If you’re a DSLR shooter, you know that having an independent audio recorder can be a must for getting quality sound. There are a lot of affordable flash recorders that can deliver great audio, but only a few of them have features like XLR inputs and multi-channel recording. Three models stand out: the Zoom H4n, the Tascam DR-100mkII, and more recently, the Tascam DR-40. How do they stack up in terms of features filmmakers want, and which one delivers the sound you need? I aim to delve into these questions and more, so read on!
I approached this comparison from the perspective of my own shooting needs and recording practices. I tend to record through external mics, primarily my shotgun mic (a Sennheiser K6/ME66), either on-camera (less than ideal) or on a boom pole (more ideal) -- rarely do I use the internal mics, so those really aren’t a focus of this comparison (although I do have some words about them). I've owned and used a Zoom H4n for the past few years, and it has served me well. I have no qualms about pointing out its limitations, nor its strengths.
It should also go without saying that these are budget options. If you’re a DSLR shooter, you know there are more expensive dedicated video cameras out there -- similarly there are more expensive film audio options. In many ways we're making do, but that doesn't mean you can't get solid footage or solid audio out of these tools. Just don't expect the kind of sound you would get out of a $1000+ Sound Devices mixer to come out of a $300 audio recorder. Lucky for us, a decent mic along with proper recording technique and dialogue-audio friendly locations will do a lot more for our sound than a massively expensive mixer or microphone.
With that out of the way...
Features are as valuable as their practical use to you -- will that extra ⅛ inch TRS output jack matter to you if you hardly ever use it? Everyone has their own shooting needs, and you'll know which features are musts and which ones are optional. All three units can provide +48V of phantom power, they all record up to 96kHz/24bit WAV files, all three record to SD/SDHC memory cards, and all three have 1/4"-20 mounting threads for easy attachment to your rig. Here are some of the major differences I found.
Inputs: Which unit has what?
|Audio Recorder||Dual XLR Inputs||¼ inch TRS input||⅛ inch TRS input|
|Zoom H4n||Yes||Yes (combo XLR-1/4 inch TRS jacks)||Yes|
|Tascam DR-40||Yes||Yes (combo XLR-1/4 inch TRS jacks)||No|
Since I usually use the XLR inputs for my mics, all three recorders were pretty similar to me. Other folks may find the DR-40’s lack of an ⅛ inch TRS input jack a letdown, or the DR-100mkII’s lack of a ¼ inch TRS jack a deal breaker (folks who do live events and want to connect their recorder into a mixer board may need to consider the inputs closely). The H4n has the edge here in that it features all three kinds.
One sidenote: both Tascam units have nice clip-in style XLR inputs, which keeps the cables locked in during use and makes them easy to unplug once you're done. The H4n is friction based, so it’s a bit more of a pain connecting and disconnecting the XLR cables. Minor detail, but I must say I really appreciated the clips while repeatedly plugging in and unplugging my mic’s XLR cable amongst the different units.
Buttons/Controls Lay-out: Do you prefer more button based controls, or do you not mind doing some menu digging? I’d say once you’ve skimmed through the manual for any of these units you can find the majority of the basic features within a half hour of opening the box. The DR-100mkII is a larger unit, so it has more real estate to play with, and thus favors a more button-heavy control system (i.e you can have a button on the back dedicated to phantom power and one that lets you switch the auto-limiter on). The H4n and the DR-40 are more menu based, with the H4n favoring side buttons, and the DR-40 going for front-heavy design. For me, I found I had no trouble figuring out what I had to do in any unit, and although menu digging can be a pain at times, once you find the features you need, you get used to it.
For me, the biggest difference was in the input level control. Both the H4n and the DR-40 go for side buttons, but the DR-100mkII gives you a nice big wheel you can freely rotate. I found this to be a really nice feature, and I could see it being particularly useful when riding levels during recording, you can adjust things as slowly or quickly as you need to, and can ease into a new level as smoothly as you want.
