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Affordable Field Recorders for Filmmakers

Annie St. Cyr

Field recorders are a must for any production. Let’s look at some of the best, most affordable options for videographers and filmmakers.

Capturing quality audio is crucial to any film or video production. Luckily, there’s a vast array of field recorder options out there. There are small handhelds, larger multi-channel recorders, and lots of different bells and whistles to choose from.

Most filmmakers won’t need to spend big money on upper echelon recorders like those from Sound Devices. These field recorders are usually left for production sound mixers working on bigger-budget film productions.

There are plenty of affordable options for filmmakers and videographers who don’t want to spend more than $1000 on a field recorder. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

What Is a Field Recorder?

A field recorder is a device allowing you to record audio out “in the field” on your video shoot. These devices record audio independently of a camera. They can also mix multiple audio tracks from multiple on-set microphones, and some models can even act as a portable microphone.

After you pop in an SD card and press record on both the field recorder and camera, you get high-quality audio that you can sync up with your high-quality video, instead of the poor in-camera audio quality you’d get otherwise.

Our friend Lewis McGregor has a video tutorial that covers the pros and cons of recording a microphone into a field recorder and directly into the camera.

When Do You Need a Field Recorder?

Field recorders are vital when shooting outside of a controlled environment. Image via Hero Images on Offset.

You’ll need a field recorder for any production location outside of a studio—such as a documentary, narrative film, short film, wedding, or corporate video—that requires you to capture any audio whatsoever.

Keeping the audio files separate from the video files will help the overall quality and post-production workflow. If you’re shooting a music video or any type of video that will have music playing over it (or no dialogue whatsoever), you don’t need to bother buying a field recorder.

However, it’s always a good idea to get some audio coverage, no matter what you’re shooting. I’d recommend attaching a microphone to your camera if you have an XLR input or just using the in-camera audio to help with synchronizing and remembering what your environment sounded like when you shot the video.

Now, let’s check out some gear—portable handheld records first, and then a few multi-track recorders.

Portable Handheld Recorders

Zoom H1n

The Zoom H1n field recorder
This compact digital recorder captures great sound and fits in your back pocket. Image via Zoom.
  • Pros: Decent sound quality, compact form factor
  • Cons: Battery life, build quality
  • Price: $120

The Zoom H1n Handy Recorder is a compact digital audio recorder. It can fit in your back pocket, and it’s perfect for the sound mixer/filmmaker on-the-go. Built specifically for documentarians, journalists, and podcasters, the small form factor captures professional high-quality WAV and MP3 files.

If you’re going to start with any audio recorder, the Zoom H1n is a solid choice. Really, it’s the perfect balance of price and function for today’s filmmaker. You can easily use the mic, coupled with a lav, to get solid interview audio, or use it on its own to capture elevated audio.

Tascam DR-40X

Tascam's DR-40X field recorder
This audio recorder has four-channel capabilities and XLR inputs—perfect for small indie productions. Image via Tascam.
  • Pros: Dual XLR, daylight screen
  • Cons: Flimsy build quality
  • Price: $200

The Tascam DR-40X is one great audio recording device. I’ve spent many hours behind this machine filming my documentary projects. With four-channel capabilities and XLR inputs, it provides for the needs of many small indie productions, allowing them to get the best sound possible out of their recorder.

Tascam Portacapture X8

The Portacapture X8 field recorder
This audio recorder is durable, easy to use, and records high-quality sound. Image via Tascam.
  • Pros: Ease of use, durability, quality audio
  • Cons: Noise, limited backup recording
  • Price: $300

Zoom’s H6 Recorder is the current master of the handheld field recorder market. The H6 is a durable option for on-the-go recording, used worldwide by award-winning documentary filmmakers. Its interface is straightforward to use, its sound quality is high, and its ability to record up to four audio channels simultaneously is a significant plus.

Multi-Track Recorders

If you’re looking to step it up audio-wise, then make that step a multi-track recorder. When you consider professional recording setups, a multi-track system that sits inside of an audio bag is where you want to begin.

Coupled with a long list of features and incredible mic preamps, these multi-track recorders will instantly elevate your audio game.

Zoom F6

Zoom's F6 Multi-Track Recorder
Zoom’s F6 Multi-Track Recorder. Image via Zoom.
  • Pros: Price point, amazing build quality, size
  • Cons: SD card mounted behind the battery
  • Price: $835

Zoom’s catalog has pretty much got you covered for any audio situation, from portability to multi-track recording. As you can see by the list, we’ve mentioned them a few times.

The F6 offers 192khz, pro-quality preamps with a lot of gains, 32-bit float audio recording, six discrete inputs with locking Neutrik XLR connectors, and is a more affordable option compared to something like the Sound Devices MixPre 2 series.

There are six inputs on the F6 (it’d be a surprise if it weren’t six, given the name), each on Neutrik XLRs, and each with a complete mic preamp.

The party trick is that each one has two analog to digital converters. The converters can separately deal with both quiet and loud signals, their outputs are then combined, and the resulting digital signal is written into a 32-bit float file. This gives you a wide dynamic sound range for the recording.

Zoom F8n

Zoom's F6 field recorder
This recorder can record up to eight audio channels, has excellent sound quality, and is durable. Image via Zoom.
  • Pros: Sound quality, ease of use, durability
  • Cons: Sound metering
  • Price: $999

The Zoom F8n is the update to the famous Zoom F8. Honestly, this recorder is built like a tank, and with an astounding eight XLR/TRS inputs, it’s ready to handle anything you throw at it.

Its ability to record up to eight audio channels through lockable analog XLR inputs places it at the top of this list and in the esteemed company of more prominent names like Sound Devices.

Perfect for independent filmmakers and videographers, the F8n is a field recorder that will provide genuinely professional-quality results.

Sound Devices 833

The Sound Devices 833 field recorder
Besides its price tag, this recorder is a filmmaker’s dream, with uncompromising sound quality and durability. Image via Sound Devices.
  • Pros: Sound quality, built-in SSD, durability
  • Cons: Price – $4,200

Although expensive, you can’t talk about field recorders without at least mentioning the Sound Devices 833. The 833 is the company’s entry-level recorder, and it boasts an eight-channel, twelve-track recording method that covers the needs of nearly any shoot. Ask any professional sound mixer—Sound Devices is their gold standard.

This recorder’s internal 256GB SSD and 32-bit ability give you crystal-clear recordings totally devoid of distortion and unwanted noise. If you’re an uncompromising filmmaker regarding sound, you can’t go wrong investing in this recorder.

Before you know it, you’ll be hiring your sound designer and field recordist, and they’ll bring in the big boys. Until then, any of these options will get you rolling.

If your budget is small, you can easily purchase one of the handy recorders that will work perfectly for simple film or video production. Then, when you get to the point where you need something more robust and adjustable, you can upgrade to one of the multi-track recorders.

If you’re looking to up your audio game, these articles will help:

Cover image via chello700.