Intro from Jay Allison: If you've procrastinated buying a holiday gift for that special audiophile in your life (yourself?), Jeff Towne's last minute Gift Guide will save you. It's chock full of suggestions--from microphones, to studio monitors, to headphones and more. Jeff polled all of us at Transom and we weighed in with our favorite gear. So, read on and give gifts with confidence!
Last Minute Gift Guide
Need some last-minute gift ideas for an audio producer you know? Or perhaps you’re looking to make some gear upgrades before the end of the year?
Here are a few ideas from the folks here at Transom, things we might be giving as gifts, or are on our wish lists. We’ve included a range of items, from inexpensive accessories to major splurges, and plenty in-between. Prices on electronics tend to be very volatile, so follow the included links to check the current pricing. Purchasing items by clicking these links results in a commission paid back to transom.org, so you can give two gifts in one, by purchasing through Amazon or B&H through these included links.
Audio productions usually start with microphones, so it’s always worth considering getting a new mic, or maybe a second mic to bring with you, to cover more situations.
The classic reporter’s mic is the Electrovoice RE-50. It’s a dynamic omnidirectional mic, and is durable, easy-to-use, and resistant to bad weather, wind, P-Pops and handling noise.
Shure Beta 87A
A different take on an interview mic, also a favorite for live storytelling events on-stage, is the Shure Beta 87A. It’s a condenser supercardioid mic, so it has a bright, loud, focused sound that rejects extraneous noise from the sides and behind, which is especially helpful when the mic is connected to speakers for a live event.
Neumann KMS 104
A similar mic to the Beta 87A, but a bit of a splurge, is the Neumann KMS 104. It can give the detailed sound of a large studio mic, in a smaller, hand-held form. Buy the Neumann KMS 104 from B&H
Many reporters prefer shotgun microphones. if you’re thinking of adding one of those to your collection, we like the Rode NTG2,
Audio Technica AT-897
The Audio Technica AT-897 is another solid, affordable short-shotgun mic.
For a bit of a splurge, consider the Sennheiser K6/ME66
Sound Professionals Binaural Microphone
Although we haven’t delved too deeply into Binaural microphone recording (placing microphones to simulate the positions of your ears) we’re curious about it, and have been looking at these mics from Sound Professionals. They come with clips and windscreens, ready to attach to a hat, or glasses, or other objects. These mics have a stereo mini connector, that will connect to most small field recorders. (note: this stereo mini plug will NOT connect in stereo to the Zoom F1, or Tascam DR-10L recorders mentioned below.) Buy the Sound Professionals Binaural mics from Amazon.
Roland Binaural Microphone
Roland also makes a pair that combines the microphones with earbud-style headphones, for convenient monitoring, and a very stealthy appearance!
Sennheiser Binaural Microphone
Sennheiser makes a set of in-ear headphone/mics that connect directly to an iPhone.
F3 vr 360 Degree Surround Sound Mic
Even more immersive than binaural recording, 360 degree surround audio is becoming popular. These multi-mic systems and decoding software have generally been very expensive, but Zoom has recently released an integrated mic/recorder/decoder system called the F3 vr that seems to have simplified this very complex technique, at a very affordable price. We haven’t had a chance to try this recorder yet, but we’re intrigued… You might know an audio producer who wants to explore this subject too!
Rycote Medium Hole Softie Lyre Mount & Pistol Grip
If you’re getting a shotgun mic, you might want an isolation mount with a grip, to reduce handling noise on the mic. We like this one from Rycote:
And maybe some wind protection?
Read our recent article about windscreens, and be careful to match the zeppelin, or softie, or windjammer to the specific dimensions of your microphone.
Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Activator
If you record with a dynamic mic, either in the studio or in the field, you may have had some trouble getting enough volume. Dynamic mics generally have a lower output level than condenser mics, and sometimes even turning the input gain all the way up on your recorder, or interface, doesn’t quite give you enough (or creates too much noise.) You might try a device that converts phantom power into a level boost for dynamic mics. Phantom power is meant to provide power for condenser mics, dynamic mics don’t use phantom power. But a few years ago, a few devices arrived on the scene that could use that small phantom power current to add some level boost for dynamic mics. Cloudlifter was the first on the scene, and still a solid choice.
sE Electronics Dynamite
More recently, some similar devices have been made that can plug directly into the mic, eliminating the need for an extra cable, and a heavy box added to your rig. Our favorite is the sE Electronics Dynamite.
Our favorite audio production headphones are the Sony MDR-7506. They isolate well, allowing you to really hear what’s coming down your microphone. They have a wide-range frequency response, high sensitivity (leading to plenty of volume, even when the headphone amp on your source is not super-powerful), and they fold-up to a convenient, packable size.
