What Gear Should I Get?

August 22nd, 2012 | by Jeff Towne

photo of question marks

It’s the eternal question for the independent audio producer: what recorder do I get? And what microphone? Sadly, there’s never one simple answer: choosing the recorder and mic that’s best for you is an incredibly complicated thing, but there are a few basics:

1. The combination of mic and recorder is often more important than either component by itself.
You can have the greatest mic in the world, but you won’t get a good recording if it’s connected to a crappy recorder. The converse is true too, but more to the point, some recorders just seem to work better with certain mics. For instance, MOST of the new, affordable, small flash recorders do not have particularly great mic preamps in them. Mic preamps boost up the very low-energy signal generated by microphones to a level that can be better recorded. Those inexpensive recorders usually have mic preamps that tend to sound noisy when used with low-output microphones, especially dynamic mics. You can get cleaner recordings with high-output mics, such as condenser mics, because you don’t need to crank the preamps up as much. But a recorder with good clean preamps that can add a lot of gain can sound good with a wide variety of microphones.

2. There’s no one mic that’s perfect for all situations.
Most of us have developed a preference for a certain kind of sound: the up-close, intimate sound of a cardioid or shotgun mic placed close-in; or the more open, ambient, in-the-room sound of an omni mic. That preference (or unconscious habit) may determine your first-choice mic for interviewing when you can control the circumstances, but when the situation changes, your gear choices might need to as well. If you’re outside, in a breeze, that shotgun mic may not be useable due to wind rumble. If your subject is moving around so much that you can’t keep him on-mic, an omni will give you a much better result. Even if you prefer the sound of an omni, if you’re stuck in a noisy space, you may need the tighter focus of a more directional mic.

It also comes down to experience: it takes some practice to handle a shotgun mic or even a cardioid mic well: keeping the subject in the sweet spot, while avoiding P-Pops and handling noise. Good placement of a cardioid or shotgun can take advantage of the proximity-effect of directional mics to accentuate the warm, bassy presence of a voice. But if you position the mic too close, you can get a woofy, muffled mess! If you don’t have an omni mic positioned exactly right, it’s more forgiving; it’ll still sound OK. You’ll need to place an omni closer in, on average, than a directional mic to get a big, immediate sound.

The real answer is to have more than one mic in your kit… That said, it’s not uncommon for radio producers to use a shotgun mic almost exclusively, and it might be just as common to see only an omni mic, such as the RE-50, in a reporter’s bag.

3. Search around for reviews, or even better, try out some different recorders and mics if you have access to them.
Try to check out a few different options at a radio station, or a school, or training facility, or via friends, or if you’re lucky, at a store that can actually demo things. It helps to hold the gear in your hands: some people really like the ergonomics of the Marantz 660/661 recorders; they can be hung over your shoulder, leaving your hands free. The meters are easily readable from that position, and the input gain is easily reached. Others find those same machines way too large and clunky. (BTW, I would NOT recommend buying a 660 these days, but a 661… maybe…) Some people really like the feel of a Sony D-50 in their hand; others find it too heavy… etc.

4. A condenser mic that has an internal battery will give you the most flexibility.
You can use that kind of mic with recorders that only have a mini-jack mic input, as well as those that have XLR inputs. You’ll get slightly better sound quality if you use a recorder’s phantom power, but that reduces the recorder’s battery life, so you might want to opt for using the internal battery in the mic and switching off the recorder’s phantom power if you need long record times on battery power. Keep in mind that some condenser mics do not include the option for self-powering via an internal battery, and those mics cannot be used with recorders that only have a mini mic input (at least not without some external source of phantom power).

In rough generalities, Dynamic mics are more durable, handle very loud sounds better, do not require phantom power, and will perform better in challenging environments (cold, hot, damp) than condenser mics. But in general, they have lower-level outputs, so, as mentioned above, you’ll get hissy sound with many of the little inexpensive recorders. Dynamic omni mics, such as the ElectroVoice RE-50, the EV 635, and the Beyer M-58, are especially low-output.

