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Modern handheld digital recorders are remarkably powerful and versatile devices. The best portable recorders for musicians and producers even have advanced editing and playback features that make them just as useful in the studio as on the road. So in this guide we’ll take a look at a few options to choose from.
The top portable recorders are the Zoom H6, which one of the most advanced handheld digital recorders on the market; the Tascam DR-40, which allows you to record four tracks of 24-bit, 96kHz audio; and the Sony PCM-M10 which comes with loads of features that make it suitable for professionals.
How to Choose the Right Portable Recorder
When choosing a portable recorder, you should first figure out what you will use it for.
Most modern digital recorders are versatile enough to handle a wide variety of tasks. The best models could capture delicate acoustic performances just as easily as it could a loud, explosive rock band.
Even so, knowing what you will use your recorder for will let you get the most out of your purchase and avoid paying for features that you will never use.
Here are some characteristics you should look for when shopping for a portable recorder:
Recording quality. At the very least, your recorder should let you capture 24-bit WAV audio at 96kHz. This is called high-resolution audio, and you read more about about it at Wikipedia, however, the perks of recording at high-resolution gives you far more editing and capabilities in your DAW. That said, the recorder should also give you the option to save in smaller MP3 formats without sacrificing audio quality.
Mic options. The ability to use different mic capsules will greatly increase your recorder’s capability and enable you to handle more specialized tasks. Whether you plan on recording hard hitting percs, or the whisper sounds of wind coming through cavity, there are specialized capsules you can find that can be better suited to capturing those precious sounds.
Durability. Your recorder will likely be exposed to pretty harsh and unforgiving environments, so make sure that it is up to the challenge. A strong and durable casing is always preferable, and any protruding features–mic capsules in particular–should be securely attached as well.
Connectivity options. You will probably want to transfer your recordings to a computer for more intensive editing and archiving in your DAW, so consider your connectivity options. USB is the standard for most portable recorders, although some newer devices include Bluetooth connectivity.
Editing features. Onboard editing features are always nice to have. Even if you plan on transferring your recordings to your computer, having a set of basic editing functions onboard could be useful.
Battery life. A good portable recorder should be able to record continuously for several hours without depleting its charge or having the battery run down. The last thing you want is to run out of juice before you have captured that perfect take.
The Best Portable Recorder is…
All ten portable recorders reviewed here are very capable devices packed to the brim with advanced technological features. You can’t go wrong with pretty much any model you choose, and you could expect to get decent quality recordings even on a budget.
That being said, three units stood out in particular due to their advanced features and usefulness for musicians and audio professionals: the Zoom H6, the Tascam DR-40, and the Sony PCM-M10.
The Zoom H6 is a six-track portable recorder that represents the pinnacle of Zoom’s celebrated “H” line. One of the most advanced handheld digital recorders on the market, it utilizes an interchangeable capsule system that lets you use a variety of mic attachments.
The unit comes with two excellent sounding mic capsules, which give you stereo and mid-side recording capabilities. You could also choose from three other aftermarket capsules, which give you more specialized recording options.
Whereas most other recorders only support SD cards of up to 32GB, the Zoom H6 lets you use 128GB cards for longer recording time.
The Tascam DR-40 is an equally capable device, allowing you to record four tracks of 24-bit, 96kHz audio from a variety of sources. The built-in mic pair can be adjusted for A-B and X-Y recording, letting you capture wide stereo images or more focused audio with minimal phasing.
Unlike other recorders that provide only a single combo mic-line input jack, the DR-40 has two full-sized XLR/TRS inputs. These inputs allow you to connect a wide variety of mics and line level devices, greatly expanding the unit’s versatility. Because of this feature, the Tascam DR-40 is more of a serious recording and production tool than most other portable recorders.
The DR-40 is especially capable of handling high sound pressure sources, such as rock bands and the loud crashes of industrial machinery. It even has a peak reduction function, so you never have to worry about clipping the signal even when the volume gets out of hand.
The Sony PCM-M10 should appeal to those looking for high-quality single track recording. It comes with loads of features that make it suitable for broadcast professionals, musicians, and sound engineers, including pitch and key control, digital limiting, a low-cut filter, and track marking.
The PCM-M10 also has a pre-record buffer and an A-B repeat feature, and even lets you do cross-memory recording. It also has a built-in speaker so you could quickly check your recorded audio without having to plug in a pair of headphones.