One of the few things we don’t like about these headphones is that the ear pads tend to wear-out and start leaving little flakes of vinyl on the sides of your face. There are many different replacement ear pads available, but we especially like these velour alternatives. They’re comfortable, and don’t feel as hot and sticky as vinyl, leather or pleather pads can.
Koss Porta Pro Headphones
Although we’re pretty obsessed with the Sony MDR-7506 headphones, sometimes you need something smaller, lighter, and cheaper. These won’t give the isolation or bass-response that the Sonys do, but they’re remarkably good-sounding for their size and price.
ER3 In-Ear Earphones
Earbuds don’t tend to be very reliable for assessing your audio in the field, but high-quality in-ear headphones can do a good job, Just be careful: they can sometimes be TOO isolating, making you less-aware of your surroundings.
There are many good in-ear headphones, but we’re especially fond of the ones available from Etymotic Research. They have a variety of models at a range of price points. The ER3 series makes a pretty good balance between price and function.
While discussing things we stick in our ears, it’s worth contemplating high-quality ear-plugs. Audio producers rely on their ears, and it’s a good idea to protect those ears in loud environments. Simple, disposable foam earplugs can be handy, but they muffle sound pretty severely. Several companies make high tech versions that reduce the volume without muffling high frequencies. We like these from Etymotic:
Mixing on headphones is often the only practical solution for folks working out of a home studio, or any space without elaborate sonic treatment. But mixing exclusively on headphones can result in some balance problems: a good set of near-field monitors is pretty important for anyone doing their own mixes. Ideally, you’ll listen on both speakers and headphones, and make sure the mix works on both. Self-powered monitors, which have amplifiers built-into the speaker cabinets, are the easiest solution: you can plug them directly into your mixer or computer audio interface.
KRK Rokit Self-Powered Monitors
On the budget end, we like the KRK Rokit self-powered monitors.
The smallest we’d recommend have a 5-inch woofer, which can’t produce some of the lower frequencies that are important to hear, but will still sound fairly good. Larger speakers can help with this problem: the version of this speaker with 8-inch woofers is a good full-range solution.
Or, adding a sub-woofer can fill-in those missing low notes (although subwoofers might not be a great idea for apartment dwellers with downstairs neighbors.)
KRK 10S2 V2 10″ 160 Watt Powered Studio Subwoofer
KRK sells a subwoofer in this same Rokit series. (Because bass is relatively non-directional, you only need one subwoofer to accompany your stereo speakers.)
Mackie MR524 & MR824 and M-Audio BX5 and BX8
There are many variations on this theme of affordable small-studio powered monitors. We’ve also had good luck with versions from Mackie (MR524 Buy Mackie MR524 from Amazon and the the larger MR824 Buy Mackie MR824 from Amazon) and M-Audio (BX5 Buy M-Audio BX5 from Amazon and BX8 Buy M-Audio BX8 from Amazon)
The Focal Shape 50
There are many higher-priced studio monitors out there. One splurge we think worth the expense is for speakers from Focal. The CMS-50 monitors we especially like have been discontinued, but the Shape 50 is similar.
The Focal Alpha 50
There’s also a lower-priced Focal line that is worth considering: the Alpha 50 has a 5″ woofer,
The Focal Alpha 80
The Alpha 80 has an 8″ woofer.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and 18i8 and the Audient iD22 and iD4
For getting audio in and out of your computer, we’ve found that the Focusrite Scarlett series is a good value.
The 2i2 has two combo mic/line inputs, which can cover most basic studio set-ups.
The 18i8 has four mic/line inputs, which can be handy for panel discussions, or basic music recording. It can be expanded to route 18 inputs into your computer, with additional accessories.
For a little bit of a splurge, we like the Audient iD22 interface, which has two mic/line inputs, and can be expanded to accept 8 more inputs.
There’s also a more basic interface from Audient, the iD4, with only one mic input, and a direct input for recording one channel of a musical instrument.
We’re continually upgrading our audio field recorders, or adding small, cheap ones for back-ups, or for carrying with us at all times.
We’ve been impressed by the upgraded small and cheap stereo recorder from Zoom, the H1n.
It might not be quite full-featured enough to be a primary recorder, but it’s great for beginners, or as a back-up, or for something to just toss in your pocket in case you might come across something interesting to record. Read a review here>>.
We’ve also been surprised to discover how useful we’ve found the Zoom F1. It’s a tiny recorder that comes with a lavalier mic. The mic can be placed on a subject, and the recorder slips right into a pocket, allowing recording of a free-ranging subject without the expense of a wireless mic system.
