Portable Recorder:Showdown:The World Is Your Waveform - EMusician

Portable Recorder:Showdown:The World Is Your Waveform

They’re cute. They’re little. They fit in your pocket. No, we’re not talking about Smurfs, but the latest generation of portable recorders. This is one of the hottest segments of the recording world—and with good reason.
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They’re cute. They’re little. They fit in your pocket. No, we’re not talking about Smurfs, but the latest generation of portable recorders. This is one of the hottest segments of the recording world—and with good reason.

Portable recording isn’t new, whether you’re talking reel-to-reel Nagras from the late Bronze Age, Sony’s Walkman Pro cassette deck or Minidisc, or portable DATs. But nothing kicked the concept up another notch more than cheap memory prices, because it became possible to stick a few GB of RAM in a recorder, and do several hours of recording (or even days, using data-compressed formats) with no moving parts . . . all in a package not much larger than a TV remote. Now that’s progress.

I’m a major fan of portable recording. I’ve recorded airport announcements in the bathroom at the Atlanta airport while laying over during a hurricane, whales off the coast of Alaska, the testing room at Yamaha’s piano factory in Japan (think John Cage on methedrine), a killer DJ set in Zürich, and much more. All in a day’s work, right? Oh yes, and of course, band rehearsals, song ideas, and all the usual stuff.

So given that kind of background, it’s a treat to sit down with virtually all the portable recorder products from the major players and compare. The first thing I noticed: There’s an extremely tight correlation between price and features, because the competition is so fierce. The only big schism I did notice was a separation between units designed more as musician-oriented portable studios (incorporating features like a tuner, metronome, etc.) and those that seem more for journalism/podcasting/field recording.

Interestingly, if you check around web forums and user reviews, you’ll find most people are very satisfied with their portable recorders, regardless of which model they bought. This further underscores that the various products have achieved a certain parity in terms of giving value received. Because of this parity, we’ll cut to the chase and instead of presenting infinitely boring descriptions of all of a unit’s features, we’ll cover what each unit does best, as well as the most significant limitations. Units are described in the order that our layout artist thought fit best on a page. Ready . . . set . . . record!

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KORG MR-1

($899, WWW.KORG.COM)

Korg doesn’t make me-too products, and the MR-1 is no exception. It does just about everything differently: Stores to a 20GB hard disk instead of RAM cards, records via 1-bit DSD-type techniques as well as BWF WAV PCM files, has a metal instead of plastic casing, and the AudioGate software that comes with it is extremely sophisticated, as it can take the 2.8MHz data stream and convert it into just about anything the “real world” uses. In fact, Korg touts the MR-1 as “future-proof” because although it stores signals with the highest possible fidelity available today, you can “downshift” into more common formats currently in use.

What it does best: Fidelity and storage. This is a significant, pro-oriented unit—with a price tag to match. Its sleek, shiny packaging is classy, as is the sound quality. The mics included with it are far better than just decent, and while it weighs a bit more than RAM-based units, it’s still small enough to slip into your shirt pocket. What’s more, the MR-1 is valuable in the studio; you can treat it like a two-track mastering deck, which is particularly helpful if you have an analog mastering chain—just record the analog out into the MR-1, then convert it to 16/44.1 or whatever your final delivery medium might be. I’ve also used it to sample the notes coming out of vintage keyboards, secure in the knowledge that I’ve preserved the essential sound of keyboards that are on their last legs.

Limitations: The battery is not userreplaceable, so if it runs out of juice, your only option is to plug in an AC adapter (and when the battery itself dies eventually, it will need to be returned to Korg). Also, due to using a hard drive, you can’t upgrade the memory as you can with solid-state units by simply plugging in another memory card; what’s more, the hard drive makes it more sensitive to vibration. Finally, it belongs to the camp that doesn’t include specific musicianoriented features.

Bottom line: If you have the budget and plan to do seriously highfidelity field recordings, and don’t need to record for hours on end, this is about as good as it gets.

