Intro from Jay Allison: Adding to his reviews of new digital audio recorders, our Tools Editor Jeff Towne now presents a comprehensive test of the Zoom H2, focusing on field recording for radio. As ever, it aint perfect, but it has some unusual capabilities, along with the customary weaknesses common among these little machines. Jeff says, The Zoom H2 is a very convenient small recorder, and can give remarkably good sound when using its internal microphones. Its especially good at picking up musical performances or collecting stereo ambiences of events that are at least moderately loud. Come by Transom to see the full review and listen to sample recordings.
From Jeff Towne
In the widening field of flash-memory recorders, the Zoom H2 stands out with a few unique twists. Like the Edirol R-09, the M-Audio Microtrack, the Zoom H4 and the Marantz 620, it’s a pocket-sized device with built-in mics, designed for quick and easy recording to SD memory cards. Unlike those devices, the H2 has four separate microphones, to be used in pairs, or all at once. One pair of mics points out the face of the unit at a 90 degree angle, the other pair points out the back with wider coverage. Those microphones do a great job at picking up vivid stereo ambiences and, unique to this recorder, sound from all directions at once. The H2 looks a bit like an old-fashioned announcer’s microphone, and is intended to be used like one: oriented straight up, addressed from the side, rather than pointing the end of it at the sound source. Like most of the small recorders, it’s most successful running autonomously, recording from the built-in (or provided) microphones, rather than interfacing with external equipment.
The H2 is fairly simple to use, and once set-up to record in the format preferred, can be rolling in only a few seconds from power-up. Record levels can be set from hardware switches, no menu navigation necessary. Level metering and elapsed time information are displayed on a smallish, but sufficient screen. It’s powered by two double-A batteries, and will record for about 5 hours on a set of fresh alkalines. Most importantly, it can fit in a pocket, so it’s easy to carry everywhere, ready to capture sound on a moment’s notice.
Hand-holding the H2 is problematic, because the plastic body transmits handling noise readily. With a little practice, one can develop a light touch that will mitigate the problem, but especially due to its upright orientation, it’s often easier to set it on a stand. The H2 has a threaded socket its bottom that can mount on any standard photo tripod. It also ships with a handy plastic foot that screws in that receptacle. Additionally, an included plastic handle can be attached to that socket, providing a steady insert to a microphone clip. One could use that handle to grip the H2, but it does not do much to insulate the recorder from handling noise. Zoom suggests wearing a glove, but padding the handle with some foam might be more practical.
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The H2’s physical layout is simple: a headphone output,which doubles as a line-out, is along one edge, along with its volume rocker switch, the on-off switch, and a power input.
The other edge has 1/8" mini jack inputs for external mic input, or external line-level input. The mic input can provide "plug-in power" to small electret microphones that need it. That low voltage current can be turned on and off in the utility menu. It’s important to note that the Zoom H2 can NOT provide 48 volt "phantom power" to professional condenser mics, so if you wish to use such a mic, it needs to be powered with an internal battery in the mic. Not all condenser mics can use an internal battery, so be careful in choosing an external mic if you use one.
Next to the microphone input is a level control for both internal and external microphones. This coarse Low-Medium-High setting, in combination with the finer "rec level" + and – buttons on the face of the recorder, can set the input gain with a high degree of accuracy. One would want to set the inputs so that peaks were bouncing somewhere up near -6 dBfs.
As with most of these small recorders, they’re best suited to record loud events, and one may have some trouble getting sufficient input gain when recording quieter sounds, such as an average interview. In most cases, one must set the input gain to "High" and then turn the "Rec Level" up pretty high in order to get the levels bouncing healthily when recording a basic conversational voice. Turning those input gains up very high will introduce some hiss and other noise, so keeping the input gain lower by using higher-output external mics or recording louder events, will result in less noise from the H2.
Sadly, external microphones do not sound especially good with the H2, even very high output condensers produce a soundfile with a lot of hiss. The internal mics do not suffer from this as much, but using even high-output professional external microphones generally gives a disappointing, noisy result.
The external mic input is low-impedence, so an impedence-matching transformer such as the Shure a96f does not add any level, as it does with minidisc recorders or video cameras with high-impedence inputs.
But the internal mics do remarkably well, especially for recording you-are-there ambiences or music performances. We tested it in a casual livingroom jam featuring Chandler Travis, Steve Shook, Phil Kaplan, and Jake Shapiro.
(music recorded with the Zoom H2 on a small photo tripod, 2 feet off the floor, 6 feet from the musicians. The electric guitar and bass were amplified, all other instruments and voices unamplified.)
Interview mic recording samples:
Surprisingly, bypassing the mic input altogether by amplifying the mic with an external mixer and coming in the line input creates a different problem: the signal is cleaner, but low in level and clipped in the louder sections. The clipping was clearly visible when inspecting the waveform of the recorded soundfile, even though all levels were clean at the mixer, and input meters on the H2 were showing safe levels.
The H2 offers various processing on the inputs: Automatic Gain Control, Compression and Limiting. The AGC is fairly effective on the built-in mics, but problematic with external mics.
The Compressor and Limiter functions act mostly the same way as the AGC, providing some dynamic control with the internal mics, but not completely protecting from clipping.
