Intro from Jay Allison: LAST UPDATED: NOVEMBER 2017
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. Please note: purchasing equipment through the links provided below helps support Transom.org.
Transom’s Recommended Field Gear (updated November 2017)
It’s hard to keep up with developments in audio recording gear: some classics endure year after year, but other favorites are superseded by new devices, or are simply no longer made. In an attempt to keep up, we’ve updated our list of good, better, and best gear, focusing on the needs of audio documentarians and storytellers. There’s been some churn since the last time we updated this list, although a few items remain in their traditional positions.
We’ve included links to in-depth reviews here on Transom, and also links for purchasing this equipment through Amazon or B&H. Clicking through those links on this page, and purchasing your gear from those sites, helps to support Transom.org, and our continuing mission to keep you informed about tools and techniques for better audio storytelling.
What we like: Although it has no built-in mics, we like this recorder’s good-sounding mic preamps; the XLR and mini mic inputs; that it can be hands-free by hanging from a strap, with meters and control knobs accessible; its multi-track and safety-track capability; and its affordable price.
What we like: This Omnidirectional Condenser mic provides classic omni mic versatility, with an extra level boost, which results in better sound quality with a wide range of recorders
What we like: The Zoom H5 has excellent built-in microphones, XLR and mini inputs for external mics, well-designed knobs and controls, its ability to record from the built-in and external mics at the same time, or to record safety tracks at a lower volume. The H5 also feels good in the hand, and has decent battery life on two AA batteries.
This Omnidirectional Dynamic mic has a low output, so it requires a recorder with good mic preamps (such as the recorders listed on this page). The M58 provides a classic news reporter’s sound, is resistant to handling noise, wind noise and P-pops, and has a conveniently long handle for easier positioning.
This Condenser Short Shotgun has a strong output level, good focus on sounds in front of the mic, and rejection of ambient sounds from the sides. It can be phantom powered by an internal battery, reducing the drain on a recorder’s batteries, or allowing use with a recorder with only mini mic inputs.
Buy from B&H
Buy from Amazon
Sound Devices MixPre3 (or MixPre6)
We never imagined that anything would replace the Sound Devices 722 and 702 at the top of our recommendations, but these new recorders from Sound Devices are smaller, more flexible, less expensive, and still sound every bit as great as their predecessors. On top of that, they are USB computer interfaces as well as field recorders.
(Note: The Sound Devices 722 is no longer being made. The Sound Devices 702T, which has no hard drive and records only to a CF Flash card, remains available, and is still an excellent machine, but we feel that the new MixPre recorders offer greater value and flexibility.)
This Modular Short Shotgun mic has a very hot output level, sharp focus on sounds in front of the mic, and rejection of ambient sounds from the sides. Its modular design allows conversion to different mic types with additional components. It can be phantom powered by an internal battery, reducing the drain on a recorder’s batteries, or allowing use with a recorder with only mini mic inputs.
This stereo condenser mic is a bit heavy and expensive, but it works equally well as a mono interview mic, or as a stereo mic for recording ambience or performance. Its Mid-Side design makes it solidly mono-compatible, while providing an adjustable stereo width control, as well as an un-matrixed M/S output.
Buy from B&H
Buy from Amazon
Tools We Use
Jeff Towne, our Tool Master, has perhaps the web’s most comprehensive Portable Digital Recorder Comparison, along with a field-recording Handhelds: Microphone Shootout and advice on What Gear Should I Get?
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 Etymotic in-ear headphones almost exclusively, until one of the earpieces broke. That might have been due to trying to pull them out too rapidly, and that’s my primary hesitation about that style of headphone: 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.
For critical recordings, where sound quality is at a premium, I use the Sound Devices MixPre6 (or for very complicated recordings with many microphones, the MixPre10T) and a Sanken CS-1e Short Shotgun microphone. That mic not only has a great sound, but it’s also very small for a shotgun, and has the same “reach” as a larger mic. That makes it very useful for video shoots in tight spaces, but it’s also just convenient to carry around. When I can get-in close, I like the Neumann KMS 104 cardioid condenser mic, for its clear, rich and natural sound. Both those mics and the recorder are very expensive, but you do get a noticeable increase in sound quality and reliability for that expense. These are amazing tools.
For less-critical projects. I use the Tascam DR-100mkIII recorder (Transom review) with a Rode NTG2 short shotgun mic. I’m still a big fan of the discontinued Sony M10 too, it’s often in my bag as a back-up. I keep hoping that Sony will resume making these, or a similar replacement.
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. I often grab the Zoom H5 if I know I’ll need to record a performance, or ambient sound.
The $99 Zoom H1 is remarkably good for a $99 recorder, but it feels less durable than other recorders, the built-in mics are insanely wind-sensitive, and it seems a bit less reliable overall than many other recorders, so I’m reluctant to give it a hearty recommendation, but it can be a good choice when the budget is very tight.
Also heartily recommended...
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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. I’d almost recommend the Tascam DR-40 (Transom review), but it requires specific mics to get clean recording.
