You often hear film makers say, "Your video is only as good as your audio". Obviously video production goes a long way too but poor audio can completely ruin an otherwise great video. Until recently, DSLR cameras have been anything but great at recording audio. The on board microphones are noisy and prone to record camera noise. Plugging an external microphone into the line-in has also left a lot to be desired. So how should someone just getting started with film making supplement their DSLR video with good usable audio? I've tested 4 different portable audio recorders, The Zoom H4n, Tascam DR-100 mark ii, Olympus LS-10, and the Apple iPhone 4S, to see which unit gives the most bang for the buck.
The Zoom H4n is one of the most popular digital recorders on the market. It was also one of the first to really hit the scene back with the Canon 5D Mark II showed the power of DSLR video. Priced around $300, the Zoom H4N has a lot of features for those wanting to use professional microphones. Two XLR inputs with 1/4" instrument inputs allow for you to record with any sort of microphone or instrument. If you want more ambient sounds, the H4n also comes with a pair of on board microphones that let you capture true stereo in 90 and 120 degree recording patterns. It also features 4 channels of recording which is nice for interviews or recording performances and an audience or crowd. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages I have found using the Zoom H4n:
Dual XLR and 1/4" input jacks - Easy to adapt different mics or audio sources
Clickable Rec Level Input - This button design keeps you from accidentally changing your levels
4 Track Recording - Great for multiple interviews, demoing music, or recording live music
Variable Playback - 50-100%, great for learning guitar riffs but probably not super important for video recording
Included AC Adapter - Great for longer recording sessions and nice included accessory
Ships with 1 GB memory card - A decent amount of space for audio
Large in Size - People might disagree with me but this is too large for me to personally keep in my bag. It might make sense for a musician but not for a photographer
Menu Dial - In order to select options in the menu you have to push a rotating wheel down which is really a pain. It reminds me of the poorly designed Nikon D4 cross pad, augh
No separate headphone/line out for monitoring audio - You can monitor audio but it would be nice to feed a second signal into your DSLR camera as well
Based on the original DR-100, Tascam's Mark II model offers a lot of great features for both entry level and advanced level film makers. Like the Zoom unit, the DR-100 also has a set of "UNI" condenser mics on the front of the unit as well as two tiny pinhole "OMNI" microphones that pick up less directional sounds. The Tascam DR-100 also has XLR inputs but does lack the 1/4" inputs found on the Zoom. The DR-100 uses both AA batteries as well as an included rechargable battery but does not ship with an AC power adapter. One of the best features the Tascam has that the other units in this review do not have is the DR-100 features a lot of physical buttons in place of menu settings. Making quick changes on the fly is fast, and important settings are easily visible because they have a dedicate button or switch. Just below $300, the Tascam DR-100 Mark II might be the best option for the film maker on the go who needs a lot of control over his audio.
Navigation Menus - The ipad like scroll wheel and easy to read LCD make navigating through the menu a breeze
External Buttons - Every major feature has a hard button for adjusting settings quickly
Both Line/Headphone Outs - You can easily monitor audio through headphones while also sending a line signal into your DSLR's microphone jack for easier syncing.
Two Batteries - If your rechargable lithium battery dies, the DR-100 runs off of AA batteries too
HUGE in size - Like the Zoom H4n, the DR-100 is no pocket sized recorder. You also don't want to have to mount this to the top of your DSLR and hand hold it.
No 1/4" inputs - While not a deal breaker, the Tascam does not support the multi purpose XLR/Instrument jacks.
Input Level Wheel - The input level wheel on the right hand side is easy to rotate which means it's easy to bump and change your signal level. How about a lock button?
No Internal Storage - Just like the Zoom, if you forget your SD card you are out of luck!
