The equipment described here is for someone interested in a lightweight, non-cumbersome setup. Therefore, open reel recorders are not considered, though they might still preferred by the purist, and microphones requiring parabolic reflectors are not considered. This list is neither exhaustive nor detailed; rather, the following reviews are general impressions of the equipment we have experience with.
In general, in field recorders we look for professional decks of sturdy construction with XLR microphone inputs, and in digital recorders, the capacity to sample at 48 kHz or higher. In microphones, we prefer directional shotgun models.
We recently began using the Marantz PMD 670 recorders. The lack of moving parts in these units, which record digitally onto compact flash cards, suggests that fewer parts can malfunction. We can’t yet comment on whether malfunctions are in fact less common, but so far we are happy with these recorders. For those used to tape decks, initial setup and operation of these recorders will require learning, but the manual is easy to follow. The price of the PMD 670 is lower than the original prices of most of the tape decks we have used in the past, although the cost of compact flash cards must be considered. The main drawback may be the plastic outer shell. But the unit is so lightweight that a drop might damage it no more than any other type of field recorder described here. Just don’t run over it in your vehicle. For field recording, we recommend 48 kHz PCM .wav settings, and we use mono, which allows twice as much recording time per card than stereo.
Digital Cassette (DAT) recording
We have used the Sony TCD-D10 DAT (no longer manufactured), and find both positive and negative features. The machine is relatively reliable and straightforward to use, with sturdy XLR microphone inputs. One major disadvantage is that this deck takes only rechargeable cadmium batteries, which is generally less convenient and is a particular problem when you are working in areas with no or unreliable access to line power. Also, DATs generally are very sensitive to high humidity, and they may not work in humid recording environments. But overall, we have been pleased with the machine where it can be used.
Recorders: analog cassette
None of the analog cassette recorders we use are manufactured any longer. However, used decks may be found, and some people prefer these types of recorders over digital ones, so we will comment on a few of them here.
We have been particularly impressed with the Sony TC-D5 Pro II. One major advantage is that it has XLR rather than 1/4" phono jack microphone connectors. The Sony TC-D5M with 1/4" jack microphone connectors is also a good unit, and might be obtained at a lower price. These machines are well-designed and very durable, with metal rather than plastic housing. They have both VU and peak metering. The former is an averaging system for determining recording levels, and the latter is instantaneous and is important for bird recording where very sudden sound level shifts can cause overloading.
We have also used the Marantz PMD-221 & 222 portable cassette recorders. These are relatively inexpensive, and correspondingly, less sturdy for field use. Mini-jack connectors are used for the microphone input, and the outer shell is not as heavy. Only VU metering is provided. The recorder's dual speeds allow recording at 1 7/8 and 15/16 ips, but the slower tape speed is really only of use when recording voice or other signals that lack high frequencies.
Sennheisers are expensive but excellent microphones. The MKH 70, a shotgun microphone requiring a phantom power supply, is one we use and really like, but it is quite expensive. The ME67, plus K8 power module, uses one AA battery and performs very nicely, for a lower price.
For the past several years we have also used Audio-Technica microphones. These are relatively inexpensive, use AA batteries instead of a separate power supply, and have operating characteristics similar to the Sennheisers. The AT microphones are directional, not shotgun, so that your ability to localize the subject need not be so precise, but you will also pick up more off-axis sound. We have used the AT835 and AT815. The former has a wider angle of acceptance, and thus we prefer the slightly more expensive AT815.
You will need short microphone cables (3 or 5') with the appropriate connectors for the cassette recorder you have selected. You will also need a good handle, preferably a shock-mount that absorbs vibration and thus limits the grip noise picked up by the microphone. A wind screen (zeppelin) and a fuzzy muff cover will decrease wind noise better than a simple foam cover.
Although we do not use parabolas in our recording, parabolas do focus and amplify sound such that in some cases the signal will be stronger than that obtained with a shotgun microphone. In addition, parabolas can act as a filter against some lower-frequency sounds, which can help when recording higher-frequency targets such as songbirds. For those who really want a parabolic reflector, Telinga makes a 23" plastic parabola that can be rolled up for traveling and is available with and without a microphone. These are available from Marice Stith (address below).
Sources of audio equipment
Full Compass Systems
8001 Terrace Ave.
Middleton, WI 53562
Marice Stith Recording Services
732 Bowling Green Road
Cortland, New York 13045
Mineroff Electronics Inc.
574 Meacham Ave
Elmont, NY 11003 USA
Professional Sound Services
311 W 43rd St, Suite 1100
New York NY 10036