AudioDateDownLeftRightUpCloseReportGallerySettingsGiftLanguageGridListMapMenuPhotoPlayPlusSearchStarUserVideo Skip to content
Search

A digital audio recorder is a key component of a system used to capture bird recordings, but selecting one can be challenging. Most of the commercially available equipment is designed for recording music and the human voice with close and cooperative subjects. Few audio recorders are specifically designed for the quick onset and rapid frequency changes characteristic of wildlife sounds or the rigorous field conditions faced by biologists and birders.

Many recorders offer the same capabilities with varying degrees of special features, both essential and nonessential. A “good” recorder for the biologist or citizen scientist is one that balances your personal needs and desires.

Selection Criteria

  • Cost
  • Recorder’s microphone preamplifier performance (cleaner pre-amps result in better recordings)
  • Good ergonomic layout of controls
  • Durability
  • Balanced input (preferred)
  • Phantom microphone power (the ability to power a microphone through the cable can be helpful and is required for some microphones)
  • Type of headphone jack (1/4 inch is more robust and durable than 1/8 inch)
  • Maximum bit-depth and sampling rate (at least 24-bit/96 kHz preferred)
  • Pre-record buffer (allows a few seconds to be recorded before pressing the record button)
  • Type of level meter and available contrast/brightness adjustment (visibility of the screen in the field is important)
  • How is the recorder powered (dry cell batteries are easy to obtain, lithium rechargeable pack saves money)
  • Battery life (some recorders use more power than others, so battery life in the field can be a major factor)
  • Is a field case available? (a properly fitting case can protect the recorder and make it easier to use in the field)
  • Size/Weight (portability versus function and quality are important factors to consider)

Popular Digital Audio Recorders

Moderately priced recorders
High end recorders
Compact recorders

Moderately Priced Recorders

MARANTZ PMD661 MKII

Price: $499

The Marantz PMD661 MKII offers low-noise high-gain preamplifiers that work very well with either a shotgun microphone or a parabolic microphone system. The Marantz PMD661 MKII and the Roland R-26, are the primary recorders in the Macaulay Library’s stable of equipment for loan. It has proven extremely durable despite frequent use by multiple users across a range of field conditions. Three storable setups (presets) allow the user to quickly reconfigure or restore a favorite setup. The controls are well laid out and operation is intuitive. Record mode starts with a single press of the record button. This recorder offers two meters, a bar-graph in the display panel and LED meter lower on the top surface of the recorder. A unique feature of this machine is that during playback the bar-graph meter actually displays when a signal went into distortion while recording. Most recorders do not display a meter level beyond zero when a recording is played back.  One invaluable preset option is Marantz’s DMono mode that yields a two-channel monaural recording with a 20 dB offset between the two channels. This feature virtually ensures success to the recordist trying to gauge an acceptable recording level for unknown or unpredictably loud sounds.

Cons: This recorder is essentially designed to be operated in a horizontal position, not an ideal orientation for field work.  The AR-PMD661 field case by Portabrace outfitted with three shoulder strap clips will hold the recorder in a horizontal position.  Dirt or other detritus beneath the fast forward/fast rewind control can lead to intermittent performance or failure. Repair requires service by a technician. A well-made field case such as that by Portabrace offers protection against moisture and the intrusion of dirt. The illuminated diodes of the LED meter can be difficult to see in conditions of bright ambient light, however the bar-graph meter functions well.

  • two discrete audio channels with balanced inputs
  • manual record level control
  • 48V phantom microphone power
  • 1/4-inch headphone jack
  • maximum bit-depth: 24 bit
  • maximum sample rate: 96 kHz
  • records to SD card
  • 2 second pre-recording buffer
  • large bar-graph meter/display with adjustable contrast, as well as LED meter
  • powered by 4 AA batteries (3.5 hours with AA alkaline)
  • designed for tabletop or handheld use (over-the-shoulder use possible with a suitable case)
  • field case available (Portabrace AR-PMD661, Marantz OE case)
  • weight: 410g (14 oz) excluding batteries
  • dimensions: 93x165x63 mm (3.7×6.5×1.4 inches)