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EDIROL BY ROLAND R-09HR

($450, WWW.ROLANDUS.COM/EDIROL)

This is a second-generation device, and the additional experience shows up first in terms of ergonomics. “Set-and-forget” switched functions like Hold, Limiter/AGC, Low Cut, and Mic Gain Lo/Hi are tucked away on the back, using switches that are hard to move accidentally but easy to move when wanted. You’ll also find a monitor speaker on the back, and the case has a rubberized, no-slip type of surface that makes dropping it less likely. There are two internal mics, but these don’t rotate. Although the unit comes with a 512MB SD card, it handles SD HC memory cards up to 32GB—the extra capacity is particularly handy if you choose to do 24-bit/96kHz recording. It runs off two AA batteries, and has basic I/O: 1/8" stereo mic with plug-in power switch, 1/8" line in, and 1/8" headphone out.

What it does best: The OLED (Organic LED display) is bright, clear, and the most readable of the bunch 1under just about any lighting conditions. You can change playback speed from 50% to 150% with sample rates below 88.2kHz, add reverb, or “split” a file when recording—sort of like adding markers, except these actually create separate files. And there’s a big surprise: A wireless remote. When you consider how important placement is with a unit that has built-in mics, the remote lets you do something like hang the R-09HR from the ceiling and still control it from a convenient location. It can also let you split a file without having to press the R-09HR’s buttons, which might otherwise produce noise when using the built-in mics. Finally, the documentation is excellent, and Cakewalk Pyro Audio Creator software is included.

Limitations: You can’t charge rechargeable batteries sitting in the R-09HR via USB or its AC adapter— you need to charge them with a conventional outboard battery charger. So just carry a bunch of AA lithium batteries, which last for around 13–15 hours when recording (6.5 hours for alkalines). Splitting a file will produce a slight gap when playing back on the R-09HR, even though the recording itself is continuous, which you can verify by exporting the file into a computer.

Bottom line: This one says “workhorse”: Rubberized case, monitor speaker, good ergonomics, wireless remote, and sound quality. While a review can’t evaluate how these units will hold up in two years, I think this one would still be working just fine.

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M-AUDIO MICROTRACK II

($499.95, WWW.M-AUDIO.COM)

M-Audio was one of the first companies with a small, portable recorder, and the MicroTrack II benefits from being a second-generation device. It’s small and light, in a tough plastic case, and comes with a T-design stereo mic that’s great for recording interviews—I have the person talk into one channel, and use the other channel for ambience, mixing in as much as I want. It comes well-accessorized, including an AC adapter but it can also recharge from any USB connection. This also means you can use some of those “instant power” accessories for cell phones to get extra juice if needed.

What it does best: The MicroTrack II is so small and convenient you won’t hesitate to carry it around with you. And, the operating system is about as idiot-proof as it comes; you can definitely figure it out under pressure, and use it on a gig the day you get it. Although this unit doesn’t have musician-oriented features, it does have additional goodies, like being able to record to files larger than 2GB—something most portable recorders can’t do, because they use the FAT32 memory formatting system for memory cards (so does the Micro- Track II, but they’ve figured out a way around that). It’s also easy to put in markers (Broadcast Wave Format) while recording, so when you bounce files into the computer, you can find what you want. It’s also rich with I/O, including S/PDIF and RCA line outs, 1/4" balanced TRS mic/line ins with switchable phantom power, 1/8" stereo mic in, and headphone out.

Limitations: Like the Korg MR-1, the battery is not user-replaceable although you can send power through the USB in during an emergency. When the battery does die, it’s about $70 to get it replaced by the factory. Storage is to Compact Flash cards; there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but SD cards are more current and smaller/lighter.

Bottom line: The MicroTrack II’s small size, sound quality, and low price definitely put it on the short list of portable recorders. It’s ideal for general-purpose applications (field sampling, journalism, recording), and simple to use.

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ZOOM H2

($334.99, WWW.SAMSONTECH.COM)

This is another second-generation device, following up Zoom’s H4. It seems Zoom’s forte is to include a feature set like “the other guys,” throw in some innovative aspects, then cut the price to the bone—and the H2 is no exception. Clearly designed for musicians as opposed to, say, journalists, the H2’s main claim to fame is an unusual approach to miking that allows for different miking configurations in a portable unit. It runs off alkaline/rechargeable batteries, or AC power.

