Audio field recorders in 2021? My Predictions (“wild guesses”).

I’ll give my personal thoughts on each brand, one by one:

Zaxcom:
The Nova is a very new product, I see almost no chance of a “Nova 2.0” coming out this year. 
Deva 24 is a little older than Nova, but also their highest end product which thus has a longer life cycle, I see it as unlikely there will be a Deva release in 2021. 
Could Zaxcom release a product which is between Nova & Deva 24, or below Nova? I doubt it. 

Sound Devices:
The 8 Series is their latest range, I don’t see any chance whatsoever they’ll be ending the 8 Series in 2021 and replacing it with something newer. No chance at all. 
Could the 8 Series be added to??? Is there space to squeeze in a product in between an 833/888/Scorpio? Nope, I don’t think so. (but then again, I’ve been surprised before, when the 888 came out in between the 833 & Scorpio)
Could an 8 Series recorder come out below an 833 or above a Scorpio?? Seems unlikely. Scorpio is already their most expensive ever product, and if they released a product below the 833 that might put it too close in price to a MixPre10 underneath it? (but hey, perhaps I might be wrong, and a “Sound Devices 811” will come out? A mini sized 833, with 1x XLR + 3x TA3F all for say just US$2.5K??  I doubt it, but that’s an example of how an odd ball product which might come out and surprise us) 

Now as for the MixPre series, all bets are off here, as Sound Devices has been putting out new updates and variants to this at a furious pace in recent years. As while I “guess” they will not bring out any new MixPres in 2021, I’d also not be surprised either if one (or more!) gets announced. 

Sonosax:
Their SX-R4+ has been around for a while, time for an update? But then again,  Sonosax is an extremely small company, and it is to be expected their products will have long life cycles between updates. (will give a quick mention to the Sonosax SX-M2D2 which came out more recently in 2019, but that’s a mini portable preamp and not the type of field recorders for production sound that we’re discussing here)

Aaton:
Cantar X3 came out in 2014 (and the Cantar Mini in 2017). You’d think that after 7 years that perhaps an update is coming? But not necessarily, the X3 still seems to be very popular, you never hear of anybody leaving X3 for something “better/newer” and the X3 is still attracting new users to the platform. Plus as a high end premium product (it is after all the most expensive field recorder there is) we can expect that it will have long life for its product cycle. Perhaps next year we might get a hint from Aaton that the “X4” is under development?? Maybe. But I’m not expecting a new field recorder to be released by Aaton this year. 

Nagra:
Nagra Seven came out waaaay back in 2013, surely it is time for an update? Nagra VI is even older from 2008!
But no, won’t expect an update to these in 2021. Nagra has more or less abandoned the film market, as they’re focused instead now on the high-end audiophile market. Verdict: Nagra is AWOL.

Tascam:
The DR680mk2 & DR701D are now both looking totally outclassed in the budget end of the market once the Zoom F8 came out. 
And the Tascam HS-P82 is from 2009! Was a nice machine, but looooong overdue for an update. 
While I’d like to dream that Tascam will bring out a product in the mid range as an update to the HS-P82, and new low end product which is competitive in the new “Zoom F8 Era”, I don’t see any sign of life from Tascam that they’ll do that. In 2021 I expect Tascam to be AWOL. 

Roland:
Take everything I just said about Tascam, and appeal an extra heavy dose of skepticism and pessimism. 
As nope, I do not at all expect an update from Roland to their R4 Pro or R44. 
Am definitely expecting Roland to be AWOL in 2021. 

Fostex:
Take everything I just said about Roland, and times it by ten. 
Fostex will be AWOL in 2021. 

Marantz:
Charitably we could call Marantz a “Tascam clone”. (except for when they’re not pretending to be a “RØDE clone”…) Mostly Marantz has been AWOL, but they did in late 2017 (almost 2018! Practically speaking) release the Marantz PMD-706. Which was arguably a “clone of the Tascam DR70D” but with a couple more channels. But also the Marantz PMD-706 had a few teething issues it seemed with early adopters. However, the mere existence of the PMD-706 and also the Marantz PMD-750 wireless (“a clone of the RØDE RodeLink”) as well indicates that perhaps Marantz has a desire to target the low budget indie filmmaker? Perhaps that means there is a slim chance they might try their hand at a “Zoom F8 clone”?? But based on the recent track record from Marantz, I wouldn’t be eagerly looking forward to this.

