Asbjoern Andersen


A good handheld recorder is an essential addition to any audio professional’s toolkit – but when it comes to finding the right one, it’s a bit of a jungle out there.

I discovered that sound designer and recordist George Vlad had spent quite a bit of time researching what’s available, and he’s now written this special guide to help you pick the handheld recorder that’s right for you. Read on for his opinion on what to look (and listen) for, the features and accessories that matter – and his personal favorite recorder right now:

This is my completely subjective overview on choosing a handheld recorder for sound effects/sound design work. It is based on real-world experience with a handful of makes and models and on the opinions of audio professionals I’ve had the pleasure of discussing the matter with. While it’s by no means exhaustive, it should provide a starting point and invite you to do more research of your own.

A handheld recorder is an absolute necessity for an audio professional. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or if you’re a seasoned professional, you should never get out of the house without your trusty handheld. Having had several makes and models over the years, I got familiar with the advantages and issues of the most popular ones.
 

Background

Some 5 years ago I purchased my first handheld recorder, a Zoom H4n. I was just starting to work as a freelance sound designer and I needed a compact solution for recording sound effects and voice both in a studio and in the field. The H4n seemed a great addition to my setup, helping me record sounds that I would otherwise have trouble finding online or in libraries. Remember this was 2010, a time when most of the sound effects libraries came on a pile of CDs as 16 bit/44.1 kHz files. If I wanted the sound of an angry rooster I had to take my recorder out and start looking for that bird.

After spending a few weeks listening to the world through the mics on the H4n I started to learn its limitations. While it provided decent results when recording relatively loud sources, recording quiet ambiences was out of the question. The on-board mics and preamps added a considerable amount of noise to the recordings, and there was no workaround. Even if I used external microphones, the way that the H4n is built means that the input signal still passes through the preamps, thus adding unwanted noise and making some recordings more or less unusable.

At any rate, the H4n was a winner in my inexperienced view as it seemed to have all the features I needed. It also was the most visible of only a few handheld recorders on the market. Nowadays there are countless handheld recorder options that one can pick from, which is not a bad thing, but not necessarily a good thing either. While the most important criterion is usually price, it’s worth taking a look at technical specifications as well.
 

Purpose

As already mentioned, this article is written for sound recordists and designers and not musicians or filmmakers. A handheld recorder is usually the only recorder in a beginner’s setup. It provides invaluable insight into the recording process, mic positioning, microphone and equipment quality etc. It also helps the user capture audio that can be used professionally or sold as library content afterwards.

A fully featured field recording rig can work wonders capturing audio, but what if that isn’t available or is too difficult/heavy to lug around?

A handheld recorder is also used by seasoned professionals. A fully featured field recording rig can work wonders capturing audio, but what if that isn’t available or is too difficult/heavy to lug around? I also find that limiting my options at times really helps me think creatively and come up with new ways of doing my work.

Another situation in which an all-in-one recording solution is practical is guerrilla recording. In certain situations it’s best if no one knows you’re recording, and as a consequence complex rigs are out of the question. A small handheld does not attract attention and can be taken for a smartphone or similar gadget.
 

Preamps

In short, the job of a mic preamp is to amplify the weak signal generated by the microphone to a level that is easier to work with. Higher quality preamps will generally not colour nor add noise to the original signal. Cheaper, lower quality preamps on the other hand will add significant amounts of noise and will often alter the quality of the recording.

While most of the devices on the market have relatively noisy preamps, Sony has managed to do a good job in this regard with their handhelds.

While most of the devices on the market have relatively noisy preamps, Sony has managed to do a good job in this regard with their handhelds. As an exception the D100 actually has two preamps and two A/D converters per channel, which work in parallel at different levels in case the signal is either too loud or too soft.


WANT MORE LIKE THIS?
FOLLOW A SOUND EFFECT FOR THE LATEST IN FANTASTIC SOUND:
 
          

Microphones

The on-board microphones of a handheld recorder are often overlooked when analyzing its features. That’s a pity, as they fulfill the task of translating the air pressure variations into the electric signal that the preamps will then amplify. As is the case with preamps, higher quality microphones generally provide a cleaner and more noise-free representation of the sound that is being recorded. (Some high-quality microphones and preamps do colour the audio, and this is what makes them so sought after. This aspect however is more relevant for music and voice purposes and therefore is beyond the purposes of sound effects recording). This is another criterion in which Sony scores high and the others not so much. The mics on the D100 can actually record content up to about 40 kHz, which is important when the recordings are going to be pitched down at the sound design stage.
 

Build quality

Often overlooked, build quality plays an important role. I’ve had cheap handhelds whose parts rattled or creaked when the device was moved, and since the mics are part of the actual device all these extraneous sounds were picked up and made it into the recordings.

Handling noise however is more or less an issue on all devices that I’ve ever tested, so shock protection is an absolute requirement.

Most of these devices are made of tough plastic which doesn’t feel especially top quality. Some of the Tascam or Olympus devices are made of rugged metal, and they actually feel much sturdier in comparison. Handling noise however is more or less an issue on all devices that I’ve ever tested, so shock protection is an absolute requirement.
 

Features

Handheld recorders come with on-board preamps and mics by definition. Some of them also offer the option of connecting external microphones, either via an XLR input or a 3.5 mm jack input. The former usually provide phantom power (P48) as well, while the latter may provide what is known as Plug In Power (PIP). This however does not eliminate the need for a field mixer or battery-powered preamp when working with external microphones, as the preamps on these devices are quite noisy. Some devices such as the Zoom H4n are notoriously difficult to work with in this regard as they don’t offer the ability to bypass the on-board preamps.
Having more than two channels to record on can also seem like a welcome feature. The Zoom H4n can record to 4 channels, while the Zoom H6 and the Roland R26 can record to 6 channels. With limited mixing capabilities this can become a problem though, and a dedicated field mixer becomes a necessity.

