In this article, we’ll cover the best external recorders for both video and audio recording. Then, we’ll go over the specs we considered when making our selections so that you can choose the best recorder for your specific situation.
The Editors’ Choice award recognizes exceptional video production equipment, software and services. These products must help videographers be more effective storytellers while being affordable, easy to use and dependable. The products must also deliver a superior user experience.
Best video recorder
Blackmagic Video Assist 7″ 12G
The Blackmagic Video Assist 7″ 12G offers both HDMI and 12G-SDI inputs and outputs and supports resolutions and frame rates up to 2160p60. It records to dual hot-swappable SD card slots, though users can also record directly to a USB SSD like the Samsung T5 over a USB-C connector. With a USB splitter, it’s possible to lay off two recordings simultaneously through the USB port. Blackmagic’s BRAW codec is also supported when recording from the Panasonic EVA1 and Canon C300 MkII cameras.
The Video Assist 12G’s touchscreen offers 2,500 nits of brightness. At the same time, it uses the P3 wide color gamut. To support filmmakers, the monitor features tools like waveform, RGB parade, vectorscope, and histogram tools. LUTs are also supported. They can be applied either temporarily for monitoring or they can be burned into files.
The Video Assist 12G uses Sony’s L-type batteries and feature two hot-swappable slots. The monitor will drain the least-charged battery first. It also has three 1/4”-20 sockets on top and bottom for mounting.
Best budget video recorder
Atomos Ninja V
The Atomos Ninja V uses AtomHDR image processing to display more accurate exposure and color information in RAW, Log, PQ and HLG HDR images with 10+ stops of dynamic range. Likewise, the ability to preview 3D LUTs brings the image displayed on location even closer to the final product, as do options for de-squeezing anamorphic content. Also included are shot assist tools like false color, focus peaking, waveform and more.
The Ninja V shares many of the same specs as the larger Shogun Inferno, with the ability to record up to 4K at 60 frames per second in 10-bit 4:2:2 ProRes, DNxHR and ProRes RAW, though not CinemaDNG. The big differences between the Ninja V and the Shogun Inferno are the size, screen brightness and connectivity options. The Ninja V has a 1000 nit, 1920 x 1200, 5-inch screen and offers only HMDI in/out. It’s also missing the XLR audio inputs of the Shogun Inferno.
Best audio recorder
The Zoom H6 Handy Handheld Recorder allows six simultaneous input signals to be recorded at once. This user-friendly recorder also has two swappable stereo microphone capsules and six mic/line inputs.
The two interchangeable stereo microphone capsules make recording everything from speech, to concerts, to environmental sounds easy. The XYH-6 capsule provides phase accurate capture in two different X/Y positions—90 degrees for a tight stereo image or 120 degrees for a wider perspective. The MSH-6 capsule records in a mid-side configuration, and it’s front facing directional element makes it great for sound design, broadcasting and stereo-to-mono compatibility.
The H6 is quipped with four XLR-1/4″ combo inputs, as well as a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack input. It can accommodate condenser microphones, +4dB balanced line-level sources as well as signals from unbalanced instruments.
The H6 is also capable of 6-channel recording at up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution.
Best budget audio recorder
With the Tascam DR-40X, you can record two mics via XLR while simultaneously capturing the audio from the recorder’s two adjustable onboard condenser mics to two additional tracks. This allows you to mix the four tracks together in post to get just the right amount of background sound. The DR-40X records to SD card in either WAV/BWF or MP3 file formats. It features a built-in limiter and switchable low-cut filter. Plus, dual recording mode captures a safety track as further insurance against peaking and distortion.
The DR-40X does have built-in mic preamps that can provide your mic with phantom power, but their noise floor can’t compete with the more expensive Kashmir preamps from Sound Devices. This difference will be more noticeable in less-than-ideal recording conditions.
The DR-40X features both an integrated speaker and 3.5mm headphone out and can be powered via battery, AC or USB.
Factors we considered
Just like cameras, there is no single recorder that’s perfect for every production; however, you can enhance your camera’s capabilities with a recorder that fills in the gaps.
The internal recording capabilities of your camera are often limited by recording media and processing power. An external recorder can often open up a lot of options in terms of format and record time, letting you record in higher-quality formats — like ProRes, DNxHR, CinemaDNG and RAW — for longer periods of time.
