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.
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. The Ninja V sells for $695.
Best Audio Recorder
Sound Devices MixPre-3
Most cameras have only two XLR inputs, if they have any at all. Syncing audio and video recordings in post is a tedious task. With a recorder like the Sound Devices MixPre-3, you can patch in three mics and take the HDMI output of your camera to keep the audio in sync with the video.
The MixPre-3 uses Sound Devices’ Kashmir mic preamps, which are designed to offer low-noise recording with an impressive noise floor of -130dBV. The preamps also feature new 32-bit A-to-D converters, promising better performance than other off-the-shelf preamps. In addition to capturing audio internally to an SD card, the MixPre-3 is also capable of simultaneously streaming multiple channels of audio to your computer via USB.
For DSLR videographers, the MixPre-3 features a retractable ¼-20 mount, allowing the unit to sit conveniently between camera and tripod. A 3.5mm headphone jack allows for monitoring your recordings. The unit can be powered with AA batteries, two hot-swappable Sony L-mount batteries or over USB. An AC adapter is available separately. The Sound Devices MixPre-3 is priced at $649.
Best Budget Audio Recorder
With the Tascam DR-40, 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-40 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-40 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-40 features both an integrated speaker and 3.5mm headphone out and can be powered via battery, AC or USB. It retails for $180.
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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