Most of the handheld recorders on the market at the moment only offer 24 bit/96 kHz as maximum bit depth and sample rate. The Sony PCM D100 goes up to 192 kHz which is great for a handheld recorder. While this looks great on paper though I’m not sure how often this feature actually ends up being used. The Sony D100 and the Korg MR2 also offer 1bit DSD format recording that goes up to 2.8 MHz, which works completely differently from your run-of-the-mill PCM recording. Sadly no one actually uses it because dedicated software is required in order to edit or play it.


Popular on A Sound Effect right now - article continues below:


Trending right now:

  • Bundles Mattia Cellotto – Complete Bundle Play Track 11100+ sounds included $1,068

    Mattia Cellotto’s extraordinary sound libraries are some of the most popular releases in independent sound effects – and here’s your chance to get them all at a nice discount. Here’s what’s you get:

    NEW: CATACLYSM is a collection more than 1400 sounds in 400+ files of recorded, synthesized and designed sounds created to support important destructive moments and add a stronger sense of extreme consequence to any sound.

    ANIMAL HYPERREALISM VOL I is a library containing themed animal vocalisations & sounds, from real to designed creatures totaling more than 1300 individual sounds in 290 files.

    ANIMAL HYPERREALISM VOL II is a library containing themed animal sounds & vocalisations, from real to designed creatures totaling more than 2000 individual sounds in 283 files.

    ANIMAL HYPERREALISM VOL III is a library containing sounds themed animal vocalisations, from real to designed creatures totaling more than 1700 individual sounds in 279 files.

    METAMORPHOSIS is a huge collection of recorded source, synthesized material and hybrid sounds – more than 2300 sounds total.

    GLACIER ICE is a library containing over 300 high quality sounds of ice cracking, breaking, shattering in various sizes of blocks – recorded entirely in the Italian Alps over the course of two winters.

    POLARITY delivers more than 950 sounds of electricity, science and technology – captured in several locations around the world, from electricity museums to science labs.

    ULTRASONIC DRY ICE is a library containing over 600 sounds themed metal resonances, scrapes and all sorts of weird.

    ROCKS MOMENTUM gets you more than 1100 sounds of rocks, bricks, wood logs, stones, impacting on different surfaces, rolling, being scraped one against the other and so on. The library was recorded in the Italian alps, and in Inverness, Scotland.

    WATER VOLUMES delivers you over 300 sounds of natural hot-springs, bubbles, and liquids of various densities boiling under the effect of dry ice.

    METAL GROANS AND SLAMS is a library for which metal was kicked, hammered, bowed and… induced to vibrate through feedback loops?! The collection features 346 unique sounds recorded through field trips in US, UK and Italy.

    CRUNCH MODE & THE BORAX EXPERIMENT are also included as a bonus: Crunch Mode features 230 crunchy sounds made with a variety of vegetables, fresh bread, pizza crust & frozen goods, and The Borax Experiment gets you 158 squishy, gory, slimy, gooey SFX.

    10 %
    OFF
  • Every sound of clothes you need for a classic scene is in this library: walk, run, jump, fight, pat, rustle, etc. I used eight different types of material and recorded each action with a lot of detail and making sure I gave you a lot of variety.

    Clothing: Bomber jacket with zipper, Denim Shirt, Harrington jacket, Hawaiian shirt, Puffer jacket, Tuxedo, Windbreaker, Wool jacket

    32 %
    OFF
  • A complete collection of sonic exploration by Slava Pogorelsky.
    Grow your sound arsenal with an ever evolving collection of high-end cinematic and fresh sound effects!
    Here’s what to expect:

    RESONATING METAL FORCE offers a fresh sound palette of reverberant aggressive metal rampage, totaling 680 sound effects. Featuring creeping evolving metal pressure and resonating rattle, massive rumble, explosive impacts and nerve-racking squeaks.
    HORROR SERIES VOL.1: EVIL STRINGS TORTURED WIRES offers a unique toolset for nightmarish designs, totaling 564 sound effects. Featuring creeping dread of bowed metal wires, strings and double bass, providing exciting opportunities for unique layering.
    CINEMATIC MAGICAL ICE is offering a unique toolset for ice-cold freezing designs, totaling 267 sound effects. Great for fantasy genre with ice based magic, motion graphics, time lapse and flow motion freeze sequences.
    CINEMATIC WATER WHOOSHES AND TEXTURES is offering a unique toolset for water and underwater designs, totaling 285 sounds. Great for hyper realistic designs, water based magic, surreal underwater movement or motion graphics with liquid elements.
    CINEMATIC WOOD SYMPHONY is offering a variety of wood based recordings that were morphed into a unique audio experience that bends the boundaries between recognisable source and unusual wooden textures, totaling 611 sound effects.
    SCI – FI ELEMENTS VOL.1 is offering a variety of carefully crafted futuristic sound effects that vary from pleasant and musical to unpredicted and glitchy, totaling 364 sound effects.
    CINEMATIC METAL WHOOSHES is offering a unique collection of aggressive roaring metal whooshes and transitions with cinematic feel and mind bending characteristics, totaling 120 sound effects.

    WHAT SOUND PROFESSIONALS SAY:

    Victor Mercader – AAA Sound Designer (Apex Legends)
    “I find myself continuously using Slava’s SFX libraries to blend it’s pristine and detailed sound designs into my own sounds. They always add that cutting edge I am missing and make my sound designs more unique and pristine. The Sci-fi Elements sound library is the perfect library to use and blend into my UI designs in Apex Legends.”

