Modern portable audio recorders need only perform two key functions:
1. Capture high quality audio, either via microphone or direct input;
2. Export that audio, preferably digitally, to a computer where the files can be manipulated in a DAW.
If you’re looking for something to either capture found sounds or record takes on the fly, we’ve profiled five options for accomplishing this task. Turn any space into your personal recording studio with these options for the best portable audio recorder.
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1. Rode VideoMic Me Directional Microphone for Smart Phones and iPhonesPros:
- Cheaper than dedicated devices (provided you already have a smartphone)
- No need to learn a new interface if you already know your music production apps
- Works on iOS or Android
- Requires a smartphone
- Mono only
- Not ideal for high sound pressure levels
By adding a higher-quality microphone to your smartphone, you have the option of recording directly into music production apps you’re probably already familiar with. The later options on this list will require you to learn how to navigate the sometimes-byzantine menus of dedicated devices, but this will let you rely on the familiarity you have with your phone. That’s why we will begin with an option that augments a device you likely already own, and always have on you.
This is a mono cardioid microphone that plugs directly into a phone jack (or applicable adapter for later iPhone models). The frequency range is 100Hz to 20kHz, so fairly limited on the low-end, but still good enough for a wide variety of applications. It includes a 3.5mm headphone output jack for monitoring purposes. It’s also small enough to be tossed into a pocket and deployed on the fly.
Rode has a number of similar microphones available in that line, all using relatively similar functionality. They also offer the IXYL, which uses an XY pattern to capture 24-bit stereo recordings and terminates in a Lightning adapter. They also offer the i-XLR, which allows you to plug in any standard microphone and input it via the attached Lightning cable to your iOS device. An alternative would be the Shure MV88, as well.
2. Tascam DP-006 Digital Portastudio Multitrack RecorderPros:
- Six track multitracking, with two channels switchable to stereo
- Stores recordings on SD/SDHC cards up to 32gb and includes USB for direct computer connection
- Built-in stereo condenser mic
- No XLR inputs -- 1/4" inputs only
- Menus are a little fussy and unintuitive
- Only records to 44.1kHz/16-bit quality
This model combines multitracking (up to six tracks per song) with removable media and individual track level controls. This particular device is like the digital, spiritual successor to cassette-based Portastudios of old. In place of the VU meters of old is an LCD metering screen which just about does the job for monitoring peaks.
I have used one of these fairly extensively with another guitarist to simultaneously record our takes, which we then bounced down and dropped into Logic later on. It doesn’t offer the highest-quality recordings available, much like the limitations of the cassette options that came before it, but I can attest to one important thing: it’s just fun. Once you get past the somewhat fussy menus and track assignments, it’s really quite a novel way to get ideas (or even final takes) down. We used it in the same span of days for what would go on to be come finalized guitar tracks as well as field recordings. We didn’t have to change the batteries once in a week of more or less constant recording.
It’s extremely light and easy to throw in a gig bag. Whether you use it as an audio sketchpad, field recorder, or wring an entire bedroom pop album out of it, it’s hard to go wrong with this little device. If you really need those XLR inputs, jump up to the DP-008EX, which adds two of them, as well as two more tracks and line outputs.
3. iZotope SP111 Spire Studio Portable Audio RecorderPros:
- Professional recording capabilities with Grace Design mic preamps and phantom power
- Easy to use with the free Spire Studio app
- Easy Soundcheck feature automatically sets input levels
- Requires iOS device with the Spire Studio app installed
- Many of the key features aren't immediately apparent due to a lack of included user manual
- Charge only lasts four hours
Somewhere between adding a mic to your smartphone and the Tascam above, this device from iZotope borrows from both traditions to create a new way of capturing high-quality recordings on the move. When used with the Spire Studio app, this is essentially a complete recording and production solution. This unit uses a local ad-hoc wifi network from the device itself to connect to your phone and complete setup.
Tracks can be recorded via the internal mic, or using the two XLR/TS inputs on the back which can be optionally phantom powered. You can use up to two input methods at once, either both of the inputs on the back or the second rear input and the mic. There’s a 1/8 inch output on both the back and the front which can be used simultaneously for two people to monitor. Grace Design mic preamps record to 48kHz/24-bit files, which are exportable in the program to both AAC and WAV format. You can then share your tracks via wifi to either your friends or to other programs for further production.
When fully charged, this will allow you to work wirelessly for four hours. The controls are simplified and straightfoward, aimed at capturing high quality recordings without a ton of fuss.
The drawbacks are that you’ll need to transfer or share your recorded files to others or your computer mixing rig either OTA or on a wifi network. There’s no direct digital output, so you’ll be sending potentially large WAVs over wifi, not that this is a huge issue on modern networks. You’ll also have to use an iOS device; sorry, Android users (at the time of this writing — an Android app is planned for the end of 2018). Also, and this is probably minor once you start learning the app, but the device itself ships with no documentation whatsoever. You would never know the capabilities of this device without studying the website and the app.
