sound Devices recorder costs over $2,000 and has no built in mics is because of quality and performance. That said, a $400 Zoom recorder has that price point for a reason. To put it so that someone who doesnt know much about sound can understand it, it is like the difference between using a professional cinema camera, and a flip camera... literally! Lower quality parts and manufacturing go into making machines more affordable, and most of the time, the weekend warrior who makes films on no budget may not understand that many of the things out there that they are using to make their films were never intended to be used in that way. A hand held recorder, like I said, was made for taking voice notes and conducting interviews (to later be transcribed and typed), so it is not the same quality as a professional recorder. Things like signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, bit depth and sample rates, flexibility with files, metadata, I/O, and more are all things that make one machine better than the other. One can always argue that it is the archer and not the arrow that hits the bulls eye, and many people are able to get good results using cheap equipment. But realistically, if you want to get funding for your film, get into festivals, distribution, or even be taken seriously as a film maker, then you cant be running around with toys.

A lot of people think that an audio dream package for the DSLR crowd is a Zoom H4n, Rode NT-2 shotgun mic with Rode Boom Pole, and a set of cheap headphones. Someone who really knows what they are doing can get adequate results with that setup, but I should remind you that booming and sound in general require years of experience and tons of knowledge to be any good at it, and your product will only be so good if you are using inexpensive "pro-sumer" equipment. An NT-2 microphone is cheap for a reason, and can only capture audio up to a certain amount of quality. A Zoom is also cheap for a reason, and can also only record a certain amount of quality. The combination of the two will never get you award winning sound, even in the hands of a pro. If your recorder has limited dynamic range, what that means is that the difference between the loudest sound it can handle before it distorts and the quietest sound it can handle before it fades into the noise-floor and becomes inaudible is very small. Kind of like if you had a volume knob for your stereo, but it only had three clicks you could choose from instead of variable loudness at any point, so those clicks go from off, to half way, to super loud. Without more "resolution" between those points, your listening experience on your stereo can be very limited, and most of the time wont work because you dont want to disturb your neighbors or damage your speakers. Limited resolution in your recorders dynamic range means that finding a middle ground will be very difficult for recording something like dialogue, which usually doesnt stay the same level, but gets quiet and loud depending upon what is happening in the scene. This means that you can either set your recorder to record loud audio so that it does not clip, but then you lose all the low level stuff because it is too low to be of any use, or you can set your levels to get all that low stuff, but then the recording clips whenever they get a little loud. A professional recorder will have better dynamic range and be able to give you usable audio from each end of the spectrum.

Regarding Sound Effects recording, if you are making recordings for resale, most people want them recorded at a super high sample rate (192 kHz). The reason for this is that sound designers need high quality samples so that they can manipulate them without degrading the audio. In photoshop, you start with a high rez photo, manipulate it, then save it at the desired size. Same thing here. Record a "high rez" recording, manipulate it, and save it at the resolution of the film. Not all recorders can record at this high of a sample rate. Some recorders that normally record eight channels can only record four at this rate, which is pretty common among Analog to Digital converters. But most of the cheap recorders can only record at 44.1 kHz (CD quality) or 48 kHz (film quality). So making a surround (7.1 for example) recording at 192 kHz means that you need a serious machine to pull that off. Classical music is often recorded at a higher resolution too, because people who are interested in what music professionals refer to as "serious music" (classical, opera, jazz, etc) are also often interested in the quality of the audio, and will own expensive home systems with advanced playback feature so that they can absorb the audio as if they are actually there! "HD CDs" and other high definition formats for all types of music and films are also available, but to make one you have to start with a higher sample rate, not just convert your lower sample rate audio to a higher one (you may actually loose quality by doing that!). Usually you can get an album that was originally recorded on tape in a high definition digital format, but a lot of modern music is recorded at a lower resolution (to save space and resources for the computer), so those records will not be able to be made available in high definition, and if they are, they are not truly high definition. A famous singer wanted to release a high-def greatest hits album, but somewhere along the line when he stopped recording to tape, all of his music was recorded in low definition digital, and he couldnt actually do anything about it, so only about half of the guy's music was able to be re released! What a bummer for that guy!

Back to the subject at hand. A recorder is a big investment, and a professional will always own professional equipment. If you are an indie film maker looking for advice for recorders, and have your eye on a Zoom or something like that, my personal advice to you is this: Dont waste your money on a recorder at all unless you plan to make a career out of recording audio. A recorder worth having is going to cost more than your camera, and it is not nearly as easy to get good results with sound as it is to take a pretty picture, especially since you are using a sense that most people dont really explore or train. A Good sound person should have advanced knowledge in electronics, acoustics, computers, how lots of things work (like speakers, tape and tape machines, record players, not to mention EQ, compression, radio and sound waves, frequency spectrums, etc...) the list goes on. Thats why people spend years studying it, then years trying to get good at it. The smartest thing you can do regarding your indie film is to hire a professional sound team to make it happen for you. They have the equipment, knowledge and experience to get you professional results.

When you make a film, you show to the world a lot of things: How professional you are, and how serious your work is to you, and all kinds of things that say a lot to people. When I see an indie short with bad audio, I see someone who didnt take the project (or how the world sees him as a film maker) serious enough to really come up with the money and put the time into it to show the world that they want to be a professional film maker. Even if you make one short film per year, they need to be the best. One amazing film is better than a dozen amateur ones. Quality over quantity is important in this business. If I see that you didnt care about a project, and let obstacles like no funding for your student/passion project, why would I ever want to hire you to make my film? But if I see that you scraped up enough money over x amount of time,saving and saving, and went ahead and made one amazing film, I will see compassion, dedication, taking the job really seriously, and understanding how important every part of the piece is in order to get the best results. You cannot settle for second best when you are trying to show the world what you are capable of. So if you are in fact serious about what you do, I invite you to read my other blog entries, I write a lot about things that indie film makers need to know, and their film schools never told them about!

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