Multi-channel recording: Will you be able to record from both a boom mounted shotgun mic and a lavalier at the same time? Can you use the internal mics as a back-up while simultaneously recording through an external mic? Both the H4n and the DR-40 allow for 4-channel recording to two stereo tracks -- so if you want to run the internal mics while recording from an external shotgun mic along with input from a DJ mixer board, you can do that. You'll end up with two stereo tracks (one of the internal mics, and another with the shotgun mic on one channel and the mixer board on the other). The DR-100mkII does not. It only offers 2-channel recording -- so if you want to record from a shotgun mic and a lavalier, you can do that, but you can't also record from the internal mics (and vice versa).
It was certainly surprising to learn the DR-100mkII didn't offer 4-channel recording, while it's little brother, the DR-40, did. In general I tend to only use two channels, but I can certainly see situations where 4 channels might be vital (event videography comes to mind, where you might have lavaliers on an interviewee, a feed coming in from the DJ booth, and the internal mics picking up general ambience). Again, it's something to keep in mind when selecting amongst these units.
Form factor/build: Both the DR-40 and the H4n are pretty similar sizes (in fact, almost the same), while the DR-100mkII is about 5% wider and longer. They are all similar weights, with perhaps the H4n being slightly heavier than the other two. I wouldn't drop any of these units, but if a metal build reassures you vs. plastic, then the DR-100mkII might stand out in this respect, since the other two are plastic. Some folks have complained about the fragility of the on-board mics on the H4n (i.e bumping the recorder and snapping off one of the heads), as they are pretty much exposed. The DR-40 features little metal guards on the sides of the mics, while the DR-100mkII has the mics a tad recessed and surrounded by guard rails.
Internal/On-board Mics: Like I mentioned earlier, I didn't really focus too much on these, but there are a couple of things worth mentioning. Both the H4n and the DR-40 have mics that can swivel between recording angles (90-120 degrees), while the DR-100mkII doesn't. The H4n and DR-40's internal mics are also angled at 90 degrees from each other so you get a nice stereo sound. The DR-100mkII's big internal mics are unidirectional, but it does have an additional omni-directional mic built in. I didn't really test the sound quality on it, but it's basically a pair of pinholes (you can see them in the above image, they're on either side of the Tascam logo).
So, if you need the option of a wider stereo soundspace while using the internal mics, you'll want to have the H4n or DR-40 since they have mics better positioned, and with the ability to swivel (the DR-40's mics actually swivel at the base, while the H4n's mics rotate for the different pickup pattern).
Other: Each recorder has a couple of features that are neat in their own. (For example, the DR-40 offers dual recording at different gain levels, so if there's a sudden loud sound that clips your higher set recording, it will automatically jump to the lower gain recording). But, the feature that stuck out the most to me? While all three units can take AA batteries, the DR-100mkII also has a rechargeable battery. This means you can be powering the unit from the rechargeable battery, and when that drains, the AA batteries will kick in. That's pretty neat if you're trying to record something where you don't have many breaks to be switching out batteries.
Here we arrive at the most important feature -- the audio. Is there a significant difference in preamp noise from one unit to the next? How well is the human voice rendered? A lot of these things are equally determined by the microphone used, and the positioning of said microphone relative to the speaker (along with the acoustics of the space). (Note: super-cardioid shotgun mics aren't the best tool for indoor dialogue - they pick up a lot of echo - but it was what I had on hand.) I tried to keep things as consistent as possible -- keeping the microphone in the same position relative to the subject (above and in front about a foot and a half), and boosting input levels so that the signal was between -9 and -6 dBsFS, both indoors and outdoors. I figure it makes more sense to simply listen to the audio first, and then find out which recorders the sounds came from afterwards. (I should say, any difference in voice pitch and speed is due more to me than the recorder. I tried to stay as consistent as possible, but you do what you can.)
Done listening? Ok. So in each clip, the first recorder is the DR-40, the second recorder is the H4n, the third is the DR-100mkII.
Over the course of many tests I thought the DR-40 and H4n were very similar in the kind of sounds they picked up, with perhaps the DR-40 having slightly (as in ever so slightly) more white noise. The DR-100mkII seemed to have a slightly cleaner sound than the other two, but tended to not pick up lower frequency sounds quite as strongly.
