What's the Difference Between a $200 Field Recorder and $900 Audio Interface?

https://youtu.be/TRoIMPHS91U I've been using a Tascam DR-60DmkII Audio Field Recorder to capture the audio for my film projects and am quite happy with the results in almost every case. And while I'm really happy with the Tascam, the DR-60DmkII isn't perfect. The build is quite plasticky and the battery life isn't amazing. So I attached a massive USB battery to the back of the recorder with industrial grade velcro and that powers the recorder for longer than I am able to measure (I suspect about 50 hours because I have to charge it every other month or so). And that's with the recorder phantom powering mics.

But why do the pros use things like Sound Devices and Zaxcom field recorders that cost thousands? Is it that the pre-amps are night and day better? Better build quality? Better analog to digital converters? Lower self-noise in the signal path? More audio processing features built-in?

Here's my guess:

  • More durable build quality as in solid metal or carbon fiber body, bigger, more durable potentiometers (the fader knobs)
  • Cleaner pre-amps with more gain
  • Better analog to digital and digital to analog converters. In practical terms this should result in being able to capture a greater dynamic range in terms of amplitude (just like on cameras where a camera with more dynamic range can differentiate between a wider range of luminance values and often makes for more pleasant highlight rolloff)
  • More routing options, and especially more pro grade outputs (XLR outs, sometimes just stereo, but sometimes even more). At a practical level, this makes it so that you can meet requirements that often come with higher budget shoots. For example, while you'll record the production audio on your pro-level audio recorder, you'll also send a stereo mix to camera
  • Often, more robust powering options either built-in or by using robust connectors for external batteries and AC adapters.
  • High quality timecode generators

I have my suspicions and I think it might be time to test two of these hypotheses: Cleaner pre-amps with more gain and better analog to digital converters.

Sound_Devices_USBPRE_2

To do that, I sort of wanted to dip my toes in the water without making a huge financial commitment. So the very kind folks at B&H have arranged to lend me a Sound Devices USBPre 2. No this is not exactly a field recorder, it is more of an audio interface that you would normally pair with your desktop computer. However, it has the same pre-amps and AD converters that all of the 7xx series recorders from Sound Devices have. So that allows us to compare the difference of those two dimensions in the real world.

SoundDevices USBPre 2

SoundDevices USBPre 2 Back

The USBPre 2 looks like a pretty interesting desktop audio interface. In terms of specs, it is better spec'd than my current Focusrite Saffire Pro 24DSP in terms of AD dynamic range and amount of gain. But specs, of course, never tell the entire story. And in fact, this would be a step back in some ways from the Focusrite in terms of the signal processing that the Focusrite offers - real time compression and EQ. And while I don't use the EQ all that much, I do sometimes use that compressor when recording live like on Google Hangouts. No biggie. It isn't like I have to get rid of my Focusrite if I were to invest in the USBPre 2.

Its on it's way so standby for updates over the next few weeks and let me know if there are any specific questions or curiosities you might like to explore in the test.