Best Portable Audio Recorders

Need a robust sound recorder and mixer? Here are some of the best available options to consider. 

Recording quality sound is one of the fastest ways to improve your production. Frequently under-appreciated, getting good clean audio on set is a make-or-break proposition when creating compelling content. While you can just run audio into your camera, you're going to be much better off recording through a dedicated system for sound. At the heart of that setup is an audio recorder and mixer. 

Several leading brands offer audio recorders at a range of price points. If you're looking to get into filmmaking as a production sound mixer, Cantar, Sound Devices, Tascam, Zaxcom, and Zoom offer some of the most reliable and feature-heavy options in the market today. 

When looking for an audio recorder you first want to think about the number of inputs you'll need. Four should be the bare minimum, and six is better. Some productions go even higher where they record more than a dozen tracks on set every day. 

Ideally, you want an audio recorder with reliable preamps that offer a low noise floor. XLR inputs are a must. But you'll also see TA3 and 3.5mm inputs as options as well. Most recorders today can also mix. 

This allows you to monitor and adjust the signal in real-time while creating a mix-track so editorial can quickly cut the footage for dailies or do quick assemblies. You also want to consider a unit that is compact and offers multiple ways to power it besides traditional alkaline batteries, especially for long shoot days. External controls, an easy-to-use interface, and phantom power are all fairly standard these days. Choosing the right one will boil down to the type of productions you do most. 

Here are the best audio recorder-mixers to get thinking about capturing better sound. 


Best Overall: Sound Devices MixPre II Series 

The best choice for the majority of filmmakers is the Sound Devices MixPre II series, the second generation of the popular MixPre lineup, which is available in a number of inputs: 3, 6, or 10. The MixPre-6 II is the standout as it combines cutting-edge features with an affordable price and compact package to make it a versatile recording/mixer for most filmmakers. 

The marquee feature of the MixPre units has always been the Kashmir microphone preamps. Microphone signals are relatively weak, and you need to amplify them before you record a quality signal.  Hence "preamp" as in "before recording amplification." The quality of the preamp is everything. The biggest reason to stop recording audio straight into the camera and start using an external recorder is getting access to good quality dedicated preamps. The Kashmir units are beloved by many users for their high quality and great sound. 

All of the MixPre-II units have a set number of inputs, but a larger number of tracks can be combined as a mix track or used as separate ISOs. The MixPre-6 II has four full XLR inputs along with two mini inputs, which are especially useful when patched directly to a wireless receiver. If you have two boom mics and two lavs coming into the unit that can record as clean signals, you can do a real-time mix that is laid down to two other tracks in the same wav file. All of the tracks can be labeled, either on the unit itself or the Sound Devices free Wingman app. We recommend using the app for interface since it can be easier to label and organize the media than the on-board menu which is small but legible. 

The standout feature that makes the MixPre-II series better than the first generation is the 32-bit float recording. Traditional audio recorders used 16-bit or 24-bit recording formats which allowed for a very wide dynamic range of sounds to be captured with good fidelity. 32-bit float isn't just more bits, it's also a different type of bit, a floating boat bit.

We have longer explainers on the site, but the simple way to think about 32-bit float recording is that it has a very high dynamic range that allows you to not be perfect when it comes to setting levels. 32-bit float gives you a ton of extra room to adjust in post. That said, it isn't an excuse to not watch your signal levels while recording. 

The MixPre II units also all have a ton of features that are particularly useful for filmmakers. First off, internal timecode generation and output. This allows you to use your sound recorder as the master timecode for a day and jam from the recorder to your camera to make post syncing easier. Both timecode and run/stop can be handled by HDMI. With compatible cameras hooked up via HDMI, this means that every time you record on your camera, the MixPre II will automatically record as well with timecode synced files. Bring those files into your NLE, and timecode syncing is basically instantaneous. All of the MixPre units are designed with a threaded screw to make mounting them underneath your camera convenient. 

