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.
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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 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.