What it does best: The H2 is the only device in this roundup that’s intended to capture audio suitable for surround. It does this with two sets of mic pairs, one on the front and one on the rear, with each pair configured in a dual X/Y configuration (90 degrees front, 120 degrees rear). You can use the 90 degree mics when you want to record a narrow field, the 120 degree mics for recording something broader (like a full band), or record on all four channels. You can mix these to stereo, or if you have surround sound encoding software, the tracks can provide source material for 5.1 surround files. It’s also compact, and comes with a 512MB SD memory card. Musician-oriented features include a metronome, tuner, three types of dynamics control, and the ability to use it as an audio interface via the USB connector. It also does time-stamping.

Limitations: The H2 can’t record files bigger than 2GB (although it can handle 16GB SDHC cards), and while it can record the raw materials for surround, you'll need authoring software— try www.wavosaur.com. Also, sampling rates are limited to 44.1/48kHz for WAVs in 4-channel mode, although it can do 96kHz for stereo. Furthermore, while the builtin mics are convenient, you have to be careful with placement—if you rest it on a surface, then use the included tripod with rubberized feet to minimize vibrations. There’s a maximum of 10 folders for stereo files, and one folder for 4-channel recordings.

Bottom line: This is one of the most cost-effective offerings, and exceeds expectations. However, the surround capabilities are unique—if that’s something you want, this is the only game in town.

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TASCAM DR-1

($399, WWW.TASCAM.COM)

While a little bulkier than, say, the MicroTrack II or H2, the front panel buttons make for good targets, and there’s plenty of room on the sides of the casing for connectors. I/O is one 1/8" stereo jack (with plug-in power) for external Mic 1, 1/4" jack for external Mic 2, 1/8" stereo line in, and 1/8" stereo line/headphones out. The battery is user-replaceable and you can buy several if you’re concerned about running out of juice; the battery recharges via USB or an optional AC adapter. The mics can rotate 90 degrees as a pair, which is useful if you want to change the mic direction depending on whether the unit is standing up or lying down.

What it does best: For starters, the DR-1 comes with a 1GB SD cartridge, which saves you a few bucks but it also accepts up to 32GB SD HC cards—that’s a lot of memory. It’s very musician-oriented, with not just dynamics control while recording, but the ability to overdub onto an existing recording—this is a killer feature for songwriters who want to add, say, a harmony to a vocal or lead guitar part on top of a rhythm part. And because the original file is not overwritten, you can keep overdubbing; every time you overdub, it generates a new file with the mix of the original file and the overdub. Other musician-friendly features include time stretching (change speed while keeping pitch constant, or vice-versa), center-channel cancel to zap vocals, loop playback, effects you can apply while recording (seven reverbs, treble boost, chorus, autopan, lo-fi), tuner (chromatic and pitch), and metronome.

Limitations: As with units having built-in mics, placement is crucial although like the other units, you can use external mics if needed. And while only one other recorder has a highimpedance input for guitar, given the overdubbing capabilities I was hoping the DR-1 would have an instrument input; it doesn’t. Finally, while the mics do rotate, they don’t have the same flexibility as some other offerings.

Bottom line: TASCAM is synonymous with “musician-friendly,” and that philosophy permeates the DR-1. Besides, if you want to do overdubs, it’s your only choice; I’d consider this the top pick for songwriters.

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YAMAHA POCKETRAK 2G

($450, WWW.YAMAHA.COM)

When you open up the box, you can’t help but wonder where the rest of the recorder is—the Pocketrak 2G is the smallest, slickest, and lightest of all the recorders covered here. If you’re going undercover and want to record something without anyone knowing it, this is the one to choose. But what do you give up in return? Well, not much. The 2GB of internal memory is nonremovable/ replaceable, and the I/O is limited. But that’s pretty much it. It even has a retractable, full-size USB connector so that in a pinch, you can plug it directly into a computer and you don’t need to carry an extra cable.

