Building your kit gets really expensive really quick. But I don’t have to tell you that. Instead, let me tell you something a little more useful. If you already happened to splurge on a pretty decent recorder, you can get away with a cheap microphone for quite a while. I have the facts to prove it too. I spent part of my weekend comparing how my Takstar SGC-598 (My very first microphone!) sounds when used with my three Zoom recorders. The H4n. H5, and F8 all performed relatively well for being paired with a $22 microphone.
Before we start, I will explain my recording conditions. Aside from a surprisingly loud refrigerator, I had an ideal recording situation in my hands. I positioned the SGC-598 less than two feet away from my mouth. Which allowed me to use a relatively low gain setting. I was in a mildly reverberant location but the Takstar held its own pretty well in that regard. The microphone was fixed to a tripod, so there was no handling noise at all. The only processing I did was to loudness normalize all tracks to -24 LUFS, which is the standard loudness for broadcast TV. Most internet videos are usually normalized to -16 LUFS, which is a good bit louder than -24, but I felt like I was pushing the limits of what I could do with this microphone by raising the loudness. Keep scrolling to hear the results.
Let me start off by stating that to my ears, not one recorder actually stood out. You’ll notice that while I’m monitoring I mention slight differences in quality. But once I normalized the audio, I could barely tell which recorder I was listening to. However, the H4n came slightly on top of the other two. If you listen with headphones and turn the volume all the way up, you’ll notice the STG’s self noise is there. But it never reaches a point that it becomes a serious issue. It can easily be taken care of with a little noise reduction.
Although the preamps on the H5 are rated to have more gain and a lower noise floor than the H4n’s (I have definitely noticed a difference with every XLR mic I’ve used) that definitely did not help it perform any better than its little brother. I’m still not sure what the reason for the H4n sounding better is, but I will run a few more tests before I go telling you it will outperform the H5 with any 3.5mm microphone. Again, the difference is marginal, barely even noticeable, but it’s there. Have a listen and see if you agree with me.
The F8 ended up sounding the worst (barely) of the bunch. This didn’t surprise me, really. I had to use a 3.5mm to XLR adapter as the F8 does not come with 3.5mm inputs. In the past, I used the Rode wireless filmmaker kit with said adapter and found that regardless of which recorder I used it on, I ended up with a worse signal than if I plugged it into a 3.5mm input. I still wouldn’t consider the audio completely unusable, but I would save this combination as a last resort. I have left my SGC home since upgrading my kit, but after this test, I think I will start taking it with me to use as a last resort.
To Summarize, having a nicer recorder will not help you if all you have is an ultra budget microphone. My advice would be to save up as much as you can to buy something in the $200 range or so. I picked up my NTG-2 for about that much and have loved how well it sounds. Just don’t pair it with an H4n. the weak preamps on the H4n will mean you will have to crank the gain nearly all the way up to get a barely decent signal. It works great with my other two recorders though. I hope this post helps at least one of you not make the same mistake I made. Because, although I love my H4n, I could have saved a pretty penny by going straight for the H5 if I’d done my research.