Zoom:
The Zoom F8n came out in 2018, but that’s wasn’t a major revolutionary update to the F8 but rather a half step refresh midway through the F8’s life cycle. 

The Zoom F6 came out in 2019. 

2020 didn’t see anything from Zoom in the F Series (unless you count their mini bodypack Zoom F2-BT recorders as part of their “F Series”, which technically they are), thus could we see a new product in 2021? I think perhaps so. As these are products which could see a faster refresh cycle, there won’t be an F6n in 2021 (as the F6 is the newest), but more likely a replacement to the F8 series…. a “Zoom F9”?? As the F8 is the oldest, and the F8n was a minor refresh. Personally I’d love to at least see a Zoom F4n, an F4 with a few tweaks (such as pro line level outputs, ditching EXH-6 for inputs 5 & 6 instead using 2x TA3F, further UI tweaks, adding bluetooth, USB keyboard without needing FRC-8, etc). But it seems Zoom believes the F6 is the true replacement for the F4 (which is not true at all!), thus I’m not counting on an “F4n” arriving. But something like a “Zoom F8n Pro / F9 / F10 / etc” seems reasonably likely in 2021


RØDE/Deity/Saramonic/BlackmagicDesign/AJA/Behringer/Lectrosonics/Tentacle/”Unknown”/Etc:
This heading is for all of those wild card unknowns from companies which have never before made a field recorder for the film industry.
Such as, could 2021 be the year we see a “Chinese F8” field recorder? A low low priced field recorder like the F8, but from a Chinese brand. I doubt it, but we’ve already seen a couple of Chinese companies dip the edges of their toe into the water with Saramonic (their Saramonic SR-VRM1 & SR-Q2M) & Deity (with their Deity BP-TRX & HD-TX) making mini recorders, thus is a bigger field recorder next? Again, I doubt it, but this is an example of the kind of “surprise” we might see in 2021. Likewise, Blackmagic Design already makes video recorders (with their range of Blackmagic Video Assist recorders), is an audio recorder next? I doubt it, but who knows. Likewise with that other Australian company: RØDE. What might RØDE have planned? They’re an audio focused company, will they surprise us with an audio recorder? And while on the topic of BMD, what about their competitor AJA? They’ve build video recorders too, might AJA surprise us? I doubt it, who knows though. 

Behringer is another company like RØDE which is focused on the audio market, they’ve already got good products like their X32 Series. Imagine if Behringer released an X32 Rack with timecode I/O, improved UI with metadata entry, dual SD cards, & is DC powered? (and a DC powered Behringer X-Touch control surface too) I’d absolutely be down for one of those!

Mentioned Lectrosonics as one of those crazy oddball surprises which isn’t totally bonkers to dream of happening (just “mostly bonkers”). Lectrosonics’ biggest competitor is Zaxcom, and the Zaxcom Nova shows the power of being able to integrate your own wireless and field recorder together into one unit. Perhaps that is why Sound Devices recently purchased Audio Ltd (their A10 wireless have built in recorders too), as a long term strategic move to tightly integrate them together & reap the benefits. Such a move would serve as a double threat to Lectrosonics from both Zaxcom and Sound Devices / Audio Ltd!! Perhaps Lectrosonics needs to make a defensive move and develop their own field recorder? I highly doubt such a product will come as soon as 2021 from Lectrosonics. But they might be making the first small tentative steps in that direction, with the Lectrosonics DCR822/PDR/MTCR/SPDR/DPR/SMWB/SMDWB all have MicroSD card recorders built into them.

Tentacle just brought out their first ever recorder, the miniature Tentacle Syc Track E recorder. Could they bring out a bigger field recorder in the future? Who knows, it would surprise me, and definitely can’t see it happening in 2021 so soon after their first ever recorder.

But I bet 2021 will have “somewhere” a surprise for us, most likely from some unknown left field company which I haven’t even mentioned yet. But of those that I mentioned, perhaps most likely (or rather “least unlikely” is a better way to describe it) would be Rode or Saramonic in my wild guess of an opinion? But if Rode did this, it would be a product unashamedly aimed at the YouTubers/videographers. And the Saranomic field recorder would be dirt cheap yet surely also be a huge steaming heap of sh*t (but perhaps after a few generations would evolve into a “not terrible” product). 


Thus in brief summary, I’m not expecting many major field recorder announcements in 2021, aside from “a Zoom F10” (might even be so bold as to call this “likely“) plus maaaaaaybe a MixPre and quite likely some kind of left field announcement none of us are even expecting (could even be from one of those brands I wrote off as AWOL, that’s exactly why it would be an unexpected surprise! ha). 