What it does best: Not only is it so portable there’s no excuse not to carry it on you at all times, the battery will probably be up to the task as well: The Pocketrak 2G comes with an AAA “eneloop” rechargeable battery that gives about 19 hours of stereo recording time (assuming the backlight is off). That’s phenomenal, but a standard AAA alkaline battery gives even longer recording time— about 25 hours. Yes, we definitely have a candidate here for the “power management of the year” award. Like the TASCAM, the built-in mics sit at the top of the unit, and rotate as a pair within a 90 degree range; unlike most other units, it has a speaker for monitoring. And if you want to use it as a portable music player, the Pocketrak 2G supports WMA as well as MP3 (you can record in those formats, as well as standard PCM). On top of all that, it’s also super-easy to use, there are faster/slower playback options, the package includes a free copy of Cubase AI, and you can passwordprotect individual files.

Limitations: You can’t expand/replace the memory, and there are no “musician” features like a tuner, metronome, etc. Also, the only I/O is an 1/8" mic/line input and 1/8" output—so don’t expect to plug in your guitar. But with something this small, you’d probably want to use the built-in mics anyway to retain the small size advantage. And be careful not to misplace this little wonder box—the dog might eat it.

Bottom line: This is definitely a gear lust kinda item; once you hold it in your hand, you want it just because it’s so darn cute and compact. While perhaps not as versatile as some of the other recorders, it packs serious punch in a Lilliputian package.

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OLYMPUS LS-10

($449.95, WWW.OLYMPUS.COM)

New kids on the block? In the music industry, yes . . . but when it comes to recording, no. The build quality grabs you immediately: The LS-10 has a solid, substantial feel, with an aluminum metal frame surrounded by a sturdy plastic body. Nothing about it feels cheap, or like any corners were cut. The mics are very good. They’re in a fixed 90 degree pattern and can’t be moved, but the LS-10 includes a function called “Zoom Mic” that provides four different spatial options, from a highly directional mono sound to seriously expansive stereo. This works well, but only with the internal mics, and only when recording at 44/16 PCM. I/O is the standard set of options: 1/8" stereo mic in with switchable plugin power, 1/8" stereo line in, and 1/8" stereo headphone out.

What it does best: Aside from the quality feel, the LS-10 not only includes 2GB of internal flash memory, but accommodates an additional SD card, from 512MB to 8GB while getting about 12 hours from two AA batteries—excellent. (Speaking of which, it also has the easiest battery cover to remove and replace of all the machines.) Record/playback formats are WAV, MP3, and WMA; I like WMA, as it saves much space compared to WAV but sounds better than MP3. Surprisingly, the monitor speakers are stereo—but even more surprisingly, they actually sound reasonably good. The package is well-accessorized, with a free copy of Cubase LE4; aside from the expected USB cable, there’s also an 1/8" stereo mini male-to-male extension cord, carrying case, strap, and wind screens for the mics. There are also several useful optional-atextra cost accessories, like a wireless remote (although it isn’t as complete as the one included with the Edirol, offering only record, play, and pause), noise-canceling mic and telephone recording device ($19.95 each), twochannel pro mic set with tripods (around $230), etc.

Limitations: File sizes are limited to 2GB for WAV and 4GB for MP3 and WMA. And while the battery life is good, you can’t recharge batteries via USB or with the LS-10’s optional AC adapter; you have to use a separate charger. The solution is to always have some spare batteries sitting around, or buy the Olympus Quick Charger.

Bottom line: This is a class act, from the build quality to the features. You won’t find “musicianspecific” aspects (although you can loop a section of audio), but the sound quality, durability, and overall operation are impressive.

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SONY PCM-D50

($599.95, WWW.SONY.COM)

Sony shifted the flash-RAM-meetsportable- recording scene into high gear when they introduced the very successful PCM-D1; now we have the PCM-D50, which is less than a third as much. Limitations compared to its big brother are few: The mics and preamps aren’t on quite the same level, there are no retro analog meters, and the frame is aluminum, not titanium. Functionality is quite similar, though, including the built-in 4GB of memory with a slot to add Sony’s Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo for more recording time (a 4GB stick costs about $60–$65). Although larger in size than the average portable recorder, the PCMD50 feels more like a “field recorder” than a pocket-size “notebook recorder.” It includes speed change from –75% to +100%, and a wired remote (to control recording) is optional. As with the MicroTrack II, the PCM-D50 can handle files larger than 2GB. Bonus: It includes Sound Forge Audio Studio LE for editing files.