The biggest difference between the three units was how high I had to set the input level to achieve similar recording levels. I consistently had to set the H4n higher than either of the other two recorders. In the outside test, at the same mic distance, the H4n's input level/record level was set at 83 (of 100), while the the DR-40 was at 70 (of 100), and the DR-100mkII was at a cool 4 (out of 10 scale). In the indoor test, I had to pretty much max out the H4n's input level, while the DR-40 was still in the 90 range, and the DR-100mkII was at a 5.
What this means is that if you are trying to record as loud a signal as possible indoors, the only recourse you may have on the H4n is either boosting the recording in post (which can introduce noise floor issues), or moving the mic closer while recording (which may not always be feasible). If the extra bit of gain the DR-40 offers makes up for half a foot's worth of distance, that can be a big deal. Of course, the DR-100mkII has the greatest headroom here, considering I only had to go halfway up the dial. This is due, in part, to a built in mic gain the unit has (you can switch it between Low for loud sounds, Medium for medium sounds, and High for soft sounds, which is what I was on). (A side note: I tried using the Medium setting just to see what happened, and it was useless for dialogue, these recorders are designed for live music and such, so no surprise there.)
I should make a brief note on the internal mics here: I did some recording on them, and I found them largely pretty similar. The biggest and most annoying difference? On the DR-40, when you change the gain while recording, you hear a "thup-thup-thup" sound. This is an issue others have noted, calling it the "helicopter" sound. I did NOT hear this while changing levels using an external mic, it was only when using the internal mic. Again, since I don't really use the internal mics, not a big deal to me. But for those of you who do, this may be a big issue, especially if you like to ride the levels while recording. On the other hand, if you're the kind of shooter who sets their levels, and records as is (which with the dual recording feature previously mentioned is perhaps more feasible), then this may not be an issue.
So which one did I like the most? If I had to pick one based on sound quality, it would be the DR-100mkII, but by the slightest of margins. I think having that extra possible gain would be invaluable when recording, and by not having to be boosted as high to pick up normal conversation there is less noise introduced. This might not be noticeable in most situations, but considering there are moments when I might have to be three or four feet from the talent (i.e when I have to keep the mic on-camera), having the option of boosting the level is pretty attractive.
The job determines the tool. I've tried to highlight many of the key differences that struck me based on the way I shoot and the kinds of projects I shoot. I think the H4n is the most flexible of the three recorders - you consistently have most of the features (i.e variety of inputs, 4 channel recording); even if you have to boost the signal all the way up for quiet situations. The DR-100mkII felt like the most purpose built unit for my kind of shooting -- you get nice clean sound, you get a strong signal without having to boost levels much, and you have very accessible controls; however, it doesn't feature 4-channel recording or some of the inputs the others have. The DR-40 has the wow factor in that it packs so many of the features of its more expensive peers, while delivering on great sound; even if it's more menu based, and is a tad noisier than the other two in some situations.
For my own needs, I would pick the DR-100mkII. I liked the sound coming out of it, and really dug the input level knob. I don't really use 4-channel recording, nor do I use 1/4 inch TRS inputs, so those disadvantages don't matter to me. I also like the rechargeable battery + AA battery set up, along with the clip-in locks on the XLR inputs. All around it meets my needs, and over the days in which I used it I found it to be a very comfortable tool to use.
If I were deciding between the H4n and the DR-40 (perhaps because 4-channel recording was a must for me), I would probably go with the DR-40 based on price. At $100 less, it really does pack a punch, offering almost indistinguishable sound and many of the features the H4n has. Just be wary if you depend on those internal mics -- there is that weird helicoptering sound that happens when you change the input level while recording.
Having said that, I own a H4n and I'm pretty comfortable using that tool as well. Its price is justifiable to anyone who needs all the features it offers, since neither of the other two recorders quite match it in that respect.
I hope this comparison offers a jumping off point for your own research -- the best policy when deciding what works best for you is to rent or borrow one and try it out. You may find you like the sound that comes out of a Zoom H4n in conjunction with your mics better than the Tascam DR-100mkII, or you might like the form factor of the DR-40. So get out there and get recording!