The Rise Of The Affordable Multitrack Recorder

The Zoom F4 is typical of the new breed of multitrack recorders that offer a robust feature set and high quality for very little money.

The Traditional Multi-Track Recorder: For the past few issues, I’ve written articles on some amazing audio tools, chiefly, multitrack recorders. But what’s interesting to note about this latest crop of recorders isn’t so much the new technology they come with. Rather, what’s different is who’s buying and using them.

 But before we get to who’s buying these new recorders, let’s first look at what a typical working sound mixer and what they buy and use: They will most often own at least one, and very often, two or three recorders, like the Sound Devices 633. Why more than one? Because as a working pro, you need a backup recorder.

The Sound Devices 633 is an industry standard for TV and even lower-end feature film work.
The Sound Devices 633 is an industry standard for TV and even lower-end feature film work.

In case you aren’t familiar, here’s what you get with the Sound Devices 633, which is why it’s extremely popular with pro sound mixers; it’s a six-input portable production mixer with a built-in 10-track recorder that records high-quality audio to SD and SDHC cards. These recorders are ruggedly built, reliable and feature metalized carbon-fiber top and bottom chassis panels that help to save weight but keep the build durable. Most often, sound mixers will have a mixer like the 633 in a soft bag, along with a power supply, two to five channels of wireless lavalier receivers and various other accessories.

But this type of multitrack recorder will cost you: It retails for about $3,400. Combine this with the relative cost of a wireless microphone system, the mics themselves, boom poles, etc., and you can clearly see that a product like the 633 is aimed squarely at prosound mixers.

However, for many in the new wave of multimedia creators and camera operators—one-man bands, musicians, podcasters, YouTubers and vloggers—they can’t afford to spend this kind of money on an audio recorder. Plus, the feature set on a recorder like this is excessive for a large portion of the users I mention. Moreover, the 633 is just the tip of the iceberg: There are much higher-end recorders from companies like Zaxcom that cost many times what the Sound Devices 633 sells for.      

Enhancing Audio For Mirrorless Models

Here’s an addition reason this new wave of content creators are looking for affordable multitrack recorders: One type of camera that many in this group have on hand is a mirrorless camera, which is capable of extremely high-quality video recording at a minimal cost compared to large, digital cinema cameras, like the REDs, Arri cameras and Sony F55 and Venice.

 However, where mirrorless models fall short is in audio. In many cases, most of these cameras only have two channels of audio recording capability. So, with the growing popularity of mirrorless cameras—the Sony a7 series, Panasonic GH5 and 5S, the Fujifilm X-T3, the new Canon EOS R and the new Nikon Z series—there has been a growing need for a lower-cost yet capable multitrack sound recorder.

Mirrorless cameras, like the Fujifilm X-T3, have become so good that they have even made inroads into higher-end TV and cinema production.
Mirrorless cameras, like the Fujifilm X-T3, have become so good that they have even made inroads into higher-end TV and cinema production.

All of the cameras I mention also have consumer-level 3.5 mm audio inputs and headphone outputs. So, if you actually listen carefully to the sound quality these cameras are capable of recording, you’ll find it’s not very impressive for professional-level films and productions.

It might be usable for certain projects, but experienced pros know the importance of audio. In fact, most will say that sound is actually more important for most projects than the visuals and want to record higher-quality sound than the camera is capable of.

Enter The New Breed

So, what’s a DP to do? One of the most exciting developments in sound is the fairly recent advent of small, compact, high-quality, multi-track recorders that are designed exactly for mirrorless camera users. They include devices like the Zoom F4, F4N, F8 and F8N, the Sound Devices MixPre-3 and MixPre-6, the Tascam Dr-70D and 701D, and the Marantz DSLR (PMD-706) recorder. Some retail for as little as $199, and all are less than $1,000.

Examine the audio capability these devices offer. You’ll find it’s truly amazing how good they can sound for so little money.

The Sound Devices MixPre-3 is intended for a different user than the company’s higher-end recorders like the 633.
The Sound Devices MixPre-3 is intended for a different user than the company’s higher-end recorders like the 633.

Here’s an example of how such a budget multitrack recorder makes my life easier: The most common situation I run into is shooting two-person interviews. In most instances with a two-person interview, I would ideally like to record isolated tracks from one lavalier from each talent and then at least one and often two shotgun/cardioid variant mics, as well.