Recording format and color
At times, because of a client’s needs or to streamline your own post-production workflow, you may need to record in a specific format like ProRes 422 or DNxHR HQx to work more easily with editing software like FCP or Media Composer. Recorders often support these formats while many cameras don’t. If your workflow demands a particular format, make sure it’s available on any recorder you consider.
Along with additional recording formats, many external video recorders also offer enhanced color capture. many cameras only record in 4:2:0 chroma subsampling, which can lead to some images having color that looks a little off or that is difficult to correct and grade in post-production. 4:2:2 subsampling has four times as much color information as 4:2:0 color and gives you color that looks almost exactly like full bandwidth color (4:4:4). Many recorders support 4:2:0 color via HDMI and 4:4:4 color via SDI.
RAW recording is another reason to invest in an external recorder since this will give you maximum flexibility in terms of color grading and image correction — RAW recording pulls image data directly from the camera’s sensor, bypassing any image processing or compression.
Screen size, resolution and brightness
Though external video recorders do not always include a built-in monitor, this feature can add a ton of value to your purchase. Onboard camera monitors are typically small, low res and not very bright. There are many monitor/recorders with 5-inch to 7-inch screens in HD resolutions; some are even bright enough to see in sunlight.
These will often also provide handy shot assist tools like focus peaking and LUT preview in addition to their larger, more production friendly viewing area. If you know you will be working with HDR footage, look for a monitor that supports HDR previewing.
On some projects, you can mask problems with your picture in post-production with alterations in color and contrast, making them look like stylistic choices; however, you usually can’t do that with audio. You might be able to ADR (additional audio recording) all the dialog of your short film in post, but it’s not likely that the bride and groom are going to want to re-record their wedding vows after you’ve done the shoot for them. In some cases, there simply is no alternative to professional quality production sound.
Most cameras don’t offer all the features needed to ensure that you can get good quality sound for your production.
Most cameras don’t offer all the features needed to ensure that you can get good quality sound for your production. This is where an external recorder can give you the ability to capture great sound, either with better input and output jacks, a lower noise floor, higher audio sample rates and bit depth, or by offering more control to adapt to the recording environment.
Sending an audio signal through an XLR jack doesn’t automatically make it better quality; however, using XLR cables and jacks can help eliminate some common problems with audio signal flow in production. Reliability is very important for signal flow. XLR connections lock in place; most 1/8-inch connections do not and can easily come out. Equipment using XLR jacks typically use grounded connections to help eliminate RF noise in the signal; most 1/8-inch jacks don’t allow for grounded connections. During production, the size of XLR jacks makes them more durable and less likely to break in contrast to smaller 1/8-inch connections. As an added bonus, XLR inputs usually can provide the phantom power needed by many professional microphones.
Noise floor and audio formats
All audio recorders have a noise floor. When you start a recording with no microphone attached or enabled, what you will hear in the recording is that noise floor. Generally, the better a recording device is designed and built, the lower the noise floor will be. Many cameras and recorders don’t list audio noise floor information in their specs, but this is certainly something you can learn by doing test recordings with the equipment before you shoot.
If you want great audio, you’re going to need to record in WAV or another uncompressed format, since recording compressed audio severely limits what you can do in post. Of course, if your only delivery is a live web stream, then recording compressed audio may be fine; but you should test your workflow just to be sure.
Changing your record format from 16bit/48khz to 24bit /96khz WAV may not give you a noticeable difference in sound quality. However, it will give your audio signal more information, meaning that it will be easier to make alterations like noise reduction and equalization in post-production, often delivering a final audio track of significantly higher quality.
Ergonomics and isolation
Beyond boom poles, we don’t hear much about the ergonomics of working with audio equipment on a shoot. This can greatly affect the sound you’re recording, however. You’ll find that the easier the gear is to operate, the more consistent your results will be. Gain controls that are physical rather than menu-based can be quickly and easily adjusted. This will help you maintain proper audio levels. Using an audio recorder that is separate from your camera rig will eliminate the risk of vibrating the camera while adjusting gain. Likewise, if your audio gear is separate from your camera rig, you’re less likely to pick up camera noise in your audio recordings.
Summing It Up
Production has its challenges, but with the right tools, the work is a lot easier. Audio and video recorders can help fill some of the needs when your camera falls short. They can also make your job a bit more comfortable.
Contributors to this article include Odin Lindblom and the Videomaker Editorial Staff.
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