A few words about digital audio recorders

Links checked: 31 August 2011

With my students being required to own a digital audio recorder, some things have come to my attention that may be useful to others.

First (and primarily) about the cheap recorders:

Price. We’re talking about roughly $50 (U.S.) for a good-quality voice recorder that has a mic jack, a headphone jack, and USB output for transferring the audio files to a computer for editing. You can see examples here. I have been completely happy with a succession of Olympus models.

Compatibility. Recorders that are NOT “plug and play”: Two factors make a recorder unsuitable for use in schoolroom labs and most newsrooms. (1) The recorder requires software to be installed on a computer before the audio files can be read or copied. (2) The recorder creates its files in a format other than WAV, MP3, or WMA. Recorders that are unsuitable for these reasons include many models from Sony and RCA.

Mac computers. I have finally figured out why so many people claim that Olympus recorders “don’t work with Macs” (this is completely untrue!). If you try to open a WMA audio file on the average Mac, you get a coded text file, and it will not play. Well — duh! — that’s only a file format issue. All you need to do is convert the file to another format (preferably WAV or MP3).

File conversion. I strongly recommend that both Mac and Windows users download and install the free version of Switch, an audio file converter. It is easy to use and does not install any garbage files.

Flip4Mac. Mac users can also add Windows Media Player capability to QuickTime by downloading the WM components; see this page for details. The components are free.

Second, about more expensive recorders:

There are three pocket-size models that you should look at: The Zoom H2, the Edirol R-09, and the new Marantz PMD620 (all also shown here). For various reasons, you’ll get better audio quality with these recorders than you will with any recorder priced below $100 (U.S.).

One thing you can do to get BETTER quality on a cheap recorder is to add an external microphone. You can start with an inexpensive model from Nady (SP-5 or SP-4C), available from Musician’s Friend.

Finally, for audio editing, I always recommend Audacity because it’s completely free and open source, and you can use it on any computer (Windows, Mac, or Linux). Yes, there are other and better programs for editing audio. If you own one, great. But if you’re teaching students or training journalists, I recommend Audacity because then each one of them can install it (legally) on his or her computer and use it at any time.

Feel free to use and distribute my popular basic into-to-Audacity tutorial, which is linked on this page (“printable document tutorials,” under Editing Audio).

39 Comments on “A few words about digital audio recorders

  1. @Mindy,

    There really is no reason for journalists to use anything other than Audacity. We use it for the BeatBlogging.Org podcasts. It works great. Many of the non-free solutions have a steeper learning curve. I cannot imagine a reason to use Pro Tools or Logic for journalistic purposes, and even Soundtrack Pro is a bit of overkill.

    On the other end, I find Garageband doesn’t have enough features to be useful for certain uses. It is nice, however, for creating small pieces of background music.

    My advice on audio recorders is this: DO NOT get a device where you have to convert the audio every time before you can use it. Avoid devices that spit out audio in non-standard formats, like WAV and MP3. In fact, I would strongly recommend that students get a recorder that does those two formats and those two formats alone.

    For most uses, WAV is the way to go. The problem with converting one format to another (WMA to MP3 for instance) is that audio quality is lost in the conversion process. I would never go from one lossy format to another. WAV is losless and makes a great recording format. After audio is edited then it can be exported to MP3 to save space. But I would normally advise against recording in MP3, editing and then reexporting to MP3.

  2. An iPod Touch also makes a great voice recorder. Target (in-store only) sells a microphone adapter for $10. Then you need to load iTalk


    The caveat is that you need wireless to transfer the audio file off the Touch. You can’t get if off the iPod when you sync it.

  3. Something to note about the “more expensive” audio recorders you listed is that it can matter when in the recording process the analog to digital conversion is done. For example the Zoom H2’s recording levels are set after A/D conversion, which means that there is simply no way to capture very loud sounds without distortion. I had an H2, and had to move up to the more professional Marantz PMD620 which has a true analog limiter. It costs more too, but readers should know that the three recorders you listed are not equivalent “under the hood” despite having similar functionality.

  4. The price tag on the Marantz is more than double that of the Zoom H2. Same goes for the Edirol, which I use more than any of the others (I don’t have a Marantz). If you have $350-$400 to spend, buy a Marantz or an Edirol. I appreciate that a lot of people do not have that kind of money to spend on an audio recorder.

  5. Rule 1 in journalism:

    *GET The Shot/Copy/Story/Clip*

    It matters more that you have the recorder ON you, than the quality of the recorder, to a great degree.

    E.g. imagine the difference between having Neil Armstrong’s words when first stepping on the moon, vs NOT having ’em…
    … discarding capture/opportunity because it wasn’t Technically Pretty is what management calls climbing very-well .. the wrong ladder.

    1. The Cowon iAudio 7 can record using its built-in mic, and can also work-with the ( incredible, for the price ) Sony ECM-719, so one can carry a good recording solution everywhere one has one’s music-player. ( 60h play-time/charge counts, too ).
    Just make a little box to protect/shroud the ECM-719 stereo mic, as its cable is delicate ).

    2. Transducers count more than codecs:
    A 24/192 recording using a micro-mic is a complete waste of bandwidth, because of the micro-mic’s self-noise.