What it does best: The mics rotate outward for a 120 degree pickup pattern, or inward for an X-Y type of pickup, or anywhere in between (they can also be parallel). This gives a lot of flexibility, and a small “roll bar” protects the mics from being hit— great idea. But if you prefer to use a different mic, there’s the usual 1/8" jack with a plug-in power switch. As to power, the PCM-D50 requires four AA cells, which contributes to a record time of about 14 hours when also monitoring— about 20 hours for playbackonly— which means a lot of music before you have to think about batteries. Another very cool feature is prerecording, which lets you record up to five seconds of sound prior to the time recording started. There's an "intelligent" limiter than can banish distortion by seamlessly substituting a track recorded at a lower level (very cool!), and the record level control has a small shield over it to prevent accidental changes.

Limitations: The batteries can’t be recharged while sitting in the unit; they need an external charger. And I’m never thrilled with non-standard formats, like using the Pro-HG Duo memory stick instead of the SD memory that most others have adopted. However, given 4GB of internal memory, there are few scenarios where that isn’t enough.

Bottom line: It’s a Sony, and they’ve been down this road before—the PCMD50 is a serious, quality, pro piece of gear for real world recording.

AMERICAN AUDIO

POCKET RECORD ($209.95, WWW.AMERICANAUDIO.US)

This is larger than average, doesn’t look particularly sophisticated, and isn’t exactly feature-packed compared to costlier models—but it’s also the least expensive one in the roundup by far. In that context, there’s definitely value for money. It’s clearly designed to be a general-purpose device for such tasks as interviews and recording music, but nonetheless has a few features that are not expected with a product in this price range. It runs off two standard AA batteries (included) or rechargeables, but you can also run it from a USB 5V adapter.

What it does best: Not put a dent in your wallet would have to be the main thing it does best. But Pocket Record has some cool extra features. It includes two built-in mics and a built-in monitor speaker, but also has two audio inputs with associated level controls. These can use the two lavalier mics included with the player, but also, they can mix with the built-in mics so you could, say, rap over a drum machine that’s also being recorded. It also has a switch to match the input to mic, line, or guitar-level signals (kudos for the instrument input). Furthermore, because there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, it’s very easy to use: Once you’ve figured out the nine front panel buttons, you’re pretty much covered. By the way, it records both WAV and MP3.

Limitations: It handles SD cards up to 4GB, but that’s the upper limit. Audio quality is on the lower end of the scale compared to higher-priced units, but it’s certainly acceptable for most applications. Due to its size (and input volume knobs) the Pocket Record isn’t particularly ergonomic, but it can fit in a decent-sized shirt pocket. Subjectively it feels somewhat klunky rather than sleek—but of course, that doesn’t really affect performance.

Bottom line: If I was a journalist doing interviews, this would be ideal; having two lavaliers included might indicate American Audio thinks the same way. Besides, it’s really inexpensive, and more run time is just a couple AA batteries away.

ALL HAIL LO-FI!

Sometimes what sounds “good” and what sounds “right” can be mutually exclusive. Case in point: your raw, dirty, filthy and visceral music styles. Think garage punk, screamo, hardcore techno, and black metal.

Even if you’re not a fan, consider the early ’90s recordings out of Norway, particularly black metal. The lo-fi atmosphere and vibe was there because that’s all the dudes back then had access to—but that’s also what cemented their sonic values into the permanent world-wide lexicon of the cult underground.

Nowadays, so many bands have it back asswards, trying to get their fancy plug-ins, expensive mics, and purty DAWS to make gnarly and visceral sounds. But it never sounds like you were actually in a dank concrete room with a bunch of maniacs playing music so fiercely it barely held together. It was the vibe that made it sound good.

Using a portable recorder (I favor Sony’s PCM-D50) can open up a huge range of applications beyond getting some nice bytes of your cracker-loving parrot for your “wild kingdom” project: It can also provide a quick, easy, and effective way to document your super hard and/or evil band’s practice sessions. You’ll be glad you did when you hit it big in the global underground circuit, and your numbered-in-blood practice demos sell for $100 on eBay.

But when you have kinder, gentler intentions, like recording an opera recital of the stunning diva you somehow convinced to be in your rock band, or capturing the gentle lapping of ocean waves on the beach, a portable recorder will also give wonderful results. Besides, what’s more rock and roll—setting up your laptop DAW, or whipping a shiny little recorder out of your pocket and pressing record? —Roberto Martinelli

10 MORE WAYS TO USE YOUR PORTABLE RECORDER

1. Leave the iPod at home. Well, unless you’re using one of those portable recorder thingies (e.g., Alesis and Belkin) that’s based on recording into an iPod. Thanks to removable media, you can store gigabytes of your favorite music, pop it into your recorder, and use it for listening.
2. Better pre-show music. Don’t like what the FOH mixer is playing before you take the stage? Load up your portable recorder with suitable preshow music, and ask (politely!) if that can be played instead.
3. Better live sound. Bring a studio recording of your band’s music on your recorder, and pump the sound through the PA while setting up. This will give you valuable clues about how the venue will alter your sound, making it easier to “tweak” the PA.
4. Are your songs in order? Another playback application: Bounce over the cuts for your new album. Most recorders have an easy way to change the playback order, so you can determine what songs work well together. If all else fails, alter the song order in your computer, then bounce back into the recorder via USB.
5. Better than calling your answering machine and singing into it. Carry your portable recorder around with you at all times, the way a photographer always has a camera handy, so you can capture anything important that pops into your mind.
6. Recording rehearsals and performances. Hook a portable recorder to your mixer’s recording outs or an aux out during rehearsals and performances. With even relatively small memory cards able to record several hours of music, just press Record, and go.
7. Record your audience. I learned this from Frank Heiss, the first guy to turn me on to using portable recorders live (back in the days of Minidisc). He would go out into the audience and record people saying things, then later on, while he was onstage, play back some of the more interesting fragments. Way cool.
8. The nearly infinite sampler. A portable recorder can be a sampler with hours of sampling time. While you can’t play a melody on it, you mark where pieces of audio begin and name them, making it easy to cue up the right sample for either recording or live performance.
9. The audio-for-video helper. When I record soundtracks or narration for video, it seems the videos are much more effective if there’s some ambience mixed in the background. But of course, it doesn’t have to be the ambience of the place itself: For example, I have several recordings of people milling around at conventions, which comes in handy when I need a “you are there” vibe.
10. Tuning tones. Although some portable recorders are musicianoriented and include tuners, if not, then record some standard tones (e.g., E-A-D-G-B-A if you’re a guitarist) in your recorder. If possible, write-protect the file—that way you’ll always have a “virtual pitch pipe.” —Craig Anderton

ESSENTIAL ACCESSORIES

Additional recording media. With card-based solid-state recorders—by far the majority—carry plenty of memory cartridges, unless you’ve also brought a computer to which you can transfer files during down time.
Additional power. Bring batteries, or if you have compatible connectors, use the Energizer brand cell phone chargers with mini-USB outs to recharge on the go, or provide “auxiliary power.”
Mics. The mics included with many recorders are surprisingly good, but it’s worth taking some quality external mics. However, also bring a decent but really inexpensive mic you’re not afraid to lose. Use it for recording explosions, going into an angry mob to grab some cool samples, etc.
Plastic freezer bag. If there’s rain, ocean spray, or other environmental nastiness, put the recorder in the bag and seal it up. If you still need to record, use external mics and feed the mic cable out one corner of the bag; it’s almost certain you’ll be able to manipulate the buttons and work things while it’s in the bag. Do watch out for heat buildup, though.
Notepad. Keep notes on what you’ve recorded, as most devices auto-name files. Unless you take the time to rename them on the spot, you might not remember which files are important.
Noise-canceling earphones, or in-ear earphones that block outside noise as much as possible. These make it easier to monitor what your recorder is recording.
Lots of adapters. Be prepared to get signals from, or send signals to, anything from 1/8" mini-connectors to phono to whatever. In particular, bring an extension cord for any external mic you might be using..
Mini-USB cable. Or whatever your recorder likes; don’t leave home without one. Or two..
Carrying case to hold all this stuff. Many recorders come with carrying pouches, but you’ll also need something bigger for accessories. Small camera bags do the job just fine..
Digital audio editor, if you’re carrying a laptop. It’s helpful to be able to transfer sounds from your memory card to your computer and trim out the dross while any recording is still fresh in your mind. —Craig Anderton