It's Best in the Field... Sometimes recording in the field is not just your only option, it's your best option. What's it worth for an uninterrupted recording of that bluegrass song, grandma's whispers to the baby or the coach's press conference? They're priceless sounds only a portable recorder or mixer gets in the field.
Sometimes recording in the field is not just your only option, it's your best option.
What's it worth for an uninterrupted recording of that bluegrass song, grandma's whispers to the baby or the coach's press conference? They're priceless sounds only a portable recorder or mixer gets in the field.
Sound Makes Sense
Our Field Mixer and Portable Recorder Buyer's Guide announces the smaller-fitting, larger-storing and better-performing machines of 2008. Price, features and your skills determine your choices, and we hope to entice you to push your limits.
Whether you're new to producing films or a seasoned expert, you'll find that the advantages of pulling a recorder out of your kit or plugging your microphones into an audio mixer rate right up there with those of lights. For less than $200, even the cheapest of these units will help catch once-in-a-lifetime elements and, like lights, will change the look of the screen. Audio on the screen? Absolutely yes: filmmakers know that sound builds on the visual image like fire lights a cave.
Diving into good audio, after listening only to your camera's on-board mic, is like snorkeling through a coral reef for the first time. Check out a television show with closed eyes and headphones. Now that you see the need for well-selected, separated and well-placed mics, do you see the logical step to a portable mixer and/or recorder?
A field mixer allows you to monitor, adjust, separate or mix two or more microphones. You are taking unique control of a sound that you can use as an off-screen effect, riveting narration or quality music score. Capture an original song to a separate track that's clean and therefore usable anywhere, and you've got an example of how a mixer can save you money. Entry-level mixers like the Rolls MX124 or the Azden FMX-20 ($180-$250) also eliminate hum, wind and proximity noise; send level signals out to your camera or a separate recorder; and provide phantom power to mics that require it. The Rolls handles four channels, the Azden two channels.
It follows that a separate recorder will be another useful addition to your kit. It frees your camera's audio tracks and saves tape/memory space. It's a dedicated cover for interviews, ambiance and those unpredictable sounds your movie needs, such as church bells, fireworks or riveting remarks from that notoriously quiet boat full of fishermen. A field recorder is important when the camera sync is accidentally botched or the camera wasn't rolling.
Lightweight, compact new recorders like the Samson Zoom H2 and the Edirol R-09 ($199-$349) record in stereo and have on-board mics, as well as line and external mic interfaces. They'll record hours of high-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV files to SD memory cards, which you can send via USB to your computer. These inexpensive units provide adequate sound, are simple to use and quick to teach to a nervous groom or the wild kid on the skateboard. What a sound effect!
Invest In Your Ears
For a few hundred dollars more, the higher-priced equipment gives you more than just better audio. Your true incentive will be tweaking your own hearing and bringing that knowledge to your finished product. Don't expect your audience to point out exactly why your movie works so well, since viewers don't always notice great sound. But serious hobbyists and professionals know that using the machines that virtually teach the student delivers a reward all its own.
Mid-priced mixers (under $500) such as the Azden FMX-32 and PSC DV Promix 3 provide variations to their lower-dollar counterparts, from an extra mic input, bright LED meters and dedicated mic-level output jacks. However, the greatest benefit is their improved preamps: the "noise floor" you hear when you jack up the mic is reduced if a good mixer processes the signal. Ultimately, units like the Wendt X3 and the Shure FP-33 ($1,185-$1,274) provide better everything: pre-amps, compressor/limiter circuitry to compensate for location conditions, level meters that can be set in advance and much more.
Recorders in the mid-range ($400-$700), such as the Fostex FR-2LE and the Marantz PMD-670, conveniently run on AA batteries and allow compressed and uncompressed recording.
Upper-end machines like the Tascam HD-P2 ($1,000 and above) generate time code and stamp it directly onto the WAV or MP3 files. The Sound Devices 702 boasts next-generation preamplifiers designed for high-band, high-bit digital recording. These are the fully-digital solid-state machines that use FireWire for high-speed transfers, record in multiple formats and astonish people who used to thread 1/4-inch tape into recorders weighing 15 pounds. The Sound Devices 702 weighs just 2 pounds!
Listen to It Happen
Back indoors, middle of the night, you snug on headphones and listen. You've brought in the pieces that'll surprise you with the mysteries of sound. This is when you realize the potential of multiple recordings, layering and pulling your tracks apart. Get that portable recorder set up or plug in a new mixer, and watch how sound lights up your screen.
Jeanne Rawlings is an Emmy Award-winning sound recordist and documentary producer. Her clients have included the National Geographic Society, ABC and Discovery Channel.Manufacturer's list
To download a PDF of Manufacturer's list, CLICK HERE.