In this article, we’ll cover the top 5 cheap audio recorders for filmmaking on a budget. 

I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again: don’t rely on your camera to capture audio. It’s not that your camera isn’t able to record sound, it’s that it isn’t any good. 

Just like you wouldn’t order a cheeseburger from the handwritten back page of your local Chinese restaurant’s menu labeled “American Food,” you shouldn’t expect quality results beyond what your camera is intended to do. 

That’s where audio recorders come in and for videographers pinching pennies while they get off the ground, this list is a great place to pick one that’s best for you.

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5 of the Best Cheap Audio Recorders for Filmmaking

Zoom H1n Digital Handy Portable Recorder and 16GB Deluxe Accessory Bundle with Xpix Pro Lavalier Mic + Tripod + AAA Batteries + Fibertique Cloth

Zoom H1n

Not to be confused with the now ubiquitously popular video-conferencing software company of the same name, Zoom Corporation is a Japanese audio company that specializes in recording equipment, audio interfaces, and drum machines. Founded in 1983, the company has developed a strong brand reputation for reliable video/music production solutions.

Many professionals (myself included) recall the Zoom H1n and its predecessor, the H1, as the cheap audio recorder they started filmmaking with. I learned a lot about levels, noise floors, and remembering to confirm the red light was indeed on with this recorder. The entry level recorder in Zoom’s H-series, the H1n is compact and lightweight with preamps that will make a noticeable improvement in your audio.  

While the Zoom H1 is still available for purchase, the H1n makes some notable improvements including an input level dial which is more ideal for adjusting gain in the middle of a recording than the otherwise noisy clicks of a button. It should be noted, however, that because of this dial you might not want to put this in a pocket where it’s liable to be bumped and inadvertently turned. 

Ideally, this recorder would be used for recording music, sound effects, or “person-on-the-street” interviews. It’s basically a point and click away from capturing sound like a babbling brook, running footfalls, or even a koala (you’d be surprised the way sound artists use a grunting koala). You’ll definitely want to pick up the foam and/or furry windscreens for recording outdoors. The H1n doesn’t do as great a job of capturing vocals as it tends to focus exclusively on the mid-range, but for starter gear I promise you’ll appreciate the difference from your camera’s audio. The H1n also comes in 5 different colors, so that’s fun.

Features & Specs

  • Input: ⅛” (3.5 mm) mic/line in jack
  • Output: ⅛” (3.5 mm) phone/line out jack
  • Storage: Up to 32 GB SD cards
  • Display: 1.25” monochrome LCD
  • Power requirements: 2 x AAA batteries, AC adapter
  • Battery life: Up to 10 hours
  • Accessories included: 2 x AAA batteries, Steinberg Cubase and WaveLab LE audio software, quick start guide
View & Check Price at Amazon!

Tascam DR-05x/DR-07x

Based in California but owned by the Japanese company, TEAC, Tascam is often considered the direct competitor to Zoom. Their offerings range from consumer to professional grade gear while focusing tightly on recording equipment. In production since 1971, Tascam has designed numerous industry-recognized products.

Tascam DR-05X Stereo Handheld Digital Recorder and USB Audio Interface, DR-05X (DR-05X)

The Tascam DR-05x and DR-07x are technically separate recorders but the only difference between the two is that the built-in microphones on the DR-05x are omni-directional and the DR-07x are uni-directional with the ability to switch the mics between A-B and X-Y positions.

Besides that, these two cheap audio recorders are excellent ambient sound recorders for filmmaking. Much has been made of the onboard condenser mics’ sound quality. Placed at the right distance from the source, self-noise isn’t an issue (as you can hear in the video below of an excellent acoustic guitar recording).

Additionally, the Tascam DR-07x doubles as an audio interface for your computer which basically means you can record directly into your favorite editing software like GarageBand or Adobe Premiere Pro. Possible applications include streaming, podcasts, and streamlined voiceovers. 

Unfortunately, the Tascam DR-05 and DR-07 are known for radio-interference issues. In short, radio waves from bluetooth, Wi-fi, and even microwaves are more likely to interfere with these recorders than their competitors. The key here is monitoring sound strictly, especially indoors, where RF signals can create a track-ruining buzzing noise.

On a positive note, the Tascam recorders come packaged with a ton of features like mono recording, overwrite functionality, even a tuner that makes this recorder a tiny little powerhouse of possibilities.

Features & Specs

  • Input: ⅛” (3.5 mm) mic/ext in jack
  • Output: ⅛” (3.5 mm) phone/line out jack
  • Storage: Up to 128 GB SD cards
  • Display: 128×64 pixel graphic LCD with backlight
  • Power requirements: 2 x AA batteries, AC adapter
  • Battery life: Up to 17.5 hours
  • Accessories included: 2 x AA batteries, instruction manual
View & Check Price at Amazon!

