Okay, we finally did it. We made some recommendations. Sure, Transom is dedicated to mission, philosophy, and nuanced storytelling advice, but what you really want to know is: WHAT GEAR SHOULD I BUY… right? (What do writers obsess about… pencils?)
Transom Staff have described our personal rigs, and together, we compiled our assessments into dollar-determined good, better, best-ness. There are links to our in-depth reviews and to actually buy the stuff, or at least put it in your Cart and dream.
So, let’s indulge our consumerist desires for a moment, and then we can get on with the real work. Feel free to leave a comment with your own preferences. –Jay A
There’s plenty of great audio recording equipment out there, but the above are what some of us at Transom currently use, for our own gigs and in our Story Workshop:
Transom Producer Notes
Jeff Towne says: Your first splurge should be on headphones: get the Sony MDR7506 model mentioned in the “best” category. Although they don’t directly affect the sound that’s being recorded, being able to monitor accurately might have the biggest effect on the quality of your recordings. I used to use a set of Etymotics almost exclusively, until one of the earpieces broke. And that might have been due to trying to pull them out too rapidly, and that’s my primary hesitation about them: you can’t take them on and off quickly. It’s helpful, and sometimes safer, to be able to hear the real world in its actual stereo spatial representation, not just what’s coming down your mic. So I’ve gone back to the good old Sony 7506s. I honestly can’t think of any headphones I’d rather use in the field. I’ve worn some ridiculous high-end phones in some studios, but I’m not sure I’d use them for location recording.
I personally use the Tascam DR-100mkII recorder (Transom review) with a Rode NTG2 short shotgun mic. The DR-100mkII is a significant improvement over the original DR-100 that we reviewed. It’s functionally pretty much the same, but the sound quality is much better, allowing it to use a wider variety of microphones with good results. I’m a big fan of the Sony M10 too. The M10 is smaller, lighter, simpler, and cheaper than anything else that sounds as good. It’s a good choice as a starter recorder, excellent as a back up; it’s easy to use, sounds great and is reliable.
Many of the small recorders have very good built-in stereo microphones. Take advantage of them! I don’t recommend using the built-in mics for interviews, but they’re often perfect for getting immersive ambiences and vivid documents of events.
The $99 Zoom H1 is remarkably good for a $99 recorder, but I’ve also lost recordings that I was sure I had made, it feels less durable than other recorders, and the built-in mics are insanely wind-sensitive, so I’m reluctant to give it a general recommendation. I don’t think there are any recorders less expensive than the Sony M-10 that I’d heartily recommend.
And here’s the most important part: we’re suggesting that people mix and match recorders and mics, but as I wrote in a recent sidebar, almost all of the cheap flash recorders require a hot-output mic to avoid sounding super-hissy.
Except the Sony M10. The M10 is pretty good with almost any mic. It sounds better with condensers, but not bad with a dynamic like a Beyer M58, or an RE50 or whatever. It’s solid, the batteries last forever, the built-in mics sound great, and are not all that sensitive to wind (omnis). We’ve given them to rank beginners and they’ve gotten good tape. The M10 is a good choice if someone is just trying to get the cheapest thing that we think is good–it’s the cheapest one I feel good about. I’d almost recommend the Tascam DR-40 (Transom review), but it requires specific mics to get clean recording.
The Tascam DR-100mkII is a step up from the Sony M10. It’s better, partly because of the more robust XLR inputs, phantom power, and a better battery scheme. The DR-100mkII requires a little more work to master than the M10: there are more options, which is powerful for the more experienced recordist and confusing for the beginner.
I really think the sound quality and ease-of-use of the Tascam DR-100mkII and the more expensive Sony D50 makes them roughly equivalent recorders.
Jeff uses: Tascam DR-100mkII recorder, Rode NTG2 Short Shotgun mic, Sony MDR7506 headphones.
Viki Merrick says: Once you make friends with the 722 — it rocks. No sound issues at all at all (as long as you know your phantom things). I’ve been using the Beyer M58 (dynamic ENG/EFP omnidirectional microphone) forever: rugged, solid, forgiving mic, pretty ample omni.
As for recorders, I use I like the Marantz PMD 660 (Transom review) because it has XLRs and a window I can see — it doesn’t feel like a toy and the buttons are almost old school. It feels reliable: makes me feel safe.
Viki uses: Marantz 660 or 620 (Transom review) recorders, Beyer M58 mic, Sony MDR7506 headphones.
