The price for a professional-quality portable audio recorder has dropped precipitously over the last few years. Existing models are selling for less, and new units are being released at competitive prices. It’s possible to get a good-sounding recorder with XLR microphone inputs, well-suited for audio documentary and news work, or for use as part of a DSLR video rig, for about $200.
Even so, there’s still a place for even smaller, less expensive recorders. Beginners, students or others on a tight budget are always curious as to whether there are more affordable options. Schools, radio stations and other institutions that need to purchase multiple recorders appreciate even a small savings. Video shooters looking to improve their audio quality often desire a compact solution, and anyone with an over-stuffed gear bag could use a small recorder.
But are the smaller, more affordable recorders worth the compromise in terms of their sound? There are lots of cheap, compact recorders designed as dictation machines, or voice memo recorders, but those are designed primarily for convenience and ease of use, perhaps for intelligibility, but rarely for ultimate sound quality. They may be simple to use, but those recorders rarely offer accurate input controls or metering, often relying on automatic circuitry that does not result in broadcast-quality sound. Many of those recorders may use low-quality sound file formats to save recording space, but to ensure high-quality sound throughout the production process, you want to be able to record uncompressed wav files.
Thankfully, there are several portable audio recorders in that sweet spot between simple voice memo recorders and larger, more-expensive professional machines. The Tascam DR-07mkII is one of those, selling for about $130 at press time. We reviewed the original DR-07 several years ago and liked it, with the usual caveats: it had only a mini connector for external microphones and was noisy with low-output dynamic mics. The Tascam DR-100mkII (Transom review) was a significant improvement over the original DR-100, so we were hoping that the mkII designation might indicate a large leap forward for the DR-07 too.
The improvement in sound may not be as dramatic as it was for the DR-100, but there are several improvements and changes. One big difference: the new DR-07 is physically larger than its predecessor. That’s partially due to the new design of the built-in microphones: they protrude out from the body of the recorder, allowing two varied positions for the mics. But this flexibility also makes it a little bulkier than one might expect. It’s almost as large as the Tascam DR-40 (Transom review), which has XLR mic inputs, and many more recording options. It’s significantly larger than the Zoom H1, and even towers over the Sony PCM-M10 (Transom review).
This is not entirely a bad thing. Although the DR-07mkII might be a bit cumbersome perched on top of a DSLR, or harder to stuff into the corner of a gear bag, it is better scaled for human hands than some of the smallest recorders. The input gain controls are on an up/down toggle, not on a hardware knob as we generally prefer, but at least the buttons are easy to reach and relatively quiet. All controls are on the face of the machine; there are no buttons or switches on the sides or back.
The control menus are similarly streamlined: there are fewer options than many current recorders offer, and this is largely a good thing! There’s enough flexibility to set the machine up in useful ways, but not so many choices that one gets lost in a maze of menus and submenus. What bells and whistles it has (such as a tuner or reverberation effects) are stashed in the last menu called “others” and can largely be ignored when concentrating on straight recording.
The most important parameters are quickly accessed in top-level menus. The DR-07mkII will record Wav files at 16 or 24 bit, 44.1, 48, or 96 khz. It can also record MP3 files at a wide variety of bit rates, from 32kbps to 320 kbps. Recordings can be made in mono or stereo, and a low-cut can be applied to reduce rumbles.
Operation of the recorder is straightforward. One press on the record button puts the machine in record-pause mode. A red record indicator above the display blinks steadily when in record-pause. A second press of the record button starts it rolling, and the record indicator light changes to a solid red. The input gain is set via the large command dial on the face of the unit. Unfortunately, it’s an up/down toggle, rather than a nice smooth knob, but it’s still fairly easy to use, once you memorize which buttons are for what. The input gain is controlled by the left and right << and >> buttons that function as rewind and fast-forward during playback. Volume monitoring, for either headphones or the small speaker on the back (which can be turned-off in the menu), is controlled by the up and down + and – buttons on that same central control dial.
The DR-07mkII borrows one cool function from its big brother, the DR-40: the “Peak Reduction” mode of input level setting. When this is engaged, the input levels are set manually, but if an incoming peak is too loud and would cause a clip, the recorder will automatically reduce the input gain setting and leave it at that lower setting. This is smoother than Limiting or Automatic Gain Control (which are also available as options for record-level control) because it simply resets a static input level, so it won’t cause unnatural-sounding pumping or fluttering.
Battery life is very good: Tascam claims over 17 hours of record time from the two AA batteries when set to 44.1 khz/16-bit/wav (less when recording higher-resolution wavs or any MP3 files) and our real-world tests have gotten close to that. The DR-07mkII can also run on USB power. There’s a mini-USB jack that can be used to provide power, or to transfer files to a computer. When a USB cable is connected, an alert pops-up on the main display asking whether to use that connection for power or for storage. The DR-07mkII has a Micro-SD memory slot — a 2GB card is provided, and SDHC cards up to 32GB are supported.
But the crucial question is how it sounds. Of particular interest to recordists making audio or video documentaries, or multimedia works, is how external microphones sound with this machine. Built-in mics are very handy for recording ambiences and live events (as well as musical performances) but they’re not ideal for recording interviews. It’s tough to keep those mics in a good position and still be able to watch levels. A microphone intended for interviews tends to have a better-contoured frequency response, and it’s easier to hold and position a mic like that while watching your meters.
