Field Recorders & Mixers Buyer's Guide - Record it and Mix it in the Field

Field Recorders & Mixers Buyer's Guide - Record it and Mix it in the Field

When it comes to video production, no sound equipment bag is all-inclusive without a portable field mixer and recorder.

To understand how vital sound is to video productions, imagine spending your hard-earned money going to a big budget movie shot in IMAX and 3D that has superior picture but substandard sound quality. Chances are you would walk out of that theater requesting a refund. Well, sound quality is as significant to the video production as it is to a major production budget.

Many important pieces of equipment popularize the world of video productions, but the audio field mixers and recorders transcend the profession by delivering unparalleled reproduced sound that generates maximum results over the camera operator working the sound.

Audio Field Mixers

Before you decide to purchase an audio field mixer, there are many dynamics to consider. Portability, power, durability and cost being the most crucial among them. First, let me point out that sound in video production, shoots entail more than having a decent shotgun microphone and/or boom pole to pick up audio. More than knobs or dials, field mixers let you vary the volume. The audio mixer acts as an extension of the camera's audio controllers, letting the sound person censor and fine-tune audio without having to shake the camera or get in the way of the camera operator during taping.

In general, video cameras on the market come with either one 1/8-inch audio jack or one or two standard XLR microphone inputs and audio level control for recording sound. Can you say limited, boys and girls? Sure, many DV camcorders on the market today come with two sound sources you can control from the camcorder itself, but, in the real world of video production, trying to check and tweak sound from camcorder controls can be complex. It involves too much movement, which may cause you to jerk the camera. Straight away, this might be acceptable if you are proposing to shoot ventures similar to The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, but not for everyday use in the field. In reality, who would want to sit through a shaky video recording of Amy's wedding ceremony or little Billy's first birthday party except the family?

Control Over Sound

Audio field mixers make it easier for you to run multiple microphones simultaneously. They give you control of the gain (volume) of each mic you feed into it. They let you direct the sound to the left or right channels, filter out any background sound, employ limiters (compressors made to limit the level of a signal to a certain line), which makes it easier for you to nip distortion in the bud.

A four-channel portable mixer, the Azden FMX-42a, features many of the benefits video producers can drool over, whether a seasoned professional or just starting out. The FMX-42a has four balanced XLR line/mic inputs with single level and pan controls. As stated earlier, having four inputs allows you to use multiple mics running from the audio mixer itself. This lets you control the sound level of each mic while the individual level and pan controls allows you to pan the sound to the left or right channels, which you could not do from the built-in camcorder microphone unless you plan on shooting close up shots only.

The FMX-42a provides switchable 48V phantom power, a must for condenser microphones to receive power. The FMX-42a also comes with quality VU meters so you can actually see the loudness of the level of sound you are recording.

Six AA batteries and an optional 12V DC external connector can power the FMX-42a. The runtime of the batteries is approximately nine hours. This is a reasonable duration for a straight shoot in the field. Two balanced XLR outputs - line and mic switchable - a stereo mini-jack output for DV cameras, headphones monitor with level control, and balanced and unbalanced output round out the features of the FMX-42a. Weighing only three pounds (without the batteries), this audio field mixer will not wear you down while you are on the move.

As its successor, the Azden FMX-32, a three-channel field mixer, has a lot to offer. Also portable, the all metal, battery operated audio mixer can be directly secured to a camcorder with hook-and-loop mounting tape. It has three balanced XLR mic inputs, two-channel balanced XLR line level outputs with level control - allowing you to feed from microphone mixers. The FMX-32 includes a switchable input limiter to reduce the chances of overload distortion and a low battery LED indicator, which is ideal for lengthy shoots in the field. In the vein of the FMX-42a, you can power the FMX-32 with a 12V DC connector or six AA batteries that last longer than the FMX-42a - fifteen hours overall.

In between the two Azden audio field mixers, the Audio Technica AT-MX341a Smart Mixer takes flight as a field mixer in any environment, from outdoors to studio. It has a rugged design and is lightweight (a little more than three pounds) specifically designed for travel. There are four mic/line inputs with single right-of-way pre-select switch for every channel. The channels also have individual gain control and master output level control. Now, what does all that mean? This audio mixer comes fully equipped for multi-mic installations and one channel at a time operations, allowing you complete control over the sound of your shoot.

Shure is a name that is well-known in the news gathering field, many news shooters and documentary shooters are using portable field mixers when they're recording important interviews. When you have a soft-spoken subject being interviewed by a booming-voiced reporter, a mixer can bring the audio to even levels when you record in the field, and will lessen possible problems with the mix when editing. Shure's FP33 can tote along easily by a light shoulder strap and has three XLR mic inputs and two output ports. You put your interviewer into channel one the interviewee into channel two, and you can mix them down or keep them separate, which is usually advised. This allows you to take the level of your interviewer down and bring the audio of the interviewee up. The FP33 also records tone for setting levels, and offers several headphone jacks, each with its own level control. The mixer is designed for low-power use and runs on two 9V batteries for about eight hours. An LED light warning lets you know when you're running out of juice.

Picking a Mixer

Here is how you decide to choose which audio mixer works best for you. Ask yourself, what do you plan on shooting? From that one question, you will quickly learn what your needs are. For example, if you plan to shoot weddings, then you will need a durable mixer built for travel and convenience and with features for indoor locations. And there are other considerations, such as how many inputs will be needed - four, six, eight? If you plan to shoot nature scenes, sporting events, drag races and so on, then you may be faced with a lot of unwanted background noise and wind. Having a shotgun mic or foam windscreen will not be enough. Locations with loud noise can distort and ruin audio. Having a portable field mixer at your disposal with low cut filters comes in handy for those problematic sounds most microphones pick up.