ROLAND R-26

Price: $399

The Roland R-26 offers electronically clean preamplifiers with excellent gain for use with a shotgun microphone or parabolic reflector. The R-26 is a mainstay recorder in the Macaulay Library’s stable of equipment for loan, having proven extremely reliable despite frequent use by multiple users across a range of field conditions. This recorder’s large touch screen to access the software interface also serves as the display for this unit’s large bar-graph meter. The screen’s adjustable contrast allows one to adjust brightness and contrast to best suit light conditions. The controls, located on the top surface of the recorder, are well laid out and operation is intuitive. One nuance is that two presses of the “Record” button are required to initiate record mode (the first press puts the machine in “record pause”). If Mid-Side (MS) stereo recording is of interest, the R-26 will decode MS signals while recording, including the audio to headphones.  While recording the R-26’s screen simultaneously displays the bar-graph meter and the elapsed recorded time.

Cons: Under the rigors of field use, especially in the hands of multiple users, the 1/8-inch headphone jack input is prone to failure resulting in the loss of audio output. Fortunately, this repair by a service technician is relatively inexpensive.   This recorder is essentially designed to be operated in a horizontal position, not an ideal orientation for field work.  The AR-R26 field case by Portabrace outfit with three shoulder strap clips will hold the recorder in a horizontal position.

  • two discrete audio channels with balanced inputs, plus the option of simultaneous use of internal mics for four channels of audio.
  • manual record level control
  • 48V phantom microphone power
  • 1/8-inch headphone jack
  • maximum bit-depth: 24 bit
  • maximum sample rate: 96 kHz
  • records to SD card
  •      2 second pre-recording buffer
  • large readable meter/display with adjustable contrast
  • powered by 4 AA batteries (5 hours with alkaline AA)
  • designed for tabletop or handheld use (over-the-shoulder use possible with a suitable case)
  • field case available (Portabrace AR-R26, Roland OP-R26CW case)
  • weight: 370g (13 oz) excluding batteries
  • dimensions: 82 x 180.1 x 41 mm (3-1/4 x 7-1/8 x 1-5/8 inches)

MARANTZ PMD561

Price: $400

The Marantz PMD561 is the latest offering from Marantz. This compact recorder marries features found on the PMD661 MK II with the chassis very reminiscent of the PMD620. The results are a small handheld recorder offering both a bar-graph meter and an LED-meter, both located on the top surface of the unit—a horizontal view required to see them. This recorder is not yet available on the market and therefore its performance and reliability are unknown. Photos indicate that it uses an 1/8 inch headphone jack that is more prone to failure than a 1/4-inch jack, particularly in a multi-user setting.

  • two discrete audio channels with balanced inputs, plus the option of simultaneous use of internal mics for four channels of audio.
  • manual record level control
  • 48V phantom microphone power
  • 1/8-inch headphone jack
  • maximum bit-depth: 24 bit
  • maximum sample rate: 96 kHz
  • records to SD card
  • pre-recording buffer
  • large bar-graph meter/display with adjustable contrast, as well as LED meter (not visible in bright ambient light)
  • powered by 4 AA batteries (approx. 7 hours)
  • designed for tabletop or handheld use (over-the-shoulder use possible with a suitable case)
  • field case not currently available
  • weight: 353 g (12.5 oz)
  • dimensions: 105 x 40 x 170 mm (4.1 x 1.6 x 6.7 inches)

High End Recorders

Nagra Seven

Price: $3,300

The Nagra Seven is the premier two-channel recorder offered by Nagra (now called Audio Technologies Switzerland).  The Seven offers an ideal ergonomic layout of controls for over-the-shoulder use, arguably among the best from the perspective of the biologist. The Seven provides sufficient clean gain for the shotgun microphone user and appropriate sensitivity settings for the greater amplification provided by using a parabola. The operating mode selector switch assures certainty when selecting record mode–the final stop on the clockwise switch and allows a biologist to keep his or her eyes on the bird.  With nearly all components built in the Nagra factory for close quality control, the Seven offers excellent construction with high grade components.  The Seven is completely modular in design and upgradeable as a result.  The capability to use AA dry cell batteries is an advantage in remote locations where power for recharging batteries is unavailable.

Cons: Power consumption is a concern when working in remote locations. The DC input on the battery box affords the option of using an external battery pack for power.

