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. Newer Zoom recorders, such as the H5 and H6, and F4 and F8, have preamps that are much better than the earlier Zoom recorders. The Tascam DR-60DmkII, DR-70D, and DR-100mkIII (ESPECIALLY the DR-100mkIII) all have powerful-enough preamps that almost any mic will sound pretty good. And the Sound Devices MixPre3 and MixPre6 have excellent preamps, and are compatible with any microphone.
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 subjects might move around so much that you can’t keep them on-mic, an omni can give you a much more consistent sound. Even if you prefer the sound of an omni, if you’re stuck recording 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. Remember, you need to keep ALL mics pretty close, even shotgun mics, but an omni mic needs to be extra close (about 3-4 inches from the subject’s mouth.)
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.
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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 a recorder that can be hung over your shoulder, leaving your hands free. The Marantz 661, Tascam DR-60DmkII, Tascam DR-70D,, and MixPre3 or MixPre6 are built to use hanging from a strap, or in a gear bag. The meters are still easily readable from that position, and the input gain is easily reached. Others find those same machines way too large and clunky. Some people really like keeping the recorder 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 might 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, and will be noisy with some field recorders.
There are a few recorders that can use low-output dynamic mics and still sound good: The Sound devices MixPre3 and MixPre6 recorders and the Tascam DR-100mkIII are especially versatile. You can get decent results with dynamic mics with some other recorders, but most still sound better with condenser mics.
If you like an omni mic, the industry standard favorites are the EV RE-50, or EV 635, or the Beyer M58, but remember, 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 mic, 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.
Cardioid mics, which still focus mostly on what’s in front of the mic, but are not AS directional as a shotgun, are very natural-sounding interview mics. The Shure SM-58 is a classic voice mic, and quite affordable (about $100) but as a dynamic mic, needs a required with good preamps. There are many similar dynamic cardioid mics, most designed for singers, but that can also be used for conversational voice recording. Condenser cardioid mics tend to be more expensive, and there are not many that can use an internal battery, so you’ll have to provide phantom power from the recorder (via the XLR mic cable) but these can be excellent tools. The Shure Beta 87A is a solid choice, and on the expensive end, the Neumann KMS 104 is a favorite.
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.
along with links to purchasing the equipment, and some other thoughts about what we think are good, better and best choices in recording rigs.