Still, all that notwithstanding, this is a novel approach and generally results in higher quality recordings with much less setup time than similarly-priced options. As for wifi-enabled alternatives, you could check out this offering from Tascam, as well.
4. Zoom H6 Six-Track Portable RecorderPros:
- High-quality audio capture unit used in a variety of professional settings
- Extremely low noise floor
- 122 dB SPL maximum, which should work for most music applications
- Somewhat expensive
- Better for capturing tracks than true multitrack music production
- Uses AA batteries rather than being rechargeable
Probably nothing on the market these days holds a candle to the all-around usefulness and value of Zoom recorders. Widely used in video production, these handy recorders excel at multitracking and output high quality files, which can then be dropped into any DAW or video production software.
The H6 is a six-track audio recorder, like the Tascam above. Unlike that device, however, there are four XLR/TRS inputs in addition to the microphone input on top that can be swapped out for a number of modules made by Zoom. The included tripod adapter means it can be mounted to a DSLR in the case of a live performance recording or simply to a tripod for ease of placement in the studio. The Zoom mic preamps were recently redesigned to lower the noise floor even further, and while they perhaps aren’t of the same renown as more-famous microphone preamps, they’re still very good.
Audio is recorded to a maximum of 96kHz/24-bit quality, which is stored on an SD card up to 128GB. It can also be used as an interface via USB for PC, Mac, and iOS devices. Each of the inputs has a dedicated level knob, -20dB pad, and phantom power.
5. Sound Devices MixPre-3 Portable Multichannel Audio Recorder/Mixer and USB Audio InterfacePros:
- Super high quality recording rivaling that of studio-based units
- Kashmir discrete, class-A mic preamps with gain up to 96dB and phantom power
- Touchscreen navigation and Bluetooth and USB connectivity
- XLR inputs aren't XLR/TRS combos
- Very limited battery life, estimated 80 minutes using standard alkaline AA batteries
If you want to go all-out on your portable recording solution, you’ll want to look at these relatively new audio recorders from Sound Devices. They’ve been in the audio production game a long time, usually present in television and movies. While these would still be well-suited to that purpose with their timecode and camera inputs, these are also aimed at the music production crowd, as well.
The MixPre-3 can be used as a standalone recording device by recording to an SD card, but can also be used as a typical USB computer interface. When using it as the latter, you can record simultaneously to your computer and to the on-board SD card, so if your DAW crashes, your take remains intact. The Kashmir mic preamps are exceptionally good, with distortion-free gain up to 96dB making them great for low-volume applications or for micing far from the source. Built-in analog input limiters and 32-bit A/D converters ensure very high quality, especially compared to the other options on this list.
The built-in touchscreen allows you to easily navigate the settings, which includes connection via Bluetooth, which allows you to make use of the Musician App (available for an additional fee), which expands your recording capabilities with easy overdubs, punch-ins, reverb and other in-depth music production controls. Files can be output in WAV up to 96kHz/24-bit resolution.
This is, indeed, a very powerful portable recorder, and the price reflects that. On this particular model, you get three XLR inputs, but these don’t double as TRS inputs for line level instruments. For that, you have to jump up to at least the MixPre-6, which is more expensive. You can upgrade again beyond that to the Mix-Pre 10, which is an even bigger step up in terms of base price and features. All of these make serious demands on the batteries you use, with maximum performance topping out around 450 minutes using AA lithium batteries. If you can live with chewing through batteries, these units could be the ticket for those of you who haven’t been happy with the performance from the other options on this list.
Naturally, there are alternatives available in this general ballpark. The Tascam DR-70D is quite a lot less expensive and has more inupts that are more flexible, but isn’t quite as high-end. The Zoom F4 is somewhere in between and offers a host of storage and input options.
Recording sounds of all kinds has always required the use of various styles of devices. From massive consoles to a wide variety of tape-based entries, the basic formula is a sound source captured by an input or microphone and stored on some sort of media. With that accomplished, you can take your recorded sound and manipulate it in any number of ways.
For aficionados of a certain age, recording any source of sound in a portable way led to a great and enduring fondness for the Tascam Portastudio, a cassette-based four (or more) track recorder that enabled a great many sessions. Even Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska was recorded on something like it. In the late 90s and early 2000s, this gave way to a hard drive-based version, which they still make.
Field recordings were often made on the smaller, typically single-track cassette recorders that were originally meant for dictation. Around the same time the digital Portastudio hit its stride, Sony's Minidisc players enjoyed a run of popularity for this purpose. In a lot of circles, they still do.
For the most part, the price of software DAWs has declined to the point that most everyone with even a passing interest in recording is probably using these, rather than the production capabilities of their multitracking device, for final production. Between Reaper and Logic, most folks can afford a decent, professional DAW. Even if you do some amount of mixing beforehand, post-production work is just easier on a DAW.