Jeff uses: Tascam DR-100mkIII and Tascam DR-60D recorders, Sound Devices MixPre6 and MixPre10T, Rode NTG2 Short Shotgun mic, Sennheiser K6/ME66 Short Shotgun Mic, Sanken CS-1e Short Shotgun Mic, Neumann KMS 104 Mic, Sony MDR7506 headphones.
Viki Merrick says:
Once you make friends with the Sound Devices 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.
Samantha Broun says:
I use the Tascam DR-60D (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.
What I like about the Tascam DR-60D 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. I do a lot of multimedia work these days and sometimes need my hands to use a boom, so being able to sling my recording rig around my neck helps. 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: Tascam DR-60D recorder, Beyer MCE58 and Audio-Technica AT8035b, Sony MDR7506 headphones.
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 capsule system is awfully useful because you can get lots of capsules for one pre-amp, e.g. omni, cardiod, short shotgun, and lavalier. Actually, I liked the old K3U system even better and still use those, but the K6 is great and also a good mic setup if you do video. If I were to take a backup recorder, it would be the TASCAM DR-100mkII.
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.
With the iPhone, I sometimes use the Apogee MiC when I’m on the road and need to get some tracks to the radio station. It’s good quality and the iPhone lets me upload an uncompressed from from iTalk right to Dropbox, email or whatever. It’s expensive and subject to wind/handling/interference noise, but it’s a good USB mic and also goes direct into the Mac. The newer 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.
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).
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 I use gear that is reliable and sounds great. So, it pains me to no end (insert shaking fist here) to tell you that the gear I love the most and use all the time is no longer made. The Sony D50 (Transom review) and the Sony M10.
Given the disappearance of both Sonys, I recommend two other rigs – rigs I will likely consider when it comes time to replace what I currently own. One is the Tascam DR100mkiii. It may not be quite as rugged as the Sony D50. But, it’s solid, sounds great, and it has XLR inputs (the Sonys had mini-plug inputs).
The other is the Zoom H5. Frankly, I never thought I’d find myself recommending a Zoom. The H4 was so notoriously hissy I wrote Zooms off. However, they solved this hiss problem with the H5. In fact, they did such a good job, we just bought a slew of them for the Transom Story Workshop in order to replace the Sony M10s we used for years. We might have gone for the Tascams instead, but they’re a couple hundred dollars more.
(If, these days, your bank account is flush, then you should look into the Sound Devices MixPre-3. It runs for about $650. But be careful, you may need to spend more on accessories – an AC adapter isn’t included. True story.)
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 is great in the wind — no need for a dead cat. (In fact, if you’re buying your first mic, it should be the RE-50 or the Beyer Dynamic M58 because they’re more versatile.)
I also have an Audio-Technica AT822 stereo mic and a low-cost set of binaural mics from Sonic Studios but 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, you’re lookin’ at about $600 for the Zoom H5, the AT8035b shotgun mic, and headphones. About $150 cheaper if you go with the RE-50. For $725 you can go with the Tascam instead of the Zoom. However, don’t forget batteries, mic cables (I always carry **at least** two), and a gear bag (I often 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 felt we made the right choices: Recorder: The Sony M10. Unfortunately, Sony stopped making these recorders, and we needed some new recorders, so we’ve chosen the Zoom H5.
Mics: We have a slew of mics on hand for the students including the Electro-Voice RE-50, the Beyerdynamic M58 and MCE-58, and the Audio Technica AT8010. I’m a fan of the RE-50 and the MC-58 for new producers because they are more forgiving of mic handling noise. But, all of these are excellent mics.
Headphones: We used the Sennheiser HD202 for quite a while because they were very inexpensive. But, we had to replace them frequently. The cable would fray where it connects with “the cans.” So, now we use the Sony MDR-7506.
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.
Here are links to most of the gear mentioned in this article at B&H Photo Video. Purchasing through these links helps support Transom.org.
- Audio Technica AT 8010 Omnidirectional Condenser mic (Also sold as the ATM 10A)
- Beyerdynamic M58 – Omni-Directional Handheld Dynamic ENG Microphone
- Audio-Technica AT897 – Short Condenser Shotgun Microphone
- Rode NTG-2 Battery or Phantom Powered Condenser Shotgun Microphone
- Sanken CS-1e Shot Shotgun Microphone
- Shure VP88 – Cardioid Stereo Condenser Microphone
- Zoom H5 Audio Recorder
- Tascam DR-100mkIII – Portable 2-Channel Linear PCM Recorder
- Tascam DR-60D 4-Channel Linear PCM Recorder
- Sound Devices 702 2-Channel High-Resolution Portable Recorder
- Sennheiser PX 100-II On-Ear Stereo Headphones (Black)
- Sony MDR-7506 Circumaural Closed-Back Professional Monitor Headphone
- Etymotic Research hf5 In-Ear Stereo Headphones (Black)
- Sennheiser K6 capsule system