Having finished my second short film about five months ago, I feel I have learned a lot about recording and editing sound. Most of what I learned was through trial and error. For instance, on the first short film we made, I completely underestimated the importance of sound. I had an Olympus voice recorder that I had bought from Best Buy for about $90. I had also bought a shotgun microphone that mounted on my Sony camcorder for back up. So, on our first day of shooting, which happened to be in a cemetery, we had the Olympus voice recorder taped to the end of a broom handle as our sound recording equipment. Sad, I know. As it turned out, you might guess, the Olympus recorder was the weaker link. We had to rely solely on the on-board microphone from my camcorder. My cousin Lance, who is my main partner in doing these shorts, and I had to re-record sounds and mask sounds and insert sounds like crazy as we edited, because we didn't pay attention to the sound recording on the first go-round. The sound editing was a nightmare on our first film...
Fast forward a year, and we were in the process of filming our second short, "The Laughing Boy." The Olympus voice recorder was nowhere in sight, and in it's place was my new sound recording toy, a Zoom H4 recorder. The Zoom is like a portable recording studio made mainly for musicians, with tons of options and effects. With this new recorder, I also invested in more equipment: first, a true shotgun microphone that wasn't some four-inch-long mic that mounted in a hotshoe on my camcorder, and second, and perhaps most important, a set of headphones.
I had studied up on sound recording since the first short film, and learned a lot about the mechanics of a good recorder. I had come to learn that a good sound recorder had to have a few key features:
1. It had to have XLR inputs. XLR inputs are (usually) a three-pronged connection for microphones. This connection gives a more balanced audio that cancels out electromagnetic interference more efficiently than the 1/4" microphone input jack that many sound recorders have.
2. It had to have a phantom power setup, which many higher end microphones require.
3. It had to record in stereo. Many cheaper recorders only record in mono, meaning when your recording is played back it only plays out of the lefthand speaker.
4. It had to be portable, light weight, and easy to use.
The Zoom H4 had all of these capabilities. Some of them I didn't fully learn and understand until I had already recorded with it, but now I know. The Zoom H4 has an on-board stereo microphone that records just as good or better than the shotgun mic I bought. However, its mic is omni-directional, which limits its range, unlike the shotgun mic that picks up sound from longer distances. I've read in several books and articles that a shotgun mic is the way to go so that's what I went with. I can't remember the brand of the microphone I bought, but it cost me around $150, which is apparently not a whole hell of a lot as far as quality shotgun microphones go. It was a hell of a lot to me, though! As important as the microphone is a good set of headphones. On our first short, we almost never played back our recordings after a take. Big mistake. With the headphones, whoever recorded sound on a particular day could play back each take after it was done, and listen for any problems. Having someone dedicated solely to capturing good sound has proved to be invaluable to our ragtag group of no budget filmmakers.
So, having said all that, is the Zoom H4 the way to go for good sound? For me, yes, but there are countless options out there. I'm no pro myself, but I feel that it is probably one of the better recorders for beginners. Really, the best option is to have XLR inputs on the camera itself and not have to go through recording separately. And while I am, at the present time, saving up to buy just such a camera, it is out of my price range at the moment. But damn it, I'm working on it!