Now before we get started let me just say, when it comes recording sound on set, there is absolutely NO SUBSTITUTE FOR A REALLY GREAT PROFESSIONAL SOUND GUY!!.
Someone who really knows what they are doing and can capture professional quality sound is indispensable and if you can afford a professional sound guy then thats exactly, without a doubt, what you should do.
However, if you're making a film on buttons and glue, the chances are you can't afford to hire a really great sound person and so the temptation is is to get your mate 'bob' to do it because he kind of, sort of knows his shit about music or something. This is a big mistake.
Filmmakers often overlook sound on their films and they really shouldn't, good sound is probably more important than a great picture, as you probably heard a billion times before, but its very true.
As I discussed last week, I shoot a lot of heavy action stuff, as a result, myself, my camera and my sound gear are often right in there with the action and fairly often a stray sword or stick or machete or puppet will take out my audio rig. My camera is fairly durable from small knocks, but the right angle can dislodge my audio rig and send it to the floor. I've lost many a microphone this way, which is why last week I discussed the inexpensive Takstar Microphone which cheap enough to replace with ease.
On my most recent feature I've destroyed two recorders with simple little accidents and so it was important to me that I was able to replace them cheaply and quickly without sacrificing quality, but whilst also keeping my camera rig as light as possible. Here are some of the options I've looked at. I shoot both Visual's and Audio myself so I've taken that into account.
ZOOM H4N (£250)
The largest and most common of my recommended recorders (there are some newer,
better versions, but I haven't used them so I wouldn't feel comfortable recommending them). This is pretty much the standard for low/no budget indies and its a great recorder. Heavy, durable, lots of control over audio input and of course XLR inputs for higher quality audio and making it compatible with much better mics from the off set with the use of adapters.
Its well suited to a dedicated sound guy and adding this model to a large rig is fairly common, but for lighter rigs it probably adds too much weight. I've aways used one of these with a separate sound person on set, I did use a Tascam equivalent on my latest film in an emergency after we busted the H2N recorder and it knocked the rig off balance a little too much, meaning someone else had to operate it.
If you can shell out a couple of hundred quid for a recorder no bother this is probably your best option and it takes standard SD cards (as well as SD-HC) and can also take large (and small with an adapter) jack microphones. There are newer versions and options from Zoom out there, but this is a good solid standard to have on set and works very well if you have a seperate sound guy and give great quality results.
ZOOM H2N (£150)
A mid range audio recorder, they retail at around £150-£200 and although the body is a plastic build, it feels fairly solid. It comes with a built in mic that be set to various functions and, most importantly for recording for film, it comes with a Mic input (3.5mm jack) and Headphone input. One of its most useful features is that the gain is controlled by a wheel on the side of the unit rather than button (like the Zoom H1) so theres no handling pick up or clicking if you're having to adjust the input whilst shooting.
The Zoon H2N takes standard SD cards that load into the bottom where the mount is also situated. This becomes a pain when trying to change cards as the whole thing has to be taken off your rig in order to get to the card or battery hatch. To get around this, I opted to use a larger card so that change overs became less frequent. It is also very bulky, not as much as the larger recorder like the H4N, but the actual shell of the recorder itself is curved and so its tough to mount it to anything aside from the supplied tripod mount on the bottom.
Still the quality from the recorder is great and it really does an amazing job, especially for a recorder than doesn't have an XLR input, I'm always surprised at the great recording quality that I get from the H2N just using my budget £20 video mic. I used this recorder on a dozen features and shorts and I was very happy with the results. Its perfect for those who want something a little less flimsy than the Zoom H1, without the bulk of something larger.
A smaller, stripped down version of the H2N, the Zoom H1 is a sleek little recorder than has the same features as its big brother the H2N, but packed into a smaller body. This brings with it some advantages, it can be mounted to rigs easier, having flat sides I often create a velcro mount and attach it to my mic rather than having to add and extra bracket to add the recorder. It also has a standard tripod mount of the bottom and its MicroSD input is on the side which is easily accessible as well as only taking one AA battery, rather than 2 like the H2N, which is also easy to get to, most of the time with out having to remove the recorder, in a lot of ways it improves on physical functionality of the H2N.
There are some drawbacks however, the unit is made of cheap plastic and so there quickly becomes an issue with handling noise (even with external mic use) unless you have shock mount. The other major issue is that the quality settings aren't controlled by a menu system like H2N, but rather, by series of physical switches on the back of the recorder, its handy and straight forward, but the mount is right next to them and during my first use I mounted my recorder only to find that my rig would knock the switch changing the quality from WAV back to MP3, so this is something to be conscious of. They overall units are also pretty fragile and break very easily if you're not careful.
Overall though, at the price, the quality of the actual recording is the same as the H2N and the ZOOM H1 features the same 3.5mm Mic and Headphone inputs. The input here is controlled by little buttons on the side which cause some issues with handling noise, when filming so its something to keep in mind, but for £100 (or about £70 used) this a good option for no budgeters and a great back up to have in case your larger recorder fails on you.
8GB eSYNIC STEEL RECORDER (£9)
After smashing two recorders on set, I looked into some potentially cheaper options. Whilst browsing ebay I came across the eSynic Voice Recorder. It cost me about £9 and I took a chance on it just to have a look. The overall build quality of it is really good, it feels very solid and durable and feels like it could take a few knocks without much trouble. Its also the smallest recorder I've ever owned, its about the size of a 10 pack of cigarettes and its very light and flat, meaning that I can make a velcro mount to attach to my mic easily. In fact its so light it just rests against the shock mount fairly well.
The recorder comes with an 8GB built in memory and fixed internal battery and connects to a computer via usb to run off the files and charge, meaning that it has no external storage, which can be a good thing in terms of not having to change over cards & batteries, but the downside is that if it runs out of space or charge then its a case of waiting for it, however they are so cheap it would be easy to have two. It is a bit temperamental when it comes to saving files though and the instructions it came with a pretty useless. I did discover via a youtube review that the stop button needs to be pressed twice to save the file rather than the pause button or record button like the zoom recorders.
The monitoring suggests that the audio is peaking or distorting at times but on playback it turns out fine which is odd. Another baffling thing is that the WAV files it records can't play back from the preview (for mac at least), they need to be converted to WAV's again (I use Toast Titanium) in order to hear them back. Its not much work, but an extra pain in the arse. It is not really that reliable as an audio recorder, but if you are using a DSLR without a headphone input this acts as a good preamp to let you monitor what your recording by connecting the mic input to the input on the camera and then headphones to the other input. They aren't labelled though, so you'll have to guess which is which. Still for £9 the quality was surprisingly good from the recordings I got and there is a negligible difference between this and the Zoom H1 and H2N for 10 times less than Zooms cheapest option.
Out of all of them, the Zoom H1 is the best quality at the best price. They are cheap enough to be replaced (which happens often here) or have a spare and if you can afford a few its worth hooking up some lav mics and having them attached to your actors. The audio from them is great quality and the H1 is light enough that it doesn't effect rig weight almost at all when attached directly to the camera or microphone. If you have a dedicated sound guy then the Zoom h4n is a better option with more durability but I found it too heavy to attach to my light weight rig and keep the freedom of movement I wanted.
There is no one purpose tool for audio and of course all these recorders have different strengths and weaknesses, but it is possible to get decent usable audio from even a £9 recorder if you spend the time understanding its limits and how it works. Remember, better gear won't make you a better filmmaker, the same way that cheap gear won't make you a worse one.
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