If you are still calling your own phone number leaving voice memos about the musical ideas you don't want to forget, don't feel bad. Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck used to do that, and for all we know, he still does. But these days there are plenty of choices offering better ways to record. The vast array of recording options available to today's musicians is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you have so many digital recorders to choose from, and the curse is that you must sort through these choices to find the right recorder for you.
To narrow your choices, start first by making some decisions about your needs and how you want to use your digital recorder. Do you want to record your practice sessions? (Hint: that's a great way to quickly identify places that need more work.) How about recording rehearsal sessions so that band members can hone their chops between practices? Taking music lessons? Record them so that you can be sure you've grasped your instructor's suggestions and wrung all the useful feedback you can out of them.
Do you ever take your mentor to lunch? Digitally record the conversation and you'll never lose another of her pearls of wisdom. If you are a songwriter, you don't ever want to lose a catchy melody or a good lyric. A digital recorder insures that will never happen again. Want more gigs? Make a digital demo that you can give out or post on your website. A decent digital recorder is also perfect for recording your performances to put up on your MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube page to promote your career.
The features that you will want to look for in your digital recorder depend to a large extent on what you will be recording. For example, if you are recording music for demos or reproduction, you will want to know how many tracks you are getting for audio and MIDI and whether those tracks are actual or virtual. How many tracks do you need to play back or record simultaneously? If you are selecting a multitrack recorder, do you need sophisticated editing and mixing capability or will basic functionality do? If your recorder does not have mixing capability you may eventually need to get a mixer.
As a musician, audio quality will most likely be at the top of your list of requirements. Start by looking at the sampling frequency and bit-rate stats. Usually higher numbers denote better quality. For reference, the standard for CDs is 16-bit/44.1kHz. If you are willing to pay more, higher sampling frequencies give you more headroom and high-frequency response in your digital recordings. That's geek-speak for saying that your recordings will sound more professional—important if that's what they are meant to be.
The flexibility and versatility of your recorder will depend to a large extent on the number of input and output options—usually abbreviated as I/O—that it gives you. Do you need to connect a computer or other audio equipment to your recorder? Look for USB or FireWire connectivity. Additionally consider if you need 1/8", 1/4", or RCA jacks. Do you need I/O for instruments and speakers as well as phantom power for microphones? Studio-class digital recorders will also give you I/O options like S/PDIF, word clock, ADAT, and AES/EBU for connecting your music equipment.
Consider your willingness to deal with a steep learning curve. Are the controls user-friendly? Are they well constructed and rugged? Are the dials, EQ controls, faders, meters, and sends logically arranged as well as easy to find and operate?
Multitrack recording creates a lot of electronic bits, eating up digital storage at a prodigious rate. Do your needs call for flash storage or a hard drive? Can the recorder you are considering connect to external storage or are there options to upgrade internal storage with larger devices as your needs grow?
Returning to the topic of versatility, you may wish to consider a recorder with features like DVD and CD-burning capability, onboard effects, sound modules, and a built-in MIDI sequencer. Usually considered add-ons, these features can obviate the need to buy additional equipment and also add greatly to your recording capability.
If you are already thinking about posting your performances on the Internet, you will eventually want video recording capability. When considering video recorders, picture quality is your first concern. More megapixels means better quality as does optical zoom versus digital zoom. More optical zoom gives you more framing options and better reproduction quality.
A video camera's memory determines how much video or how many stills it can store. Some video cameras have built-in hard drives, but most use SD cards for storage. Battery power determines how long your camera performs. While most batteries last less than an hour, your video recorder's image storage capacity should give you at least 20 hours of recording time. Make sure your video camera gives you still photo capability if that's important to you. Image stabilization is another great feature to have, as is connectivity to your computer for video editing.
Whether you are talking about video or audio recorders, your choice may also be narrowed by your budget. To get more features you may need to pay a bit more. Here are examples of a few recorders that will give you an idea of the features you can find at different price ranges.
If you want loads of capability in a rackmounted 24-track recorder, consider the JoeCo BBR1-B Black Box 24-Track Digital Recorder. Its balanced I/O gives you the ability to connect to any live mixing console, and the JoeCo BBR1-B records directly to a USB 2.0 drive that will plug into your digital audio workstation after the gig. The JoeCo BBR1-B is only $2795.00, and it records at sample rates of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz.
If a hand-held field recorder is more to your liking, Sony's PCM-D1 Digital Field Recorder is equipped with a stereo pair of highly sensitive electret condenser microphones and circuitry to process stereo sound with virtually no extraneous noise. A 4GB internal Flash memory card gives you 6-1/2 hours of CD-quality recording. The Sony PCM-D1 recorder has a body of military-grade titanium and a built-in USB port. Currently only $1845.95, this ultra-portable Sony field recorder samples at 24kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, or 96kHz.
The 24-track Alesis ADAT-HD24 Digital Recorder is a rackmount unit that is the industry standard as a stand-alone hard disc recorder. The Alesis HD24 offers full 24-bit/48kHz recording with an option to upgrade to 24-bit/96kHz. Only $1599.00, the Alesis HD24 has a built-in 40GB hard drive and 24 analog ins and outs.
The Marantz PMD620 Digital Recorder offers solid-state recording on SD and SDHC cards with true hand-held portability and single-touch stereo recording for only $399.00. Despite its small size, the Marantz PMD620 is equipped with onboard editing and playback and USB 2.0 connectivity. The PMD620 can record in MP3 format as well as CD-quality 44.1/48 kHz .wav format in 16- or 24-bit resolution.
If price is your major consideration, the super-slim portable Sanyo ICR-XPS01M Stereo Digital Sound Recorder at only $149.00 may suit you to a T. This Sanyo recorder accepts up to 8GB SD or SDHC cards and can record in both MP3 and uncompressed PCM stereo.
A few final tips: Be sure the digital recorder you buy can create uncompressed recordings. A recorder that only delivers highly compressed files could leave you with hours of editing work after recording. Look for digital recorders that create uncompressed files in PCM format. On a PC these are usually called .wav files and on Mac they usually have the .aiff suffix.
Get a recorder that gives you the most recording time you can afford, and consider future needs. If you think you will need multitrack capability down the road, making the investment now may actually save you money later on.
Woodwind & Brasswind is proud to offer a broad range of digital recording options for musicians from professional to beginner. Every product you buy from The Woodwind & Brasswind is covered by our 110% Price Guarantee, assuring that you won't find your music gear at a lower price anywhere else.