Zoom H4

ZoomH4_FEATURED

Intro from Jay Allison: Jeff Towne writes, “Anyone lugging gear around to interviews or events is always hoping for a device that’s small, sounds good and will run for long periods on batteries. It wasn’t too terribly hard to find a recorder that was two of those things, but all three has been elusive. As data storage gets faster, smaller and cheaper, those goals start seeming more achievable. But do any existing recorders actually include all of those attributes? How about inexpensive, durable, and easy-to-use?” This week, Transom adds more reviews of portable digital recorders. Check out the Edirol R09 now, and come back in a few days for the Zoom H4, along with a comparison chart for all the recorders Jeff has tested.

From Jeff Towne

Zoom H4Even in an expanding field of flash memory based audio recorders, the Zoom H4 stands out by virtue of its full-size XLR microphone inputs in a compact package. Add in the futuristic looking built-in microphones, multitrack recording capability, and the fact that the recorder can also function as a USB interface, and the Zoom certainly sets itself apart.

But flexibility can come with a cost, and the consequence of multifunction design is often a confusing interface or compromises to all the operations. The Zoom H4 suffers a little from over-complexity, but in some circumstances it can be fast and simple to get good recordings. It boasts long record times on just two standard AA batteries (about 6 hours without phantom power engaged.)

At it’s most basic, the Zoom couldn’t be easier: Flip the power switch, it’ll be ready to record in less than 10 seconds. Press the record button once to enter record-ready mode, set your levels, press the button again to start recording. The built-in mics sound quite good for many uses, so it’s a very capable self-contained unit. The XLR inputs for external mics, complete with 48v phantom power, make it easy to use the microphone of your choice if the built-ins don’t fit the job.

Sound files are recorded to SD memory cards (2 gigabyte maximum, which allows about 3 hours of stereo recording at 16 bit, 44.1 khz) and those files can be transferred quickly to a computer for editing either by connecting the recorder with a USB cable or by putting the SD card in a card reader.

The sound quality is very good, but not quite pristine. Recording music or ambiences with the built-in mics works quite well and creates a vivid stereo picture.  Sadly, it suffers from the same syndrome as most of these small, inexpensive recorders: it’s been designed to operate best when recording louder events, such as live music, so it’s difficult to get much signal into the recorder when recording quieter events, such as a typical spoken voice. Even with the low levels, after boosting them in one’s editing program the recordings are not particularly hissy, but there is a low steady tone in the background that, while not especially intrusive, is clearly audible.  In a subjective ranking, it seems that the Zoom H4 is quieter than the Edirol R-09 and the Marantz PMD-660, approximately equivalent to the M-Audio Microtrack, but not as quiet as the Sound Devices 722. It’s not entirely surprising that the inexpensive devices don’t have the highest-quality components, but one would hope they’d be at least as clean-sounding as the little minidisks that served so well for so long, and sometimes they’re not!

There are two recording modes: Stereo and 4-Track. For recording interviews and doing most documentary-style work, it’s best to stay in Stereo and forget all about the more complicated 4-Track mode. But there are two reasons to consider 4-track mode even when doing straightforward field recording. By recording one channel in 4-Track mode, rather than the default two channels in stereo mode, double the record time can fit on any given memory card. Also, when in that mode, a single microphone in one of the external mic inputs will show up in both ears of the headphones.  A mic plugged into one input will only be heard in one ear when recording in Stereo Mode. Unfortunately, 4-Track mode is more complicated in a few ways. With careful attention paid to all the settings, it can be a good choice, but it can also increase the possibilities of setting something incorrectly and losing, or damaging a recording.

4-Track mode offers a fairly sophisticated way to create overdubbed-multitrack music compositions and mix them down within the machine, but that use is beyond the scope of this review.

Zoom H4 left and right side

For ease-of-use, the designers got it half-right: there are many hardware switches for essential controls right on the top and sides of the recorder. Setting the file’s sample rate is an easy press of a button along the top-left edge. One can pick 96, 48 or 44.1 khz, or several rates of mp3 encoding.  Coarse input gain control is provided via 3-position switches on the right side. Low, Medium and High settings are available for the built-in mics, or and for each of the external inputs. Unfortunately, that’s all of the simple hardware controls, additional adjustments are buried in menus accessible through a slightly clunky and unintuitive combination of controls. To be fair, all of the flash-memory recorders resort to menus for some settings, and the Zoom’s navigation is not especially complex. After using the unit for a few days, it became fairly quick to find the adjustments that were most often needed, but it remained a slightly ungainly two-handed affair.