The Top 10 Portable Recorders for Audio Professionals
Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable Recorder
The recording quality you get with the H6 is absolutely topnotch, even when using the mic capsules you get with the package. The XYH-6 lets you capture stereo X/Y recordings via two large diaphragm mic elements. The MSH-6 combines a forward-facing, unidirectional mic and a side-facing, bi-directional mic for mid-side recordings.
Between these two capsules, the H6 lets you record pretty much anything from field recordings to classical music performances. If you need more specialized mics for recording dialog and loud rock music performances, you could pick up the SGH-6 Shotgun mic capsule, the XYH-5 shock-mounted X/Y mic capsule, and the EXH-6 Dual XLR/TRS Combo capsule.
The H6’s four mic/line inputs are of the XLR/TRS combo variety. Each of these has a volume control, phantom power switch, and a -20dB pad switch. You can record directly into SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards with a maximum capacity of 128GB.
The Zoom H6 has a generously-sized 2” full-color LCD. You could transfer your recordings to your PC, Mac, or iPad over USB with the included cable.
The amount of power available from such a handy device is nothing short of amazing. A tremendously useful live recording tool, it could also serve as a six-channel audio interface when you are in the studio.
Tascam DR-40 4-Track Handheld Digital Audio Recorder
Tascam first made a splash with its multitrack cassette recorders, which helped lay the foundation for affordable home recording. Continuing with digital recorders throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, the company is still a respected name on the recording front. With the DR-40, Tascam proves it is just as capable of producing a high-quality portable recorder.
The DR-40 is a four-track audio recorder that comes with a host of pro-level features. It has a pair of unidirectional mics that can record in A-B and X-Y configurations. This mic placement allows you to capture ultra-wide stereo recordings or narrow it down for clarity and reduced phase differences. What this means is that you can stick the DR-40 in front of pretty much anything and be assured of pristine sound reproduction.
The DR-40 is especially capable of handling high sound pressure. Clipping is a common concern with most portable recorders, but the DR-40 handles even the loudest sound sources without buckling. Whether recording a rock band cranked up to 11 or loud noises, your signal always stays well within usable limits. There is even a dual recording feature, so you always have a safety track to fall back on.
Users of the DR-40 are pretty amazed at the quality and features that are available for this price. The ability to capture four tracks of audio with the built-in mics and additional XLR mics also makes this a serious contender in the portable digital recorder arena. Although the 32 GB card capacity may seem a bit limiting, most users seem to have no trouble working with this “limitation”.
Sony PCM-M10 Portable Linear PCM Voice Recorder
The Sony PCM-M10 packs a wealth of advanced features that make it more an extension of your studio than a portable field recorder. Don’t get us wrong: the PCM-M10 is definitely built to withstand the rigors of the road. But with onboard features that ensure pristine audio quality and ready interfacing with your studio, you will get a lot more studio use out of the PCM-M10 than from your average portable recorder.
Capturing 24-bit, 96 kHz is pretty standard among portable recorders by now, and that is what you get with the PCM-M10. You could also save your audio in MP3 format if you don’t need that level of fidelity or clarity.
The display is an especially impressive feature of the PCM-M10. Large and brightly literature, the amber display provides plenty of visual feedback on the device’s various functions. From here, you could see how loud your input signals are hitting, and how long you have been recording.
The PCM-M10 also has a digital limiter and a low cut filter, preventing peaks and excessive low end from ruining your recordings. And with the ability to adjust audio pitch and key, musicians will find the PCM-M10 useful for transcribing and matching the pitches of multiple sources.
Users of the PCM-M10 find it equally effective for voice and band recordings. Although it captures low volume sounds with clarity and precision, it can also handle band performances at full blast without distortion or clipping. The extremely long battery life also proved to be a major selling point for many users.
Marantz Professional PMD661 MKII Handheld Broadcasting Recorder
Marantz is probably better known for its high-end audio systems than for its recording devices, but the PMD661 MKII should change that. The PMD661 MKII is a popular choice among broadcasters, journalists, film-audio technicians, and even law enforcement personnel. But it has many features that make it ideally suited for studio musicians and live audio professionals as well.