    Enos Desjardins – Sound Designer/Sound Effects Editor (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Black Mirror)
    “Slava has been creating some really cool libraries which I find myself using time and again. Really high quality recordings to start with but then the cool processing he has used for example in his cinematic whoosh libraries really stand out. They are not just your standard generic whoosh sounds but are loaded with character and have a unique feel to them that is really fresh and cuts through in the nicest of ways.”

    Bjørn Jacobsen – AAA Sound Designer (CyberPunk 2077, HITMAN, DARQ)
    “Slava has for several years made high quality sound effects for me to play with. I use his sound libraries across multiple projects as lego blocks of my creations.”

    Stefan Kovatchev – Audio Director (MultiVersus)
    “Slava has put together an impressive collection of high quality source assets, recorded cleanly, and at high sample rates. It’s always refreshing to find a new purveyor of good source material. I particularly enjoyed Resonating Metal Force, which is comprised of very useable, unique tonal textures and impacts.”

    Samuel Gagnon-Thibodeau – Sound Designer/Sound Effects Editor (Dream Scenario, The Watchers, Hunting Daze)
    “Slava’s Cinematic Wood Symphony detailed textures and movements blend so well in what I’m usually looking for in terms of sound design. It really brings proximity and sensitivity to the action while feeling real and natural. The creative blend of the wooden sounds with whooshes and impacts also makes them very unique. I’m finding myself coming back to them more and more as they fit in many situations.”
     
    Yarron Katz – AAA Composer and Sound Designer
    “Slava makes some wonderful libraries. He’s relatively new on the scene and his libraries have come to critical acclaim. He takes some general ideas, like whooshes and he injects some extremely revolutionary and innovative ideas to them, so you’re not getting another whoosh library – you’re getting something very unique, very fresh. He brings some wonderful ideas to the table.”

    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “‘Evil Strings Tortured Wires’ is an all-scary affair with plenty of really good, nightmarish, imaginative sounds from authentic materials, like double bass, dulcimer strings and metal wires. Sound-wise, this sample pack is clean and carefully recorded. The editing and processing of sounds is top notch, with sound design techniques applied very professionally. Overall, very gritty and not for the faint of heart.”
     
    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “As far as the sound goes ‘Cinematic Magical Ice’ is both beautiful and mystical. I happen to like the icy textures that are oozing with coldness. Overall, this sound library boasts a good variety of effect samples ready to drop in various cinematic projects.”
     
    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “The spotlight of ‘Cinematic Wood Symphony’ is the wide range of complex sounds that can be dropped in your sound design projects. I love the Wood Movement and Tonal sounds, and I’m sure thriller and horror music composers will be delighted with the Friction and Impact sounds. If your cinematic projects are lacking texture and impact sounds ‘Cinematic Wood Symphony’ is a library to be considered – especially if you’re looking beyond common wood sounds.”
     
    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “Cinematic Water Whooshes and Textures is great for anything. You won’t be hearing recordings of calm rivers or relaxing streams, but cinematic whooshes and textures for soundtrack works and media projects. Whether you’re into this type of sounds, this pack was recorded quite well, professionally edited and processed with Slava’s own flair.”

    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “Slava is back with another aggressive and energetic sample library called Resonating Metal Force – a 680 strong collection of modern metal effects captured using various tools and high-end studio equipment. The source material was edited and processed professionally for instant use. These sounds are primed for experimentation – whether you add your unique processing, layer several WAV samples or slice and dice to your heart’s content, the sky’s the limit. This sound pack is another winner.”

    50 %
    OFF
    Ends 1718920799
  • This collection features 150 wolf and coyote sound effects.  This library includes howls, roars, barks and more from single and multiple coyotes and wolves.

    These sounds have been handpicked from the Sound Ideas General HD collections, Series 6000, Series 1000,  Just Birds & Animals and Wild World of Animals libraries, as well as the Digiffects Library and the Hollywood Edge Animal Trax, The Edge 1 & 2, Premiere Edition and Animal Planet libraries.

    50 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719698400

Latest releases:

  • Environments & Ambiences Future Dystopia Play Track 626 sounds included, 142 mins total $44.95

    The sounds of a dark tomorrow… are here!

    Orbital Emitter is proud to present our first World Building Sound-Set, FUTURE DYSTOPIA!
    Future Dystopia is a meticulously crafted collection of audio atmospheres and sonic elements that can be used in any film, tv or streaming show, music production, game development, YouTube content creation and more!
    Future Dystopia embodies the dark yet intense world of cyberpunk sci-fi by providing everything you need to create vibrant environments, detailed locales and dynamic scenes.
    But the best thing about this sound-set is that you can create these rich and imaginative scifi soundscapes in a fraction of the time it takes using traditional methods!
    Our curated atmospheres and elements can be combined, dissected, and quickly customized so that you can achieve great results to rival any Hollywood production! And the diversity of our sounds means you can build audio scenes for urban districts, space stations, industrial sites, abandoned locales, power stations, vehicles and more, FAST!
    Simply drop a few of our audio files into any NLE or DAW and hear how quickly your scenes will come to life! And with our sound-sets, all of our sounds are organized, clearly titled and contains metadata for each audio file.

    Future Dystopia – our World Building Sound-Set is made up of 626 sounds across 151 WAV audio files. There are 54 atmospheres, 67 Elements, 7 foundation sounds, 12 speech sets and 11 vehicle builds… Our sound-files are 24bit/96k stereo (that can be folded to mono if desired.)
    Every sound in Future Dystopia is 100% original and created to help transport your audience to another world!
    Order now and receive our 19 page e-guide that explains how to get the most out of this sound-set absolutely FREE.

