Computers are wonderful, but sometimes, they can be temperamental. That’s okay if your computer freezes while you’re surfing the web; just reboot. But it’s not okay if you’re recording a theater performance, sermon, concert, corporate presentation, panel discussion, or other mission-critical audio project where you get only one take. You can’t afford human or computer error.
Fortunately, there are many options—at price points from hundreds to thousands of dollars—for recording high-quality, digital audio without a computer. Most of these are quiet, efficient devices that record to solid-state memory. No moving parts means no noise issues, high reliability, and easily replaceable media.
There are three broad product categories: simple, inexpensive recorders that can hook up to a mixer output or record through mics; combination mixers/recorders; and stand-alone multitrack recorders. We’ll look at some of the most popular, and representative, units from each category.
Two companies—TASCAM and Zoom—essentially own the hand-held recording market, and have refined their technology and offerings over decades of development. For many performance situations, you can simply patch a mixer’s bus outputs to your recorder of choice, set levels, press record, and not have to think about it anymore until whatever you want to record has finished.
TASCAM’s DR-40X four-track recorder (Fig. 1) supports 16- and 24-bit recording at 44.1, 48, and 96 kHz, but also provides MP3 data-compressed recording modes that allow literally days of recording time, thanks to the ability to accept SDXC media cards up to 128 GB. Along with overdub and overwrite functions, it also includes a “safety track” recording feature to prevent distortion if a signal becomes unexpectedly too “hot.” In addition to recording events, the DR-40X is well-suited to podcasts, sound design work, and remote recording; for non-critical applications like recording rehearsals, you can use the two built-in mics (switchable between unidirectional or stereo patterns).
Zoom’s H4n Pro (Fig. 2) offers very similar capabilities, although it has gained favor with bands because of some unique, musician-oriented features (built-in effects, chromatic tuner, and metronome). These make it particularly useful for recording rehearsals and live performances. Maximum media size is 32 GB, but like the TASCAM, the H4n can record MP3 files—you can record for almost a day and a half with 256 kbps fidelity. One popular variant, the Zoom H4n Portable Audio Recording Bundle, adds a 32 GB SD card and AC adapter, along with a rugged, waterproof, injection-molded carrying case
For a more permanent, install-type solution, and for broadcast (e.g., recording in-studio events), the rack-mountable TASCAM SS-R250N (Fig. 3) is a two-channel recorder that’s optimized for network applications. It supports FTP server connections so you can upload/download from a computer without having to physically exchange SD cards, and connects to Dante via an optional interface card. For automatic, time-based operations, you can also set up Event Lists for recording, playback, downloading, and other functions. iOS and Android apps control the transport and various remote control settings, while security features include dual SD card slots for either simultaneous “safety” recording or “chain” recording (i.e., recording begins on the second SD after the first one has reached capacity). Furthermore, every few seconds the SS-R250N automatically saves and closes the file being recorded, to guard against data loss if there’s a sudden power outage.
This type of product is actually three products in one: mixer, multitrack recorder, and USB audio interface. The TASCAM Model 24 (Fig. 4) and Model 16, as well as QSC’s TouchMix line (TouchMix-8, TouchMix-16, and TouchMix-30—see Fig. 5), are ideally suited for live situations where you’ll be mixing multiple tracks into a mono or stereo output. However, you can also use these devices as multitrack recorders, either in a studio context, or for recording live performances. The tracks can play back through the mixer, or be transferred over to a recording/editing software for additional processing and mixing.
With the TASCAM Model 24, tracks record to the internal SD card, but you can simultaneously record via USB to a computer for redundant recording. The TouchMix series records to an external USB drive (when used as an audio interface, USB also provides the conduit for recording to a computer). A fast, external SSD drive avoids an issue common to SD-based systems: making sure the SD card is fast enough to record large numbers of files simultaneously. TASCAM has a list of approved media, while PreSonus’s StudioLive Series III mixers (see later) have a built-in speed test function.
PreSonus takes two different approaches to onboard recording. Their seven StudioLive AR series mixers, including the StudioLive AR12C (Fig. 6), record the mixer’s stereo output to SD cards—the equivalent of hooking up a stereo recorder to the mixer output. The maximum SD card capacity is 32 GB. The higher-end StudioLive Series III mixers, such as the StudioLive 32S (Fig. 7), take multitrack recording further, because they can record any or all of 32 channels and a stereo mix to an SD card, using PreSonus’s Capture software.
The Capture program runs within the mixer (it’s also available as a separate, computer-based application), and records sessions that open natively in PreSonus’s Studio One DAW. This is incredibly efficient; opening a session in Studio One re-creates the console settings, including channel strip settings, mutes, solos, and the like. For redundant live recording, you can record simultaneously to the internal SD card and over USB to a computer.
Stand-Alone Multitrack Recorders
Sound Devices’ Scorpio (Fig. 8) is a top-of-the-line field mixer and recorder, with 32 channels, 36 tracks (32 channels, 4 buses), and 32 x 32 Dante I/O for hooking directly into a Dante network. It features simultaneous recording to a 256 GB internal solid-state drive and two internal SD card slots for “safety” recordings, 12 analog outputs, and 16 mic/line preamplifiers. But those are just the basics. Scorpio also includes a USB-C high-speed port for digital transfers (with an additional USB-A host for USB devices like control surfaces), handles all standard sample rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz, offers signal limiters for all channels so recordings won’t be ruined with a temporarily excessive signal level, features Bluetooth LE for wireless control, and incorporates superb A/D converters—32-bit with 120 dB A-weighted dynamic range. For audio-for-video and cinematic recording projects, the built-in timecode and sync supports all standard frame rates, with 0.1 ppm accuracy (a variation of only a quarter frame over 24 hours). Scorpio even weighs in at under 6 pounds, with an informative LCD that holds up well under bright ambient lighting conditions.
Overall, Scorpio is a premium recording device—with specs that rival full-blown, professional recording studios. For a more portable version with much of the same functionality, the Sound Devices 833 offers 8 channels, 12 tracks, and 6 preamps; it weighs 2.75 pounds without batteries.
For more modest recording requirements, Sound Devices also offers the “baby brother” MIXPRE-10-II (Figure 9), with 12 tracks and eight preamps. Weighing in at slightly over 2 pounds, it nonetheless includes high-end features like limiters, USB-C port for backup and USB-A for keyboard control, sample rate support up to 192 kHz, storage media support up to 512 GB, start/stop trigger from cameras over HDMI, timecode, Bluetooth LE, and much more. The even more compact Sound Devices MIXPRE-6-II is similar to the MIXPRE-10-II, but with eight tracks and four preamps.
So, Who Needs a Laptop, Anyway?
Clearly…you don’t! Although of course, all these devices can talk to a computer if needed, not just work stand-alone.
Gone are the days where you needed several devices to accomplish different tasks; now you can mix a performance, record the tracks, bounce them over to a computer, or even use your mixer/recorder as an audio interface. Instead of having to spread expenditures over multiple items, the same expenditure can purchase a first-class device that performs multiple functions. Times have certainly changed—and when it comes to mixing and recording, the times have most certainly changed for the better.