Perhaps 2021 might be a relatively quiet year for us? Especially with the impacts felt from the AKM Factory fire causing shortages, and COVID19 in general causing economic stresses which would be dampening demand for equipment upgrades.

What we may see from the big pro brands, is a focus this year in 2021 to be bringing out more accessories to support and develop their existing range of recorders, rather than releasing brand new recorders. For instance 2021 is when we’ll see Sonosax’s SX-RX8+ (the Sonosax SX-RX8+ brings Superslot Wireless integration to the Sonosax SX-R4+ recorder). And 2021 will also likely be when we see a “Sound Devices SL4” (a bigger version of their Sound Devices SL2 for Superslot wireless), or maybe (here is my hope! Fingers crossed) a “Sound Devices CL6” (a smaller & cheaper version of their Sound Devices CL16 control surface). And Zaxcom might bring out a similar new control surface for their Zaxcom Nova as well?

The first two recorders from the Zoom F Series: F8 & F4, the smart bets are on this line up getting the first new release for 2021? (credit to Transom.org for the pic)
Not expecting any updates this year or next from Nagra! The Nagra Seven might be their last ever. But the 633 got a nifty update with the Sound Devices 833, which is what I use personally myself.

What I’d like to see in the new Zoom F8n

 

Zoom F8n

 

With the Zoom F8n not far away with a release date of July, I’d thought I’d write up my hopes for the F8n which seem like reasonable wishes (or at least semi reasonable!). Many of these might also be doable as a firmware update for the existing F8/F4 models.

What we know currently about the new Zoom F8n is:

The headphone amp will be improved (wasn’t a deal breaker for me beforehand, but certainly improving the headphone amp would be very nice, especially when you’re trying to record quieter ambiances)

The XLR inputs will be mic/line switchable, which is a nice small addition. So then I won’t need to use 1/4″ cables from my Lectrosonics transmitters for putting line level into the recorder.

Improved limiters that “look ahead” (via the magic of time travel! Or rather the magic will be done via having a cache).

Price will be US#1200 (but not set in stone), which is steeper than the US$1K launch price of the original F8, but not by much at all (although, the F8 now has fallen in price to under uS$800! Which is amazingly cheap). And the F8n is still a lot cheaper than the Sound Devices MixPre10T (and the F8n isn’t even that much more than say the MixPre-6, yet I’d much rather have the Zoom F4 as my only main recorder than the MixPre-6. So even at US$1.2K the F8n will be absolutely phenomenal value!).

Plus also a number of secret unannounced improvements, which we’ll find out about in July. And it is about these which I’m writing about that I hope we’ll see. Although we can’t set our hopes up too high! As the Zoom F8 original has only been on the market for two and a half years, which is a somewhat short period of time in the professional sound market. Thus we can see the Zoom F8n as more like a mid life cycle product refresh.

Now onto my hopes and wishes for the new Zoom F8n (and even ideas for possible firmware updates for the existing F8/F4 models):

Currently the F8/F4 has “consumer line level output” (or mic level), which basically makes their so called “line level output” pointless for me to pair with any of my wireless transmitters or to send directly wired to camera. The F8n needs proper pro line level output rather than their current anemic “line level”.

Metadata History: I love that when I’m entering in metadata into my F4 I can quickly grab past metadata entries via scrolling through the history, rather than dealing with the finicky on screen keyboard. However, the history page doesn’t go anywhere nearly far back enough! Plus for the sake of metadata consistency it is really nice if I can keep on reusing exactly the same spelling/description as I’ve used in the past on the shoot.

PFL key: on the topic of metadata, why don’t I get more info about the track when I hit the PFL button? As sometimes I might forget what it is I’ve assigned to one particular track, and rather than hunting down into the metadata menus for everything, it would be much faster to be able to leap to that specific traffic to see. By in the PFL menu to see the name of the track from the metadata, and the option to edit the metadata for this track.

Shortcut key: why why on earth do you need to press the STOP key on the F8 as part of accessing a shortcut function??? Seems like sheer madness to me! As if you need to access something quickly during a take (as often happens) I do not want my fingers to go anywhere near that STOP key! Ideally the Zoom F8n will have a dedicated shortcut key like my Zoom F4 has, or at the very least come up with a different arrangement than the high risk approach of using the STOP key as part of the shortcut key press combo. Yikes.