    SPECIAL NOTE: To celebrate the release of this brand new sound-set, we are offering a 25% OFF for a limited time!
    We hope you enjoy Future Dystopia our first world building sound-set!

     

    Quick note about the download:

    Please note that the Future Dystopia Sound-Set is 5.4GB when uncompressed. To make delivery more streamlined, we have compressed this file to the “.zip” format.
    Because Windows users might have issues opening a “.zip” file over 4GB, we have included a “.rar” version of the file so Windows users can avoid any issues.

    TLDR: If you are on a Mac computer, just open the “.zip” file and for Windows users, open the “.rar” file.

     

    25 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719871199
  • Animal Sound Effects The Animal Symphony – Donkey Play Track 69+ sounds included, 10 mins total $10

    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – GOAT & SHEEP
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – CROWING ROOSTER
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – LOVEBIRD
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – WHITE HANDED GIBBON
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – MEERKAT
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – WATUSI

    Product description:

    “The Animal Symphony – Donkey” offers a collection of 69 high-quality audio tracks, each with multiple sounds (between 3 and 6 variations). The audios are organized with an intuitive nomenclature, allowing you to easily swap the different microphone jacks, so you can choose which microphone to use or combine them all. Using two high-end microphones, the Sennheiser MKH 8050 and an EM258 capsule microphone, along with a Zoom H6 recorder for stereo sound, we have captured every detail and nuance of these sounds. Recordings were made at 24-bit and 192kHz/96kHz, ensuring professional clarity and depth.

    This collection offers a wide variety of braying, growling, donkeys eating, etc… these sounds are perfect for adding realism and authenticity to your projects. With multiple takes and variations, this library provides the flexibility needed for any type of production requiring sounds from these animals. All recordings have been carefully edited to eliminate external noises, such as birds, wind or people. Furthermore, thanks to the ultrasonic microphones used, it is guaranteed that whoever decides to lower the tone will continue to obtain frequency richness.

    Ideal applications:

    – Video games: Add realism and depth to the natural environments of your games.
    – Cinema and Documentaries: Enrich your audiovisual productions with authentic sounds.
    – Educational Applications: Use these sounds in educational projects to teach about wildlife and animal behavior.
    – Multimedia Projects: Ideal for any project that seeks to enrich the user’s listening experience.

    Technical details:

    – Total audios: 69 (Each audio contains between 3 and 6 variations)
    – Format: 192kHz – 96kHz/24bit
    – Equipment used: Zoom F6 recorder with Sennheiser MKH 8050 microphone and EM258 capsule microphone, plus a Zoom H6 recorder for stereo sound.

    License:

    The sounds from “The Animal Symphony – Donkey” are available under a royalty-free license, allowing them to be used in multiple projects at no additional costs. You can use these sound effects in your games, trailers, Kickstarter campaigns, and more, as many times as you like.

    17 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719871199
  • Ribbiting Sounds for Your Next Project with our “Frogs” sound effects pack!

    This collection of high-quality, professionally recorded sounds captures the unique vocalization of frogs in their natural habitat.

    Ribbits, croaks, and chirps

    Perfect for aquatic or forest environments

    High-quality, 32-bit/192kHz

     

    Get Ready to Make a Splash with Your Next Project!

    15 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719871199
  • Traffic Sound Effects Long Car Pass Bys Play Track 10-40 sounds included, 65 mins total $22

    This small library contains ten exquisite recordings in multiple variances of cars driving through a quiet and expansive landscape along a very long road. You can hear the car approaching from a very far distance, passing by close, and slowly fading away into the distance for a very long time as well. In other words; we capture the car’s journey from afar, stretching on until it disappears over the horizon.

    All recordings are clear and entirely devoid of external noise and human disruptions.

    All these recordings are recorded using two microphone setups: a Double MS Stereo setup and a spaced omnis setup, the latter also providing extended frequency response. This results in four variations for each recording: Stereo, Wide Stereo, Wide AB Stereo, and 5-channel 5.0 surround. The variances between these options range from subtle to more pronounced, offering flexibility for crosscutting within scenes.

    Get more than one hour of unique, royalty-free and notably high quality recordings with this library. Recorded in 24 bit / 96 kHz. Accurately edited and mastered to sound as natural as possible. With an average duration ranging from 40 seconds to 3 1/2 minutes per file. For more detailed descriptions of the recordings within this collection, please refer to the metadata provided in our file lists or listen to the preview montage.

    This library is UCS compliant (universalcategorysystem.com). In this new category system, all files contain extensive metadata like file description, Category & Subcategory. Metadata can be read and processed by the most common audio libraries management tools.

  • All files are recorded 32bit, 192 kHz, with Shure KSM 137, Line Audio Omni1, FEL Clippy XLR EM272, Sonorous Objects SO.3 and JrF C-Series Pro+ microphones, Sound Devices MixPre-6 II & Zoom F3 recorders. Library contains wav files of driving, interior and exterior foley, mechanical and electrical sounds. It is also available in UCS.

Need specific sound effects? Try a search below:


Feel

A bit more difficult to quantify but nevertheless important, the overall feel of a piece of gear affects the user on both a conscious and subconscious level. Handheld recorders that are too heavy will be difficult to lug around or take out on long trip, so they might “accidentally” be left home or in the bag. If the device is too light it may be thought of as a toy. A device that rattles and creaks with every movement will seem unprofessional and unreliable, even if that might not be the case. If your recorder has parts sticking out without any protection (especially mics in this case), you will take less risks with it and avoid certain circumstances, possibly wasting opportunities.