BG recording rodeo bull-rider, Doug Davis, Miles City (MT) Bucking Horse Sale (w/ Shure VP88 mic and in-ear earphones)
Barrett Golding says: The VP88 mic is my one-stop-shop for all things audio. It has great sound, rejects wind and handling noise pretty well, and it’s stereo — M/S Stereo at that, so much less chance of phasing problems. It’s light, durable, and powered by either 48V phantom or an internal 6V battery. My spare mic: another VP88. For headphones, make sure to choose something with a flat frequency response — monitor quality. Phones may sound better if they pump certain bandwidths, but they’ll fool you as to the character of the sound you’re capturing. Even small in-ear earphones (which I use: sound isolating earphones with mini-drivers, not ear-buds) should have some bass, so you’ll know if wind or plosives are ruining your recording. You’ll also need phones that are efficient — i.e., lots of sound with less power — so you can still monitor even when things get loud.
I like the tiny monitor earphones that musicians now use on stage. Their in-ear canal design fits tight in your ears, providing excellent sound isolation. They have almost full-frequency response; and what you lose in bass, you gain in not looking like a Martian, w/ big cans over your ears, as you approach someone when trying to get an interview.
My recorder of choice is the Sony D50. It’s light, quick to set up, has crazy-long battery life. I love the big-ass volume control. The mic preamps are pretty good, and the internal stereo mics are usable. Here’s a piece I made for NPR on the Long Beach Grand Prix using the D50’s internal mics for many of the driver interviews and the VP88 for the ear-rattling auto sounds.
Barrett uses: Sony PCM-D50 recorder, Shure VP88 stereo condenser mic, Etymotic HF5 In Ear Earphones.
Samantha Broun says: I use the Marantz 661 (Transom review) with either a Beyerdynamic M58 (Electret condenser microphone for ENG/EFP) omni mic or an Audio-Technica AT8035 shotgun (Line + Gradient Condenser Microphone), and Sony 7506 headphones. I bring a Marantz 620 as back up. What I like about the 661 is that it has two XLR inputs. I also like that it’s big enough to have a shoulder strap so that I can carry it over my shoulder (with the level meter in plain view) but it’s not so big that it feels bulky.
On the other hand, what they say about Marantzes is true. They can be a little hissy. So, I wouldn’t go to the mat for either the 661 or the 620. They are simply what I choose from the generous mound of gear that Atlantic Public Media can loan me. No matter what the rig, I will stand by my mics. I use an Audio-Technica 8035b shotgun when I want good, focused sound and the Beyer MCE58 when I want an omni-directional.
Samantha uses: Marantz 661 recorder, Beyer MCE58 and Audio-Technica AT8035b, Sony MDR7506 headphones.
Jay Allison says: My usual go-to rig for field work is a SD-722, a combo of a Sennheiser MKH 20 omni condenser and a Sennheiser MKH 416 short shotgun, with Sony 7506 headphones. I use the full condenser Sennheisers because they aren’t affected by humidity like electrets are. Two cardioid Sennhesiers would be a good alternative to a stereo mic like the VP88 for those who want separate mics–handy for interviewing more than one person at a time. The Sennheiser K6 system is awfully useful because you can get lots of capsules for one pre-amp, although I liked the old K3U system even better and still use those.
If I were to take a backup recorder, it would be the TASCAM DR-100mkII. Backup mics are a Sennheiser capsule system, with omni, cardiod, short shotgun, and lavalier.
Also, I use APM’s Neuman RSM 191 MS stereo mic every day for recording my narration and the occasional controlled interview, and I would use it to record music in a live concert setting but it’s crazy overkill and very expensive, even purchased used on Ebay as it was. It’s awfully nice with that 722 though.
If we had an “okay” category, I’d put in the iPhone. I’ve made stuff from things I’ve recorded with just that. Here’s an iPhone recording, using Griffin iTalk Recorder app and built-in mics on an iPhone 4 of Jake Shapiro, in an indoor parking garage, playing a drum I had just bought for my son for Christmas.
Also, the new Apple earbuds are quite good. For “better” over the ear “walkman” style headphones I use the Sennheiser PX 100. They have a model you can use with cell phones too. Very nice for $40-60.
