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Recording Speech With a Portable Recorder

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Portable recording devices—sometimes called field recorders—have enjoyed something of a boom in production in recent years, with many manufacturers trying to outdo each other to produce the most feature-laden products at a competitive price. 

The reason that you’d want to own one depends on what you plan to do with it, but anyone planning to record a concert, an interview, a song demo, a lecture or meeting, or some ambience or suitable background noise for a short film clip should definitely consider owning one. 

Modern recording devices are so lightweight and pocket-sized portable that you can easily go to the sound source; it doesn’t have to come to you.

Must-Have Features

Nearly all field recorders are battery-powered, carry their own built-in microphones, and can record in stereo at a variety of sample rates. These days they typically store data on CompactFlash, SD, or microSD cards, which can take anywhere from 2GB to upwards of 16GB or 32GB, so there’s usually plenty of storage room in case you need to run one for hours at a time to record that unmissable live event. 

For uncompressed CD quality wavs, you can store as much as six hours of audio on a 4GB card, but if you choose to record at mp3 quality, this can extend to over 60 hours! Here’s a picture of one of the most popular field recorders currently around, the Zoom H4n:

Zoom H4n
Zoom H4n

The Zoom built-in microphones can be set to a 90-degree or 120-degree angle for optimal stereo recording. At the side there is a headphone input, as well as record volume and volume control so that you can monitor what is being recorded. Level meters give balance and saturation information, and the transport controls are simplicity itself. 

You can play back recordings through headphones or through a built-in mono speaker, though the latter is quite poor quality but good enough for a general overview. Files are stored with file numbers or by date. They can be renamed, but it is a bit fiddly to do, and they can be transferred to a computer or laptop later by means of a USB cable. 

When you connect the handheld recorder to a computer, it simply becomes an additional external hard drive, so files can be copied, renamed, and edited on suitable audio editing software very easily. 

The Zoom H4n can in fact do several other things as well; it can record as a four-track portable recorder and even act as an audio interface. I haven’t used the four-track capability myself, but it essentially means you could plug in some line level instruments (like a keyboard) and record vocals through the built-in microphones simultaneously, but to separate tracks for mixing later.

Internal vs External Microphones

When I bought my first field recorder some years ago—an M‑Audio Microtrack—my main concern was the microphone quality. The T-shaped microphone that was supplied with the recorder seemed to be of only moderate quality. For me, the only answer seemed to be to carry a pair of decent condenser microphones and run these into the recorder via its own XLR inputs. 

There remained the question of phantom power, that I solved that by buying first a pair of AKG C1000s, and then later a pair of Rode NT3s; both these microphone models can run on PP9 batteries stored in the barrel of the microphone. The results were fine at the time, but there were significant concerns I remember; notably that you had to charge up the recorder before use, with no real indication of how long it would last before needing to be recharged.

Later, I bought a Zoom H4n. My reason for this choice initially was its ability to take external microphones through its own XLR inputs. Soon after beginning to use it, I began to question whether it was actually necessary to carry additional microphones on location. 

The built-in microphones proved to be of excellent quality and I have been very comfortable using them both for speech, ambience and song demo recording. Here are a couple of things I have noticed, however:

  1. For interviews or recording ambience outdoors, it is likely that you will have to use the wind shield supplied with the unit, which is a soft foam cap that fits over both microphones. It does seem that the microphones pick up wind noise quite readily, so I found myself using the foam shield as a matter of course.

  2. For song demos, high treble and speech sibilants come across with a great deal of clarity, which is highly encouraging, but I did find myself wondering if the recordings I made could use a little more warmth or body in the region of between 400Hz and 1000Hz. It proved easy to solve, however: after transferring the files to my laptop, I mastered them with a little tube compression using a plug-in that comes supplied with WaveLab 8.0. Initially I had thought a little equalization might be necessary as well, but in fact I was well satisfied with the results just using the tube compressor; the tracks sounded significantly fuller and well balanced without losing that treble clarity. I always feel there’s no point in adding extra layers of processing if they are not strictly needed.

Speech Recording and Interview Technique

Speech recording is fairly straightforward to achieve with a field recorder, but interviewing does require a little forethought and practice. 