  • two discrete audio channels with balanced inputs
  • manual record level control
  • 48V phantom microphone power
  • 1/4-inch headphone jack
  • maximum bit-depth: 24 bit
  • maximum sample rate: 192 kHz
  • records to SD card
  • user programmable pre-recording buffer up to 10 seconds
  • large color readable meter/display with adjustable contrast
  • powered by 8 AA batteries (approx. 3 hours) or lithium polymer battery (approx. 7 hours)
  • designed for over-the-shoulder use
  • field case available (e.g. Portabrace AR-LB, CamRade AudioMate I)
  • weight: 800g (1.75 lbs) (including battery pack)
  • dimensions: 65 x 175 x 65 mm (2.56 x 6.89 x 2.56 inches)

Sound Devices 702

Price: $2,049

The 702 is a two-channel recorder that offers an excellent ergonomic layout of controls for over-the-shoulder use, including a superb LED meter.  Designed and built in the U.S., the 702 is well engineered, offering a metal chassis and excellent construction of high quality components. The Sound Devices 702 recorder has a track record of reliable performance and durability.  As a result, it is no surprise the 702 is popular among wildlife recordists.  Some recordists find that when using a shotgun microphone with the 702, the maximum available record gain is required to achieve a good recording level, but the same gain is suitable when used in combination with a parabolic reflector system. The software interface allows an extraordinary degree of custom configuration by the user.

Cons: Some recordists find the interface overly complex for their needs, though others appreciate the flexibility. In remote recording venues where power for recharging batteries is unavailable, alternative power solutions such as solar charging panels or battery sleds that accommodate standard dry cell batteries are an option. A 12V DC input allows the option of using an external battery pack for power.

  • designed for over-the-shoulder use
  • two discrete audio channels with balanced inputs
  • manual record level control
  • 48V phantom
  • 1/8-inch headphone jack
  • maximum bit-depth: 24 bit
  • maximum sample rate: 192 kHz
  • records to CF card
  • user programmable pre-recording buffer up to 10 seconds
  • large sunlight-readable LED display
  • powered by removable Sony M- or L-type lithium ion battery. OE supplied 4600 mAh battery provides power for 2 hours. Will accept up to 7000 mAh batteries.
  • Hirose 4-pin connector allows external battery pack power
  • field case available (Portabrace AR-7, Camrade CS-3)
  •     1 kg (2.1 lbs) (without battery)
  • 45 mm x 209 mm x 125 mm (1.8 x 8.2 x 4.9 inches)

COMPACT RECORDER OPTION

NAGRA SD

Price: $1,000

Among compact digital recorders, the Nagra SD is arguably one of the most well constructed units. Several monaural and stereo microphone capsules that attach directly to the recorder are available. The unit comes with an XLR adapter cable for use with external microphones such as a shotgun mic or a parabola. While 48 volt phantom power is not a feature, the SD does provide sufficient record gain for use with a shotgun microphone. A third party available accessory mounting plate permits one to attach the SD recorder directly to a Rycote Softie lyre-style handgrip/shock mount for a shotgun microphone resulting in an all-in-one handheld unit (see image). The mount places the SD’s meter inline with a recordist’s view down the microphone. This makes it possible to easily monitor recording level while maintaining a view of the vocalizing animal’s behavior even when it is moving. If one is working in situations, such as montane habitats, where compact size and weight are real concerns the SD is worth serious consideration.

Cons: The lack of phantom power requires that an external phantom power source is required if you wish to use a strictly phantom-powered microphone with the SD.

  • two discrete audio channels with balanced inputs
  • monaural and stereo standard and high-quality microphone capsule options (sold separately)
  • XLR adapter cable supplied for use with shotgun or parabolic microphones
  • Plug-in-Power (PiP) only, no 48V phantom
  • 1/8-inch headphone jack
  • maximum bit-depth: 24 bit
  • maximum sample rate: 96 kHz
  • records to SD card
  • pre-recording buffer
  • bar-graph meter/display
  • powered by 2 AA batteries (stated >10 hrs.)
  • designed for tabletop or handheld use
  • recorder comes with field case that allows unit to be worn or mounted
  • weight: 250 g (8 oz) including batteries (without microphone capsule)
  • dimensions: 107 x 68 x 24 mm (4.2 x 2 x 2.6 inches) (without external microphone capsule)