Tascam DR-10L Portable Digital Audio Recorder with Lavalier Microphone

Tascam DR-10L

Micro-recorders (discussed in more detail below) use of lavalier mics are better suited for vocals/dialogue than the previous two recorders. The Tascam DR-10L really puts the “micro” in micro-recorder with an ultra-compact form factor perfect for slipping into your talent’s pocket.

As far as sound is concerned, the noise floor from the recorder is low. The lavalier that’s included, on the other hand, does produce a little bit of hissing. However, if used in conjunction with an upgraded lavalier, the sound quality from this cheap audio recorder is good for filmmaking. Unlike the DR-05x, RF interference doesn’t seem to be an issue.

A notable feature of the DR-10L is the safety track, which records a second track at a lower gain in case the action on set suddenly gets very noisy and the gain setting on your original track was too high. 

The OLED screen is the smallest display on the list, but Tascam has managed to make the user interface simple and effective despite such a tiny readout.

Though it appears diminutive, the compact recorder is a pretty solid blend of metal with plastic. The belt clip is particularly strong which is good because it’s the area likely to be subjected to the most wear. The locking ⅛” jack is also a plus for durability concerns.

Features & Specs

  • Input: ⅛” (3.5 mm) mic/line in
  • Output: ⅛” (3.5 mm) phone out
  • Storage: Up to 32 GB SD card
  • Display: Organic EL display
  • Power requirements: 1 x AAA battery
  • Battery life: At least 10 hours
  • Accessories (included): lavalier microphone, windscreen, custom case, belt clip, instruction manual
View & Check Price at Amazon!

Zoom F1-LP

The F1-LP is Zoom’s micro-recorder answer to the Tascam DR-10L and it’s pretty easy to see why. They both come with the same inputs, outputs, battery life, storage capacity, and inclusion of a lav mic.

Still, the F1 differs in a couple of key ways, most obviously, its size. The slightly bulkier build of the F1 owes in part to making room for a nifty feature of many recorders in the Zoom family: the interchangeable capsule system. Zoom offers six different attachable capsules (sold separately) including a shotgun mic, a mid-side mic, and the XY mics standard to the Zoom H5 and H6. If you decide to take the Zoom route, these capsules offer a lot of interchangeable flexibility for a recorder like the F1. 

Zoom F1-LP Lavalier Body-Pack Recorder, Audio for Video Recorder, Records to SD Card, Battery Powered, Includes Lavalier Microphone

But if you’re just going to stick to using a lavalier, the sound quality is good and free from RF interference. If you have a better lavalier or expect to upgrade in the future, the built-in preamps maintain an impressively low noise-floor for its price range.

Unfortunately, Zoom has neglected to include a safety track feature which makes leaving the recorder clipped to your talent a little more precarious. If you expect to be setting and forgetting a recorder like this on many of your shoots, the Tascam might look like the better option, especially with its smaller profile.

On the other hand, the Zoom F1 embraces its bulk with a very durable construction. Honestly, it kinda asks to be dropped (not that I’m recommending it) but it is nice if you’re going to be living life on-the-go with this tough, but cheap audio recorder for filmmaking.

Features & Specs

  • Input: Zoom mic capsule / ⅛” (3.5 mm) mic/line in
  • Output: ⅛” (3.5 mm) phone out
  • Storage: Up to 32 GB SD cards
  • Display: 1.25” monochrome LCD
  • Power requirements: 2 x AAA batteries, AC adapter
  • Battery life: 9-16 hours
  • Accessories included: LMF-1 lavalier microphone, windscreen, mic clip, belt clip, 2 x AAA batteries, quick guide
View & Check Price at Amazon!

Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1' Black

Sony ICD-UX560

One does not simply give a brief company history for the tech/entertainment giant that is Sony Corporation. But in a word: “conglomerate” does nicely. Started in 1945 after the end of World War II (which seems to be a theme of these audio electronic companies), Sony has proven success in just about every entertainment sector they compete in. Sidenote: Sony is also the company responsible for threatening to cut the best version (imo) of Spider-Man out from the MCU. Kindly remove those corporate scissors from my nerdy little heartstrings.

Technically, the Sony ICD is designed more for voice memos and less for music/film production but the incredible ease of use and ultra-thin profile make it a strong contender for our list. If optimizing sound quality isn’t that important to you, the Sony ICD offers more portability and convenience than any other recorder here. The way the ICD slips into a pocket makes you think you’d never know it’s there.