While on the topic of the stop button, could it please be illuminated? Would save fumbling for it in the dark at the end of a take. Also if the stop button had a very small little bump on it (like a Braille dot) that would also help finding it without needing to look down directly for it.

Safety track: this is a feature I really like of the Zoom F8/F4, and I nearly always use it for at least my boom mic. Especially with the way many productions “shoot the rehersal” or with actors/directors going off script, and you’re running sound solo so you’re booming as well then it is nice peace of mind to know you’ve got another layer of insurance at work. However, currently the safety track is set completely independently of the main track (heck, you could even set the gain of the safety to be higher than the main track if you wished!).

But for the vast majority of shoots you don’t need that degree of customization, and I’d rather trade that freedom for instead the speed of just having the safety track be automatically a set amount lower than the main track (although this should be customizable, to say: 0, -6, -12, -24 dB or any other number you might wish to use it for. As depending on the expected dynamic range of the scene you can then select the appropriate sized gap between the main track and the safety track).  Thus I’d hope in the safety track recording menu of the F8n (or even the F8/F4, with a firmware update) to have an option for the safety track to either be freely set to any level or to be set to a fixed amount lower.

On the topic of things the F8n could do automatically to make your life easier:
Automix, like the Sound Devices 633 and 688 have.
Automute the outputs when not recording, very handy indeed if you want to give a degree of privacy to people who are wired up while a take is not rolling.

 

Aanton Cantar X3 and Mini's screen

A rather ambitious desire I’ve got for the F8n is showing audio waveforms of recorded tracks, even if it doesn’t show it for all the tracks at once but only the one selected track at a time. One example of where such a feature could come in very handy is if you want to check back on if a track is ok (maybe you want to check if a wireless hit or a clothing rustle is overlapping a line of dialogue), then you can very very quickly use the waveforms as a guide to skim ahead to exactly the right points on the track to listen to. This would massively speed up my process of quickly checking up on tracks afterwards. And I’m sure you can come up with more examples of how this could be a handy feature to have (such as quickly at a glance checking across the whole take for if any serious peaking happened, this is super handy if say you have had to drop your audio bag in a car boot during a driving scene and then you’ll be able to do a quick check on the take with a glance when the car gets back).

Currently I believe such a feature with audio waveforms being displayed is only on the Aaton Cantar X3 and the Cantar Mini, two recorders at the opposite end of the price spectrum to the F8n!

 

Sound Devices MixPre-10T Timecode jam clock difference

 

Currently the Timecome screen in the menu for the F8 (and F4) just displays the current internal TC and what is sees from the external source, but it would be very handy indeed if it could compare the two to show the difference between them like in this image from the Sound Devices MixPre10T’s screen. This would be useful for troubleshooting problems, catching out issues before they arise, testing out new gear, or simply for triple checking things for your own absolute confidence on set.

(side note: yes, I do notice that 10:00:30:13 is not the same as 10:00:30:14! Guessing this might be a problem with either the recorder display’s refresh rate and/or an issue with the rolling shutter of the video camera that this screen grab came from? Maybe. Anyway this just highlights why it is important for the recorder to calculate the Timecode difference to then tell us the difference. Rather than rely upon our own eyesight or cellphone snap shots, as I have done before)

While on the topic of timecode, a quirk that really bugs me as a flaw, is that pre-record completely fails to work if you’re using External Timecode at the same time.  Which is rather annoying indeed, and caught me out a couple of times until I realised this slightly strange behavior was happening.

 

Zoom EXH-6 Dual XLR/TRS Combo Input Capsule

 

Anther hope is that the new Zoom F8n with the Zoom EXH-6 support 10 channel recording! (as the F8 with the EXH-6 doesn’t increase its channel count at all when the EXH-6 is used, rather it just replaces two of the existing XLR inputs that get removed as an option to use. Thus the channel count for the F8 doesn’t increase up from 8 at all when the EXH-6 is used) Being able to use an EXH-6 effectively with the new F8n for very high track count days would be handy indeed, and would demolish one more benefit the Sound Devices MixPre10T has over the F8 currently (10 channels vs 8 channel recording). 
 