    I’d rather have a highest-bitrate WMA file & convert it to a decent MP3/Vorbis ( my preference ), than not have the recorder on me, or have it not working due to dead batteries…

    3. use something to shield the mic from noise & room acoustics, if you’re planning the take…
    for podcasting, make a mic-box out of egg-crate foam ( cheap mattress-pad, densest version your local store has ), maybe 24″+ / side, and put the mic in it, then put your mouth 12-18″ from the mic, and you will do better than if you don’t correct for the local acoustics.
    Alternately, put some nice cheap quilts on the walls ( or better, 6″ away from the walls ), and maybe moving-blankets on the floor, to deaden the subway beneath you or the slapback sound of a hard tile floor.
    Alternately, use a directional mic & point it so the dead-area is aiming at the noise you don’t want…
    ( another cheap trick: shotgun mic, diagonally down aimed at your mouth, with cloth behind you ).
    If your mic is giving you too much “plosives” make a pop-filter:
    small embroidery-hoop, sheer/slick hose/pantyhose stretched in it, decorate it as you like ( trim off the excess cloth, ferinstance ), and you’ve got a cheap pop-filter.

    Lots of ways to improve audio, but priorities first.
    Get the content ( have the recorder, charged, ready ).
    Get usable content ( good mic technique, no ambient junk wrecking it ).
    Nice content is nice, but nice means:
    1. close mic ( not 3′ away )
    2. acoustics ( room, ambient… )
    3. decent mic
    4. codec ( note this is last )

    If you’re going to be mixing with Video, I’ve read that the Zoom’s crystal is wonky: its clock wanders, so if you get the beginning a/v to match, the middle/end won’t. Edirol doesn’t seem to have this problem.

    Also, if you’re rich, Sony’s got a recorder, the PCM-50 or something like that — takes their damn MS cards, though, and is, oh, $400?
    Nice sound, though…

    Feel free to disagree with me on all points…


  6. COMPLETELY disregard my recommendation for the iAudio 7:

    TASCAM released the proper device, the DR-07.


    it’s about $200, or the same price as the “7”, but it records WAV, best-quality at 1GB/h ( 24/48kHz ), and it’ll take the Sony ECM-957/957Pro mics, for some excellent sound ( also $200 ), and it’s powered by AAs, too.

    Not bad, eh?

  7. I have both Audacity and the equally free WavePad (from the same company that makes the excellent file converter Switch) and I find I use WavePad more often. It’s a little simpler and its user interface isn’t as quirky as Audacity.

    Also, for mics, the Sennheiser e825s is my best friend. Tough, phantom powered, with a very warm and full sound, and only $80.

  8. @ Patrick

    Though I agree that Audacity is useful for most journalists, I think it’s dangerous for students to not learn Logic or Pro Tools. As you obviously know, audio is an art, and multimedia journalists will need to know how to integrate high quality audio in both video and slideshow projects. You’re right on when you say Logic and Pro Tools has a steep learning curve, but if a student/journalist is also learning Final Cut then the user interface is similar and it will be easier to grasp.

    As a multimedia journalist myself, I find Audacity to be a great tool for quick edits and to sketch out projects, but the lack of a timeline and complex EQ tools restricts me.

    @ Mindy

    I broke the bank and invested in a Marantz PMD660. Even though there are problems with the recorder, the sound quality is above average and the XLR inputs mean I can swap my professional microphones between my video camera and voice recorder. Obviously this isn’t the end all be all, but I would strongly encourage students wanting to work for NPR or other professional audio outlets to consider this recorder. Great post by the way.

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  10. Don’t Skimp. On Audio. It’s is the last place you want to look at dollars before common sense. If you invest wisely in audio it pays you back with all the multimedia you produce, Podcasts, Soundslides and Video.

    The quality of your audio stand for the quality of your brand much more than you think. Look at what real multimedia pros spend for their sound budgets.

    Almost as much money goes for mics, limiters, XLR connections, windproofing and isolation as it does for cameras and tripods.

    Reporting and editing with “High definition” sound is far more valuable than spending the money first gathering “high definition” video.
    Make it the fist money you spend – never the last.

  11. Mindy,

    First off, let me say that I truly appreciate your blog, it has been a well of information for me.

    But I am looking for a straight answer. The H2 or Olympus WS-110? Is the H2 worth it for the extra $100?

  12. @Joe Proudman – If you’re going to do natural sound, slideshows, etc., then get the H2. Otherwise you need to buy a mic for the Olympus.

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  15. Thank you for this post, Mindy. I’m a journalism student and this kind of post from someone who’s had experience in the field is exactly what I needed to make an informed decision. I also enjoyed the RGMP post. It addresses a lot of things I want to get into.

  16. It’s important to make a distinction here between school/students, and professional audio production – by that I mean selling your item as a freelancer.

    Buying inexpensive audio gear will teach you a lot about working around problems. But when you’re working in the field as a freelancer, you really DON’T want to worry about your gear, at all.

    I recognize that this post is for student gear recommendations – and all the info is good – but as soon as you start talking about selling for broadcast you’re going to want to move up to something that works, each and everytime, and without an issue of any kind.