Field recording is the opposite of studio recording in a controlled environment and will test your gear constantly

The point I’m trying to make here is that while gear has to be taken care of, it’s no use if it doesn’t feel like it will withstand even light abuse when you’re out recording. Field recording is the opposite of studio recording in a controlled environment and will test your gear constantly.

As already mentioned, the Zooms feel quite cheap and unreliable, while the Roland ones feel relatively good and sturdy. Olympus made a good choice when picking metal for their handheld recorders’ cases as they look like they could take a beating. The Sony devices don’t feel too high-end, but I don’t doubt that they can take a bit of rough treatment. My D100 has been in my backpack along with lots of other gear on countless trips, and so far I haven’t had one single problem with it.
 

Budget

As previously discussed, budget is usually the most important aspect taken into account when looking to purchase a handheld recorder. This is also generally wrong, for more than one reason. First of all, professional audio is a field in which the saying you get what you pay for applies more than in other fields.

Secondly, the final cost of a handheld recorder has to include the cost of the individual bits such as the preamps, mics, case etc., the research, design and the manufacturing cost. Get a cheap handheld recorder and you’ll be getting even cheaper mics, preamps, build quality etc. Spend some more and you’ll notice the difference.

On top of quality considerations, budget is also rarely a fixed figure. If you have x amount of money for a purchase now, why not wait, save more and get a better device? If you plan on using your recorder professionally, sooner or later you’re going to have to upgrade.
It is also worth mentioning the upside of cheap recorders, which is that you might take more risks with these since they’re easier to replace. I wouldn’t tape my D100 to pipes in the engine compartment of a race car, but an older PCM M10 or a Zoom H2n are cheap enough to be sacrificed this way.
 

Accessories

Regardless of brand or model your handheld will require a few extra accessories, the most important being batteries, memory cards, wind protection and shock protection.
Rechargeable batteries are your best choice, mainly because they’re practical but also because they’re environmentally friendly. Some handheld recorders are extremely power hungry, and you don’t want to continuously spend your money on batteries. Redundancy is key here though, as batteries get depleted or misplaced easily. I myself have about 30 Sanyo Eneloops and I’ve never run out of juice.

With regards to memory, handhelds usually take SD cards and it’s best to check compatibility with the manufacturer depending your make and model. I use a 64GB Sandisk Ultra with my Sony PCM D100 which also has 32GB of internal memory. This gives me more than enough recording time, even when recording at 24 bit/192 kHz. On top of storage size, SD cards also come in various speed class ratings. Without going into too much detail, it is advisable that you get a Class 10 or above so that you don’t get write errors. As for brand, I found that Sandisk are most trusted among audio professionals. I have never had any issues with them and I’ve been using Sandisk for all my audio and video/photo equipment.

It’s most likely that your recorder came with a foam windshield that’s more or less useless, so get your hands on a proper one as soon as you get the chance.

Wind and shock protection are usually afterthoughts, but they’re crucial for recording clean undistorted audio. I’m bundling the two together as that Rycote sells what’s called Portable Recorder Audio Kits.
It’s most likely that your recorder came with a foam windshield that’s more or less useless, so get your hands on a proper one as soon as you get the chance. On top of that, all handheld recorders are prone to handling noise, and having the Lyre suspension and soft grip really makes a difference. I also need to mention that wind protection is not 100% transparent. The ability to record in windy conditions comes at the price of muffling some of the mid and high frequencies and even colouring the sound. Think twice before recording and use wind protection only if it’s needed.

 

Makes and models

The name Zoom is almost synonymous with handheld recorders. Their H4n and H2n models are so cheap and ubiquitous that people don’t think twice before buying one. Having had first-hand experience with both I can say they simply aren’t suitable for serious field recording. The recording quality is not that good for quiet ambiences as the preamps are best suited for medium to loud sources. The plastic cases don’t feel great, and some bits start to rattle after they’ve been used for a while. On top of that the H4n is also a notorious battery hog, so you have to lug around plenty of spare batteries. This is not to say they’re bad though. They’re just geared towards musicians, and trying to record sound effects with these will be a difficult task.

The Sony PCM 100 RecorderOn the other end of the spectrum there’s the Sony PCM devices. Their flagship model, the D100, is what I would heartily recommend. This piece of kit scores high on all criteria except price. The build quality is excellent, the preamps and mics are as good as you can get on a handheld device, it doesn’t feel cheap in the hand and it also offers 192k recording as already mentioned. One other welcome feature is the ability to record in S/N 100 mode, which theoretically gives 100dB of signal to noise ratio. The price however makes this piece of kit unaffordable for most sound recordists starting out.

If the D100 is not an option then its older brother the PCM D50 can still be bought used for about half the price. It doesn’t offer 192k recording but otherwise it does just as good a job as the D100. If this is still too expensive then there’s the PCM M10. This can be bought for about the price of a Zoom H4n and sounds much better. The only caveat here is that the M10 has a pair of omnidirectional mics on-board. Consequently you won’t get as good a stereo image since the capsules are so close to one another, but on the up side the handling and wind noise are significantly lower.

As is the case with all other devices in the list, the Sony ones have their limitations. I tried recording quiet forest ambiences during winter and while the recordings aren’t half bad, they don’t stand up to a similar recording I’ve done with my Sound Devices 633 and a pair of Sennheiser MKH 8040s.
Apart from Sony and Zoom devices there’s a few other brands that might be of note. Korg, Tascam, Olympus and Roland all make their versions of a handheld recorder. I’ve had the chance to listen to recordings made with several of these devices last year on the Wildeye nature recording course last year, and the only one that sounded relatively good was the Olympus LS11. It is also worth mentioning the Marantz PMD devices, of which the 661 actually does a decent job. With a price closer to the Sony D100 though I’m not sure it’s worth getting though.
 

