Thursday, March 6, 2008

Portable Audio Recorders Becoming Smaller & Better

It wasn't that long ago that producing quality live recordings required bulky tape machines, large microphones and yards of cabling, not to mention readily accessible AC power. All of those factors made field recording an expensive and difficult proposition for musicians and others interested in recording live events including meetings and presentations.

Yet another benefit of the increasing miniaturization of electronics has been the release of a growing series of high quality tiny recorders, some so small they can fit in a shirt pocket.

When these units first began appearing a couple of years ago, prices were often over $1000. Like most other electronics, an increasing number of competitors has come into the market, and prices have now fallen below $500, and in some cases as low as $200.

Falling prices mean these units are now affordable to nearly anyone with even an occasional need to make high-quality field recordings. Here are some of the best of the current choices:

Zoom H4 – The Zoom H4 has become a favorite of many musicians and others since it was released in 2006. At a retail price now often under $300, the H4 won't fit in a shirt pocket, but can easily be carried by hand or in a purse.

The H4 features onboard stereo microphones, as well as the ability to plug in nearly any professional microphone through a range of connectors. The H4 can be set on nearly any flat surface when using the onboard microphones, and with a few button pushes is ready to record.

Recording is done to a standard SD flash card, and recent firmware improvements mean SDHC cards up to 8GB in size are now compatible. The H4 runs for several hours off AA batteries, and using rechargeable batteries can keep costs down and performance up for frequent users.

Zoom now has a less expensive, and smaller, entrant field recorder in the H2. At a retail price of around $200, the H2 can fit in a shirt pocket, yet also record four-channel surround sound through four onboard microphones.

The H2 also comes with its own stand, allowing, for example, the recorder to be placed on a table or stand in the center of a conference room and capture sound from the entire room, which is handy for those recording conferences with questions from an audience.

The H2 also uses SD flash cards and AA batteries, allowing up to six hours of recording from one pair of AA batteries. The H2's size and portabilty should make it a favorite of podcasters and others looking to make inexpensive field recordings.

A somewhat more expensive unit that is a favorite of many musicians is the Edirol R-09. Another unit small enough to fit in a large shirt pocket, the R-09 is also available with an optional stand anc case that allow for optimal positioning.

I recently saw a pianist with an R-09 discreetly positioned on top of his piano on its tiny tripod. Just before he began playing, he reached up, pushed a button, and... instant live recording.

A number of other entrants are also making this a major area of competition, including Sony's PCM-D50, the latest in a long line of portable Sony field recorders. One of the newest entrants at around $400 is the very slick looking Olympus LS-10, a stereo professional recorder from the company that has a successful and long track record in the area of handheld pocket voice recorders.

Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant working with businesses and individuals on high-tech needs. Another Day In Cyberville is published weekly in print and online via The Gainesville Voice, a weekly publication of The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. You can reach Tom Meek at

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