The major downside of this recorder for such purposes is the mini mic input jack. Those connectors are much less robust than XLR mic inputs, and are susceptible to damage from a pulled cable. One can often get crackles from the jack twisting around in the socket. An eighth-inch mini connector cannot send phantom power to condenser mics. That said, a properly wired XLR-to-mini cable would allow many popular interview mics to be used. There are no menu settings to be changed, or switches to be thrown; simply plug a mic into the mic jack, and it’s the active source. Unplug the cable from the mini jack, and the built-in mics are the active source. The placement of the mic input is not great: it’s right in-between the built-in mics, and they don’t fold back into the narrower position very well with a cable inserted. Why they didn’t put the mic jack on the side is mysterious; there is plenty of open area on the case.
The “mkII” designation is not accompanied by the same clean audio quality of the DR-100mkII, but this updated model does sound better than the original DR-07. As is the case with many small recorders, the DR-07mkII sounds remarkably good with high-output microphones, such as shotgun mics. Most any condenser mic with an internal battery for power would be a good match for this recorder. Dynamic mics, especially low output mics such as the Electro-Voice RE-50, are a little problematic. They require the input gain to be turned up all the way; when that’s cranked high, the preamp’s noise floor rises in tandem. It is actually an improvement over the original DR-07, and better than some other inexpensive recorders, but there’s still a bit more hiss than is ideal when used with dynamic mics.
The DR-07mkII can provide “plug-in power” to certain electret microphones that require it. Not many high-quality microphones run on plug-in power, but there are a few, especially lavalier mics specifically wired for a mini jack. Additionally, microphones wired for the mini-jack input of Sennheiser wireless transmitters will accept plug-in power. The wiring is not an exact match: audio is only fed to the left channel, which is mostly a problem for monitoring; one can always split the stereo track into left and right mono components in a digital editor, and then use only the left channel. In this way, some high-quality lavalier microphones, such as the Tram TR-50, can be used with this recorder. Some recordists use a set-up like this in place of a wireless mic: they place a lavalier on the subject, plug it into a small recorder such as this one, set a safe level, hit record, and place it in the subject’s pocket. That requires a leap of faith; there’s no way to monitor what’s being recorded, so you’ll not know about any problems (such as a cable rubbing, or radio interference) until after the recording is over. You have to hope that you set your levels appropriately, and that the recording didn’t get stopped somehow (use the “hold” switch!) But if you’re willing to take a chance, especially if using this technique as back up for another recording with a separate mic and separate recorder, it can be a much cheaper alternative to a wireless mic rig.
The built-in mics can be very useful. As mentioned above, they’re not ideal interview mics, partly because of the meter position issue, but also because they’re very P-Pop sensitive, and perhaps a bit over-bright, making voices seem shrill and brittle. But those mics are very good for recording ambient sounds, or demonstrations, or music, or live events that are going on around you. The stereo image created by the built-in mics is wide and vivid, which can lend a strong sense of place to an audio production. The microphones are adjustable from an overlapping X-Y pattern to a wider A-B pattern. The X-Y position is safer, with little chance of phase interference, which is a thin or filtered sound that can result from sound waves arriving at spaced mics at slightly different times. That said, the A-B pattern can sometimes sound better if you’re at a distance from the sound source, or if sounds are emanating from a very wide area. At middle distances there’s no dramatic difference in the sound of the two mic positions, but X-Y tends to have a more solid center, so it’s a good default to use that pattern for most recordings.
Here’s some sound from a carnival: crowds of people talking and yelling, the machine whoosh of a ride, excited screams from riders. About half-way through this sample, around the :30 mark, the mic pattern changes from X-Y to A-B. In this environment, the difference is very subtle, but you might hear a slight difference in stereo spread, a change in the feel of the center of the image.
The DR-07mkII is oddly positioned as a product: it’s relatively small and inexpensive, but not MUCH smaller or less expensive than some of its more professional cousins. The Tascam DR-40 usually sells for only $30-50 more, and it has XLR mic inputs, and 4-track recording, and dual recording, and lots of other tricks. The jump up to the more pro-level DR-60D or DR-100mkII generally requires another $80-100, but that’s still remarkably inexpensive (and prices are very volatile in this market, the street price for recorders fluctuates widely). The Zoom H1 is smaller and cheaper and even more streamlined, and can boast similar sound quality. I’d give a small edge to the DR-07mkII over the Zoom H1 in sound quality, and a major advantage in terms of structural durability, but when money or space or weight is crucial, the Zoom might be worth considering.
But despite the availability of other similar recorders, the DR-07mkII is more appealing than some of its competitors in certain ways. It feels much more durable than a Zoom H1. The Sony PCM M-10 (Transom review) sounds cleaner and is similarly simple to use, but the DR-07mkII usually sells for $100 less. The DR-07mkII is much less complicated to operate than a Tascam DR-40. Although XLR mic inputs are generally preferable, the DR-07mkII, would still be a good recorder for someone starting out, or for schools or workshops that lend equipment to multiple users. The built-in microphones are very good for recording events and ambience, and could record an interview in a pinch. And even though it’s not quite as compact as the Zoom H1 or Sony M10, it could be a good back-up recorder; its relatively small size makes it fairly easy to stash in the corner of a gear bag. It may not be the ultimate portable recorder in terms of functions or sound quality, but the DR-07mkII could be a helpful tool for many recordists.