Short excerpt from a dawn chorus recording in the Pentland Hills – captured with the Sony D100

Conclusions

The clear winner for me is the Sony PCM D100. I first heard about it in Frank Bry’s libraries, and I got one as soon as it became available in the UK. It is a pleasure to use, it worked well in a variety of temperatures and climates and it simply sounds amazing. If however price is an issue I would recommend getting a used D50 or the M10 from Sony.

Having said all that, the best recorder is the one you have access to. It’s easy to waste time doing research and lusting over gear, but only first-hand experience with a device will tell if it’s right for you or not. If you can borrow or hire any one of these devices before buying then go for it, and settle on one that you think works best for you. In the end it’s your recordings that matter.

 

Please share this:


 

A big thanks to George Vlad for writing this comprehensive guide to finding the right handheld recorder!
 
What’s your favorite recorder? Share your thoughts in the comments below:

About George Vlad

George Vlad is a passionate sound designer, recordist and composer. He works as a game audio professional and also runs game-sounds.com. He’s fascinated by sounds that aren’t readily accessible and goes to great lengths in order to capture and reproduce them.



 
 
THE WORLD’S EASIEST WAY TO GET INDEPENDENT SOUND EFFECTS:
 
A Sound Effect gives you easy access to an absolutely huge sound effects catalog from a myriad of independent sound creators, all covered by one license agreement - a few highlights:

  • Bundles Mattia Cellotto – Complete Bundle Play Track 11100+ sounds included $1,068

    Mattia Cellotto’s extraordinary sound libraries are some of the most popular releases in independent sound effects – and here’s your chance to get them all at a nice discount. Here’s what’s you get:

    NEW: CATACLYSM is a collection more than 1400 sounds in 400+ files of recorded, synthesized and designed sounds created to support important destructive moments and add a stronger sense of extreme consequence to any sound.

    ANIMAL HYPERREALISM VOL I is a library containing themed animal vocalisations & sounds, from real to designed creatures totaling more than 1300 individual sounds in 290 files.

    ANIMAL HYPERREALISM VOL II is a library containing themed animal sounds & vocalisations, from real to designed creatures totaling more than 2000 individual sounds in 283 files.

    ANIMAL HYPERREALISM VOL III is a library containing sounds themed animal vocalisations, from real to designed creatures totaling more than 1700 individual sounds in 279 files.

    METAMORPHOSIS is a huge collection of recorded source, synthesized material and hybrid sounds – more than 2300 sounds total.

    GLACIER ICE is a library containing over 300 high quality sounds of ice cracking, breaking, shattering in various sizes of blocks – recorded entirely in the Italian Alps over the course of two winters.

    POLARITY delivers more than 950 sounds of electricity, science and technology – captured in several locations around the world, from electricity museums to science labs.

    ULTRASONIC DRY ICE is a library containing over 600 sounds themed metal resonances, scrapes and all sorts of weird.

    ROCKS MOMENTUM gets you more than 1100 sounds of rocks, bricks, wood logs, stones, impacting on different surfaces, rolling, being scraped one against the other and so on. The library was recorded in the Italian alps, and in Inverness, Scotland.

    WATER VOLUMES delivers you over 300 sounds of natural hot-springs, bubbles, and liquids of various densities boiling under the effect of dry ice.

    METAL GROANS AND SLAMS is a library for which metal was kicked, hammered, bowed and… induced to vibrate through feedback loops?! The collection features 346 unique sounds recorded through field trips in US, UK and Italy.

    CRUNCH MODE & THE BORAX EXPERIMENT are also included as a bonus: Crunch Mode features 230 crunchy sounds made with a variety of vegetables, fresh bread, pizza crust & frozen goods, and The Borax Experiment gets you 158 squishy, gory, slimy, gooey SFX.

    10 %
    OFF
  • Punchy Transients is an organized toolbox that serves as a reliable source of ”layers of impact” which many, many sounds do require to be in their best fit. It is also a trusty stash for designers who need to save some time to focus on something else.

    The library content was made by recording a collection of hits on a punching bag using many techniques. Also, a dry version of each sample and a folder of bonus thumps are included.

    58 %
    OFF
  • Every sound of clothes you need for a classic scene is in this library: walk, run, jump, fight, pat, rustle, etc. I used eight different types of material and recorded each action with a lot of detail and making sure I gave you a lot of variety.

    Clothing: Bomber jacket with zipper, Denim Shirt, Harrington jacket, Hawaiian shirt, Puffer jacket, Tuxedo, Windbreaker, Wool jacket

    32 %
    OFF
Explore the full, unique collection here

Latest sound effects libraries:
 
  • Environments & Ambiences Future Dystopia Play Track 626 sounds included, 142 mins total $44.95

    The sounds of a dark tomorrow… are here!

    Orbital Emitter is proud to present our first World Building Sound-Set, FUTURE DYSTOPIA!
    Future Dystopia is a meticulously crafted collection of audio atmospheres and sonic elements that can be used in any film, tv or streaming show, music production, game development, YouTube content creation and more!
    Future Dystopia embodies the dark yet intense world of cyberpunk sci-fi by providing everything you need to create vibrant environments, detailed locales and dynamic scenes.
    But the best thing about this sound-set is that you can create these rich and imaginative scifi soundscapes in a fraction of the time it takes using traditional methods!
    Our curated atmospheres and elements can be combined, dissected, and quickly customized so that you can achieve great results to rival any Hollywood production! And the diversity of our sounds means you can build audio scenes for urban districts, space stations, industrial sites, abandoned locales, power stations, vehicles and more, FAST!
    Simply drop a few of our audio files into any NLE or DAW and hear how quickly your scenes will come to life! And with our sound-sets, all of our sounds are organized, clearly titled and contains metadata for each audio file.

