Buyer's Guide to Finding the Best Audio Recording & Mixing Gear

Early filmmakers had it easy. It wasn’t until the 1920’s when the first commercial screening of movies with sound began to change the industry. Before audio was added to the Talkies the visuals had to tell the story. Since the introduction of sound, the industry has never looked back.

Sound recording and editing has grown into its own multi-million dollar industry. For many video and film producers, recording is done in a controlled studio environment. If anything goes wrong, they can usually find a work-around. For those working in the field, anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and it’s usually going to center around audio. Once you decide to bravely plunge into the field-recording field, (pun intended), you’ll want to know that at least your audio needs will be taken care of by following some good research focused on field audio recording.

Mixers

The more you spend, the more features you will get. The question is; do you need all those features? Some features are just for the pros and some are for everybody else. If you only need two audio tracks don’t spend the money on the capability to record eight.

A portable mixer is good for matching levels in the field. You may find yourself using a number of microphones and maybe different types. The mixer will allow you to adjust audio levels and do some mixing if necessary. But keep in mind that once the audio is mixed together you can’t un-mix or separate the tracks again. Consider your time constraints, weather, and battery life when you begin to plan for field audio mixing.

Some mixers have equalization controls. Most small mixers are limited to a band pass filter and some tone control. If you know you will need to do some equalization it’s best to do it in the edit. A nice studio mixer will have some on board equalization and the ability to send audio out to an external processor and bring it back to the mix.

  • Audio Tracks

    How many audio tracks do you need to get the job done? Remember, the lower the number of audio tracks the lower the cost of the equipment. If you’re looking at mixers you will want to start with at least four inputs. Anything less is probably not worth your time.

    There are a lot of recording choices out there if you only need two tracks. You can record two tracks in some cameras already. But what happens if you’re creating a Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtrack? Then you will need six audio tracks; left and right channels, the center channel, left and right surround channels, and the sub-woofer or base channel.

    When you need eight or sixteen tracks the prices jump astronomically. Now you are going to need a larger mixer and a lot more equipment to get the job done. You will most likely be using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or a video editing system for editing. And most likely, this won’t be work you’re going to record in the field.

  • Input Levels

    What kind of input levels will you be working with? Most mixers have XLR or 1/4″ inputs. Some will have RCA jacks for line level devices. Some recording devices also have digital inputs so you can go digital to digital with no signal loss.

    You may have to adjust the input for the type of device you’re working with. Nearly all mixers will have an input level adjustment. You may be recording with microphones or you may be at a higher audio level because you’re working with a CD player or some other type of digital recording device.

    If you are editing with a DAW or video editing system, you will need to get the audio into the computer. There are a number of USB devices available to convert audio. You will need an interface to convert audio from analog to digital, this is called digitizing. The nice thing is that once you have digitized all of your audio you can do whatever you want with it. It’s easy to edit and make changes with a DAW or a video editing system.

  • Outputs

    What kind of output do you need? Most of the time you will be mixing down to one stereo pair. You may even be able to use your field recorder to record your mix. Dolby Surround editing can get complicated though. Keep in mind who your audience is when the time comes to output. This will help you pick out the equipment you need. If you’re a DJ you will be going directly out to your amplifier.

    If you’re using a DAW or a video editing system, at some point you will have to get your audio out of the computer. Usually the same device that allowed you to get your audio into the computer will also allow you to get it out.

  • File Format

    What kind of file do you need to edit? Nearly all digital audio recorders will have at least a few options. WAV is generally the best choice, as it is uncompressed and can be read by pretty much anything. AIFF is a similar file format seen most often on the Mac platform. MP3 and AAC are both good formats overall, but both of them are also compressed formats.

    There are a number of audio file formats used by the audio industry. For example, if you’re creating a CD, you will most likely be using WAV or AIFF files. Make sure to use the file format that goes with the platform you’re on. And when you’re done, use the format that best matches the recording medium you’re outputting to.

Digital Recorders

Before you can mix audio you need to do some recording first. When you start to look at which technology will work best for you, analog or digital, you may be surprised to find that most of the old analog magnetic tape recorders are gone. But a whole new variety of digital recorders are widely available.

You may be recording in a studio, on a sound stage or in a sound proof booth. You may even find yourself out in the middle of the woods capturing the sounds of nature or on a city street doing an interview for your documentary.

  • Flash Memory or Hard Drive

    When you record digitally you will be using some type of flash memory or you will be recording to an internal hard drive. A portable digital recorder may have some built in flash memory. This will give you limited recording time without adding additional memory.

    If your device has an internal hard drive you should have plenty of capacity for more than a few projects. However, at some point the drive will begin to get full. Then you will have to free up storage space for new audio files. You may be able to add an external hard drive to increase storage capacity.

    One advantage of a portable digital recorder with a memory card slot is that you can record endlessly by swapping out memory cards. If you want to archive your audio projects you can just purchase extra memory cards. When you are done recording you can transfer files to your DAW with just a drag and a drop.

  • Basic Features

    For around $200 a basic digital field recorder will have two tracks of digital audio. It will have a counter or timer and a choice of two or more recording formats. It should have a volume control and an earphone jack. At the basic level you may have two condenser microphones attached or two microphone inputs available. Most will have an expanded memory card slot and a USB port for connection to your computer. An external microphone input is a plus. With the ability to choose your microphone you can select the specific one to get the job done right. An onboard microphone does not give you any other options and the better the audio that goes in, the better the sound that comes out. Remember the age-old technical philosophy: garbage in, garbage out.

  • Intermediate Features

    The intermediate digital recorder can offer 4 – 8 tracks of audio. But most only have two microphone inputs so you have to do multiple takes to create a multi-track recording. This is not hard to do it just takes time. Some have a built in speaker to check audio without headphones. But you will still want to use the headphones. The speaker is going to be very small and may not have very good sound quality.

  • Advanced Features

    A higher end digital recorder like the Boss BR-1600CD has eight inputs and sixteen channels for multi-track recording. It also has a built in hard drive and a CD recorder to burn a CD. You will also get equalization for each channel. Another feature that’s nice to have are record level meters. Always remember, even though you may have set good audio levels on the level meter, you still need to listen with your headphones. You could have picked up an airplane or someone sneezing off in the distance.

  • Batteries

    When it comes to batteries try to find a recorder that uses AA, C, or D size batteries. Standard size batteries are more cost effective than proprietary batteries. And in an emergency when you are out on a shoot somewhere, you may not have a place to recharge those proprietary batteries. While it may be easier to find a place to purchase standard size batteries check to see if your digital recorder comes with a power supply. If you have AC power available you can use the power supply and save the batteries for another day, you’re just going to be searching for a power source, which is a different issue when shooting in the field.

Conclusion

There is a plethora of manufacturers of audio equipment out there. Make sure you do a little research before you make an investment. The budget limitations are the first thing that goes out the window in the production meeting.

Try to buy something that will last a few years before you out-grow it. Because more than likely, you probably will, but don’t forget, you will pay for all those extra features. The more you have to spend the more features you will find available. Buy what you feel you can live with, and what you can’t live without.

George F. Young is the webmaster for the Massachusetts National Guard and an independent video director and editor.

Manufacturer’s List

Click here to download a PDF Manufacturer’s list of Videomaker‘s Buyer’s Guide to Audio Recording & Mixing Gear.

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