Zoom H4Pressing straight down on the joystick-like menu button on the face of the H4 brings up a list of sub-menus. It would be logical and convenient if one could scroll that list and make choices by moving the joystick and pressing it, but alas, it isn’t that simple. Instead, once in the menu, navigation and selection is made by a separate toggle control on the top right edge of the recorder, beside the record button. Moving it up or down scrolls through the menu choices, pressing it in selects the parameter to adjust. Backing up to a higher level or exiting the menu requires a press of the menu joystick. So, making any adjustments within the menu requires a somewhat ungainly two-handed operation, the buttons are laid-out is such a way that it’s not really possible to reach both controls while holding the unit, and it’s easy to forget which toggle and which press one needs to make in any given circumstance.

Zoom H4The main menu joystick can also be used to playback or skip forward or backward through previously-recorded files.

The main menu has several submenus.

File allows renaming, deleting and showing details of individual recorded files.

Mode toggles between stereo and 4-track recording. Recording Format sets the type of soundfile recorded: .wav or .mp3, 96mm 48 or 44.1khz sample rate, 16 or 24-bit depth, or several rates of mp3.

Metronome turns an internally generated click on or off and allows various adjustments to it.

Zoom H4Display allows for adjusting the contrast and the backlight.

Card is used to reformat the memory card, or to check remaining capacity.

USB is used to set up the unit as an audio interface for recording to a Mac or Windows PC, or to connect the device to a computer to transfer data from the SD card via USB.

That menu button can also bring up a separate Input Menu by pulling the joystick down toward the bottom of the unit. That menu includes:

Zoom H4Mic which allows selection of the internal mics or the external mic/line inputs.

Level makes fine adjustments of the input gain, in increments of 0-127, with 100 as the default setting.

Phantom turns phantom power on and off, and can toggle the current between the standard 48 volts and the lower-draw 24 volts.

Monitor toggles the monitor setting on or off, on sends the input to the headphones at all times, off only sends the input to the headphones if the unit is in record or record-ready.

Auto turns an unconventional Automatic gain control on and off (more about that here.)

Mic Model applies digital processing to the recording circuit to make the built-in mics simulate the sound of several classic microphones.

Comp/Limit applies a compressor or limiter to the input signal.

The menus are slightly different in 4-track mode. The input menu substitutes a larger effect menu for the comp/limit. That menu includes various compressors as well as a vast array of special effects that might be useful when using the H4 as a multitrack music production machine, but can be trouble if engaged accidentally. Most importantly, in the main menu, there’s a new submenu for Rec Mode. This can be set to Overwrite or Always New. In overwrite mode, new recordings will replace the previous takes, so be sure to be in Always New mode if you wish to keep everything you’ve recorded. Overwrite may be very helpful for capturing the perfect guitar solo among many attempts, but is potentially disastrous for an inattentive recordist in the field.

Zoom H4Recording in 4-track mode is a little more complicated as well. When in this mode, the 4 buttons on the left edge of the recorder transform to individual track record and play controls. Pressing one of those buttons so that it turns red will arm that track to record. Files are saved into “projects” and recording is restricted to 16 bit, 44.1 khz .wav files. When transferring files to the computer, recordings done in 4-Track mode can be found within Project folders on the SD card.

The display is on the small side, but most icons are fairly large. But there is some small text to be observed, and occasionally the underlines or triangles that indicate what’s being tweaked are hard to see. The meters themselves are small but fairly readable.

As mentioned above, recordings made with either internal or external microphones are very good, but suffer from some residual background noise. There’s a little hiss, but there’s also a steady low tone that’s clearly audible during quiet recordings. Doing interview recordings of typical conversational voice, it’s difficult to get the kinds of record levels that would be ideal. A condenser mic with a very hot output, generated peaks of  –9dBfs, even with input gains switched to high and the software input gain cranked to 127.  A dynamic omni mic peaked at –15dBfs at those same maximum input gain settings. The internal mics generated peaks of –12dBfs in recordings of normal conversation. Turning the input compressor on brings those levels up significantly, peaking at –5dBfs, but the background noise was increased as well. If hand-holding the H4, and using the internal mics, one has to grip it firmly but delicately, to avoid transmitting vibration through the body of the recorder.