There are a few recorders that can use low-output dynamic mics and still sound good: all Sound Devices recorders, the Marantz PMD 661, Sony PCM-D50, Tascam DR-100mkII. You can get pretty good results with some dynamic mics with an Olympus LS-10 and a Sony PCM M-10, but they still sound better with condensers. Most other recorders give much cleaner results with condenser mics too.

If you like an omni mic, the industry standard favorites are the EV RE-50, or EV 635, or the Beyer M58, but those are all dynamic mics and are only good choices with certain recorders, as noted above. If you need a condenser mic, the Beyer MCE-58 has long been a good choice, but it’s expensive (almost $400.) For a more affordable mic, we like the Audio Technica AT 8010, which sells for closer to $150. For a directional pattern, we like short shotgun mics, especially the Audio Technica AT-897 and The Rode NTG-2, which cost between $200 and $300, and the industry-standard Sennheiser ME66/K6 combo, which costs approximately $450.

5. Feel free to ignore, or modify, all those rules stated above…
In the end, results are greatly influenced by circumstance and technique and personal taste. If you’re recording loud things, many of these distinctions won’t matter. If you’re doing breaking news, your editor won’t care about a little hiss, as long as you can hear what the interviewee said. But if you are doing more extended documentary work, where the listener has time to focus on the subtleties of the voices, it’s certainly worth trying to avoid distractions like hiss, rumble and distortion. Picking the right combination of mic and recorder can go a long way toward reducing those problems.

Good luck!


24 Comments on “What Gear Should I Get?”

  • David says:

    Jeff, thanks for the overview. I’m looking forward to reading your opinion and comments about the recently-released Olympus LS-100.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      Full review coming soon, but the short version is: I hate it. Seriously. I remain a big fan of the LS-10, so I had high hopes, but they did lots of things wrong here… It’s overly complicated to use, but the biggest fault is that it has an internal, non-swappable rechargeable battery. I don’t like that aspect of my iPhone, and I certainly don’t like it on a field recorder either! I really need to be able to swap-in fresh batteries in an emergency, it doesn’t matter how well you plan ahead, sometimes you need more record time than you anticipated. More details to follow in a full review, but I am very disappointed in the LS-100.

  • Mark Elliot says:

    Gosh, another great nugget from Towne. It comes at a good time as I’m looking for a higher-output standup field mic for an DR-100 (preamps not what they are on the newer MkII). Now, I’d rather not buy from Amazon or Guitar Center, so I go t my local Hollywood’s industry-serving sound place, Ametron (on Argyle in LA). But it is difficult it is to get good info.

    The Ametron guy’s response when I asked him about a specific mixer: “You going to be buying today?” (With a bike helmet in my hand I had a ready excuse, but I would be buying in a day or two.) When asked about a high-output mic for just the situation that you describe here, he replies, “There is no such thing as higher-output mics” and said something about dynamic mics. Well, I know enough from reading Transom that that’s not right!

    The quest continues. For a decent mic and a decent pro audio shop. But it would be a whole lot more difficult without the sage advice here.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      I’m sure that salesman had some sort of very specific, fine-line distinction in mind about the exact technical meaning of certain words. I find it hard to imagine that he wouldn’t know that some mics need more boost from a preamp than others do. Maybe next time try the phrase “mic sensitivity” and see if that gets you anywhere! As mentioned above, as a general rule, condenser mics have a hotter output (higher sensitivity) than dynamic mics, but there’s a pretty wide variation within those ranges. Ideally, it would be great to try out some specific mics with the specific recorder you have, but stores are weird about that… they don’t like you returning microphones, but given that you actually have a brick-and-mortar store nearby, maybe they’ll let you try a few mics out while you’re there, if you bring your recorder with you? Worth a try… Good luck!