    Future Dystopia – our World Building Sound-Set is made up of 626 sounds across 151 WAV audio files. There are 54 atmospheres, 67 Elements, 7 foundation sounds, 12 speech sets and 11 vehicle builds… Our sound-files are 24bit/96k stereo (that can be folded to mono if desired.)
    Every sound in Future Dystopia is 100% original and created to help transport your audience to another world!
    Order now and receive our 19 page e-guide that explains how to get the most out of this sound-set absolutely FREE.

    SPECIAL NOTE: To celebrate the release of this brand new sound-set, we are offering a 25% OFF for a limited time!
    We hope you enjoy Future Dystopia our first world building sound-set!

     

    Quick note about the download:

    Please note that the Future Dystopia Sound-Set is 5.4GB when uncompressed. To make delivery more streamlined, we have compressed this file to the “.zip” format.
    Because Windows users might have issues opening a “.zip” file over 4GB, we have included a “.rar” version of the file so Windows users can avoid any issues.

    TLDR: If you are on a Mac computer, just open the “.zip” file and for Windows users, open the “.rar” file.

     

    25 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719871199
  • Animal Sound Effects The Animal Symphony – Donkey Play Track 69+ sounds included, 10 mins total $10

    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – GOAT & SHEEP
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – CROWING ROOSTER
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – LOVEBIRD
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – WHITE HANDED GIBBON
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – MEERKAT
    THE ANIMAL SYMPHONY – WATUSI

    Product description:

    “The Animal Symphony – Donkey” offers a collection of 69 high-quality audio tracks, each with multiple sounds (between 3 and 6 variations). The audios are organized with an intuitive nomenclature, allowing you to easily swap the different microphone jacks, so you can choose which microphone to use or combine them all. Using two high-end microphones, the Sennheiser MKH 8050 and an EM258 capsule microphone, along with a Zoom H6 recorder for stereo sound, we have captured every detail and nuance of these sounds. Recordings were made at 24-bit and 192kHz/96kHz, ensuring professional clarity and depth.

    This collection offers a wide variety of braying, growling, donkeys eating, etc… these sounds are perfect for adding realism and authenticity to your projects. With multiple takes and variations, this library provides the flexibility needed for any type of production requiring sounds from these animals. All recordings have been carefully edited to eliminate external noises, such as birds, wind or people. Furthermore, thanks to the ultrasonic microphones used, it is guaranteed that whoever decides to lower the tone will continue to obtain frequency richness.

    Ideal applications:

    – Video games: Add realism and depth to the natural environments of your games.
    – Cinema and Documentaries: Enrich your audiovisual productions with authentic sounds.
    – Educational Applications: Use these sounds in educational projects to teach about wildlife and animal behavior.
    – Multimedia Projects: Ideal for any project that seeks to enrich the user’s listening experience.

    Technical details:

    – Total audios: 69 (Each audio contains between 3 and 6 variations)
    – Format: 192kHz – 96kHz/24bit
    – Equipment used: Zoom F6 recorder with Sennheiser MKH 8050 microphone and EM258 capsule microphone, plus a Zoom H6 recorder for stereo sound.

    License:

    The sounds from “The Animal Symphony – Donkey” are available under a royalty-free license, allowing them to be used in multiple projects at no additional costs. You can use these sound effects in your games, trailers, Kickstarter campaigns, and more, as many times as you like.

    17 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719871199
  • Ribbiting Sounds for Your Next Project with our “Frogs” sound effects pack!

    This collection of high-quality, professionally recorded sounds captures the unique vocalization of frogs in their natural habitat.

    Ribbits, croaks, and chirps

    Perfect for aquatic or forest environments

    High-quality, 32-bit/192kHz

     

    Get Ready to Make a Splash with Your Next Project!

    15 %
    OFF
    Ends 1719871199
  • Traffic Sound Effects Long Car Pass Bys Play Track 10-40 sounds included, 65 mins total $22

    This small library contains ten exquisite recordings in multiple variances of cars driving through a quiet and expansive landscape along a very long road. You can hear the car approaching from a very far distance, passing by close, and slowly fading away into the distance for a very long time as well. In other words; we capture the car’s journey from afar, stretching on until it disappears over the horizon.

    All recordings are clear and entirely devoid of external noise and human disruptions.

    All these recordings are recorded using two microphone setups: a Double MS Stereo setup and a spaced omnis setup, the latter also providing extended frequency response. This results in four variations for each recording: Stereo, Wide Stereo, Wide AB Stereo, and 5-channel 5.0 surround. The variances between these options range from subtle to more pronounced, offering flexibility for crosscutting within scenes.

    Get more than one hour of unique, royalty-free and notably high quality recordings with this library. Recorded in 24 bit / 96 kHz. Accurately edited and mastered to sound as natural as possible. With an average duration ranging from 40 seconds to 3 1/2 minutes per file. For more detailed descriptions of the recordings within this collection, please refer to the metadata provided in our file lists or listen to the preview montage.

    This library is UCS compliant (universalcategorysystem.com). In this new category system, all files contain extensive metadata like file description, Category & Subcategory. Metadata can be read and processed by the most common audio libraries management tools.

  • All files are recorded 32bit, 192 kHz, with Shure KSM 137, Line Audio Omni1, FEL Clippy XLR EM272, Sonorous Objects SO.3 and JrF C-Series Pro+ microphones, Sound Devices MixPre-6 II & Zoom F3 recorders. Library contains wav files of driving, interior and exterior foley, mechanical and electrical sounds. It is also available in UCS.


