How to Choose the Right Portable Recorder for Your Home Recordings


One of the best ways to improve as a musician is to record your own playing. Sure, it can be frustrating and disappointing when you hear that you’re out of tempo, out of key, or out of tune. But knowing your weaknesses is the first step to improvement, and hearing a well-played number is its own reward.

I can remember when decent-quality recording was complicated and expensive, but today inexpensive portable recorders—at most every price point and with any feature set—are capable of remarkable fidelity. Every music recorder I’ve researched can capture in so-called high-resolution formats, using sample rates and bit depth greater than the CD standard of 44.1 kHz and 16-bit depth, although it’s hotly debated whether these formats offer any improvement in audio quality. All of these recorders can record compressed audio using the MP3 format and uncompressed audio in WAV format. Compressed formats take up less room and are handy for passing around on the internet, while uncompressed formats provide higher quality and are preferred if you plan to process your recordings to create audio CDs or add such effects as equalization, reverb, and compression.

In addition to sound quality, you’ll also want to consider ease of use (the navigation of settings can vary considerably), storage capacity, and battery life.

The Memory Game

The devices discussed here all use solid-state memory in the form of standardized flash memory cards. Flash memory cards come in three sizes: CF (compact flash), SD (secure digital), and micro SD. The capacity of these cards has increased over the years, along with improvements in read and write speed. The original SD card had a maximum capacity of only 2 GB (gigabytes). The SDHC (secure digital high capacity) standard increased the maximum size to 32 GB, and the newer SDXC (secure digital extended capacity) can reach a maximum of 2 terabytes, or 2,000 GB. Some recorders are limited in the class of SD card they can use, so check carefully when purchasing a recorder and flash card. (Manufacturers generally provide a list of confirmed compatible cards with the documentation for their recorders.)

Large capacity cards are great for video and even high-end photography, but for audio recording, even the smaller flash cards store a lot of music. CD-standard WAV files take up about 10 MB per minute, so a 2 GB card will hold more than three hours of music in uncompressed WAV format. Compressed MP3 formats are even smaller, and the size can be adjusted by selecting different compression levels, specified as bit rate in kilobits per second (kbps). For instance, five minutes of music would create a 50 MB WAV file, while a 128-kbps MP3 file would be only 5 MB; at the highest bit rate of 320 kbps, the compressed file will be about 10 MB. There’s a quality tradeoff for smaller file sizes, of course. In general, the 320-kbps MP3 is audibly similar to a WAV file, while the 128-kbps file may have audible artifacts.


Budget Constraints

With so many recorders and a wide array of features available, finding the right tool for your job can be a challenge. Your first step in filtering the choices is to determine your budget, then evaluate the features you need for your recording goals. Most of the recorders have built-in mics, but most also allow you to attach external microphones. Most portable recorders have a stereo 1/8-inch jack that uses a microphone powering system called plug-in power, and there are a wide variety of mics that can be connected in this way; however, the usual stage and studio mics will not work with this connection because they require an XLR input, and condenser microphones additionally need phantom power to operate.

zoom h1 and tascam flash recorders
The Zoom H1 and Tascam DR-05 handheld portable recorders

The least expensive recorders designed for music have a street price of less than $100. Both Tascam and Zoom make high-quality, affordable portable recorders in this segment that record in stereo using built-in mics or external mics through the 1/8-inch stereo jacks. The Tascam DR-05 offers features including a limiter and clip editing, while the Zoom H1 is equipped with directional mics for an improved stereo image.

Zoom h4 and Tascam d40x
The Zoom h4 and Tascam d40x

If your budget extends to $200, the choices really expand. In this range, you can find recorders like the Zoom H4n and Tascam DR-40x that support condenser mics requiring XLR connections and 48-volt phantom power. Only a short time ago, these features were limited to professional studios, but today they’re in the palm of your hand. Other features in this segment include overdubbing and multitrack recording, although the user interface for such features in a compact recorder can be a bit challenging. Zoom offers surround recording in their H2n with a combination of XY and mid-side mic arrays, while Tascam has recently released the DR-22WL with Wi-Fi control and file transfer using your smartphone.

Zoom h5, Tascam dr44wl, and sony pcm-m10 flash recorders
Zoom h5, Tascam dr44wl, and Sony pcm-m10 portable recorders

When you look at the next segment, up to $300, there are some very interesting tools. The Zoom H5 lets you swap attached mics among XY, mid-side, and shotgun modules, along with two XLR inputs and four-channel recording. The Tascam DR44-WL adds Wi-Fi control along with four-channel recording using attached stereo mics and dual XLR inputs. The Sony PCM-M10 is known for its amazing battery life and low self-noise.

The Zoom h6, Marantz PMD661 MKIII, and Sony PMC-D100 flash recorders
The Zoom h6, Marantz PMD661 MKIII, and Sony PCM-D100 portable recorders

Above $300, you get to some real powerhouse recorders. The Zoom H6 and Roland R-26 are six-track handheld recorders, great for capturing small groups. The Marantz PMD661 MKIII, Fostex FR-2LE, and Sony PCM-D100 capture two channels of pristine audio. Only the Sony includes built-in mics in this group, but the other two are worthy of the finest external condenser mics and offer XLR inputs and phantom power to operate them.

In this golden age of compact recorders, you can buy an impressive device for the price of a nice instrument case—one that fits in your hand and captures every nuance of your playing.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Stage & Studio. Click here to download the entire issue for free.

Stage and Studio Winter 2015 Recording Perfoming Tips for Musicians