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How to upgrade a Handheld Recorder for Sound Quality? (Zoom or other)

How to upgrade a Handheld Recorder for Sound Quality? (Zoom or other)


Here is an overview on how I managed to get better sounding results with a handheld recorder (zoom or others):

I started using handheld recorders in 2004 even though I have been recording sounds since 1993. At that time I discovered how easy, fast, and convenient were these little things but I also witnessed their downsides.

Over the years, I sought to make them more efficient and improve their quality for my recordings. It is only 2 years ago that I decided to go a step further about ‘field recording’ thus by using tougher solutions like the Sound Devices products or Zaxcom.
Regardless of the model, I am not saying handheld recorders are not professionals but I have to advice it has to be used with some judgement and preparation before being able to make the most of it in the field.

I still have handheld recorders and from time to time I use them when I need something light and easy. Although I like the mobility they provide I got so disappointed many many times by the end-result. I literally had to trash many hours of recording just because of the sonic quality I got:

  • loud self-noise,
  • handling sounds,
  • distortion,
  • lack of clarity, …

Also I wouldn’t see any need for an upgrade if you are looking to record rehearsal or keep track of your grocery shopping list. And in some cases, depending on the models and the setting of the recording it can achieve pretty decent job. For a comparison list on manufacturers and models, I would pinpoint this article from WireRealm and also this neat article from Asoundeffect.

I am addressing the ‘quality’ through the point of view of: getting great and professional sound recordings.

I therefore did investigate middle-solutions without breaking the bank. In my opinion, getting an upgrade for an handheld recorder is a must-have for anyone taking sound seriously.

This has had helped me in: (and hopefully will help you in)

  • Freeing time that would have gone wasted otherwise
  • Focusing the effort onto the essential: the sound
  • Being more satisfied of your work by the end of the day
  • Saving money + getting more pure sounds from NOT having to use restoration plugins (like Izotope RX)

I am speaking here of upgrade solutions under 800$ or less.
Those are good compromises before spending more than thousands on high-end devices.


I – Protection against the odds

A) First Fight : the WIND!

Anywhere you go, AIR is roaming freely around us! Unless you are in a spacio-temporal void!
Actually air moves more or less depending on various factors. If you are at an exterior location, it is more than possible that you will feel the effect of natural wind. When inside, air can still be moving, for example: from a fan, a hole in the door, your breath or something moving around.
Microphones incorporated inside handheld recorders are usually well sensitive and a little breeze can easily result in a big smushing vroom onto your recording!
The first handy things about the slightest breeze could be to use a foam protection. You can surely find this in store if your recorder does not already come with one. 

for example this foam for H4N

For example, this mini windjammer from Rycotte

But take in mind foam only work great when indoor ; even then it is still perfectible.
I would prefer to advice to get directly a windjammer (with fur) which works much better against wind in most cases. Rycotte has top-notch products when it comes to wind noise supression and I am not paid to tell this.
Alternatively, it is possible to do-it-yourself with some nifty skills and some patience. And for this, there are a lot of ressources on blog posts. You can find them through simple research on the net. (for example this one post seems well interesting).


B) The other ennemy : handling noise!

Example of handheld audio recorder kit

Again depending on the model you have, it will generate more or less extranuous noise from manipulation. And it usually does not need a lot of manipulation! The first time I used a handheld recorder, I got stunned on how little it takes to hear these unwanted sounds.

Held in the hands, the slighest move will result in a crunchy audible turbulence. Be aware! But even staying still isn‘t enough. This time I can advice wether to lay down the recorder somewhere still; Or if you want/need to keep it in hand while recording: you can get one of these suspension. Even better, you can get the whole kit with all you need to be ready for wind and handling noise.

Although these solutions all work fine, it won‘t be efficient enough under extreme conditions (high wind gusts). In this case an upgrade towards a blimp/zeppelin is preferable. and in the meantime, this would mostly imply an upgrade of the microphones (next part below) 


II – Upgrading the microphones

I found the most easy way to upgrade a handheld toward professional sound is to get a set of external microphones, provided that your recorder features inputs for external microphones.


a pair of Rode NT5

Depending on what you want to record, where and how: the type of microphone will vary. For example if you want to get specific sounds, monophonic can be enough for your need. Indeed I would advise to use a shotgun mic. But if you need to keep the stereophonic soundscape meanwhile, you should look at M/S technique (adding a bidirectional microphone).
On the other hand when it comes to recording ambiences, I personally prefer an ORTF stereo mic set but I need to say it is quite subjective and depends on your own taste (you can get a glimpse on our blog post about stereo miking techniques).
Recording in stealth mode? maybe small models like the DPA 4060 would be the best suited. Sometimes contact mics can make a difference when recording vibrations, as well as hydrophones for underwater sounds.
As you can witness, there is no one magical microphone to do it all.
And choosing a model of microphone can feel overwhelming as the choice is wide.