For both speech and interviews, the location is important. If you record indoors, the room itself will have an impact on your recording because the microphones will pick up sound reflected back off the walls. Consider how acoustically dry the chosen location is? Consider extraneous noise from the surrounding area, and whether it will become a problem. If you are outdoors, room reverb isn’t an issue but there’s almost bound to be background ambience of one kind or another... birds, town or city ambient noise. 

Background noise is fine and all part of the on-location recording experience, provided it is fairly low level and steady in volume, in which case it tends not to be much of a distraction. But wind noise is a nuisance, as has been mentioned already. Use the windshield.

Here’s an excerpt from a practice interview I organised while conducting a recording training course in Africa recently. The location was outside and no wind shield was used, so you’ll be able to hear wind interference quite soon after the beginning—it becomes very apparent around 30 seconds in. Note also that the interviewer doesn’t sound very engaged or encouraging—something else that ideally should be avoided.

It might be helpful to practice your interview technique a couple of times before attempting the real thing. As there are stereo microphones, you can obviously hold the recorder sideways with one microphone pointing towards your interviewee and the other back at yourself. 

At first I found it a bit tempting to move the microphones backwards and forwards as each person speaks, but this isn’t a great idea as there will certainly be awkward level changes that will take some editing to iron out later, especially if there’s a high degree of interaction during the interview. 

The best approach seems to be to try to hold the recorder very steady throughout the interview, either at an equidistant point from each person or slightly nearer the one with the quieter voice, if you can establish who that is ahead of time. 

The resulting recording may still be a little louder on one channel, but provided the levels remain reasonably constant throughout it’s a fairly straightforward process to peak master the left and right channels separately so that the end result sounds reasonably balanced. 

Here’s an excerpt of an interview I conducted with a young singer in Africa; this mp3 has been slightly edited and balanced a little better at the mastering stage as I didn’t quite get the levels right first time:

Top Five Comparison

If you’ve yet to buy a portable recorder, you might find the chart at the bottom of this article useful. All of them provide USB connectivity and record to a high uncompressed wav spec, but only some have a four-track capability as well as stereo. 

Note that only two of them provide for external microphone inputs, and only the Zoom with XLR inputs and phantom power; vital if you plan to use condenser microphones which don't use PP9 batteries. Most current models also ship with additional recording software, some with Cubase LE, which can be useful.

I did think originally about buying the Tascam DR-100, but in the end the competitive price, good reviews, and connectivity of the Zoom H4n won me over. Happy recording.

ModelEdirol R-09HRZoom H4nTascam DR-100Sony PCM-D50Olympus LS-11






Recording channels24422
Multiple pickup patternsNoYes, 90/120/360
X-Y / Wide StereoNo
Best WAV recording formats24bit, 96KHz24bit, 96KHz
24bit, 96KHz
24bit, 96KHz
24bit, 96KHz
Best MP3 recording formats
320kbps, 48KHz MP3320kbps, 48KHz MP3
320kbps,  MP3
none
320kbps,  MP3
Mic setup, coincident pair, etcside by sidecoincident pair, X/Yside by side
coincident pair, X/Y
side by side
Internal speakerYesYes
Yes

Yes
External inputsMic / LineMic / Line / XLR x2 / Phono x 2
1/8th inch Mic / Line1/8th inch Mic / Line
2x 3.5mm Mic / Line
Phantom power for external micNoYesNo
No
No
USB connectivityYes, cable provided
Yes, cable provided
Yes
Yes
Yes
Integrated tuner / metronomeNotuner / metronome
YesNoNo
Software includedCakewalk pyro, Audio Creator LECubase LECubase AI5Cubase LE4Cubase LE4
Memory / type512MB SD Card1 GB SD Card
2 GB SD Card
8GB internal8GB internal
Max memory
32GB SDHC32GB SDHC
Memory Stick Pro32GB SDHC
WindshieldNoYesYes
Yes

Batteries2x AA2x AA1x AAA2x AA2x AA
External powerIncludedIncluded
Included
Included
Included
Plug and PlayYesYes

Yes
Yes
LCD BacklightYes (OLED)
Yes

Yes
Yes
Variable Pitch ControlNoYes

Yes
No
Variable Speed PlaybackYes
Yes

Yes
No







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