    There’s nothing that torpedoes an interview more than watching the ‘journo’ fumble with his/her gear.

    I gave up on the Marantz/Denon machines – too fussy and too flimsy for real field work, and their battery management is horrible.

    More money isn’t always better, I mean,
    I know I can record with my phone IF I HAVE TO.

    But when I’m out there WORKING, Sound Devices 702 is really the only way to go. It’ll take you a while to pay it off, but you’ll probably use it THE REST OF YOUR CAREER. These are real workhorses that you can drop, bang and crunch (I have), that always work and go forever on a charge. When you’re ready to step up (and can find bags of money for gear) see http://sounddevices.com/products/702.htm The only digital recorder you’ll EVER need.

    IN terms of software, making audio pieces really means knowing how to multitrack. The most stable and cheapest of the ‘big boys’ is Audition (formerly Cool Edit) from Adobe. It doesn’t need proprietary hardware, and runs on pretty much most PC’s. That’s also the problem – no Mac version. But honestly, if you’re going to be doing ANY real audio pieces, the sooner you start multitracking, the better (and faster) your production process will be.


  17. @Robert Ouimet – Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Very helpful.

    Just an added note – Audacity, while not as feature-rich as Audition, DOES do multitrack very nicely. It’s no trouble at all to add lots of tracks in Audacity.

    I agree, it’s essential to master multitrack audio editing.

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  19. Wondering if, a year after Mindy’s original post, there’s any update on this?

    I am a photojournalist who also does some writing. I want a recorder that fits in my gear bag and operated without an external mic (don’t need more pieces in the bag),

    Thinking of the Zoom H2 after this this and the links on it.

    Any new tech developments in this area in the last year?



  20. Hi, Tim. I haven’t heard of anything new and enticing in the range of the Zoom H2 for quality and price combined.

    It also comes with a nice fat windscreen to protect it while it’s in your bag.

  21. I am a curator for a small regional museum and we are attempting to create an oral history program where we will be interviewing community members. If, hypothetically speaking, budget was NOT an issue, what would be the best digital audio recorder that captures ‘born digital’ .wav files?

  22. Hi Kimiko.

    We use the Marantz PMD660 and 661 units which would be fine for your use. You would need a decent microphone, something like the Beyer M58 which is a journalist staple would suit for oral history work. The mic pre-amps in the earlier Marantz aren’t fabulous, go for the newer unit if possible. And if you have the money why not look at the Nagra units or the Sound Devices units – http://www.sounddevices.com/products/7.htm – something like the 702 could be suitable.

    Good Luck!

    Ryan Egan, ABC Radio Australia

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  24. Can anyone speak on Zoom’s new H4n? I’ve had a Zoom h2 for three years and I’m starting to get tired of the audio quality, inability to grab sound in a specific direction. Is it worth the investment? Reviews look good, but it’s also more bulky…

  25. I have both the Zoom H2 and H4, both produce broadcast quality sound when used with a pro level mic. I use a K6 for the shotgun and m56 for handheld.

  26. The H4n is the audio recorder of choice in the DSLR filmmaking crowd. The Bui brothers (thebuibrothers.com) recommended it during their panel on the subject at SXSWi.

  27. i’ve got it. i use it. i love it.

    all of my multimedia columns ( http://www.tampabay.com/untold ) are being produced with audio from the h4n with minimal effort on the backend. the range of audio, from interviews in quiet spaces to live music in roaring venues is always consistently good.

  28. i’ve found it really strange how little info there is out there on phone splitters for public radio reporters. if you’re working from home or freelancing, it’s absolutely critical to be able to record phone calls with some level of quality. and today, really you should be able to do that on cell phone. a post on this, mindy, please. 🙂

  29. Hi, I’m looking for a recorder to use primarily for interviews. I’m in a Documentary Radio course this semester and have been using my school’s Marantz PMD661, but it’s rather bulky, not to mention expensive. What high quality, light weight, fairly priced recorder would you recommend? I’ve been looking at the Marantz PMD620, but how does it compare to the Zoom H2 or H4n?


  30. Great post! I’m looking for a DVR for interviews that will be transcribed into text, not broadcasted. Also, many of these interviews will be conducted outdoors and on the move, though some will be indoors around a table. I’m looking for good, not perfect sound quality and don’t want to miss a word. I use a Mac and may look into transcription software as well. Thanks for any guidance you can provide.

  31. @Lang – why would you want a camera if you are not going to use the images? Working with an audio recorder would be 100 times easier, for so many reasons.

  32. Hi Mindy, I have my three letter acronyms (TLAs) wrong. Sorry. Digital voice recorder is what I meant, not DVR. Any recs for my needs? Apparently PC World gives high marks to the Sony ICD-MX20, and I’ve been looking into the Zoom H-2 as well. Not sure if I need to spend so much for my purposes. Thanks for your input!

  33. @Lang – We love the Zoom H2, but if you want to go to a lower price, we have been very impressed by the Olympus series numbered VN–00PC (newest model: VN-8100PC). Don’t be fooled by the “PC”; they work fine on Macs.

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