Some prefer the simplicity of stereo microphone over using two different microphones for a stereo set. In this case it exists some interesting products (I like this blog post that compare three different Stereo Microphone model).

I am not writing a post about mic brand/models but to fly over the different possibilities:
Rode proposes nice professional microphones for a small price, I personnaly have been using the NT5 model with the omni capsule NT45, but they also propose a XY stereo microphone (NT4) and also a wide-spread shotgun serie NTG2 /NTG3 ... .
Oktava also are well known for there small diaphragm microphones MK-012 which are quite modulars with many capsule choices.
AudioTechnica is a big player in this range of price (middle products), they have a choice of small diaphragm microphones, stereo microphones as well as their popular large diaphragm microphones.

A little more expensive if you have the money, are the brands Shure / Sennheiser / Sanken / Schoeps.

! Not to forget: Having external microphone also means finding corresponding mounts, suspensions and windshields if necessary.

It exists so many products and brands. In my opinion one great thing to do if you can is to try them out by yourself! Therefore you will be able to make your own judgement and choose the best option for your needs.

I want to add a little warning from my own experience. While some brands propose cheaper products over others, it does not necessarily means the sound gets lower in quality. Many factors are implicated. For example I had a bad experience at high humidity condition with the NT5 whereas the sennheiser 8000 serie would still work as a charm. Still the sound quality of the NT5 is pretty astonishing at normal condition, this makes it more suited for studio recording.


III – Going Serious about the preamps

If you are still not quite satisfy with the sound quality of your recorder even with external microphones but you don’t want to completly change your recorder, then you should probably look at getting dedicated preamplifier!

Having external microphone preamplifier usually provides:

  • better signal/noise ratio
  • more stable phantom power
  • Precise control
  • Sometimes added features (as limiter, high pass,..)
  • Most of all: small up to huge sound improvement!

It is often overlooked but using external preamplifier can give increasingly best sound quality! It does not have to be underestimated!
sound devices mixpreSince it is meant to be used as portable unit, it should be self-powered.
For this purpose it exists some models. I have been using the Sound Devices MixPre and got very great results. Also the model MM1 from Sound Devices is a one-channel preamp that can be pretty convenient at times.


The choice of self-powered preamp unit is limited (as it exists very few models);
RAVPower PortableOne way I found to get round it, is to use transportable power pack/charger which can be acquired for around 100/150 bucks. In this case any preamp that fell into the voltage range of the power pack can be converted into a "mobile preamp". This solutions has been a revelation for me and helped me when I sought to upgrade my sound quality on a budget. I had a Audient Mico preamp which I loved and I used it in combination of a RAVPower 23000mAh to make it transportable. However this felt a little heavy I had a very nice clean chain of sound for the handheld recorder. Plus I can charge my phone at the same time! Alternatively it is possible to use a laptop and an audio interface as an additional microphone preamplifier or even recording directly on the computer but it can get pretty bulky and isn't really convenient when in the field.
I still use the power pack with my Sound Devices 788T as it allows me to quadruple x4 the battery capacity of the device. A completely usefull tool at little cost!


IV- Getting more channels

One day, I got blocked since I needed more channels than what my recorder could handle. Some recorder have the function of using the internal microphone in addition to the externals, which allows to get four channels but it results in some quality inconsistency.

I did experiment using two handheld and combined them in order to get more recording channels. This has worked quite ok but it created more work for the editing flow, since it has to be recomposed in a DAW and involves some synchronization issues.
In fact, the sessions have to be marked carefully with a synchronized event at the beginning of each recording otherwise it would be very difficult to make them fit together.


The next Step

At some point, it becomes impossible to keep ugrading the same handheld recorder. Hence the next step would be with no doubt to get a new recorder. Thus the cycle of comparing, testing and choosing will then happen again…

Thank you for reading up to this point, and if you have any suggestion don’t hesitate to comment or message me.


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