Weighing in at less than three pounds, the PMD661 is as portable as they come. Even with its relatively modest size, it has a large multifunction display that comes in handy for navigating your way through the many features. Some of the most useful of these is a pitch control and a “skip back” feature.
The display also gives you visual access to the DMP Mark Editor software, which significantly adds to the unit’s onboard functionality. The software has some pretty advanced marking capabilities and even allows you to perform simple editing tasks. Although the PMD661 isn’t going to take the place of your studio editing suite, the DMP Mark Editor does make it more versatile than your average portable recorder.
The PMD661 MKII can record uncompressed 24-bit, 96kHz WAV files. You can also record in MP3 format if saving space is a concern. This feature could come in handy considering that the device supports only up to 32GB SD cards.
Unsurprisingly, the PMD661 MKII’s editing features are what appealed to users the most. Although fairly simple, these editing functions let users do certain tasks that would typically require a studio editing suite. The sound quality is also clear and full-bodied, particularly if the user had taken the time to set the levels correctly.
Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder
The H5 is part of Zoom’s highly-regarded line of portable recorders. Like its brethren, the H5 has what it takes to be a serious field recorder and live audio capturing device. And like other Zoom recorders, it has features that could make it an essential add-on to your studio arsenal as well.
The H5 is just over 3 inches thick and weighs less than two pounds. You could easily slip it into your bag or in your pocket, and have a powerful recording device right at your fingertips. The H5 definitely packs a lot of power, capturing up to four tracks of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio in WAV and MP3 formats.
The H5 takes two AA alkaline or NiMH rechargeable batteries. You could expect to get more than 15 hours of use with alkaline batteries.
The H5 has a detachable stereo X/Y capsule, so you can get started recording as soon as you pull it out of the box and pop some batteries in. You could also use any of a range of aftermarket mic capsules for more specific tasks such as recording classical music performance, instruments, dialog, and field sound effects.
Despite its power and capabilities, most users find the H5 remarkably simple to use. The menu wheel with an integrated push button is an especially handy feature, allowing for easy control of the unit with the thumb.
Some users did find that the audio quality fell a little bit short of audiophile standards. For most other users, however, the H5’s quality was more than sufficient for most applications.
Zoom ZH1n Handy Portable Recorder
The Zoom H1n is the most basic of Zoom’s “H” line of portable recorders. Nevertheless, it is still a remarkably useful and capable device that stands tall among its more fully-featured counterparts. If you are looking for a simple and affordable solution for capturing audio on-the-go, you simply won’t do better than the H1 at this price range.
Like the other “H” devices, the H1n records up to 96kHz, 16- or 24-bit audio. You could also record at 44.1kHz or 48kHz, which gives you a good range of resolutions to choose from. If disk space or transfer speeds are more important than fidelity, you could also opt to save your recordings as 48 to 320 kbps MP3s.
The built-in X/Y mic capsule combines two matched unidirectional microphones positioned at a 90° angle. This configuration lets you capture a wide stereo spread while ensuring the clarity of center-positioned sounds. With this setup, the H1n is ideally suited for almost any type of stereo recording session.
If you need even more recording options, you could also connect your external microphones to the H1ns. Alternatively, you could connect other devices–such as a DSLR camera–via the combination mic/line input mini phone jack.
Many users have gotten surprisingly good results by using the H1n as a USB mic. Although it isn’t quite as detailed as a dedicated condenser mic (no surprise there), it manages to do an excellent job of capturing audio for rehearsal and demoing purposes. Far from being just a quick and dirty recording solution, most users find the H1 to be a useful device in and out of the studio.
Tascam DR05 Stereo Portable Digital Recorder
In many ways, the DR05 is Tascam’s counterpart to Zoom’s hugely popular H1. Both products share a similar design and are priced in roughly the same range. But some differences might make the DR05 a more suitable choice for some musicians.
Instead of the H1’s stereo X/Y mic capsule, two omnidirectional mics sit atop the DR05. There is also a mini mic/line input jack, into which you can connect an external mic or a line level device.
All pretty good features so far, but what makes the DR05 such a good choice for musicians–guitarists in particular–are the chromatic tuner and the tempo change function.
Having a chromatic tuner in a portable recorder means one less piece of equipment to lug around. As for the tempo change function, guitarists could use it to slow down a recorded take, either to learn it at a slower speed or to play it in tune with the guitar.