This means for each talent, I’ll have an isolated lavalier and then an isolated boom mic, as well. But my camera only has two XLR inputs. By adding a separate, low-cost sound recorder, I gain the capacity to record a total of three or more channels.

The Tascam DR-60DmkII adds surprisingly good sound quality to your camera package for less than U.S. $200 retail.
The Tascam DR-60DmkII adds surprisingly good sound quality to your camera package for less than $200 retail.

For most shoots, I have the budget to hire a sound mixer, but I don’t have the budget or crew position to hire a professional sound mixer on some of my shoots. For those shoots, a Tascam DR60 MKII recorder adds two additional needed audio channels to my sound recording capability. The Tascam doesn’t have time code in or out, and neither does my most typically used camera, but the DR60 MKII does send out a slate tone that can be recorded by my camera and the Tascam, making syncing the extra two channels of audio pretty easy and simple. 

The In-Betweeners

I consider this new class of sub-$1,000 audio recorders—the In-Betweeners—to be extremely useful in a variety of situations.

To be clear, adding one to your kit is no substitute for the skills and capability a pro sound mixer will bring to your project. However, having better mic pre-amps and additional audio channels can be incredibly helpful for many productions. Just remember, if you are operating the recorder, you still have to start and stop it recording, manage the batteries or power supply, monitor and adjust gain, and make sure that everything is working as it should be.

It’s nice, though, that we now have quality solutions to typical problems for when we don’t have the budget to hire a proper sound mixer.

Why A Cardioid?

If you are not a professional sound mixer, you may not understand the difference between a shotgun microphone and a cardioid-variant microphone. It mostly boils down to the microphone’s pick up (or polar) pattern.

Shotgun microphones typically have a narrower angle of acceptance than a cardioid microphone.  

Shotgun microphones are known for their narrow angle of acceptance of sound; they are useful when employed correctly and in the right situation.
Shotgun microphones are known for their narrow angle of acceptance of sound; they are useful when employed correctly and in the right situation.

This can be good or bad depending on the situation you are trying to mike. Shotguns are most commonly used by people recording sound for a picture, and they can work very well when a narrow angle of acceptance of the sound you are trying to record is the solution. But shotgun microphones for video/film have some drawbacks as well as advantages:

  • Shotgun microphones have a longer physical size than cardioid variant microphones. This means that for booming, sometimes heavier microphone mounts and larger windsocks and zeppelins are required, which typically are more expensive.
  • When miking more than one person in a scene, the narrower angle of the shotgun microphone means that it can be more difficult to record clean, clear audio as you have to be more precise with where the shotgun microphone is aimed.
  • Increased rear-angle acceptance means that shotgun microphone pickup patterns generally have more rear-angle acceptance than a cardioid variant, so in interiors with a lot of reflective surfaces, the shotgun may record more off-axis sound that can muddy the clarity of the performance.
The Sanken CS-3E shotgun is a popular higher-end shotgun microphone with excellent sound quality and value.
The Sanken CS-3E shotgun is a popular higher-end shotgun microphone with excellent sound quality and value.
Notice the greater rejection of rear-angle sound and the wider pickup pattern of the cardioid microphone in comparison?
Notice the greater rejection of rear-angle sound and the wider pickup pattern of the cardioid microphone in comparison?

To ensure the best audio recording quality, audio experts often use several different types of microphones and don’t try to force just one main boom mic to do everything. But if you are new to recording sound, my advice is to purchase a shotgun microphone. If you can, leave yourself a little money in your budget to pick up a cardioid, super cardioid or hypercardioid microphone, in addition the shotgun.

The Schoeps CMC-641 is a very popular Cardioid microphone that you have heard numerous times in film and television.
The Schoeps CMC-641 is a very popular Cardioid microphone that you have heard numerous times in film and television.

The rewards of having the correct tool for the job are immense. Any time you face recording in a reverberant interior or miking more than one talent with one boom microphone, you’ll be ready for whatever is thrown at you when you have a cardioid variant mic. You may also find certain voices just sound better with a shotgun or a cardioid variant microphone as well, so it’s helpful to have choices when you record talent.

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