While the Olympus LS-10 has recently been replaced by the LS-20m (which records video), we thought we'd include it because it has been our own goto audio recorder for the last 2 years. Because of it's small size and easy to use setup, we actually picked the Olympus LS-10 over the Zoom H4N when we tried them at the BH Super Store in NYC. Like the two previous units, the Olympus also has two directional microphones and the ability to record microphones with mini 1/8" connectors. While it cannot accept or run phantom powered studio microphones, it is by far the smallest of the three professional recorders which is worth its weight in gold. The menu is pretty straight forward and easy to navigate, and the Olympus also has 2GB of internal memory which has saved us more times than we'd ever like to admit. There is only one "Ear" output so like the Zoom you cannot monitor and record it to your DSLR without rigging up a splitter cord for dslrs which can be a liability (not monitoring audio will always bite you in the rear). Because the Olympus LS-10 does not have to power all the extra features found on the larger units, the two AA batteries seem to last hours and hours.
Small in size - For photographers getting started in video, this is great because it is easy to mount on a hotshoe and light enough to still pull off steady handheld shots.
Internal Memory - The 2GB internal storage means you could use that extra memory card for more HD video.
Easy Menu Navigation - Probably a slightly biased opinion, but the Olympus seems to have the easiest menu to navigate of any of the recorders.
Features - You still get a lot of the "pro" features such as low cut, Limiter, line/mic inputs, and even reverb effects
Limited Input Options - If you want to use XLR mics or phantom power then this unit is not for you. For smaller Lav microphones it's as good as the others.
No Line Out - You can monitor audio through the headphone jack but you can't also output the signal into your DSLR at the same time.
Input Level Wheel - While not as bad as the Tascam, the Olympus input level wheel is pretty easy to bump and alter your signal.
Apple iPhone (or other similar device)
I know most audiophiles would probably cringe at recording audio with anything other than a professional digital recorder, but in all reality the Apple iPhone actually does a really great job with audio. A while back, Lee and I filmed a video on how to use an iPhone to record audio, and we have used the iPhone several times on our own Fstoppers Originals. I was even shocked to see that our friend Peter Hurley plugs his Sennheiser G3 Wireless Mic directly into his iPhone for really good audio for his in studio videos. The point is, don't overlook any recorder you already own. And who knows, you might find that the audio from your iphone is high enough in quality to suffice for your first DSLR videos. Anything is better than no audio, poor audio, or horrible audio recorded off your DSLR's on board microphone.
Small Size - You can fit these anywhere and easily hide them in a shirt pocket
Built in Memory - Nevermind 1-4 GB cards, on an iphone you really have unlimited storage
Easily Accessible - Most photographers carry a smart phone but if you don't have one someone around you probably will
1/8" Input Only - If you need to plug an external mic up, it must have a 1/8" cord and be self powering
Syncing - Because Apple doesn't let you drag and drop, you will have to sync your phone to software to remove the audio (can be a pain)
No Monitoring - There is really no way to monitor what you are recording which is often an accident waiting to happen
Phone Calls - Yeah, just like using your iphone as a professional camera, you can easily get interrupted.
Audio Tests - So Which Digital Audio Recorder Sounds The Best?
We've been using the iPhone and Olympus recorders now for years. We know them pretty well and the sound quality they are capable of producing. We've also used the Zoom H4N off and on since it came out. The results we have found below aren't scientific by any means, after all we are photographers recording video with DSLRS and not sound engineers, but it should give you a basic idea of what you might find out on the field.
With most of our videos we use the Sennheiser G3 Wireless Lav Microphones for our interviews. These are pretty much the industry standard for run and gun type projects and are highly recommended and praised by most who own them (hint, buy the older G2 units used for major savings). Since adding transmitters and receivers to the recording path could easily skew our results, we decided to only test the onboard condenser microphones. We have gotten great results with external mics on the two lowest end models (iPhone and Olympus LS-10) so we assume the Zoom and Tascam can produce similar results as well if not better. But which recorder sounds the best if we are forced to only use the microphones built directly in the units themselves?
We set up the iPhone, Tascam, Olympus and Zoom all in a row about 3 feet away from our interviewee. Except for the iPhone, all three recorders' microphones were set to have the most narrow range so we could eliminate as much ambient noise and reverb in our studio. All air conditioners and fans were turned off and no noticeable white noise was found when we recorded silence. We then set each unit (except the iphone) to record the max input level just before peaking while the person we interviewed talked at a normal speaking volume. It's not the most scientific method but by removing as many variables as we could we feel like it represents a common run and gun setup any DSLR videographer might find themselves in with just a recorder an no extra mics.