Like all respectable recorders, the DR05 can record 24-bit audio at 96kHz. It also lets you record MP3s, which is handy if you want to keep file sizes low. For keeping plosives and loud sounds in check, there is a peak reduction function that detects peaks and sets the optimal level automatically.
The DR05 does a great job of capturing audio without picking up too much wind noise. Many users find that it actually blocks out noise better than newer Tascam recorders, many of which are just too sensitive.
Yamaha Pocketrak PR7 Pocket Recorder With Overdub Functions
The Yamaha PR7 has a host of features that you would expect to see in a modern portable recorder. Crossed XY stereo mics, a combination mic/line input, a headphone out–pretty standard stuff. But musician-friendly features such as 24-bit, 96kHz recording, built-in HPF, and onboard dynamics control show why Yamaha is one of the world leaders in the audio and music industries.
That’s not all the PR7 is packing. It also has an overdub feature that lets you add as many layers of audio as you want. Although this isn’t quite the same thing as multi-tracking, it is a unique feature that you won’t find in most handheld recorders.
Musicians will especially appreciate the marker editing function, which works during recording and playback. Add to that tuner and metronome feature, and the PR7 is looking more like a serious audio tool than a quick and dirty recorder for capturing field audio.
Navigating the PR7’s various features is simple and straightforward, given the intuitive user interface. You could even choose from five recordings presets, each optimized for a specific application. Whether you are recording a full band, capturing song ideas, or making field recordings, the PR7’s “set and forget” capabilities ensure perfect takes every time.
Some users did find the overdub function to be a bit gimmicky and not really suited for ‘serious’ use. But that feature does give the PR7 a significant edge over other recorders, and many people will likely find a lot of use for it.
Olympus LS-P2 Linear PCM Digital Recorder
Olympus is better known for its cameras than its audio recorders. But the LS-P2 shows that the company has a finger on the pulse of the recording world as well. Although it is remarkably simple to use, it has features that make it a worthy addition to any musician’s toolkit.
The LS-P2 weighs in at just 2.72 ounces, making it one of the lightest portable recorders on the market. It measures only four inches in length, 1.6 inches wide, and just a hair over half-an-inch thick. If portability is what you are looking for in a recorder, you won’t find a better option than the LS-P2.
Even with its minuscule dimensions, you get a lot of features and functionality onboard. The LS-P2 has a three-mic system that combines directional and omnidirectional mics for pristine digital audio captures. The stereo mics are set at a 90° angle relative to each other for wide stereo recording. The center mic captures low-range sounds, allowing you to capture the full audio spectrum of any source.
Even if you record audio at less than optimal volume, the LS-P2 allows you to boost it to a useable level with an onboard normalization function. Once you get your audio to the desired volume, you can then EQ it and edit it extensively, or transfer it to your computer.
The LS-P2 proved to be a surprisingly capable device for many users, due to the excellent sound quality and the good range of editing features onboard. The Bluetooth capability is also a welcome touch, providing users with even more connectivity options.
Roland R-05 Studio WAVE/MP3 Recorder
Roland’s R-05 is a modern classic if there ever was one. A one-inch thick unit weighing just 1.15 pounds, it packs impressive power in a compact and very portable form factor. The features of the unit make it indispensable for hobbyists and pro musicians alike, which is hardly surprising given Roland’s lengthy history in the music and audio industry.
The R-05 captures 24-bit WAV format audio at 96kHz. You could also select different MP3 resolutions for less demanding applications, or when you need to conserve disk space.
Set flush at the top of the unit are two mic capsules, each set at opposite sides. Unlike most other recorders in its price range, these mics are positioned flat against the top of the R-05, instead of at an angle. Even so, the R-05’s mics do an excellent job of capturing wide sound sources, with impressive stereo imaging.
The R-05 also provides dedicated mic and line in jacks, unlike the combo jacks offered by other units. These plugs make it possible to expand the R-05’s recording capabilities with more specialized mics and audio-video devices.
At the back of the unit are three slider switches that help ensure quality recordings. The mic gain can be set to “low” or “high”, and there is a limiter that prevents clipping. The third switch turns on a low cut function, preventing excessive bass from muddying up your recordings.
The automatic functions of the R-05 make it appeal to relatively inexperienced users. Even so, features such as auto song split and pre-record make it an indispensable tool for more advanced users as well.