Also if there could be a new updated EXH-6 v2.0 with knobs that lock into place or click into each step instead of freely moving then I’d be VERY happy. As currently there is always a risk the gain gets adjust accidentally for my F4 while the EXH-6 sits at the bottom of my bag :-/
Ideally the EXH-6 v2.0 would have a push button lock in the center of each dial, so that it retains having a smooth clickless dial for if people need to adjust gain during a take (put personally I’d be happy for it to click into place at each gain setting or for a center dial push in lock, anything is better than currently when it might accidentally freely move at whim! Placing tape over the dial of the EXH-6 is the work around for now)
Additionally I’d hope a EXH-6 v2.0 update would add locking XLR connections, rather than XLR connections that just sit there without locking in place. Again, this is another risk factor for something to go wrong if they don’t lock in place. 
Because currently as an F4 user I find the EXH-6 is very handy indeed, almost an essential piece of a gear for a F4 owner, but it is also darn bloody annoying at times!!! And these proposed changes to the EXH-6 would make my days significantly more stress free.

I wish the Zoom F8n would be able to talk with my Timecode Systems :wave like the Sound Devices 6 series can. If the Zoom F8n could do this then that would be the single biggest feature I’d get excited about! (although naturally I’m a little biased, as I’ve got an existing investment in this timecode system).  But it would be very exciting indeed to have this level of metadata integration, and being able to share it across all departments with the Movie Slate 8 app.

Zoom FRC-8 F-Control
Currently you can’t simultaneously use fully both the F8 iOS app and and the Zoom FRC-8 at the same time, would be nice if this could be resolved so that you could keep both connected at all times, then you can just grab and use whichever one is appropriate in the moment to use.
One handy feature the Zoom F4 has, which the F8 doesn’t have (but I hope the F8n does), is that the Zoom FRC-8 F-Control can be powered via the USB connection (that I wish was a more sturdy full size USB connection on the F4, but it full size USB is on the Zoom FRC-8’s size!) from the Zoom F4. But the Zoom FRC-8 with the Zoom F8 needs to have its own powering for the FRC-8 to turn on. Which is a pity, as it would be nice to have one less thing to worry about batteries for, and it would make the FRC-8 when used with a bag rig (which some people do!!).
But would be even nicer is if the USB input on the Zoom F8n can be used to directly plug in a keyboard (without needing to use the Zoom FRC-8 F-Control in between the recorder and the USB keyboard, like we have to do currently with the Zoom F8 & Zoom F4). As most people would find the Zoom FRC-8 too bulky to use with the bag rig, but they’d still like to use a mini keyboard with their kit for faster and easier metadata entry.
Would be double nice if a wireless bluetooth keyboard could be used directly with the F8n, without even needing to use the USB input at all! How handy would that be? Especially if you are able to connect both the bluetooth keyboard and  the Zoom app to the recorder at the same time running side by side simultaneously (on which point, why is there no Android app? And even the iOS app hasn’t been updated in ages! I could also write a long blog post about all the improvements I wish they’d done for the F8 iOS app…..).

On one past shoot I had issues on a rooftop that was stacked full of radio/tv/cellphone antennas, which my F4 experienced but my Sound Devices 552 was trouble free (luckily! So I switched over to the 552). Additionally any time I use my RodeLink transmitter too near to my F4 then I run into issues (simple solution: I don’t use it! Or at least only have the receiver in my bag, not the transmitter). Thus I hope Zoom improves the RF shielding with the Zoom F8n.

A very low priority for me personally, as I rarely use my F4 as a USB interface, but it would be nice if the F8n could be used as a USB interface and  a recorder at the same time. As my F4 can’t record at all once it is set up as a USB interface (and I believe the current F8 has the same issue as well).

Another small but handy change I’d like to see is if the clip peak indicators could automatically clear themselves (for those times when I’m booming and recording, and don’t have a spare hand or time to clear them myself after slating even via a shortcut) after a selectable length of time after you start rolling (for instance 15 seconds later, or even 2 minutes later, which you could pick depending on the type of production you’re on. Some shoots are very quick and timely between “turn over” and “mark it”, but others….. are not). The reason why I’d like to see this feature is because very often while I am booming I’ll look down at my recorder wondering if a track peaked, but I can’t tell! Because the peak indicator is still there (unless I manually cleared it) from when the take was slated at the start of the take.

 AES inputs would be nice on the Zoom F8n, but I suspect very unlikely with Zoom’s target demographic.

Last but far from least important, is my wish for B format support for the new Rode NT-SF1 ambisonic microphone:


Zoom already supports B format decoding for the Sennheiser AMBEO ambisonic microphone in their F8 & F4 recorders, thus I hold out reasonable hope that when the Rode NT-SF1 ships then Zoom will bring out a firmware update for the Rode NT-SF1 ?