Feature: What’s new in the recorder sector

Kevin Hilton surveys the current location recorder market, which has welcomed some intriguing new arrivals in recent times, and finds there’s now more choice than ever before.

The idea of making any piece of equipment portable is that it should be lighter than less movable equivalents and easy to carry. In many instances the reality has to be more practical and pragmatic than that. Location recording machines are a good example of where practicalities often outweigh – quite literally – the desire to create equipment that is light and movable.

The high-end multi-track recorders used on feature films and television dramas are portable in the sense that they can be transported to where they’re being used. After that they usually have to be mounted on a trolley with other gear – mixer, radio microphone receivers – or loaded into a large carrying bag that itself is propped up by something like the Dedleg shooting stick-like support.

Reducing the size and weight of a device means losing some of the features, notably inputs and outputs, which reduces its capabilities. In the past this would have been regarded as a trade-off at best and an unacceptable compromise at worst. But improvements in technology and manufacturing processes – notably in the production of circuit boards, A-D/DA converters and other processors – and higher quality microphone pre-amplifiers means smaller recorders can deliver good audio and enough tracks for many requirements.

This doesn’t mean a cheaper, four- to eight-track machine is going to be able to handle a big cast, big budget feature. But it is a good bet as a back-up or for recording localised dialogue and sound effects. From the days when portable recorders were few, based on reel-to-reel tape and very expensive – think of the Nagra II for film work or the Uher radio reporter’s machine – there is now a wide selection of devices ranging in price from a few hundred pounds/euros to several thousand.

A “New Concept”

At €15,000 the Aaton Digital CantarX3 is nearer the top end of the scale, both in terms of cost and features. During February the brand’s parent company, French camera monitor specialist Transvideo, debuted a new stripped down version of the X3 at the BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) expo in London. Transvideo’s chief executive, Jacques Delacoux, describes the Cantar Mini as “very compact” and a “new concept”. The 16-track Mini (compared to the 24-track X3) is, Delacoux says, “half the size, weight and price”, coming in at 259 x 234 x 90mm, 2.8kg (including two batteries) and €7,000.

Other than this the new recorder features the same software and “almost” the same functionality as the X3. It also offers four mic inputs, mic preamps, limiters, filters, equalisation and two balanced line inputs, with capability for both AES42 microphone and AES3 exchange digital interfaces. Delacoux explains that the Cantar Mini partly came about because many X3 users wanted a machine they could carry on their shoulders. “There’s also a market for people who don’t have €15,000 to spend on an X3 but want similar quality and features,” he says. As well as being a second machine or back-up for professional sound recordists, Delacoux says the Cantar Mini is being aimed at “schools and beginners – it also fits well into the radio business and people in music recording could be interested.” He adds that countries outside Europe and the US, including India and China, are potential target markets.

Tim White is among the few sound recordists to have seen and played with the Cantar Mini so far. White was “heavily involved” in the development of the X3 but only saw the Mini when it was completed. “The whole point behind the Cantar Mini was to have a smaller machine but keep the powerful pre-amps originally designed for the X2 and which also feature on the X3,” he says.

A distinctive feature of the CantarX3 is the row of linear faders on top of the machine. A similar layout has been retained for the Mini, which White says makes for better ease of use when performing a cross-fade, as opposed to using rotary faders as found on other machines. He adds that further continuity and familiarity from the X3 is provided by the Mini having the same display screen.

“There is also the same firmware, which has been used on the X3 for two years,” White continues. “The Aaton mic pre-amps are boutique on the X3 and are the same on the Mini. So it is great to have a smaller recorder with no compromise on quality. The Cantar Mini is basically an X3, only smaller.”

The high-end location recorder market, as represented by Aaton Digital, Nagra, Sound Devices and Zaxcom, is a limited one as far as the number of customers and users who can afford them is concerned. With the Cantar Mini, Aaton/Transvideo is clearly attempting to open up more options for itself, while maintaining its reputation for quality.

Above: The Zoom F8

In good hands

Zoom established its name at the lower end of the market, with handheld recorders for the radio reporting and music sectors. Over the years it has expanded its product range to offer a variety of machines. The H series is aimed at the company’s original target area, with the top of the range H6 six-track machine having the capability of four interchange mic capsules – X/Y, MS, Shotgun, and Dual XLR/TRS. The H1 is a two-track machine but still with X/Y recording. The manufacturer claims it is suitable for band rehearsal recording as well as the more obvious interviews, dictation and effects work.

The H series now sits alongside the F4 and F8, which are specifically designed for location recording. The F8 is an eight-input, ten-track device with 24-bit, 192kHz quality. These features, and a price tag of around £800, has piqued the interest of high-end users as well as those working on tighter budgets. Sound recordist and live cinema event audio mixer Ian Sands says these factors make the F8 “terribly attractive” to people looking for a back-up machine. “It has XLRs, timecode and the mic pres are pretty good,” he comments.

The F8 does not compare directly to a top-of-the-range location recorder such as the Sound Devices 688, which, as Sands observes, has “an incredible pedigree” and features including 16-tracks, 12 ISOs and a stereo mix track, but the Zoom and products like it have opened the market up for more people who might have previously been excluded on the grounds of cost.

“What’s available now is phenomenal,” Sands says. “It really is down to the old bang for your buck. And people can now get a lot more bang for fewer bucks.” As enthusiastic as he is about the greater choice now available to recordists, Sands is cautious because he doesn’t want any production accountants to think they can now spec lower cost machines to work on a big blockbuster or massive event. The higher-end devices, he stresses, are still the right tools for the job.

The opportunity offered by a well-speced, lower cost machine like the F8 or the Cantar Mini is for sound recordists to buy them as a back-up or for sound effects work. “Most production mixers wouldn’t want to use a F8 for a whole film but they would have it as a reserve,” Sands comments. “And most productions will not pay for a back-up machine. But the F8 is affordable and because we as sound recordists can be paranoid little bunnies, we will pay out of our own pockets to have that security. This kind of recorder is not as flexible as something high-end but it will get the job done if you need it.”

Sands draws a parallel between lower cost digital recorders and lower cost digital cameras. Many features today are shot on cameras such as the ARRI Alexa but many directors of photography will use a digital SLR camera like the Canon EOS 700D for pick-up shots or B (additional) shooting. Similarly, Sands says, recorders with lower track counts are more than adequate for B-roll and sound effects recording.

Something for everyone

Like Zoom, Tascam has a wide range of recorders, from the top-end HS-P82 eight-track desktop machine (main picture) through the four-channel, WiFi-connected DR-44WL and the two-channel DR-100MKIII to the DR-10C series. Director of marketing Eric Larsen observes that the market for portable recorders has opened up considerably in recent years, with people using them for podcasting and even narrating online game play. “Something like the DR-100MKIII has high-end mic pre-amps, operation software, onboard EQ and compression and an on-air/kill switch,” he says. “It also has three hot buttons for playing sound effects.”

As well as effects playback, the DR-100MKIII is also used widely for recording different sounds. Larsen gives the example of sound effects specialist Rick Allen, who he says has used the machine to capture everything from crickets chirruping to glass breaking at 192kHz. Allen has also made use of the DR 10 SG shotgun mic recorder to capture a Remington shotgun at close range, only eight inches from the muzzle. “The kickback broke the mount but the recording was still usable,” Larsen says.

Larsen describes the DR 10 series as “very small”. These have built-in XLRs and have been used variously as back-ups as well as for local recording attached to mic booms. The DR 10 C is a wearable unit and can be connected to wireless belt packs. They are also designed to work with lavalier mics worn by actors performing a scene some way from the camera and sound mixer.

The DR 10 SG is primarily intended to be used with DSLR cameras, mounted in the hot shoe on top. But it has other applications and, like other recorders in the Tascam portfolio, it features dual recording. This allows the main recording to be made on one track at the desired level while simultaneously making a back-up on the second track at -10dB lower. This means that if a very loud, sudden noise causes the recording to over-modulate, there is still something that can be cut back and used in the final edit.

While Tascam claims dual recording to be unique to its products, other firms have built similar failsafe tech into their recorders. The Sony PCM D100 (pictured, above) offers limiting as well as the capability to run two recordings, with one at a lower level than the other. Sam Simon-Norris, business development manager with Sony Pro Audio’s UK distributor Sound Network, says the D100 has a number of potential applications, from radio journalism to recording band rehearsals to location back-ups and sound effects acquisition.

Simon-Norris says the D100 is more comparable to Tascam and Zoom handheld models, rather than the Cantar Mini. “But it is capable of the jobs it is designed for, offering PCM and MP3 recording, with two mic pres and compressors,” he comments. Another feature suited to reporting and documentary film making is a five-second recording buffer. “If something happens and you press the record button within five seconds you will get that sound or piece of speech because the machine is always listening,” Simon-Norris explains.

And now for something completely different…

Small handheld recorders are extremely versatile and well featured today but they do have one sizeable practical drawback as far as radio reporters are concerned. They just don’t look the part. It isn’t quite as bad as when smartphones are being used amid a huddle of journalists but the handhelds still lack that professional look.

Which is where the microphone-recorder comes in. The earliest example of this integrated combination came out of a joint venture between UK pro-audio distributor HHB and microphone manufacturer Sennheiser. The FlashMic was announced at IBC 2005 and began shipping in the second quarter of 2006. As the name implies it was based on Flash media and soon found users in radio, although it was also used for sound effects recording.

The Flashmic was discontinued in 2012, after which HHB took on distribution of Yellowtec’s iXm mic-recorder. This is based on solid state technology but also has slots for SD and SDHC cards to back-up material. It also features 30 seconds of ‘pre-roll’ buffering and comes with a choice of capsules: the standard Proline and the Premium, produced by beyerdynamic.

“It’s a robust piece of kit and looks more professional than other recorders,” says Steve Angel, HHB’s group sales director. “And it’s a broadcast quality mic and recorder.”

While smaller portable recorders may not have all the features of bigger and more expensive machines, they can do many of the same jobs and provide necessary back-up for their more glamorous equivalents. And they certainly are able to take on tasks that no one in their right minds would want to use their primary recorder for.

Main picture: The HS-P82 from Tascam