Choosing the Perfect Portable Digital Recorder

It seems like in today’s technologically crazy smartphone world, the smaller you make something, the better. Not only that, companies stuff these little gadgets  harder than clowns inside a tiny car, adding features most full-sized variants could have only dreamed of half a decade ago. Music gear is no different, especially when it comes to portable recording units.

There was once a time when the average size of a professional recording system rivaled that of a small bus, and was worth about twice as much. This left many musicians with very few options beyond getting a major label recording contract or buying one of those million dollar machines themselves. Luckily for us, today’s recording equipment can be had at a wide variety of price ranges and sizes, with even the most barebones unit topping anything that could have been achieved even a couple of decades ago.

When most people think about portable devices, they usually have an image of an underpowered “little brother” device that compromises the quality and features of its bigger brethren for its tiny form factor. While that might sometimes be the case, today’s portable technology is growing at a much faster pace with several "no compromise" portable devices coming out that are not only catching up in power and quality, but can actually rival traditional home recording setups.

For the musician on the go, we will be taking a look at a few of our popular brands of portable recorders from a variety of price options, giving you the details to help select what’s right for you. Don’t expect these pocketable products to do every single thing your 18-track at home can do, but most will be pleasantly surprised with the bevy of settings and features packed into most modern portable recorders. One thing's for sure, these ain’t your mom’s Casio tape recorders!


Zoom H2N Handy Recorder (PAL Price: $199.00)

H2N Handy Digital Recorder


Although not the smallest recorder on our list, throw this baby in your guitar bag or backpack and you’re good to go, although you can actually put it in your pocket, coming in just a bit heftier than the average smartphone. The Zoom H2N comes with all the standard bells and whistles you’d expect from today’s home recorders, such as a tuner, metronome, variable speed playback,  filters, compressors, as well as MP3 post encode for all you social media masters looking to quickly post up their latest creation into the wild's of the internet.

The H2N also comes equipped with a 1.8 inch screen, which makes adding tweaks and effects on the go that much easier. Although the user interface may seem slightly confusing at first, it doesn’t take long to before you’ll be comfortably adding effects, loops and filters wherever you're at. Those coming from other Zoom recording devices should have no problem working the H2N, as the company tends to keep settings uniform across all of their products.

 The H2N ships with a 2gb SD memory card (supports up to 32gb SDHC) and runs for about 20 hours on two AA batteries. All in all, for a couple of hundred bucks, you get a great deal and a very powerful device that fits in the palm of your hand, with a user friendly UI that lets even the most novice of musicians start recording like the pros.


Sony PCM-D50 (PAL Price: $599.95)

Sony PCM-D50 Digital Recorder

Coming in as the pricier option on our list, the PCM-D50 features an ultra sleek and compact design that you would expect to see from Sony, packing in a host of features and settings that truly rival its bigger competition. Essentially a slimmed down version of their full sized flagship PCM-D1 Digital Field Recorder, the PCM-D50 offers 24 bit / 96 kHz recording, two-position Electret Brand Condenser Stereo Microphones, and PC/MAC file transfer via USB 2.0.

The only real flaw some might have is the recorder’s use of Sony's proprietary Prostick Duo memory cards, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with anything Sony, but luckily the unit does come with 4gb of internal memory for about 6 hours of continuous recording.

The Sony PCM-D50 certainly feels like a no compromise device, combining everything you'd expect from a full-sized recorder in a very convenient package, at only a third of the price of the PCM-D1.


Line 6 BackTrack Portable Digital Recorder (PAL Price: $49.99)

Line 6 BackTrack Digital RecorderFor the budget conscious consumer, the BackTrack is a no nonsense digital recorder with a straight forward approach and very easy to use features. While not the baddest boy on the block, Line 6 was able to create an amazingly inexpensive product while retaining most everything you’d want from a portable recorder, although the device does lack the more complex features available on the H2N or the PCM-D50.

The BackTrack lets you record up to 16 hours of "better-than-CD" quality sound via its internal flash memory and comes with the standard USB 2.0, allowing you to connect to a PC or MAC.  While battery life might not be as robust as the H2N’s 20 hours, there’s no need for double A’s on this one, as the unit is fully equipped with a rechargeable internal battery.

One things clear, this wasn’t meant to replace your home recording setup, but for the price and decent list of features, no other recorder on the market can give you as much value for less than fifty bucks.


Selecting the Perfect Recorder to Fit your Needs

Depending on what kind of recording you're trying to achieve (or how much you’re willing to spend), one of these three will certainly fit the bill nicely. For those who just absolutely have to have all of the features of a full-fledged recorder in a pocket friendly package, Sony’s PCM-D50 has you covered.  If you’re not looking to spend much and really just need something you can have at all times, just in case your next big hit happens to come to you on your way to work, the BackTrack is the way to go. Not so much a studio in your pocket but definitely gets the job done. Need something a bit more in the middle? Zoom’s H2N Handy Recorder will fit you like a glove, giving you unparalleled balance of portability, power and price. While the H2N won’t be replacing your home set up anytime soon, its user friendly UI along with its impressive list of features and excellent battery life make this digital recorder one you can’t ignore.

In the end, it all comes down to what you need and how much you need it for, but no longer will you have to sacrifice between power and portability. And while some of these “portables” won’t fit as comfortably in your pocket as a smartphone…  neither can a guitar, so throw these suckers in your gig bag and get ready to make that masterpiece!


Dont forget to check out plenty of other selections at our Digital Recorder section.

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