The MixPre II units also work as a USB audio interface for podcasting or recording VO tracks. You have up to 8 inputs and 4-out. When using it as a USB audio interface it streams to your computer via USB-C at bit depths up to 32-bit float.

You can also consider the MixPre-3 II or the MixPre-10 II. We suspect that the 3 will cover most small productions, like those who have a YouTube channel and create from home. Going up to the MixPre-10 II unlocks other features, but should be only considered by those who are serious about becoming a production sound mixer. And even then, you might be better off with the 8-Series Portable Mixer-Recorders from Sound Devices as they are built to withstand the rigorous nature of production. 

Table of Contents


How We Picked

First and foremost we looked at the units that record the best audio. You can have every bell and whistle out there, but if your audio doesn't sound robust and clear, it's not worth using. From there we focused exclusively on features. If you are investing in a recorder now, you want something that has longevity. We also looked at popularity in the field, user and professional reviews, and the pace of updates to see how serious the company is about supporting their product. 

Best Alternative: Zoom F6

Zoom, who dominated the handheld recorder market, also has an entry in the recorder/mixer field that is worth considering, the Zoom F6. It features 32-bit float recording, separate recording to SD and USB, and can also be used as a USB audio interface. In pure specs alone it's a compelling competitor to the MixPre II lineup and comes in a few hundred dollars less than the MixPre-6 II. 

One interesting thing about the F6 is that the camera mount adapter is an optional attachment. This might seem frustrating to some, but we're neutral on it since some users will use that feature all the time, and some never will. It's nice that for those who never will use it, they can just not mount the attachment. It mounts with four solid screws, comes with the unit by default, and nicely has a bit of space built in to help keep the F6 cool, so overall is beneficial.

One small frustration is that Bluetooth isn't natively built in as it is with MixPre. It requires a separate accessory attachment to add Bluetooth support. While it's not absolutely essential to have Bluetooth, it is nice to have control of your mixer with an app that can speed up controlling metadata.

Another thing worth pointing out is the F6 doesn't have combo jacks and is missing 1/4 inputs. Frankly, motion pictures are primarily an XLR world, so this will be a bigger frustration for musicians. 

In terms of quality, there's a slight edge with the MixPre II units but nothing too overtly recognizable to the common viewer. The Zoom F6 preamps sound great, but in some situations where gain is important, you'll get a slight edge from the Kashmir's. But if you're recording in 32-bit float, it might be a moot point. 

Best Budget: Tascam DR-701D

The DR-701D is Tascam's flagship recorder for single-shooter video production. While it doesn't feature 32-bit float recording, it has everything you need to record high-quality sound. A timecode generator is included for location reference, which can be jam synced from an SMPTE generator, camera, or smart slate. The HDMI in and out allows a camera to start recording on both devices, and video clock prevents drift between sound and picture. Four mic inputs can be individually recorded and mixed to a stereo track, for a total of six-track recording. For additional tracks, multiple units can be cascaded together.

The lightweight yet rigid chassis is forged from a magnesium alloy. Tripod mounts on the top and bottom of the unit allow the unit to mount under a camera, attach to a follow-focus cage, or be used stand-alone. Designed for the needs of professional filmmakers for all types of productions, the DR-701D packs high-quality multi-track recording into a package compact enough for use with any camera.

Final Thoughts

You really can't go wrong with any of the three levels of MixPre II recording mixers. With their wonderful Kashmir preamps, 32bit float recording, plugin support, film focused features, and a great reputation for reliability, they're the ideal device to upgrade your audio quality.

A good recorder-mixer tends to have a longer shelf life than a camera, and with these affordable units already supporting next-gen standards, you are likely to get a lot out of any of the options.      

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2 Comments

I've always wanted to get my hands on the Zoom F6. After watching one be used for recording an orchestra performance I realized its full potential.

July 27, 2021 at 1:30PM

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Nick Straub
Videographer
729

The Mixpre ii is great. I haven't even used the 32-bit function yet. When you have true limiters there is no need in day to day normal recordings.

October 24, 2021 at 5:57AM

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