The iPhone - The Apple iPhone did pretty well but definitely had the most ambient noise and reverb of any of the recorders. This was to be expected because the iPhone mic is not much of a condenser mic at all and records pretty much anything in front of it including sources on the far edge of 120 degrees. The noise floor was still pretty good though, and as we've shown on Fstoppers in the past, if you place the iPhone close enough to your subject, maybe within 12 inches, you can get very good clean audio with little room dynamics or ambient noise. For anyone interested, we used the iTalk Software to record and download files off the phone.
Olympus LS-10 - We have used the Olympus recorder now for about 2 years. We have only used the onboard microphones a few times; up until this point we have had nothing to really compare them to for an accurate test. After listening to our test files, the Olympus microphone really struggles compared to the Tascam and Zoom (I will exclude the iphone from here on out). The Olympus had the least bass of any of the recorders and had more room reverb than any other recorder. I'm not exactly sure how the microphones on the Olympus work but to narrow the amount of mic coverage, you have to change a setting in the menu. Perhaps the mic's field of view is controlled by software instead of actual mic position. The Olympus audio files were pretty nice on the high frequencies though and would easily cut through any soundtrack placed below it. For the purpose of this review, I would give the Olympus an average grade of B+ on overall sound quality from the on board microphone.
Zoom H4N - After listening to the iPhone and Olympus audio files, we were extremely impressed by the added bass heard on the Zoom files. The Zoom showed almost no ambient reverb from our studio and that full, bottom heavy sound we have all come to associate with high quality voice recordings was present. The high end wasn't as cutting or sharp as the Olympus, but that might be a good thing especially if you are interested in keeping the entire spectrum from clipping. You can always brighten the final mix in post if you had to but I think the Zoom would still cut well over any audio or soundtrack. Overall I would give the Zoom H4N a solid A based on these results.
Tascam DR-100 MKII - Comparing the Tascam to the Zoom recorder is pretty tough. Overall the Tascam audio files had less bass than the Zoom but did have just a slight more presence on the high end. The OMNI mics do pick up just the slightest bit more ambient reverb compared to the Zoom but I don't think you would notice it unless you were listening to the files size by side with no underlying soundtrack. Even though we did our best to max the recording levels as much as possible, the Tascam seems to have a little less "umph" in the overall volume. Maybe the unit's clip indicator is a little more conservative than the other units. When normalized to the same relative volume, the Tascam still had the least ambient noise (but slightly higher room reverb) and probably sounded better than any of the other recorders as a whole. Where the Zoom had a little more bass, the Tascam had just a little more clarity in the higher frequencies. Overall, the Tascam probably sounded the best, even if only marginally, and I would rate the recording performance an A.
I am no sound engineer. The two sound systems we used to compare the files were not studio quality systems, and the two headphones we used to recheck our findings were not going to impress any audiophile out there (although both systems and headphones used are very nice). But that's okay, we wanted to review these units as a whole from the perspective of an amatuer or advanced DSLR film maker in need of recording interviews or general audio. We all know audio is extremely important in film making and really any of these units could be used to make compelling documentaries or behind the scenes videos like we often feature on Fstoppers. From an audio perspective, the Tascam DR-100 MK II might have won overall but the biggest factors in choosing one of these units is probably going to be the form factors, size, and overall ease of use. Even knowing the Tascam records the cleanest audio, I still would prefer the smaller Olympus LS-10 because it's small enough to fit in my pants pocket and not going to take up valuable space in my camera bag. If you are in a bind, even an iPhone can record acceptable audio if you take the time to isolate your subject from noisy environments. At the end of the day, a $300 audio recorder is cheap enough to warrant owning one especially if you are looking to create short movies or youtube videos with your DSLR camera.
If you have any experience with any of these units, or other units we have not yet tested, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.