There’s also a Tascam version of this style of recorder: the DR-10L
There’s also a variation on this Tascam recorder than can plug directly onto the XLR jack of a reporter’s microphone, the DR-10X, making for a very small, self-contained recording system.
These tiny recorders only have a few adjustments, which makes them easy to use, but also harder to assure an ideal recording. But the convenience sometimes outweighs the compromises one has to make in setting levels perfectly, or actively monitoring the audio signal.
For a more full-featured recorder, we’re fond of the Zoom H5. It’s got two XLR inputs, and built-in stereo mics that sound great. Read a full review here >>
Sound Devices MixPre Recorders
For a splurge, we’re big fans of the MixPre recorders from Sound Devices. These little boxes have a little bit of a learning-curve, but they can operate as multi-track field recorders, as field mixers (sending a live mix to a camera or other output), and as USB audio interfaces. Even more impressively, they can do all of those things at the same time. Read a full review here>>
Sound Devices has released newer versions of these recorders that are oriented toward musicians. You lose Timecode, and a few operational features of the originals, but they’re also about $100 cheaper than the models aimed at pro field recordists and film sound techs.
Izotope Audio Rx and Izotope Rx Elements
We’ll avoid the great debate about the best audio editing software, but we DO have one piece of code that we rely on more and more: Izotope Audio Rx. This program can clean-up audio in ways that sometimes approach magic. On the bargain end, there’s a very basic package called Izotope Rx Elements, that still has some very effective processes for fixing clicks, rumbles and other common noises.
You get many more tools, and a LOT more control with the Standard version, which is a bit more money, but still a bargain if you’re confronted with noisy audio.
For a real splurge, the Advanced version of the software adds even more amazing processes, and even more control. This might be best reserved for the dedicated audio expert on your list, but the high price is actually justified by the minor audio miracles it can perform.
Memory cards and hard drives are always on our wish-lists: we can always use another larger, or faster, memory card, USB thumb drive or external hard drive. Thankfully, these devices keep getting cheaper and faster, allowing longer record times, or quicker transfers, or easier archiving.
Most audio recorders use SD memory cards, and although most audio recording tasks do not require the same high rates of data transfer that photography and video do, it’s still worth investing in good quality cards. Just be sure to check whether your device has a maximum size card that it can use. And remember that some of the more compact recorders, such as the Zoom H1n, and F1, and the Tascam DR-10L and DR10X, use the physically-smaller micro-CD cards.
Although there are many good brands of SD cards, we’ve had good luck with SanDisk, which are generally a good value as well.
SD cards: full-size
Micro SD cards
USB Thumb Drives
USB “thumb drives” provide a convenient way to transfer audio or projects from one computer to another. We’ve probably all got a few cheap ones floating around, but those tend to have painfully-slow data-transfer rates, and are prone to failing at the worst possible times. So, like with the SD cards, it’s worth spending a little more on high-quality drives.
Again, SanDisk offers a good balance of value and reliability:
If you want to spend a bit more, the Patriot Supersonic Rage 2 series offer much faster data transfer speeds, which can reduce frustration when copying large projects.
Solid State Drives
Thumb drives are still too small, slow and unreliable for storing and transporting large projects, so we still need large-capacity external hard drives. Small, fast, quiet Solid State Drives (SSD) are starting to become affordable, although they’re still much more expensive per GB than the traditional spinning-drive versions. Very large capacity SSDs will surely become affordable soon, but for now, 500 GB or 1 TB drives are the most practical.
Conventional spinning drives still offer a better price per GB, and it’s practical now to have very large drives that are small enough to carry with you. We like the LaCie Rugged series, partly because the rounded corners and rubber casing offer some protection when the drives are bouncing around in a backpack.
While recording out in the field, power is always an issue. Many recorders can be powered through a USB connection, including many Tascam recorders, and the Sound Devices MixPre3 and 6. So having a rechargeable USB power supply can be much more convenient than trying to swap-out AA batteries. Additionally, it’s very convenient to be able to power up a cell phone or tablet from the same device. There are lots of these power bricks, mostly oriented toward keeping a cell phone charged, but for audio production use, be sure to get the largest capacity that’s practical. Anker has many variations on this device, we like the PowerCore 26800.
If you’re working with professional video crews, and using audio recorders that accept Timecode, a pair of Tentacle Sync boxes are a great way to keep the camera and recorder in perfect sync, without cables.
Zoom Mic Clip adapter
For recording out in the field: this little handle was designed for the Zoom H2 and H4, but we’ve find ourselves using it to mount all kinds of devices in a standard microphone clip. It’s got a standard tripod screw on one end, which fits into the bottom of most hand-held audio recorders (as well as many action cams and other small audio and video devices) so we have ordered several, for quick mounting of various devices on standard mic stands.