The ICD’s storage is limited to 4 GB built-in memory, but that’s still five and half hours of recording time at the highest quality settings. At first I thought that having the storage capabilities of a 32 GB made me feel somehow technically superior, but after all of the projects I’ve used my Zoom H5 on, I am resigned to the fact that I will never use 32 GB of recording time in one go, not even close. My longest recording time is a half an hour to an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Is the “comfort” of knowing I can record another 99 hours really worth the added bulk? I’m not so sure. 

Adding to the convenience is the internal rechargeable battery which means you never have to worry about hauling around a set of spares and keeping them charged. Sony has also cleverly implemented a rapid charge feature that will give you a spare hour of recording time after plugging in the charger for just three minutes. Files can also be quickly transferred to the computer with a built-in USB plug-in. 

You can hear the sound quality in the video below which also makes the excellent point that though the ICD may not be the most technically superior, it enables you to create more content and enjoy the process more. In my humble opinion, you can’t beat that philosophy of gear.

Features & Specs

  • Input: ⅛” (3.5 mm) mic/line in
  • Output: ⅛” (3.5 mm) phone out
  • Storage: 4 GB built-in memory
  • Display: LCD backlight
  • Power requirements: Built-in lithium battery
  • Battery life: Over 24 hours
  • Accessories (included): Operating instructions
View & Check Price at Amazon!

Choosing between handy recorders and micro-recorders

You might be wondering what the difference is between the Zoom H1n/Tascam DR-05x (handy recorders) and the Zoom F1/Tascam DR-10L (micro-recorders). While they all circle the same affordable price range and can all be used to perform essentially the same functions, the handy recorders excel at ambient sound recording while the micro-recorders are geared towards vocal/dialogue recording.

Microphone convenience

The built-in microphones of the H1n and DR-05x should give you a clue that they are intended to be pointed directly at and placed close to the source. While this makes them great for music and sound effects, it makes them a little more difficult to place if you need to hide the recording device.  

On the other hand, the idea behind micro-recorders is shrinking the technology into the palm of your hand and attaching a lavalier mic so that it can be hidden on the talent. These pocket-sized recorders are perfect for run-and-gun projects with one source of dialogue.

If you’re still looking for a lavalier mic, the Zoom F1-LP and Tascam DR-10L are pretty slick because you’re killing two orders with one purchase. You get a recorder and a microphone that is basically a wireless lav system without the connectivity concerns of operating a transmitter and receiver.

Syncing inconvenience

Granted, since the micro-recorder is running independently of your camera you will have to sync up the audio later which some people think is a hassle. But many professional non-linear editors such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere are able to sync the camera audio and recorder audio automatically. While syncing may add a minute or two, I think it’s easily worth the benefit of retaining a separate camera track for hearing other sounds and cues such as an interviewer’s questions that might not get picked up by the external microphone attached to the talent.

Monitoring drawbacks

The major drawback to running this closed system is that you aren’t able to monitor audio as it’s happening, I mean, unless you had ten feet of spare headphone cable and were somehow able to run it down the talent’s pants. But aside from just being awkward, you’d defeat the point of being wireless.

Safety tracks as backup

In reality, being unable to make sure everything is recording smoothly can be a little unnerving. That’s what makes the Tascam DR-10L’s “safety track” such a big deal. Still, if for some reason the recorder turns off or stops recording you still wouldn’t know it until after the take was finished. Take it from me, there’s few filmmaking feelings more sinking than realizing your perfect take is lost forever to the wind because you weren’t actually recording.

But at the end of the day, that’s the worst case scenario and I’ve heard plenty of praise for these micro-recorders. If your projects are low-stakes and reshooting isn’t the end of the world, then micro-recorders can be incredibly convenient tools for getting the audio job done.

Wrap-Up: Best Cheap Audio Recorders for Filmmaking

So do I choose Zoom or do I choose Tascam? 

The marketing hype is real, but hopefully by now you can see that choosing a recorder (or any product for that matter) should be less about the brand and more about how you’ll use it. The world has enough gear poster boys with far too little creative output to show for it! 

In other words, don’t work for the corporation, make the corporation work for you.

  • Looking for a handheld recorder for close-up sounds, check out the Zoom H1n
  • Looking for a feature-rich device ideal for music, check out the Tascam DR-05x
  • Looking for an easily hidden pocket pack for vocals and dialogue, check out the Tascam DR-10L
  • Looking for a tough, versatile recorder, check out the Zoom F1
  • Looking for an ultra-portable, super-convenient voice recorder, check out the Sony ICD

And for all your other gear-related questions, keep it bookmarked to JuicedLink.