Whenever I try recording concerts or practice sessions with my smartphone the resulting audio is, as one would expect, horrible. Putting a tape over the microphone usually just amplifies the hum in my case. The audio distorts when the volume is too loud and in general audio quality leaves a lot to be desired.

I'm looking in the market for an audio recorder (something like one of those Tascam handhelds), but I don't know exactly what I'm looking for. Is it tolerance for sound above some specific dB level? If so which? Is there anything else I should be looking for?


You need a recorder that: 1) Has a microphone (or microphones) that will be able to handle those sound levels without clipping and 2) A system that will let you control the input level, so you can fine-tune it for a specific situation sound level-wise.

As you have noticed, handling those levels of amplitude is not something every system can do. You need something that can handle high amplitude levels mechanically (the mic), electrically (preamps), and digitally (converters, software). Otherwise you will get distortion.

Other things to look for is signal processing like parallel recording and compression/limiting. These might actually be required depending on how formal/serious your recording is.

Parallel recording will let you record in two tracks at the same time, one of which is set -XdB lower than the other (usually -6dB or more), so if one track clips you have the other as backup. You can then in post-production mix between both, or only use the one that didn't clip, or whatever you need. It gives you options.

Compression/limiting will let you handle the peaks of the input audio. It will limit how high the peaks can go, preventing them from reaching a clipping point (above 0dBFS in digital).

As you can see, avoiding clipping at all costs (at least the kind of clipping that sounds horrible) is the name of the game, so there are systems out there that will include all these features and tools, and some more (like stereo or surround recording).

In general, good portable recording systems will have some or all of these features, the best ones having even more. Zoom and Tascam are the most popular choices, but you have many options from a wide price range. Some examples:

Zoom H1, H4n, H5, H6, H2n

Tascam DR-05, DR-07, DR-40

Roland R-05, R-26

Yamaha PR7

Here are more portable recorders.

Things to look at:

  1. Inputs and mics. Will I only need the mics included in the system? Will I be able to use other microphones if I wanted to? You might want phantom power for condenser mics. See for example the Yamaha PR7, it only has one input and it is a TS, so you won't be able to run a balanced microphone XLR signal into it. If you are going to use external mics, maybe you want to avoid that one.

  2. Signal processing. Which tools the system offers? Compression/limiting and parallel recording are very useful (again, maybe required depending on how formal and serious you are about recording). There are many more, some have editing possibilities and/or guitar amp modeling, and/or reverb, delay, etc. I really like the Tascam DR-40 in that sense, it offers both limiting and parallel recording (they call it dual recording).

  3. If you are going to use the included mics, the quality of the included mics is important. Be sure that you like the included mics. Here is a comparison of the included mics of many portable recorders.

Here is a review of some of the most popular recorders.

Loud concerts and jams can get really loud.

The included mics on these systems might not be able to handle very loud sound levels. You might need to use another mic that can handle higher amplitudes (a dynamic mic, most likely). It all depends on how loud is your scenario. Loud as in a band rehearsal in a garage or studio? Or Loud as in an stadium concert? You might need to make some adjustments regarding the mic in very high amplitude scenarios.


Try the Zoom H2 (http://www.pixelproaudio.com/zoom-h2-recorder-s22948.html?gclid=COKjl-zT4b8CFTOZMgoddUYAJQ)

The drummer in my band uses it all the time to record practices and gigs. He's been using it for years.


I have the H2 but you'll probably have similar experiences with other devices. First thing to note with this thing is that you don't get better signal-to-noise ratio by using external mics since the builtin preamps are making enough noise of their own when using external input. This is actually also supposed to be the case for the H4 (which has phantom power on its mic inputs). Of course, where the microphone arrangement can be important, and external mic may still make sense, but if you start juggling with mic stands and what not, you'll use something better than a handheld recorder anyway.

Then this thing offers 24bit recording which you can safely ignore since the noise floor is in the upper 16bit anyway.

Then you have a crude sensitivity switch on the outside with settings H/M/L. It turns out that setting H is not interesting for uncompressed (WAV) recording since it just brings the noise floor higher up.

Then you have a gain control which can be set to values from 0 to something like 119 (?). The thing to note is that this is a digital gain control so it cannot save you from clipping. Leave it at 100.

The only real decision you have to make is whether to put the (analog) gain switch on the outside in M or in L position. It sounds like you want L for your use case. All other things you want to do, you can do with the finished recording. The device offers stuff like automatic gain control. Again, this works entirely in the digital domain so it can only make WAV/PCM recordings worse (if you are recording speech straight to MP3, there might be a point, but not for uncompressed audio).

Now this sounds rather disillusioning, but actually this lack of effective choices makes it easy to make the best recording one can expect this kind of device to deliver. All the rest of the available settings are snake oil.

You get pretty usable practice recordings for checking on yourself. You don't get stuff fit for selling: for that you need a good mic arrangement, good preamps and mastering/mixing.

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