      • Mark Elliot says:

        Thanks for the considered response. I’ve spent the week looking for that elusive low price (<$200) handheld condenser mic – omni or cardiod – in the Los Angeles region, and to my amazement not one store has one in stock. I've tried 15 pro audio shops of every kind. Dynamic 'industry standards' (the 635 say) one can find, but the days of a fully-stocked shop are long gone. Even a mass-marketer like Guitar Center has nada. So comparison shopping is a non-starter.

      • Jeff Towne says:

        If you’re feeling lucky – the AT 8010 is a pretty nice-sounding condenser omni, and not much of a risk, at about $150. I totally agree that it would be better to be able to try it out, but it’s readily available on-line if you want to take a chance… There are examples of it in several of the audio record reviews, so you can hear basically what it sounds like… But I share your frustration about not being able to actually try things out in stores.

  • David says:

    Thanks, Jeff. Looking forward to your review. Just one point: it seems to me that the LS-100 indeed comes with a replaceable battery. True — it’s a custom rechargeable battery, but it seems to be swappable. It’s called Lithium Ion Rechargeable Battery (LI-50B) and can be purchased at http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/product.asp?product=1581&page=accessories . So, it’s not similar to iPhone in that its battery can be replaced though each LS-100 new battery costs about $44 — also add the cost of an extra charger to that. At any event, what I’ve found disappointing about the LS-100 is the noticeably high amount of noise its internal microphones generate. Cardioid microphones aren’t exactly famous for low noise, but one really expects better noise handling from a $400 recorder. That is, if it were, say, $250 I wouldn’t be so disappointed. In fact, I don’t think its internal mics are suitable for speech recording — they have excellent stereo separation but at the cost of a lot of noise which isn’t great for radio production at all. Just compare them with the mics on Sony PCM-M10 and the difference will be conspicuous. On the other hand, phantom-powered XLR mics such as the high-end Rode ones perform admirably when used with the LS-100, but that means the addition of a good $300 or $400 to our purchase. In short, do you confirm my findings about its internal microphones? Do you think the Tascam DR-100mkII is a better purchase in terms of noise handling?

  • Suzanne King says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Do you know if the Blue mikey works with the new Apple Iphone 5? If so what do you think of it.

  • Any thoughts on the Zoom H2n and H4n?

  • Great write-up Jeff. You nailed it!

  • Scott Schlegel says:

    I went with the Tascam DR-05 for a budget priced field recorder. It’s not hands-free, but fits easily in my left hand with thumb free for controls. I find that its mic preamp. or whatever is quite inadequate for powering dynamic mics, M58 in particular, which seems to require more power than EVRE50 or EVRE635A. The M58 requires full record volume, which creates a bit of amp hiss. There is a mic power boost feature, but instructions say it can damage dynamic mics and it doesn’t seem to make any difference in the amplification anyway. It seems my only better option is a machine with a better pre-amp. Maybe more expensive Tascams have better mic preamps, but big, clunky and over-priced doesn’t work for me. Regarding studio mics, I would be most interested to hear about less expensive dynamic studio mics that sound as good as the RE20. Rode Procaster? – - To Mark, B&H in NYC has competitive prices on a wide range of field equipment, and reliable delivery. Also try BSW. I have ordered from both and was satisfied (expect sales people to try to sell you more than you planned to buy).

    • marnie says:

      Hey Scott, I have a similar experience with the Tascam DR-100, which costs three times as much as the 05. I was looking to replace my Marantz, which was stolen, and the guy at B&H in NY was really pushing this model, so I went for it. It hates my dynamic mic, but if you turn up the mic gain, you get a horrible hiss.
      If anyone can recommend a mic that does work well with this model, I’d be interested to know. Sounds like I’m gonna need to get a condenser mic, although if I had the cash to splash, I’d love to just get another Marantz…

  • Mark Jones says:

    I agree – have gotten good service (and prices) from both B&H and BSW.

