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I am an independent filmmaker. I already own a prosumer-grade camcorder and I am looking to complement it with an external audio field recorder. Perusing B&H, portable options with XLR inputs range from $180–$6,650. I know that audio is “80% of what you see” (or some such figure), so I don’t mind spending on quality, but when even low-end offerings are capable of 24-bit/96kHz WAV recording, how do I decide how much to budget for such a purchase? Does quality plateau after a certain price point?

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Personally, I'm currently a big fan of the Zoom H4n. For the price, it's hard to beat. It isn't the best quality available, but for the price it is very good. The main complaint about the H4n is the noise floor is a bit higher than it could be on some inputs, but the quality is still pretty good and it's still a major improvement over most in-camera setups. This may end up out of date at any point in the future though. –  AJ Henderson Oct 27 '13 at 4:42
    
For what it's worth: I ended up going higher end than lower, for longevity’s sake, and to learn professional tools. Another approach might have been to build up to that, gradually upgrading over time, but I wanted to ensure that sound was not a weak point in my films. Of course, this will rely on the skill of my recordist(s), as well as the equipment. –  Hugh Guiney Nov 14 '13 at 4:36
    
cool, yeah, if you have the money available, it doesn't hurt to go better quality early on. Not a whole lot of people have that luxury, but it does end up costing less in the long run if you can (at least as long as you end up sticking with it long enough and are good enough at it.) Going too high end might outstrip what your prosumer grade camera is capable of video wise though. Having the best audio on the planet doesn't really matter much if the video image doesn't hold its own. I wouldn't spend more than a grand or two on an audio recorder without upgrading the camera. –  AJ Henderson Nov 14 '13 at 14:05
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3 Answers

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The main things you should look for are the following:

ADC: Analog to digital converter, which turns the XLR signals into digital bits. More expensive recorders will have better ADCs - look for one with a high SNR, dynamic range, etc.

Preamp: Does it have enough power to run your mics? Some require more juice than others.

Connectivity: Are you recording to an SD card or to the line inputs of your camera?

Power: How long does the battery last? Can you charge it on the go?

To be honest, 24bit/96kHz isn't the most important thing if the recorder is crap. Look at the specs for your recorder to find the best hardware for the price (I don't know how much you're willing to spend) and if possible do a test recording at the store. Sometimes, cheap hardware actually performs admirably.

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Thanks, helpful points here. But the way I am approaching things is the inverse of this: I want to start with the device, then derive recording medium and budget (saving $ over time if necessary). So, another way to phrase it: how do benefit and cost correlate with respect to audio recorders? Does quality plateau after a certain price point? –  Hugh Guiney Oct 30 '13 at 18:52
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It all boils down to preference and price point. In my opinion, it's not necessary to spend upwards of $1000 on a field recorder when really, it's more about your mics and editing in post. Even the best recorder will sound bad without the proper cables, mics, preamps, and capable audio mixers.

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I've removed the production recommendations from your answer and kept the part that answers the question. Product recommendations tend to get out of date fairly quickly and are not encouraged on this site. –  Friend Of George Oct 28 '13 at 15:59
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The majority of the film jobs I've had lately are as sound mixer and I use the Tascam DR40, it records in as high as 24 bit 96 k and I'm very happy with it.

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This doesn't answer the question of what to look for in an external field recorder. There is a good chance that this recommendation will be out of date in a few years. –  Friend Of George Oct 28 '13 at 15:55
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