I was asked by a missionary friend last year to help advise him on the type of microphone he needed to record his radio program each day. He already owned a good digital voice recorder (the Zoom H4). My focus was to set him up with a workflow that would take advantage of the equipment he already owned.
We bought a dynamic microphone to give him good ambient noise rejection since he does not always record in a sound booth (but occasionally does). This helps dampen or eliminate sounds that are not directly in front of the mic. With the voice recorder he owns there are inputs for XLR and 1/4″ TRS type mic inputs. This made it easy to get a standard mic from a local music store.
A year later I am reconsidering my advice to him in this matter. Though the setup I gave him will get him the best possible recording from the equipment he has, he is not using it in the most efficient and effective manner. Had I spent more time with him finding out how he planned to use the equipment I would have realized that he should sell the digital recorder and put the money towards a USB mic so that he could record directly into his computer. The quality would not be as good as he is capable of now, but the system would be less complex for him to use.
My friend uses the Zoom recorder as a USB interface to his computer. This allows him to plug in his dynamic mic to the recorder and pass the sound through to Garage Band directly. The recorder does nothing more than give him a USB connection on the end of his XLR dynamic mic. On paper I can argue why this is a bad idea and why he can do much better with the equipment he has. However, it took him some time to learn to use Garage Band with the built in mic on his computer. Teaching him how to navigate the menus on a recorder which has a notoriously bad interface would mean that he needed to learn much more than he was interested in learning. [Not everyone is a geek who loves learning what each little knob and button does.]
What are the advantages to recording straight into the computer? Why would I think my friend could do better with the equipment he has?
Advantages of Recording Into a Voice Recorder
If you have a good quality digital voice recorder that will accept an external mic you have a system that is flexible and can provide superior recordings. I say ‘can,’ but that does not mean that it will always be better. It should never sound any worse than recording directly to your computer, but can easily sound much better.
Less Noise: A digital voice recorder can result in better quality audio because there are no moving parts. This means there doesn’t need to be fans whirring in the background to make the recorder work. When using a computer to record, you always have the likelihood of your computer’s fan starting up. If the fan cycles louder and softer throughout the recording, then you will have more problems removing the noise with a noise removal process in software after the recording is done. My preference is to record into a digital recorder without even having a computer in the room.
Graceful Hardware Failure: A digital voice recorder can fail, but the chance is less than a computer. How many times have you been using your computer and a program just quits? Or, the whole machine shuts off? Most of the time it is not a problem, it is just inconvenient. However, if you were 45 minutes into an hour long recording, it would be much more than just an inconvenience. Depending on how your recording software works, it may mean that you lose the whole recording. Most digital voice recorders stream to their flash memory and if the recorder dies because of dead batteries, or has a hardware failure (including being knocked to the floor during recording), the part that was recorded up to that point is still safe.
Better Microphone Options: Not every mic will work with a computer. If your church already has microphones that you use for recording your church service, you should be able to make any of them work with a good quality digital recorder. Computers are limited to USB mics and electret mics. Both are overly sensitive. They pick up much more noise than you want unless you are recording in a sound booth. While there are many things to consider when choosing a microphone, a good general rule of thumb is that if you don’t absolutely know what you want, get a dynamic mic. The most popular—and for good reason—is the Shure SM58. There are other good mics, but you won’t regret investing in an SM58.
Portability: A digital recorder is more compact and less cumbersome than a setup involving a computer and microphone. You can use the built in mic with the recorder or have an external mic and still be less bulky than a computer. I carry my whole recording setup—mic, recorder and every cable or adapter I might need—in a small fanny pack.
Advantages of Recording Into a Computer
Visual Feedback: Most digital recorders have small displays, or none at all. With a computer using Garage Band or Audacity you can clearly see the waveform that is being recorded. Theoretically you will know as soon as a problem crops up in your audio.
Familiar Controls: Recording software on a computer can be much more flexible while maintaining a certain simplicity. The aforementioned poor user interface of the Zoom H4 is complicated. I had to write out a half-sheet of typed instructions for my friend to turn it on and use it as a USB interface. Simple recording isn’t much easier. A computer program doesn’t have the problem of few buttons providing multiple features depending on whether you push, pull or twist the knob.
Mic Interface: While you can get better mics at a cheaper price for a voice recorder, recording into a computer is fairly straight forward. If you have a USB mic you can plug it in and reasonably expect it to work. There are even some recent USB mics that approach the quality of similarly priced dynamic mics. But beware that the vast majority of them will pick up the snoring from your neighbor’s cat. There is little noise rejection and because you are using them with a computer, you will probably pick up fan noise and room echo. I don’t personally have experience with the Shure PG27-USB, but I have listened to recorded reviews with this mic and think it is a good USB option.
Which Should You Choose?
If you want a fairly simple setup then recording into your computer using a USB mic is probably the best choice. I, like many people I know, have lost whole recordings for unexplained reasons while recording into a computer. But for someone who is more interested in simplicity of recording and less interested in quality and exploring all the knobs, it is a good choice. This is the setup I should have recommended for my friend last year.
However, there are distinct advantages to using a digital voice recorder with an external mic. The portability and assurance that you will capture the recording are big selling points to me. The cost of a digital recorder and a high quality microphone will set you back less than a computer and a quality USB mic. Of course, you probably already have the computer; so that makes it hard to argue that the digital recorder route is cheaper. But it is also possible that you own a good quality microphone for your church ministry that you would not have to buy if you used a digital recorder.
Microphone technology and home recording are hobbies of mine. If you have questions about a specific recorder or microphone, then please let me know in the comments below and I will try to help.