    • Jim McGregor says:

      the local shops just about anywhere have to custom order stuff like this. I strongly suggest bhphoto instead…. low prices, and shipping is free in the USA

  • Cynthia says:

    I’m on a serious budget. I’ve got a sony minidisc recorder from when I did a radio series in 2005. I like it, but it won’t talk to my Mac. I used a Toshiba laptop before, but it is long gone. I mix with a Sony MRS-4, also retro by today’s standards, but still good. Got condenser mic and all that. What I need is a super light, small computer (I live on a boat) that will pick up the internet, use all of PRX tools for conversion and whatnot, and play nice with the Sony products. What can you suggest in this wild world of tech?

  • Larry Vaughn says:

    I also bought a DR-05 but use my Sound Devices 302 mixer’s tape out to send the audio into the DR-05 and can do it with the DR-05 volume controls turned all the way down. So the 302 is the pre-amp and it sounds great. The mix pre also can be used.

  • David says:

    Marantz have updated their audio recorders. Now they’re offering PMD620 MKII and PMD660 MKII. Apart from the features they tout as new, do you know if they provide any enhancements when it comes to their internal mikes? I really want to get a PMD620 MKII, but if the internal mikes are as noisy as the older PMD620, that would be a no-go. BTW, Jeff, I’m sure many people are still awaiting your Olympus LS-100 and Tascam DR-100MKII reviews! Your help would be quite appreciated.

  • I have a Beyerdynamic M58 thats over ten years old now. I’ve decided to dig it out and use it again instead of the condenser mic I’ve been using recently. I can’t remember if there was a battery in it. I vaguely remember there was. Can anyone help?

    <Miranda

    • Jeff Towne says:

      The Beyer M58 does NOT have a battery compartment, it’s a dynamic mic, and does not need phantom power. Just make sure you don’t have the Beyer MCE-58, that model, with the E in the name, does have a battery compartment in it, and needs either that battery or phantom power from the recorder. Another thing to keep in mind: the dynamic M58 is a terrific mic, but it has a pretty low output, so you can end up with hissy sound on some of the cheaper, small recorders. The Sony PCM-M10 and PCM-D50 pair will with that mic, they give it enough clean gain that the low output is not a problem. The Tascam DR-100mkII should be fine, and the Marantz PMD 661 too, but you’ll get lots of noise with the original Tascam DR-100 or the Marantz PMD-660. The MCE-58 will be fine with almost any recorder. Good luck!

  • Larry Vaughn says:

    Here is a list of recorders with low noise preamps from lowest to highest. http://www.avisoft.com/recordertests.htm

    • Jeff Towne says:

      That’s really great, thanks for posting it!

      Those results seem to align pretty well with my not-very-scientific vague impressions. And when push comes to shove, it’s often the combination of mic and recorder that’s most crucial, and sometimes the technical quality of a recorder can be overwhelmed by either ease or difficulty of use. The Marantz PMD 660 is not especially quiet, but people like where the controls are, and having presets, etc, so it’s ultimately a popular recorder. The Olympus LS-100 has really nice clean, quiet preamps, but it’s so annoying to use that I have a hard time recommending it to anybody…

      In any case, it’s great to have an independent comparison of the relative quality of mic preamps, it’s one important aspect to keep in mind – maybe the most important!

  • David says:

    Hello Jeff. I want to get a good dynamic microphone for my Olympus LS-100. Do you recommend the EV Re50? Can LS-100′s preamps properly support it? I very much like the Re50 but as it’s a dynamic mic, I’m not sure if I’m getting the best microphone for the LS-100.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      The LS-100 has several faults (as I mentioned in my review here on the site: http://transom.org/?p=31510 ) but one of its strong points is that the mic preamps are very good. The sound quality of the recorder is quite good, and it does indeed have enough clean gain to give good results with a dynamic omni mic, such as the RE-50. So if you like that mic, you actually do have a good recorder to pair it with. And I shouldn’t insult the LS-100 too much, it IS a good-sounding machine with some very nice features, but it also has several annoying aspects that made it hard for me to recommend. But if you get used to the way it works, I’m sure it’s fine…

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