When faced with widely-varying and unpredictable signals, the compressor and limiter worked fairly well at controlling levels. Given the generally low input gain, unless recording loud sounds, one might be better off recording clean and applying these processes as needed at the editing stage.

The Zoom H4 has an unconventional implementation of Auto Gain.  Instead of continually monitoring the input and adjusting the gain to optimize the levels, it scans the level while in record-ready mode and sets a static value based on that. This eliminates the unpleasant pumping that can result from constantly-shifting gains, especially overshoot from a brief loud sound.  In practice, the AGC tended to set the levels rather low, with peaks at –18dBfs in our tests.

Despite the less-than-ideal control of levels, the Zoom H4 still managed to record decent-quality sound just by setting the course levels via the hardware switches on the side, and living with that in-the-ballpark gain. The one downside is that the Zoom H4 internal mics are directional, and therefore very sensitive to wind. The unit ships with a foam windscreen which is absolutely vital outside, even in a light breeze, and is helpful inside if recording voice, as P-pops and other breath noises can blow out these mics if recording at close range.

The general build-quality of the H4 seems a little flimsy, but then most of the current inexpensive flash recorders seem a little fragile. The hinged hatch at the top of the device where the batteries and memory card are housed feels especially vulnerable. Additionally, due to the position of the slot, it’s difficult to extract the SD card. Data can be transferred from the H4 to a computer without removing the SD card, but it’s much faster using an external cardreader. Additionally the H4 must be set to connect to the computer via USB in a menu setting, and it must be connected directly to the a main USB port, not through a hub, so save some grief and just put use a cardreader.

The record button does not actually move when pressed, and that lack of tactile feedback is a little disconcerting. The button itself flashes red when in record-ready mode, then switches to solid red when engaged in full-record, so there should be little doubt whether the machine is recording, but it still feels strange.

The other trick the Zoom H4 has in its bag is that it operates as a USB interface for direct recording into a computer (but not into the H4 at the same time.) A setting in the main menu, under USB, activates the USB interface mode, and it functions much like a typical external interface. The sound quality of the inputs is not quite as clean as those found in the Digidesign M-Box or most M-Audio interfaces, but in a pinch it might be convenient to be able to have the functionality of an external interface without carrying a separate box.

Zoom H4The Zoom H4 is an extremely versatile machine, perhaps a little over-complicated, but if left in stereo recording mode, can be easily operated without too much menu navigation. The excellent built-in mics and combo XLR/1/4" jacks for external inputs make it able to work in many circumstances. One surprising downside of these small recorders is that they’re actually impractically small when using an external mic. Large recorders can be hung over the shoulder out of the way, or placed on a table, but these little machines can’t easily be hung or stashed in a way that still allows the meters to be observed, and tend to slide around on a table with a little mic cable movement. So one ends up with the recorder in one had and a mic in the other, which is OK, but sometimes it’s good to have a free hand. The Zoom H4 ships with a slightly clunky cradle with velcro strips that allows the recorder to be attached to a photo tripod, or with a thread adapter, to a mic stand. But any downsides of this machine may be outweighed by the convenience of its compact size. It’s pretty amazing that one can get good quality recording and so many flexible options for only about $300. With a high-output condenser mic for interviews and the built-in mic for ambiences, the Zoom H-4 makes an affordable and relatively easy-to-use package.

Transom digital recorder comparison chart

Jeff Towne

About
Jeff Towne

Jeff Towne has been producing radio programs since he was a teenager, back then with a portable Marantz cassette deck and a Teac four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and now with digital recorders and computer workstations. After honing his broadcasting skills at high school and college radio stations, Jeff has spent over two decades as the producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Echoes. At Echoes, he has done extensive recording of interviews and musical performances, produced documentary features, and prepared daily programs for satellite and internet distribution. As Transom.org's Tools Editor, Jeff has reviewed dozens of audio recorders, editing software, and microphones, and written guides for recording, editing and mixing audio for radio and the web. Jeff has also taught classes and presented talks on various aspects of audio production. When not tweaking audio files, Jeff can probably be found eating (and compulsively taking pictures) at that little restaurant with the unpronounceable name that you always wondered about.

Comments

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  • GLEN

    3.23.07

    Reply
    Thanks Jeff!

