This is the recorder I chose to buy over the Zoom H4n.
Why I Chose the Sony PCM M10 Over the Zoom H4N
If you go to any audio forum such as taperssection or gearslutz or to most audio websites that focus on recording quality you will get a consensus opinion that the PCM M10 is better than the Zoom H4N if all you care about is recording clean audio. In the $200ish price range, the Sony PCM M10 and Olympus LS-11 are considered the best values for pure audio. The Zoom H4N has a lot of tricks in the bag many of which I did not need: multitrack recording, phantom power, xlr, etc…
I am a one man show and the thought have having multiple XLR cables wired into a recorder, or to be recording and monitoring multiple sources of audio simultaneously while still focusing on my DSLR is pretty laughable for an armature like myself. XLR was not an issue either since any mics I plug into the recorder would have short cable lengths. Unbalanced RCA cables are blown out of proportion, particularly if you are not recording in an environment with electrical interference or long cable lengths. In general you should have a lower noise floor with XLRs. Of course the Zoom H4N’s inferior preamp would negate the noise floor benefit of the XLR cable’s signal to noise ratio. I don’t want to bad mouth the Zoom H4N or anything. If I was recording multiple channels in a studio at home maybe I would opt for it, but from a field recording standpoint I think the PCM M10 is a better choice because:
The battery life will absolutely smoke the Zoom H4N. Recording for hours and hours and hours is not a problem. The recorder is tiny allowing you to stealth record stuff. It is so small that it can fit, with a Lowepro case, into my pocket. I can then shove my wallet and keys into that same pocket, and still have plenty of room. It truly is a tiny recorder for the amount of horsepower it packs. The preamp is amongst the best in it’s class, the mics are also considered to be better than the Zoom H4N’s internal mics, if I need to record a professional line level signal the PCM M10 can handle it (Zoom H4N won’t). Best of all? The recorder is tiny! And the battery life on this thing is insane. Sorry for repeating myself but those two aspects were the most important to me.
So why is the Zoom H4n the weapon of choice for indie filmmakers? Well, it packs a ton of features. You can position the mics for a nice stereo image, you can record 4 tracks, it takes XLRs and in my opinion the best features it has is phantom power. This means it will provide up to +48 volts of phantom power to TWO different mics. Holey smokes that is nice. My PCM M10 unfortunately does not provide phantom power, so I am limited to plug in power (good for lavaliers, electrets, and battery powered mics). If I ever need an ultra portable condenser mic rig, I can plug in a battery powered mic such as the Rode VideoMic Pro, or a Rode NTG2 and I will be good to go. Most professionals use external preamps such as Sound Devices and feed the signal via line in. If I had to summarize the PCM M10 I would say it has fewer bells and whistles, but the things it does, it does very well.
My Initial Sony PCM M10 Impressions
It comes with a 3 volt AC adapter so I can save battery life in the studio. It comes with a strap, and a remote control – both of which I will likely never use. The recorder is very small and could easily be mistaken for a phone (a crazy ass looking phone from the … future? past?). It is light. Does it feel cheap? Yes it feels fairly cheap, and I am glad I bought a Lowepro case that fits it like a glove. It looks sleek. It has a standard 1/4″ 20 thread hole on the rear so you can mount it to a tripod or quick release plate. Best of all it has a sturdy dial for adjusting the levels. I love knobs and dials. Pushing buttons to control the levels digitally seems gross…
My biggest fear was that the recorder would be overly complicated but it turns out that operating the PCM M10 is very intuitive and easy. Accessing the menus, starting and stopping recordings takes no time at all to master.
The stereo image on the PCM M10 is not very wide. You will notice that it is stereo, but not ZOMG AMAZING STEREO. The reason for this is that the two mics are not pointed too far outward (they are nonadjustable) and their polar patterns are omni directional. Lucky for me since I mix and edit everything in post having a wide stereo image is not necessary for me. If ever I need wider stereo, I will plug an external mic in and bypass the internal mics.
What’s My Opinion About the PCM M10 Recorder?
The audio sound great. The PCM M10 has a built in speaker that is pretty useless, and you should listen to everything on good speakers or at least some decent headphones. The recorder picks up base very well. I certainly prefer using the PCM M10 internal mics for voice recording over any cheap lavalier. It absolutely smokes all the sub $30 lavaliers I have tested. The omnidirectional mics do not pickup wind noise as much as cardioid or hyper-cardioid polar patterns do. However you will still need wind protection in moderate winds. I was recording the street when a slight gust encroached and sure enough the mic picked it up.
The limiter works wonderfully. I was was walking by train station when I noticed a train was zipping by. Quickly I pulled out my recorder, didn’t adjust the gain, hit record, and the train absolutely blew out my eardrums and the recording started flashing red (clipped audio). So I went home listened to the recording and could not believe how great the recording sounded despite my levels being set way too high. So I fall into the pro limiter school. The limiter saved my ass there.
I find myself taking the recorder everywhere. It’s like a cellphone. Lugging a DSLR everywhere would be nice, but it’s not practical. The PCM M10 fills that void. I can record stuff wherever I go. Its not video, but so what, its just as fun. Plug in some tiny in ear headphones for monitoring and no one will know what the hell you are up to.