The choice of audio mixers rests in the scenario and situation of the project you plan to shoot. Some features may be too complicated to understand and grasp. Why so many buttons? What are they for? What does this one do? Do I need all of these features? Questions like these arise all the time for the first time buyer. Sometimes skimming through the owner's manual adds no resolution to the question marks. We've all been there, haven't we? Nevertheless, the plain truth of making the right purchase is - it is better to have more than less.

Some of those buttons and features on audio mixers may not be what you need when you first buy one, but, as you learn and grow, and embark on new horizons involving video production, they are there for you when you need them.

When you make a choice in field mixers, quality should always succeed price. The same as most things in life, the more you pay, the better you get.

Audio Recorders

The portable audio recorder - or field recorder - lets you record audio on the go. Unlike the audio field mixer, audio recorders can record sound separate from the camcorder and microphone connections. You can mount audio recorders to your camcorder or use them independently to log your audio to SD/SDHC flash cards to later transfer onto a computer's hard drive for editing. This in itself is a great benefit to owning a digital audio recorder. As in movie productions, you have the luxury of editing your soundtrack in a post-production environment.

Samson Zoom products, the Zoom H2 portable digital recorder and the H2n Handy Recorder, include many of the features all audio recorders should promote. The H2 digital recorder fits into the palm of your hand for easy travel and handling, and comes moderately priced. What's cool about Zoom's H2 recorder is that it allows you to record directly from the front at 90 degrees, from the rear at a 120, or at 360 degrees for better mixing of your audio. The H2n, however, takes recording to another level, offering Mid-Side stereo recording to capture uni-directional and bi-directional audio, coming from your left and right. The H2n also has one of the greatest features you can have in an audio recorder. In the event of battery loss or power down, the H2n has a data recovery function to restore your data when you power it back on again.

Expect battery life to be a deciding factor when choosing between the H2 and the H2n. The H2 gives you up to four hours of continuous use on two AA batteries, but the wall adapter provides you with longer use. The H2n gives you over twenty hours of continuous life on two AA alkaline batteries, allowing you more flexibility in recording situations.

Field Audio Mixers and Audio Recorders

The bottom line between field mixers and audio recorders? Going into the field without one or the other would be like entering a boxing ring with only one arm.

In a sound production setup, a mic - or mics - plug into the audio mixer, and the mixer's multiple output, in turn, sends audio to both the camcorder and the audio recorder, which generates a backup of the recorded sound. You can monitor that sound with a set of good headphones. Never go into the field without 'phones, whether you decide to purchase an audio mixer or not. A professional brand of headphones lets you supervise the audio from a camcorder. Audio mixers and sound recorders produce great sound, but the headphones let you hear any unwanted noises from electrical equipment or vibrations. Even if the audio mixer VU meter levels look okay, the headphones will pick up uninvited echoes or hums that present problems. Always use headphones to monitor outside of the record deck and not the mixer.

Some Warnings and Tips

Since video productions involve a lot of moving around - sometimes after each shot - breakaway cables help make connecting and disconnecting your equipment a lot easier. They are also a big plus to keep you from tripping over your connections.

Furthermore, it is a good idea to strap the field mixer to your body by placing it in an audio bag. This allows you quick access to the controls to adjust the sound.

Final Tips

The sound you record into the camcorder will never match the quality of sound from audio mixers and sound recorders. Never! Field mixers - good ones - have input transformers that cut out RF (radio frequency) before it gets into your audio. Good audio mixers have limiters for pungent recording and they reduce the chance of overload distortion. Most of all, good field mixers make your sound first-rate.

Audio recorders allow you to record sound from your shoots separate from your camcorder so you can edit the sound later in your computer. Having the ability to do this gives you more control over the sound of your project - just as they do in the movies, but for way less.

So, in my humble opinion, forget about using the built-in microphone that comes with your camcorder - particularly if you plan to make great video productions. Some people spend thousands on expensive camcorders, but pinch pennies on quality sound equipment.

Bad idea

Remember the The Blair Witch Project - everybody's favorite independent film outside of Clerks - well, for those of you who weren't aware, half of that movie was shot in Hi8. Even back then, Hi8 was considered a format for filming a recital, not a feature film. Nonetheless, the filmmakers use d Hi8 and made filmmaking history. They focused their budget more toward clear, flawless sound than picture quality - and it paid off for them big time.

As a videographer - whether you're a beginner, enthusiasts, hobbyist, pro - you never know where your ventures may take you. The video producing market is huge and filled with countless opportunities for filmmakers to make their mark. You may have recorded a friend's wedding as a last minute favor on your trusty camcorder and everyone goes wild over your footage. They start asking you to record parties and other events. Then, within a year, you are earning an extra twenty to thirty thousand for your kid's college fund or that sports car you've had your eye on. It could happen.

Hey, you never know where video producing ventures may lead. But trust me on this, they'll go absolutely nowhere if you don't treat your efforts with professionalism at all times. That starts with realizing camcorders do not present quality sound because they were made to give you quality picture. Audio field mixers and sound recorders, however, were made just for that - great sound!

Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Field Recorders & Mixers Buyer's Guide

Stephen Joseph is a writer and independent filmmaker.


Thu, 03/01/2012 - 12:00am