    Hi Jeff,
    Can I speak on behalf of all Transom site visitors, a big ‘Thanks’ for your recent three reviews on portable digital recorders…. and the market is definitely now happening!! Who can take the credit for kick starting it – Marantz or Edirol?

    Your review on the Zoom H4 seems pretty upbeat… It seems to my eyes at least, that you would put the Zoom very close to the Marantz PMD660 as the ideal introductory recorder (a cleaner sound than Marantz and XLR inputs – wow, that may get the attention of the techs/designers at Marantz!). And I think this is perhaps the keyword here to keep preaching: ‘introductory’ (ok, ok! also ‘entry level’ blah blah blah!!!), meaning a recorder for people just getting into field journalism/doc production.

    Along these lines, I’m wondering if you are now ready (with five contenders being Marantz, Zoom, Edirol, Sound Devices, M-Audio) to go as far as to prepare a comparison table on the strengths and weaknesses of each recorder…. Or perhaps the differences too big and field too small for something like this yet???

    Before I go, I have a little page up at http://www.radiodocumentary.net that may be useful for some readers… I also put a lot of work into researching/finding good hardware and software, able to produce the best possible results vs. price. Best wishes, from down here in Oz…

  • Jeff Towne

    3.23.07

    Reply
    comparisons

    Hi Glen,

    thanks for the kind words, and indeed we did make a comparison table of sorts, it’s posted here:

    http://www.transom.org/tools/recording_interviewing/200703_recorder_reviews/

    I do feel pretty upbeat about the Zoom H4, with the caveats that I found the background noise (in this case more of a tone than hiss) to be a bit problematic. It’s not horrendous, but loud enough to be frustrating. And related, it’s hard to really get sufficient gain for a typical conversational interview, even with fairly hot condenser mics. So one is stuck cranking levels up at the editing or mix stage, which works, but results in amplifying the background noise along with the desired signals.

    Almost all of these little recorders seem oriented toward recording loud events, and I suspect bands or fans recording live music really is their main target market. But it would be nice if any of these devices had a little more (clean) gain so we could record conversation-level voices at a healthy level, without too much background noise.

    Still it’s a very handy device, and in many cases, like recording ambiences and natural sounds that aren’t TOO quiet, the Zoom performs very well. It’s not quite so great as an interview machine, but it’s not terrible in that role…

  • Jeff Towne

    3.23.07

    Reply
    The Zoom H2

    It’s also worth noting that Zoom has announced that they will be making an H2, which looks to be even smaller and will likely be even less expensive (about $200).

    It will not have the 4-track mode of the H4, simply being a stereo recorder, although they are billing a 4-channel surround-sound-like mode of recording from the internal mics. It will have Mid-Side mics built-in (as opposed to the XY configuration of the H4). If you don;t know what the difference is, check our article here:

    http://www.transom.org/tools/recording_interviewing/200106.stereomicrophones.jtowne.html

    Unfortunately, the smaller size means that the H2 will not have the XLR mic inputs that make the H4 so appealing, offering only a minijack.

    But we’ll be sure to give it a try when it’s released!

    (not much) info here:
    http://www.zoom.co.jp/english/news/news157/index.php

  • Balthasar Jucker

    4.18.07

    Reply
    zoom H2 and Fostex FR2LE

    There is some more info now at the samson site: http://www.samsontech.com/products/productpage.cfm?prodID=1916&brandID=4
    Another interesting recorder comes from Fostex, which comes close to the "dream-model". Only the size is a prolem. Make your own opinion: http://www.fostexinternational.com/docs/pro_products/fr2le.shtml

  • Jay Allison

    4.20.07

    Reply
    price

    In the BSW catalog the price for the H4 has dropped to only $299. Pretty cheap. And the new H-2 is only $199.

    http://www.bswusa.com

  • Brad Linder

    8.22.07

    Reply
    Eliminating the tone in Zoom H4 recordings

    It turns out the tone that you hear in Zoom H4 recordings is related to the battery. If you record while plugged in to an external power source, the tone goes away.

    Either you can use the AC adapter, or you can create an external battery pack. I’ve written up an article explaining how to make a Zoom H4 battery pack for about $30. It’s ugly, but it works. And as an added bonus, you get about 20 hours of record time on a single charge.

    http://www.bradlinder.net/2007/07/building-external-battery-pack-for.html

  • Nathan B Moore

    9.07.07

    Reply
    Any forthcoming review of the Zoom H2?