The unique design of the H2 allows for some unusual recording options. The front pair of mics is aimed in a relatively narrow 90 degree angle from one another. The rear microphones are aimed further apart, in a wider 120 degree angle, better for picking up larger groups, or creating a wider stereo image from general ambience. Other than the direction they’re pointing, the mics are identical.
Using the rear mics is preferable in many circumstances because it allows the display to remain in view so levels can be monitored. Conversely, the front mics are
If a single voice is being recorded, it makes sense to remember which direction the mics are pointing and aim one of the elements directly at the sound source. It’s a little hard to hear this while monitoring both channels, but aiming one of the elements directly at the sound, by twisting the H2 a little off to one side, then only using one channel of the resulting stereo soundfile, gives a more present, immediate sound than simply pointing either face of the recorder straight at the source.
Which set of mics is active is controlled by clicking on the right or left arrows on the face of the H2. A red LED lights up showing "Front" "Surround 2Ch" "Surround 4ch" or "Rear." Additionally, another red led "Mic Active" indicator lights up just below the grill covering the mics, on either the front, or back, or both.
The ability to record from all four mics simultaneously is significantly different from any of the other pocket-sized recorders. In "Surround 2ch" mode all four mics are recorded to a single stereo file. In "Surround 4ch" mode, two stereo files are recorded. They are saved in the 4ch folder and named with F and R to indicate the front and rear mics. Those two stereo files can be loaded into a multitrack editor and balanced afterward, even split into 4 mono tracks to allow for even greater adjustment.
These surround modes can be used to record several people around a table, the recorder placed in the middle. Or one could capture a more natural conversation where moving a mic would be distracting, by placing the recorder directly between the two subjects. Or one could place the recorder in the midst of a musical performance, or other interesting ambience.
It’s important to note that despite the term "surround," these four-track recordings are not conventional 5.1 surround sound files that will play back through a home theater system or other surround sound playback set-up. But the two stereo files can be broken into 4 mono files and then used as elements in a 5.1 mix, if you have software that can output that format. There are some converter programs that will smooth that process:
Audio is easily transferred to the computer via the mini USB connection, although it requires activating "USB storage" from the menu. Removing the SD memory card and using an external card reader provides faster transfer of the sometimes large files. The H2 can use most standard SD cards and some larger SDHD cards with capacities up to 8 gigabytes. The compatibility of newer larger cards is always going to be in flux, but to be safe, consult the manufacturer for approved brands and models.
The menus are easy to navigate, most options available with only a few button pushes. "Menu" enters and exits the menu, the right and left arrows navigate up and down the options, and the center red "record" button selects between the options.
- Low frequency Cut – reduces low rumbling frequencies from wind or handling.
- record mode – select bit-depth (16 or 24) and sample rate (44.1 khz to 96khz) for .wav files, or rates for lower-quality MP3 recording ranging from 48 to 320 kbps (also supports Variable Bit-Rate MP3). Recording is restricted to 16 or 24-bit and 44.1 or 48 khz .wav file recording when in surround mode.
- AGC/Compressor – automatically controls audio levels.
- File Browsing – allows review and management of recorded soundfiles.
- Input Monitor – sends sound from the inputs to the headphones even when not in record or record pause.
- Plug-in power on and off – for certain small electret microphones.
- Pre-record – puts a few seconds of audio continually into a buffer, so one can start recording a few seconds before pressing record.
- Auto record – starts and stops recording automatically when sound reaches a defined volume threshold. It will only turn on and off once.
- Mono mix – records the left and right microphones equally to both channels of the stereo file.
- Metronome – provides a steady click for musical practice.
- Tuner – surprisingly competent guitar tuner.
- Play mode – allows single or repeated playback of single or multiple soundfiles.
- AB Repeat – allows repeated play of a section of a soundfile.
- Light – controls how long the display backlight stays on after buttons are pressed.
- Contrast – adjusts the brightness of the display for various lighting enviroments.
- Battery – by setting this to reflect the type of AA battery being used (Alkaline or rechargeable NiMH) the display will show a more accurate battery life indication.
- SD Card – tells remaining space on card, or allows reformatting (erasing) of card.
- USB – activates file trasfer via USB, or enables the H2 as an audio interface.
- Date/Time – sets the clock and calendar for timestamping of files.
The preferences one saves in these menus are stored on the SD memory card, and will remain as you left them next time you power the unit on, unless you completely reformat the SD card. If you need to do that, you may wish to copy the "SYS" folder from the SD card onto your computer before reformatting the card. Then copy that folder back onto the SD card, and your settings should be as you adjusted them. Or simply delete files and folders from the SD card, except for the folder named "SYS" rather than reformatting.
The H2 can also function as a USB interface, for recording directly into a computer. All the same caveats apply as when using it as a stand-alone recorder: the internal mics are pretty good and external microphones are problematic in terms of noise.
The Zoom H2 is a very convenient small recorder, and can give remarkably good sound when using its internal microphones. It’s especially good at picking up musical performances or collecting stereo ambiences of events that are at least moderately loud. Internal noise resulting from turning the input gains all the way up make it ill-suited for recording very quiet, delicate events. And using external microphones, as would be preferable for most interviews, gives poor results overall. So this machine can be a valuable tool in the recordist’s kit, but won’t be suitable for all circumstances. But its price, size and flexibility make it attractive as a recorder to carry at all times, in order to capture spontaneous moments, or to dedicate it to specific tasks, such as recording ambiences, demos and musical performances.