How to pick an audio recorder

Development of digital solid state sound recorders may have been slow to get off the mark, but the choices are now numerous across all levels of the market, writes Solid State Sound’s Rodney Wayman.

Portable audio recorders, eh? Back in the day there was little need for your gym membership because recording on the hoof was combined with weight lifting. Those shoulder-numbing mechanical monsters from Nagra and Uher were just so damned heavy. And, boy, did you need the money you saved on that gym subscription – buying a portable recorder in those days was literally an arm and a leg.

That was in the 1980s when/before you were a nipper, and tape and razor blades were king. It’s hard to believe we had to wait until 1994 for the world’s first commercially available digital solid state sound (SSS) recorder to arrive. Developed by pioneering Dutch electronics outfit Maycom, it was quite aptly named The Easycorder. This comparable lightweight came with 128Mb of internal memory (expandable to 2Gb) and even had a slot to take a 2Gb Compact Flash card. Audio formats were wav, BWF, AIFF, and MPEG II. You could edit on-board and there was even an ISDN option so you could get your recordings where they needed to go. All in all The Easycorder proved to be quite a compelling wave goodbye to magnetic tape and all its weight and disadvantages.

But despite this it wasn’t until the early noughties that portable SSS recording really got going. Maycom had followed up by then with its little HandHeld model, on whose design I was a consultant, and pretty well every single national broadcaster in Europe (and beyond) invested in it.

Meanwhile, the then best-known manufacturer of portable cassette tape recorders, Marantz, had not been idle. The company soon responded with two wav/MP3 devices that became the first ones really to get SSS recorders noticed by the wider marketplace. Its big brand marketing clout made the shoulder-carried PMD670 and handheld PMD660 the industry standards for quite a long while, well into the later noughties – especially the more affordable PMD660, or ‘The Recording Brick’, as it became known. Pretty well every broadcast journalist and features producer hankered after it.

Since then, of course, the SSS recorder market has developed and matured, and those early portables have now been joined by their rack-mounting colleagues. We now enjoy a much wider choice of affordable offerings from many leading manufacturers including: Fostex, Marantz, Olympus, Nagra, Roland, Sony, Sound Devices, Tascam, Yamaha, and Zoom. And if it’s a field recorder you need, then instead of just the classic over-the-shoulder portable of old, we now have several different form factors to suit varying applications. Here are just a few:

Budget Notebooks are at the entry-level end of the spectrum – Tascam’s DR-05 and DR-07 Mk2, for instance. All-in-one handhelds take things a stage further with better build quality and more attention to the quality of the sound of the mic preamps and mic capsules – Sony’s PCM-M10 and new PCM-D100 are leaders here. Then there are XLR handhelds for those who need to use external pro mics – Marantz’s PMD661 Mk2 is just one contender. DSLR recorders like Fostex’s DC-R302 are available for videographers who use digital SLR cameras but need a more capable audio recorder to complement their HD videos. Multichannel options include Roland’s R-44 and R-88; for multi-track there is the Olympus LS-100.

At Solid State Sound we constantly advise on matching the right recording tools to numerous applications. This can range from basic meetings recording in a corporate environment, through one-to-one or one-to-multiple interview situations (like oral history recording and broadcast features production), to courtroom recording, or covert and non-covert recording undertaking by military and security organisations, as well as music recording in education, and a whole host of other types of speech and music recording activities. We are fortunate in being able to offer so many solutions, each of them with their own strengths and at differing price points, but I’d like to focus on a handful, if I may, because right now these are the most interesting options.

If you need a really competent do-it-all portable handheld recorder then the Zoom H6 is outstanding. It is primarily marketed as a DSLR audio recorder but it is actually a really versatile general-purpose recorder. It comes complete with two microphone modules, an X/Y and an MS stereo (you can also add the optional shotgun module if you so wish) plus four XLR inputs (expandable to six) so you can connect your external mics. Moreover, it can record up to six tracks simultaneously. You can even use it as an audio interface with a PC or Mac.

Now the H6 sounds fine but what should you get if your principal requirement is audiophile performance combined with an all-in-one form factor? Enter the new high-resolution Sony PCM-D100. Combining stunning on-board microphones adjustable for A/B or X/Y stereo, class-leading mic preamps and not only up to 192kHz/24-bit recording formats but also DSD (or 1-bit) format. The PCM-D100 is one for the aficionados, certainly, but there are many recordists with no tolerance for compromise and £700 or so to spend.

But what if you need both a recorder and a mixer in one convenient, light, easy-to-carry form? Well, Roland has two of them: the R-88 eight-channel mixer/recorder/audio interface with up to 192kHz/24-bit capability and the similar but four-channel R-44 that can be built into an eight-channel solution later, if need be.

As you can see, portable sound recording has come far since the days of sore shoulders and spooling tape all over the floor. But what of the future?

Well, SSS recorders can only get better, lighter, more convenient, and even less expensive. Even more features, perhaps, too? If there is one feature that we’d like to see sooner rather than later, it is WiFi onboard. Then you could stream your recordings straight to your computer without a USB lead. You could squirt it up to Dropbox, say, or your radio station’s Cloud.

It’s already happening in the digital camera market so why not in solid state sound? Come on!

Expert witness

Rodney Wayman (right, with broadcaster Johnnie Walker, and an Olympus LS-100) is MD of Solid State Sound, which specialises in portable and installation solid state recording systems. For further information and insight into the world of solid state audio, visit the Solid State Sound website at or call +44 (0)747 830670.