Sound Devices recently announced two new portable audio recorders that are remarkably affordable: the MixPre-3 and the MixPre-6 (products like these from this manufacturer historically cost several thousand dollars). If you’re trying to decide between one of these Sound Devices recorders and the Zoom F4, F8, and the Tascam DR-701D, this post will hopefully help you figure it out.
A bit of history on the MixPre series
The original Sound Devices MixPre was essentially just a two-channel field mixer. It didn’t have any recording capability, or any digital outputs. In a way, it was kind of like a two-channel version of the revered Sound Devices 302. In fact, it was often used as a compliment to the 302, as you could link the two together. Even though the original MixPre did a lot less than the new MixPre-3, it was more expensive.
Years later Sound Devices updated this model and named it the MixPre-D. It featured a USB port, so it could act as the sound card of a computer, a dedicated mic-level 3.5mm output to connect to DSLR cameras, an additional 2 line-level inputs, improved metering, and a separately-available camera mount bracket. The additional features made it a bit more expensive than the original MixPre, but it still had no recording capability.
What’s different about the MixPre-3 and MixPre-6
The first two MixPre models were essentially just small field mixers. They had good sounding PRE-amps and you could MIX with them. Part of what made them field mixers were their outputs: both models featured two balanced XLR outputs, that you could connect to an audio recorder or a professional camera. This is one of the major changes to this line of product, as the MixPre-3 and MixPre-6 both lack XLR outputs.
The only analog audio outputs on the new MixPre units are the 3.5mm headphone jack (more about this is discussed later), the 3.5mm “Stereo Out,” which has a maximum output level of +7.8dBu. In layman’s terms, that’s consumer-level audio quality. You can plug it directly into the mic input of a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, but it won’t sound as good as one of the older MixPre units plugged into professional line-level XLR inputs.
The two older MixPre units had features and capabilities that made them attractive to advanced professional users, whereas the new MixPre models seem to be almost complete geared for the advanced amateur, as they lack the outputs that are required for many kinds of professional-level location audio tasks.
But, that’s okay. It makes sense for advanced pro users to gravitate toward units like the Sound Devices 633. The new MixPre-3 and MixPre-6 are attractive to corporate video producers, independent filmmakers, and amateur content creators of all stripes, and the price tag reflects this. Advanced pro users will be buying the new MixPres as well, but likely as backup or secondary recorders to their main rigs.
Are the new MixPre models better than Zoom and Tascam?
Before I dig too deep into this topic, I’d first like to state that both Zoom and Tascam have been making awesome portable audio equipment lately. I think the Zoom F4 and F8 models are fantastic. The first time I saw the Tascam DR-70D I knew I needed to buy it immediately. The HDMI timecode features on the Tascam DR-701D impressed me very much. The innovation from these two companies is probably directly responsible for the existence of new MixPres.
When you consider the difference between models offered by Zoom and Tascam, you need to keep in mind that they all have varying features and abilities. None of these units match up one-for-one. The F series from Zoom both have more tracks, inputs, and outputs, but they’re both also substantially larger in size than the new MixPres.
What’s better about the new MixPres
The aforementioned headphone output on the new Sound Devices MixPre units outperforms the headphone jacks on the Zoom and Tascam units. This is important. When you’re recording in the field, the quality of the sound in your headphones is crucial. You make important decisions based on what the audio sounds like, and the Sound Devices units provide clearer monitoring audio. It’s like having a camera with a higher-resolution display or viewfinder. The importance of this can’t be understated.
Sound Devices has boasted about the audio performance of the new “Kashmir” preamps on the new MixPre units. These preamps deliver crisp and clean low-noise audio, not the dirty, rich character you’d expect in from this kind of Kashmir. I don’t have these recorders, so I can test the quality of them myself. But, I’ve already seen some shootout videos on YouTube. The Sound Devices preamps sound great, but the preamps on the Zoom F series recorders also perform excellently.
This isn’t a simple case of “Buy the Sound Devices because it sounds better.” It’s also worth mentioning that preamp sound quality is a very subjective thing. What sounds great to one person doesn’t always sound great to the next person.
An important factor to consider is which recorder looks like the one you want to use. I don’t mean purely on aesthetics — which recorder has controls that make sense to you. When I look at the Sound Devices MixPres, I can easily see myself getting levels and comfortably mixing the audio on the fly as I shoot. The touchscreen display and the layout of the controls on the MixPre units look pretty user-friendly to my eyes. However, like sound quality, this is a totally subjective thing.
One area where the Sound Devices MixPre models clearly have an advantage is their powering options. Sound Devices has the chops to deliver world-class powering options for their products, and the various battery sled accessories that are available for these recorders look fantastic.
What’s better about the new Zoom and Tascam units
If there’s a loser in this battle, I think it would have to be the Tascam DR-701D. Even though that model was the trailblazer for using HDMI ports to sync with the timecode from DSLR cameras, this is a capability that the new Sound Devices MixPre units both have. At this point, I would only recommend the DR-701D to the person who must have the HDMI-sync ability, but they’re on a super strict budget and can’t afford to bump up a bit in price to get the MixPre-3.
In my opinion, the Zoom F4 or F8 are both better options for people who aspire to become professional location sound people. The fact that they both have their own timecode generators is huge (this is something that the new MixPre models and the DR-701D lack). Plus, both the Zoom F4 and F8 have dual balanced XLR outputs. That’s an indispensable feature for someone who needs a pro-level recorder. Zoom deserves great credit for sound quality these recorders can achieve. They’re both great recorders, there’s no question.
What about indie filmmakers and content creators?
This is decision comes down to the individual. There are no bad choices. The most appealing unit out of these to me is the MixPre-6. The main differences between it and the MixPre-3 is that the MixPre-6 has 4 XLR inputs and 4 fader knobs. The MixPre-6 also has a 2-channel input that can be used as a camera return. Pressing the asterisk * button on the face of the MixPre-6 enables you to adjust those inputs with the controls.
I’m fond of compact gear, and I love the size of the new MixPre units. You tend not to think about size when you’re just looking at pictures of them on the internet, but both of the MixPres are impressively tiny. That goes a long way for me. I’m not sure how much I would like adjusting the gain of each input with the rotary knob on the side panel of the new MixPres, but I think I would enjoy mixing sound with the channel knobs on the face.
The new MixPres have some other cool features, like easily being able to mount to a camera, being able to be remote controlled via Bluetooth with a mobile app, and more. Like all Sound Devices gear, the new MixPres are built like tanks. The design and craftsmanship is stellar.
Sound Devices pitches these units as good solutions for podcasting. I’m sure they’re decent, but, as someone who’s been podcasting for almost a year, I am not interested in USB audio interfaces for this purpose. I think podcasting is best accomplished with high-bandwidth ports, like FireWire or Thunderbolt. Personally, I’d much rather record a podcast with an interface like the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII.
So, that’s it. Ultimately, use your gut to decide which model is best for you. Pick your recorder with your heart. And don’t spend more time than necessary thinking about this decision. Use that energy to make a creative project, or go bake me some cookies.
Sound Devices MixPre-3 - B&H Photo
Sound Device MixPre-6 - B&H Photo
Zoom F4 - Amazon USA, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de
Zoom F8 - Amazon USA, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de
Tascam DR-701D - Amazon USA, B&H Photo, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr