In my mind there were three tiers of portable audio recorders: the low-end (under $400), the mid/high-range professional ( $401-$1,499), and the super premium recorders (more than $1,500). For years, this tripartite structure worked quite well. If you were aiming for professional recording, I would steer you to the mid/high-range recorders. However, the competition between Zoom and Tascam created a split in the middle category. These new mid-range recorders dropped down to $200-$300 and offered many professional features that were once reserved for the mid/high-range recorders. While the lower price mid-range was dynamic and exciting, the higher-range recorder category was completely stagnant in terms of offerings between $500 and $1,499. For years the Marantz PMD 671, the more obscure (but incredible) Fostex FR2-LE, and the Marantz PMD 661 (which I always felt was overpriced for what you were getting) stood alone in the category. While manufacturers were actively developing and releasing recorders under $500, the upper-end but still affordable professional category went virtually abandoned.
I focus most of my energies on testing and reviewing the low- and mid/high-range recorders because those are the recorders most academic and public sector field recordists (in oral history, folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, etc.) can generally afford. However, when it comes to portable audio recorders, you do still get what you pay for. The lower-end and the mid/high-range category recorders do pale in comparison to the super premium recorders like the Sound Devices 702 and 722 that ranged between $1,700 and $2,500. The Sound Devices 702 and 722 are incredible recorders used by the top tier of sound recordists, mostly being marketed to the television and film industries. The only oral history institutions that I knew were using these recorders on a large scale were Columbia University and the National Library of Australia. I had a few of these recorders at the Nunn Center and loved them, but I almost felt guilty every time I used one to record an interview, and as a policy we did not circulate the recorders to project partners. I do feel if you are doing professional interviewing or field recording, you should use a professional quality recorder, yet I just could not bring myself to make practitioners feel bad for not using the super premium recorders. So I settled and celebrated the virtues of the Tascam DR-100 mkII and the Zoom H5, dreaming and silently wishing we could have better options in the higher-end professional category.
In 2017, Sound Devices released the MixPre-3 and made my mid/high-range recorder dreams come true.
The Sound Devices MixPre-3 is one of the most professional quality recorders you can purchase for under $1,000, yet it is also very simple in both design and operation. As implied in the name, the MixPre-3 has three XLR microphone inputs which utilize the new Kashmir preamps that provide very clear, low-noise recordings. The recorder can record 24-bit/96kHz bwf-complient .wav files, and it can be used to record stereo or multitrack recordings.
I love the simplicity of the front face of the recorder, including illuminated “play,” “stop,” and “record” buttons, along with three high-quality channel knobs for adjusting input gain for each microphone. The face also includes a color touch-screen display for monitoring recording levels, as well as adjusting the recorder settings. The screen is very bright, but it is very small, making the touch screen somewhat challenging to navigate. Once the initial setup is completed, however, the small screen is sufficient for visually monitoring the recording levels. In addition to the levels on the screen, the MixPre-3 provides ring LEDs for monitoring levels. I found myself looking at those often while recording to assure myself which levels coincided with which meter.
If you ever utilized the Sound Devices 702 or 722, you noticed that the settings menu contained over 100 items. This recorder is far simpler to utilize, including a “basic” mode that presets common features, such as enabling the limiter, as well as an “advanced” and “custom” mode for users who want to completely customize their settings.
You can power the MixPre-3 via AC adapter (sold separately), four AA batteries (either alkaline, NiMH, or Lithium), or you can power the recorder via the USB-C port (which can be used for either power or for connecting to a computer in order to transfer files). Alkaline batteries will give you a little over one hour of recording time, NiMH batteries will give you two to three hours, and Lithium batteries will provide over three hours of estimated recording time (2-channels, 96kzHz, with phantom power on). According to Sound Devices, do not use Lithium batteries over 1.5v as they may damage the recorder. Sound Devices recommends Energizer Ultimate Lithium Batteries.
The removable battery sled in the rear of the recorder is my only complaint: it feels like a fairly flimsy piece of plastic. Additionally, I am not thrilled that they hid the port for the flash memory card behind the battery pack, but that is only a very small inconvenience when every other aspect of this recorder is so impressive. By the way, the MixPre-3 utilizes SD, SDHC, and SDXC flash cards with capacities up to 512gb.
A few notes about the MixPre-3. Sound Devices is actively making this recorder even better, so pay attention to the website for future firmware updates, as they have already issued several. In basic mode, this recorder is ready to record out of the box. If you want to have more control over the recorder, you will need to go into advanced or custom settings modes, which are not as easy and intuitive as basic mode (obviously). As simple as it is to use, this recorder may be a bit more complicated to utilize than some of the lower cost recorders, but with a good reading of the user guide and a few YouTube video tutorials, you will be up and recording like a professional in no time. Initial setup is a bit of a challenge, but once you get past the initial setup phase, this recorder is a game-changer. Also, if you are interviewing or creating field recordings, make sure you don’t buy the MixPre-3M. The MixPre-3M is designed for musicians and has elements like reverb, an “air” effect, and overdubbing, as well as some hardware differences. According to Sound Devices, the MixPre-3 is more optimized for field recording, and I trust them.
There is no doubt that this is an incredible audio recorder for under $700. We have purchased several for the Nunn Center and have begun circulating them for select projects. If you want to stretch above the Zoom and Tascam recorders in terms of overall quality, this recorder will be an enormous professional leap forward while still remaining in the under $1,000 category.
Memory: SD/SDHC/SDXC (up to 512 gb)
Sample rate /Bitdepth: 24/96 (3 channels)
Microphone Input type: 3 External Mic Inputs: XLR
Phantom Power: yes
Favorite Features: Kashmir preamps, limiter, size, ease of use
Notes: The color touch screen is very small, but it is so bright that it is rather easy to see. There is not an included power supply, so just go ahead and factor that into the cost. You may want to look into some of the battery accessories to give you more options for extending battery life.
Cost: $ 649