   

13 thoughts on “How To Find The Best Handheld Recorder

  1. “The mics on the D100 can actually record content up to about 40 kHz, which is important when the recordings are going to be pitched down at the sound design stage.”

    Actually, the Sony PCM D100 built in mic has 20-20kHz frequency response. The line-in frequency response is 20-45kHz (@192kHz/24bit).

    “Some devices such as the Zoom H4n are notoriously difficult to work with in this regard as they don’t offer the ability to bypass the on-board preamps.”

    Here’s how to do that:
    http://www.danmccomb.com/tips/zoom-h4n-with-sound-devices-mixpre-how-to-properly-connect-the-two-for-pristine-audio/

  2. Thanks for the observations Mr. X.

    On paper the mics’ frequency response is 20 Hz – 20 kHz indeed, but I have found otherwise. As you can see in the following spectrogram the content of the specific recording goes up to about 34 kHz: http://i.imgur.com/OL4OcQA.jpg. The frequency response is probably not flat all the way, but it’s darn good for on-board microphones on a handheld recorder.

    I know there are workarounds for bypassing the on-board preamps, but they don’t work on all devices or 100% of the time. I would also much rather spend my time recording than trying to fix issues such as that one.

  3. The PCM-D100’s mic response is available on the Sony website. George is right, it goes beyond 20khz but is -10dB down by 30khz. Still, that’s pretty impressive for this sort of a device:

    https://pro.sony.com/bbsc/assetDownloadController/PCM-D100-Stereo-Microphone-Characteristics.pdf?path=Asset%20Hierarchy$Professional$SEL-yf-generic-153707$SEL-yf-generic-153748SEL-asset-407981.pdf&id=StepID$SEL-asset-407981$original&dimension=original

  4. I have a PCM-M10 which I’ve used for recording railroad audio. While it is quiet, can handle very high SPLs with proper gain control, and comes with a great battery life, it has its limitations other than its lack of stereo image:

    i. It sounds really muffled (even without windscreen) in every situation/technique I’ve tried. This means fast transients will be sacrificed (e.g. screeching sound of wheels of freight train/coupler jolts/sharp exhaust of diesel locos/thunder/firework/any sound with tight bass). This cannot be compensated with eq boost in 6-10k range, since it only increases hissiness without any improvement in clarity.

    ii. There is some kind of peak compression going on even with the limiter OFF, I have found this in recording of some very loud diesel horns. Onboard meters touched over 0dB a few times, yet the waveform did not clip when opened in Audacity. But on closer inspection, I found brickwalling in in the louder portion of the horn blast:(

    No wonder I’ve ordered a MixPre-D, will be using Rode NT55 & NT4 with it (until I can afford SD702, MKH8040 or MK4)

  5. You should try the D50 or D100 before moving on to more expensive equipment. As with anything though, keep in mind that low price comes with downsides, and the Sonys are better in that they have fewer downsides overall.

    Having said that, I never noticed these issues while using the M10. I never recorded sources this loud with it, but regardless you might want to have yours checked if it’s still under warranty.

  6. Hi George,

    After comparing various online samples, I don’t think my M10 is malfunctioning, they all sound similar to mine. I bought it after reading all the rave reviews. Initially I was also quite excited, but as time progressed, I’ve noticed the limitations of the built in mics.

    I’ve seen a comparison of D100 & DR100mkII (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3Mn-YbflxM) , maybe D100 also shares M10’s trait to some extent, DR100mkII sounds much more natural/open to me in this clip.

    Then I encountered a page with very good test clips (http://www.wingfieldaudio.com/portable-recorder-noise.html) which shows the M10 preamps have a harsh quality, when compared to 702 preamps (a very unfair comparison indeed).

    However, M10 performs very well when I feed its line-in via Mix-PreD/NT4. I’ve also compared that setup with MixPre-D digital output, which probably has slightly more clarity, but barely visible in spectrums/waveform. Lastly, due to M10’s portability, I know I’ll record far more clips with it than MixPre-D setup.

  7. Hi there,

    Note that the mics on the D100 swivel, and therefore they can sound wide or narrow based on preference. I personally prefer the sound of the D100 in the video you shared as it sounds a bit more focused.

    As for the M10, there will be limitations related to cost. Regardless of the downsides I think it outperforms many recorders on the market, even more expensive ones.

    George

  8. How does Zoom H5 fit in this picture. With significantly improved preamp and build quality, and feel, how does it compare to D100?

    • The Zoom H5 and H6 models are mainly targeted at music or location recording on a budget. Their preamps are better than the H4 ones, but still too noisy for recording ambiences or soft sounds. A used D50 (or indeed a D100) will work much better for field recording.

  9. Georges, i am thinking to buy the sony D100 for bird sound recording , rarities, migration calls but i don’t want to use external mics , are the internal mics good enough ,
    Erik

  10. Hi Erik,

    I have recorded birds with the D100 myself and the mics are definitely good enough. However, gear alone is never enough. You will have to get really close to your subjects if you want clean recordings. The D100 is great in this regard due to its small size and the fact that you can turn off the Record button red light.

    George

  11. So, does that mean the Sony PCM-D100 is the only handheld device worth purchasing for quality audio recording without buying and carrying a larger kit, cables and mics? This post has some very old posts. Is there anything new, as good or better out there in the last 3 years?

    The D100 is the most expensive and hardest to acquire.

    I’m surprised after all the years the D100 has been out that no one else is smart enough to build something equal or better. Even Sony can’t or hasn’t done it. That includes their new D10 which tested very poorly, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.