Some of My Personal Sony PCM M10 Recordings:
Room Noise Floor (low sensitivity):
Room Noise Floor (high sensitivity):
“Airplane Cabin”.. *wink*:
Sony PCM M10 Specs:
- Dimensions : 2 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ x 7/8″
- Power Requirements : Two AA size Alkaline batteries (supplied). Two AA NiMH rechargeable batteries (optional)
- DC Input Jack : 3V
- Frequency Response : 20 Hz to 40 kHz (Line in) @ 96KHz
- Built-in Mic : Electret condenser microphones. Max input level: 123 dB. Frequency response 20 Hz to 20 kHz
- Weight : 6.6 oz
- S/N Ratio : 87dB
- Internal Memory: 2GB
- Additional Memory: Accepts Memory Stick Micro (M2) and microSD
My Recommended PCM M10 Settings
- Definitely don’t record in mp3 format. I use the 24 bit or 16 bit PCM recording setting. The sample rate should be whatever you choose. 44.1K is a common standard for broadcast audio and CDs so I choose 44.1K.
- 44.1 vs 48k: Very little signal is captured above 20k, even with the best audio gear. 44.1 handles the sub 20k frequencies perfectly fine and so you don’t lose out on much by recording in 44.1k
- 24 Bit vs 16 bit: If you can handle the larger file sizes definitely record in 24 Bit. The internal storage can handle 3+ hours of 24 bit 44.1k audio. Switching to 16 bit 44.1k should increase recording time to 5+ hours.
- I set Auto Gain Control off. You should always use manual gain. Never use automatic gain. Never you automatic gain. Never use automatic gain. Set levels manually.
- I turn the limiter on. If ever I set my levels too high and my audio would have clipped and sounded like shit, the limiter does its best to automatically save it. The limiter is completely different from the automatic gain. The school is split amongst professionals whether or not to use the limiter. Half do, half don’t. If you think your audio might clip, you should use it.
- Low cut filter: off
- Memory (Memory Card)
- Cross Memory Recording (on)
- Plug In Power (on)
- PRE REC (off)
- Min Input Sensitivity is a switch on the side/back of the PCM M10. You should keep it on low. The 20db boost is too much for most applications.
- Generally you want to set your levels so that they peak as high as possible without clipping (going over 0db). Some people set their levels around -6db. This does not give much room for error, and so I think you should aim for -12db if you have an audio source who’s volume may fluctuate. If you have a consistent sound, go ahead an record at -6db… or -3db if you like to live on the edge
- The M10 internal preamp unity gain is set at around 6. What this means is that if you set the levels above unity gain, you could get a lower signal to noise ratio because of added noise. To be safe try to record audio without setting the levels too high, particularly if there is a chance of the source getting louder (the limiter would engage or your recording would clip and distort). The best way to avoid noise or possible distortion is to set the levels conservatively (set to 5 or 6) and then boost the audio with software. For line in unity is between 4 and 6.
2-4: Good (risk attenuation noise)
4-6: Ideal (unity gain)
6-10: Good (risk gain noise)
If you ever think there is a chance of your audio clipping, set the recording levels lower.
Suggested PCM M10 Accessories
The PCM M10 doesn’t come with any pouch or case, so I suggest you buy a cheap Lowepro Volta 20. It fits the PCM M10 like a glove. Unfortunately the case is too tight for fitting accessories like a windscreen or lavalier. The case has a toughish shell-like exterior and feels like it can protect the PCM M10 from falls adequately.
You need to buy headphones for monitoring. Otherwise you are kind of shooting in the dark. Even cheap $15 earphones are better than nothing. And if you plan on recording outdoors, I suggest a windscreen.
Also, you may want a cardioid or hyper cardioid mic to go along with your recorder, particularly if you are getting the PCM M10 for filmmaking. The cheapest I would go is a Rode VideoMic. Not the new Rode VideoMic GO (it sounds like utter shit and you are flushing $100 down the drain). Get the Rode VideoMic, or Rode VideoMic Pro. To my ears the Rode VideoMic pro sounds very similar to the Rode NTG2. Or get an Audio Technica AT897. The Rode VideoMic, Rode VidoMic Pro, Rode NTG2 and Audio Technica AT897are all battery operated and do not need phantom power, so they will work fine with the Sony PCM M10.
You may want to add a lavalier to your setup as well. Cheap plugin power lavaliers are not as awful as most people think, particularly if you get one that can pick up the low frequencies.
Lastly, you may want to mount your PCM M10 onto a tripod, or at least something that has a handle so that your internal microphones don’t pick up any handling noise.
My Rating for the Sony PCM M10: 5 out of 5
The Sony PCM M10 comes in three flavors: red, white, and black. If you wanna take your audio production to the next level, the PCM M10 is a great start. I suggest picking up some headphones (Panasonic RP-HTF600-S are the best bang for your buck) so you can fully utilize this recorder.
Sony PCM-M10 Portable Linear PCM Voice Recorder with Electret Condenser Stereo Microphones, 96 kHz/24-bit, 4GB Memory & USB High-Speed Port – Red