    It’s retailing for $200 (or a bit less on ebay) and seems to have a similar menu structure and set of features as the H4. How are the internal mics? How does it perform with external mics (with only a 1/8" jack)? Worth picking up one for use at a community radio station?

  • Julia DeBruicker

    10.11.07

    Reply
    Zoom H2 & Fostex FR2LE

    How’s the H2 panning out? And/or the Fostex Balthasar mentions?

  • Balthasar Jucker

    10.12.07

    Reply
    H2

    In the mean time, I own myself a H2 and can tell nearly only good things about it! Great sounding recordings, diffrent types of limiter and aouto gain functions for diffrent situations, easy menu, recording from mp3 till 96kHz/24bit,stereo and surround. Great. Even a wind shield comes in the package. The problems begin when I want to use external gear: The line in is so sensible, that it get distorted easily with a strong signal, and the mic input is the other way round. to little power for the "plug in power"-mics, so the signal of the mics isnt as strong as it could be and has to be pushed up, together with the noise.. So my personal opinion about it: For somebody, who can use it "as is", cant get a better sounding machine these days than the H2. For somebody, who wants to record from diffrent sources, gets maybe sometimes the feeling to not have the ideal equipment in his hands. Here, Zoom realy saved money. The focus of the H2 are musicans who record rehersalings. And this work, it does realy great! See also the two sites for surround-data: http://www.2090.org/zoom/bbs/viewtopic.php?t=9569&sid=ece51acf47767e231ae6c00df9b29a31 and http://www.radio.uqam.ca/ambisonic/zoom2five.html

  • Stalker

    12.09.07

    Reply
    H4 to hard to handle

    I do own a H4 and I don’t like it. I don’t have any complaints when it comes to sound quality, that’s not the problem, but H4 is far to complicated to handle.

    * A number of times I’ve lost recordings because something screwed up before the file was written to the flash card.
    * H4 is slow – push the record button and nothing happens. Wait… push again — and you have stopped the recording instead of starting it. There’s a red lamp that are supposed to blink when it records, but sometimes either you are to fast or the H4 too slow.
    * Renaming files is just a pain… No one would ever have the time to give the files meaningful names
    * It’s very tricky to control the input gain, you have a three step "master gain" (low, medium or high) that’s easy to adjust, but if you want more granular control you have to play around in the menu – and that sucks. Why not use a wheel of the same type as for adjusting the earphone volume?
    * H4 lacks a battery level indicator. It warns when running out of battery – but what to do if you’re in the middle of the recording of a seminar when it starts to warn?

    So H4 could be used for good quality recording, when you record your self singing or playing an instrument. I would never rely on H4 for any critical recording, where you only have one chance. It sucks when you misses that opportunity because H4 wasn’t really recording, even though you thought it were.

  • DCBrooks

    2.19.09

    Reply
    Lost file with the Zoom H4

    Anybody ever had this problem? The batteries ran out during a recording last night, and the file that was being recorded seems to have gone bad. I’ve had the batteries die before and it’s never been an issue before. The recorder powers down and stops recording, no big deal…

    This time, however, the file in question says that it’s 0kb, and won’t open through my audio editor OR the zoom’s on board media player.

    Any ideas? Is this data recoverable? Or is it a lost cause? Also, what caused this to happen? Normally when the batteries die it’s really no big deal. It’s never resulted in a loss of data before.

    Thanks
    Dave.Brooksher@gmail.com

    PS. If you have any ideas, get back to me ASAP. This was recorded on a freelance basis for the local news station and I’m still hoping to be able to come through with a story.

  • Mark

    11.08.13

    Reply

    I don’t know what to do about the H4 that I have. It records really well from the internal mics (a loud band in a studio and when I practice – I am a flutist) but it just doesn’t seem to want to record from the external mic jacks (I have a Rode NT1-A and a Shure SM57). I even went to Radio Shack and bought one of their passive XLR to 1/4″ converter jacks and expected to see wonderful signal levels since I know what the jacks are looking for is High Impedance and the mics are at mic level (i.e., low impedance). But of course I didn’t see or hear anything but noise. I have used both Stereo Mode and 4-track mode. I know this post/blog is quite old but is anyone looking? What am I missing and how did you get the wonderful samples you have above?
    Mark
    markstein1@gmail.com

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