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
Even 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.
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.
Pressing 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.
The 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.
Display 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:
Mic 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.
Recording 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.
- Listen: Zoom H4 internal mics (mp3)
- Listen: Zoom H4 external dynamic omni mic (mp3)
- Listen: Zoom H4 external condenser mic (mp3)
- Listen: Zoom H4 external dynamic mic with compressor (mp3)
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.
- Listen: Zoom H4 internal mics in a breeze (mp3)
- Listen: city street ambience (mp3)
- Listen: environmental recording (first half Zoom H4, second half Edirol R09) (mp3)
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.
The 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.