I’m down with the “best” category (although you might add the 702 Portable Audio Recorder) which is cheaper and records only to a card. It’s comforting, though, to have the backup of the hard drive. For “best” headphones, I still like the Sony MDR7506
Jay uses: Sound Devices 722 recorder, Sennheiser MKH20 and MKH416 mics, Sony 7506 headphones (with backup: Tascam DR-100mkII recorder, Sennheiser K3U capsule mics, Sennheiser P100 headphones).
Rob Rosenthal says: Here’s the deal. I’m a radio producer. I’m not up to my neck in cash. So, I can’t buy high-end gear. At the same time, it’s incredibly important to me to use gear that is reliable and sounds great. I think I’ve found a solid middle ground: rugged and quiet equipment that doesn’t strangle my wallet.
My go-to recorder is the Sony D50 (Transom review). It’s like a hand-held tank. It fits solidly in the palm of my hand and feels like I could drop it twenty times and it would still work. All the buttons are exactly where I want them. The screen is bright and provides the info I need. And, if that weren’t enough, it’s quiet as a mouse. I’d have to try hard, really hard, to make a bad recording. The one drawback is the mini-plug mic input. I’d prefer an XLR input. But, with an L-shaped mini-plug connector, I’ve never had a problem with the cable popping out.
My back-up rig is the D50s sister — the Sony M10 (Transom review). It has fewer bells and whistles. It’s smaller. Not quite as rugged. Maybe I could only drop it five times before it bit the dust. But, the sound quality is top notch, just like the D50. In fact, because it’s half the price of the D50, I recommend the M10 for people starting out.
For microphones, I almost always use the Audio Technica AT8035b. Talk about a good sounding mic. Jeezum crow. Love it. And, because it’s a long shotgun mic, I don’t need to get in people’s personal space as much as I do when using my back-up mic, the Electro-Voice RE-50.
Wind poses a challenge for the 8035b. So, whenever I’m outside, I rig the mic in a Rycote wind shield — a shock mount, zeppelin, and wind sock (all lovingly known as a “dead cat”). I’ve used other brands of wind shields but Rycote is the best. And, I should mention, the RE-50 (Electro-Voice RE50N/D-B Handheld Interview Microphone w/ N/DYM Capsule) is great in the wind — no need for a dead cat.
I also have an Audio-Technica AT822 stereo mic and a low-cost set of binaural mics from Sonic Studios but frankly, I don’t use them very often.
Lastly, the headphones. I always wear the Sony MDR7506. First and foremost, they’re comfortable. I don’t want to wear a set of earcuffs for hours and hours — comfort is important. They’re very good at isolating external sound but not so much that it feels like I’m in a sound isolation booth or something. And, they sound great!
So, **without** the back-up equipment and the dead cat, that’s about $800 of gear — D50, 8035b, headphones. You can go cheaper. Pairing the M10 and RE50 will knock the total down to about $500. However, don’t forget batteries, mic cables (I always carry **at least** two), and a gear bag (I use a Tenba which has padded space for a laptop.)
Rob uses: Sony D50 recorder, Audio-Technica AT8035B mic, Sony MDR7506 headphones.
Transom Story Workshop says: Students at the Transom Story Workshop tend to be beginners. Many have never picked up a mic or turned on a recorder before. So, it was important for us to choose a field recording pack that both sounded good and was simple for novices to use. Plus, since the Workshop started from scratch in the fall of 2011, we needed to find gear that fit our start-up budget. We landed on the following and feel we made the right choices:
Recorder: The Sony M10. We can’t say enough about how good this recorder sounds. It’s VERY quiet. And, it has a solid, built-in limiter. Those two components were important to us when selecting a recorder for students because new producers often don’t pay close attention to the levels. Having a quiet recorder and a good limiter helps a student make better recordings. I would have preferred, maybe, the Sony D50. It seems more durable. But, the M10 is solid, lightweight, and has fewer bells and whistles to learn — and it’s half the price.
Headphones: For the price — about $25 — the Sennheiser HD202 is a good set of “cans.” They help isolate external sound, they’re fairly comfortable, and they reproduce sound well. Yeah, they aren’t the Sony MDR-7506s we love, but we were on a budget and everyone is happy with these headphones. Never a problem.
TSW uses: Sony PCM-M10 recorder; Beyer MCE 58 and M58 mics, Audio-Technica 8035B and 8010 mics, Electro-Voice RE50soices RE50 mic; Sony 7506 and Sennheiser HD202 headphones.
Some Other Mics Mentioned Above:
Some Other Recorders and Headphones Mentioned Above: