These location audio mixers and recorders will last

Good location-audio mixers and recorders help you control and preserve sound. They aren’t cheap, but they are worth the investment.

I’ll help you select the key components of a simple location-sound kit for working with just a few audio sources that will deliver uncompromised audio quality for many years, even as  your needs grow and change.

A previous article offers you some great choices of microphones and wireless systems to capture sound. In this article, we look at mixers and recorders to control and preserve sound.

Audio mixers

A good mixer performs four key tasks: Increasing your microphone’s signal without increasing noise through high-fidelity preamps, displaying the signal’s level with accurate and easy-to-read meters, routing the signal where you want it to go, and controlling the signal with transparent faders and limiters.

Limiters are basically compressors that prevent a signal from exceeding a user-set threshold and distorting. Good limiters enforce their threshold with minimal audio degradation; for example, if someone unexpectedly yells, good limiters minimize the odds of that speaker’s voice sounding distorted or compressed. Good limiters help us deliver good tracks in unpredictable situations.

Today, the two mixers I recommend for small audio kits are the Sound Devices MixPre-D ($930) and 302 ($1650). Both have outstanding preamps, metering, and limiters. And they’re rugged. The 302 has a few more features and one more input channel than the MixPre-D, but the two-channel MixPre-D provides uncompromised audio performance and can also function as a USB audio interface for Mac and Windows computers; it’s a solid choice. Even if your needs grow beyond the MixPre-D’s two channels, you’ll still find uses for this compact and flexible mixer.

Sound Devices MixPre-D field mixer

Sound Devices MixPre-D field mixer

Cameras without mixers don’t hold up

Compared to the Sound Devices mixers, every camera I work with, regardless of price, have crappier audio capabilities than these small mixers (the Arri Alexa and Amira come closest). But if you use a good mixer to feed line-level signals (or a good wireless signals) to a camera, then you can get good audio onto your camera media.

Same with those ubiquitous handheld audio recorders such as the Zoom H4N and Tascam DR-100; compared to a good audio mixer, they have inferior preamps, limiters, and control. Some cheap recorders don’t accept standard line-level signals and send all incoming audio through their preamps. Nonetheless, if you connect your microphones to a good mixer and use the mixer to feed one of those little recorders a strong signal, then you might be able to capture solid audio.

If you plan to record your audio on your camera, a basic mixer is all you need. But if you want to have more control over your audio and record it at the best-possible quality, consider a mixer with an integrated multitrack recorder.

Mixer with integrated recorder

No camera or cheap audio recorder will capture audio as reliably and well as that you can record with modern mixers that integrate their own multi-channel recorders. These compact devices combine the sonic quality and control of the best mixers along with truly uncompromised and reliable multitrack recording.

On the low end, the Zoom F4 ($650) and F8 ($1000) are creating some buzz. The F4 has four mic/line inputs and records eight tracks to two SD cards. The F8 has eight mic/line inputs and records 10 tracks to two SD cards. They offer good specs at a good price, but I’ve only demoed them and never used them in the field. Offhand, the preamps sounded OK. If I were to buy one, I’d choose the F4 over the F8. The F4 front panel feels less crowded, the trim knobs are bigger, and the black-and-white LCD display is more visible in bright light; all important issues when working in the field. And taking advantage of the key advantage of the F8, eight mic/line input channels, requires good audio chops. But these Zoom recorders are worth considering.

The two best-established small mixer/recorders are the Sound Devices 633 ($3250) and the Zaxcom Maxx ($3000). The 633 has three analog mic/line inputs and three additional three line-level inputs. It can record up to 10 tracks to CompactFlash and SD cards. The Maxx has four analog mic/line inputs, two line-level camera return inputs, two AES digital inputs; records 8 tracks to CompactFlash cards; optional integrated transmitter). Choosing between one or the other depends a lot on personal needs and preferences. But both have proven themselves in the field.

Sound Devices 633 mixer-recorder

Sound Devices 633 mixer-recorder

Zaxcom Maxx mixer-recorder

Zaxcom Maxx mixer-recorder

Accessories and book learning

Microphones, wireless systems, mixers, and recorders form the basis of a small field audio kit. But you’ll still need to reserve at least $2,000 for accessories including windshields and mounts for the mics, at least one boom pole, cables, batteries, a sound bag, perhaps a small timecode generator, and more. If you want to send two channels of high-quality audio to a camera budget $250 for a good breakaway cable or $1300 to $5000 for a wireless hop. These are all topics for another day.

And since all this equipment won’t be of much use if it’s not used well, spend some time learning the craft. Two good ways to get started are the books Location Audio Simplified by Dean Miles and Producing Great Sound for Film and Video by my friend Jay Rose. The books cost about $40 to $45 each and are worth it. But they’re not enough on their own. It takes a while to learn how to capture good sound. As several wiseass pundits have noted, it takes years of experience to get years of experience.


Jay Rose’s Producing Great Sound for Film and Video

So carefully consider if you want or need to spend the $5,000 to $15,000 to build a small professional kit. Would you rather rent a professional location-audio kit for about $400 per day when needed? Perhaps you’d prefer to hire a skilled location audio mixer who has great equipment (and backups) that she or he knows how to use to capture and record great audio in every situation?

Where to buy

Location audio is a specialized field, and it’s worth turning to specialized dealers for expert pre-sales advice to help you figure out what you really need and post-sales support to help you get the most out of what you buy (and to help get it fixed if something goes wrong). Sure, you can buy everything listed here at one of the huge “we have everything” stores. But these days speciality dealers offer prices the same as, or nearly the same as, the everything dealers. So their expertise doesn’t come at a higher price. US dealers I’ve had good experiences with include include Gotham Sound & Communication, Location Sound Corp., Professional Sound Services, and Trew Audio.