The Zoom F Series
Zoom audio recorders have been very popular in the audio journalism, documentary filmmaking and field recording scenes. Their recorders have generally offered a lot of bang for the buck, usually featuring built-in microphones that create a vivid stereo image, or even surround sound. For many years it was hard to find an indie film shoot that wasn’t running their mics into a Zoom H4n, but Zoom recorders tended to reside in the “prosumer” level. They offered better quality and functionality than the built-in audio on DSLRs and affordable video cameras, or gave radio reporters an affordable alternative to the radio station staple Marantz recorders, but fell a bit short compared to more expensive professional-level audio recorders from companies like Sound Devices, Nagra, and Zaxcom.
With their F-series recorders, in particular the F4 and F8, Zoom has moved decisively into the realm of truly professional recorders. They’ve improved the sound quality and added professional details such as:
- balanced line-level outputs
- time code inputs and outputs
- hirose power connections
- multiple memory-card slots
- flexible internal routing of audio signals.
The F8 was first released a few years ago, and while it was quite capable in its original form, an updated version, the F8n, made several significant improvements. Amazingly, Zoom also upgraded the firmware for the original F8, giving the older recorders most of the capabilities of the newer model. The redesigned F8n does not use the AA battery caddy that the F4 and original F8 use, instead the batteries are loaded directly into a compartment on the machine itself. I’m not sure that’s an improvement: swapping batteries will be slower than swapping-in a spare caddy, but the caddy does feel a bit flimsy, and for most serious work, external powering solutions are preferred, in which case the AA batteries may simply be back-ups.
The F8n also improves the input and output level options, adding switches to allow line-level inputs on XLR, and making the main audio outputs switchable to either -10 dBV or +4 dBu. The headphone output has been improved as well, adding volume and some configurable EQ curves to match different headphones. The F8n is certainly an improvement, but with updated firmware, the original F8 remains fairly close in capabilities. You may be able to find both models for sale, and we’d advise going for the F8n for the small additional cost (usually ~$50 USD), but both versions are solidly good recorders.
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Although the F8/F8n are good values for 8-channel recorders, they’re still not cheap, generally retailing for just under $1,000 USD. And eight inputs is overkill for many users, so Zoom later released the F4, a very similar recorder, but with four XLR/quarter-inch combo inputs. It usually sells for ~$650 USD. (Please note that audio recorder prices change frequently, are often subject to promotions and sales, and can vary widely based on location, so the actual price at any given place and time may vary.) The F4 is functionally very similar to the F8, almost identical in size, with a lower-resolution monochrome display screen. On the positive side, with fewer channels, there’s room for larger knobs and full-size XLR audio outputs.
Shape and Size
The most obvious difference from earlier recorders such as the H4n, H5 or H6 is in physical form. The F4 and F8 are not hand-held recorders: they’re larger, heavier and chunkier, meant to hang from a strap, or be housed in a bag. The large display screens and all controls are on the top, easily accessible in that orientation. As might be surmised from the model names, these are multitrack recorders: the F4 has four XLR/quarter-inch combo jacks, the F8 has eight, allowing connection of multiple microphones (or other audio sources) simultaneously.
Another obvious difference from Zoom’s popular handheld recorders is that these machines do not have built-in microphones. With the recorder hung over a shoulder, integrated mics wouldn’t make much sense, they wouldn’t be in a useful position. But there’s a jack on the back of the recorder that can accept the various modular mic elements used by the H5 and H6, which can be purchased as options. Or you can attach the EXH-6 Dual XLR/TRS Combo capsule and add two additional mic or line inputs to the F4. Oddly, the jack is mounted vertically, so if the recorder is on a horizontal surface, or mounted on a tripod, the Zoom XY stereo mic attachments end up oriented vertically, not horizontally. Presumably that was done to save space, and Zoom presumes that users would employ one of their optional extension cables to place the mic module somewhere else.
On the F4, those optional inputs act as additional channels, routing to channels 5-6. There’s also a stereo mini line input on the F4, which can be routed to channels 5-6, or simply used to monitor audio from a camera, or other external source. That means that the F4 can actually record six input tracks, as well as a stereo mix track. On the F8, that external mic module is routed to tracks 1 and 2, so you do NOT get two additional inputs on the F8. The F8 does not have the stereo-mini input for monitoring external camera audio either.
The F4 and F8 are almost identical in size. Oddly, they don’t share the exact same external case, but the dimensions are pretty much the same. For many recordists, four or eight inputs might seem excessive, so the additional size and weight, not to mention expense — compared to a more compact recorder like the Zoom H5 — might make these recorders less attractive. But even users who usually use only one or two mics might find these machines useful.
Having some extra inputs can come in handy for times when you find yourself needing to record a few extra mics — perhaps for a panel discussion, or recording a main announce mic along with audience mics at a public event, or stereo mics combined with a feed from a venue’s mixer, etc. And the F4 and F8 are not SO big: they’re actually smaller than the portable recorders that reporters regularly used back when analog cassette, or DAT tape, was state of the art.
Inputs and Outputs
The combo jacks on both recorders can accept either XLR or quarter-inch cables, but for the F4, and original F8, mic level signals must be on XLR, and line-level must be on quarter-inch. If you have line-level signals on XLR cables, you’ll need adapters to convert them to quarter-inch (a line-level signal will overdrive the XLR inputs). The F8n added switches to allow line or mic level on either connector type, which might eliminate the need for lots of adapter cables.
Inputs can be linked so that a pair can be controlled with one fader, which is very handy when using stereo mics, or taking a feed from another stereo device. Similarly, four (or more) inputs, can be linked together, which is crucial for certain kinds of multi-channel recordings, such as when using an ambisonic microphone.
The F8’s balanced line-level outputs are on small TA-3 connectors, rather than standard XLRs like the F4 has. That’s understandable, because the F8’s side panels are much more crowded! But you’ll likely need adapter cables if you want to connect that line-out to another device. Oddly, the balanced line-level outputs on the original F8 were aligned to -10dBV, rather than the pro-audio standard +4 dBu, but there’s sufficient boost on the output that it’s useable, if not ideal, when interfacing with pro cameras. The F8n added the option to select between -10 and +4 output. The F4 output is -10 dBv.
The main outputs, and an alternate “sub” out (on a stereo mini connector) can be configured in the menus to include specific tracks, or the main Left-Right mix, giving a lot of versatility when using these recorders as live field mixers.
The headphone amplifiers on both of these machines were a little under-powered out of the box, but firmware updates have added the ability to increase the output levels. The headphone amp still has a slightly edgy character — certainly useable — but it pales in comparison to the quality of the Sound Devices MixPre headphone output. The quality has been improved on the F8n. On the up side, on all models, the headphone output is a quarter-inch jack, which is much more robust than a mini, so it should last longer, with fewer problems. The headphone level is controlled by a dedicated knob on the front panel, right under the menu button, which is much more convenient than the MixPre’s tiny multifunction knob hidden off on a side panel. Which signals are sent to the headphones is configurable in a menu: you can select which inputs are sent to which ears of the headphones, monitor in mono, monitor M/S recordings in decoded stereo, and more. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to save headphone presets, as there is on the Sound Devices MixPres.
Most important, these machines sound better than earlier Zoom recorders. The microphone preamps on the F4 and F8 are noticeably cleaner, and have more gain, than those on smaller (and more affordable) recorders like the H4n, H5 or H6. We still prefer the audio quality of the Sound Devices MixPre series; between their Kashmir Preamps and analog limiters, those recorders are hard to beat. But the margin is surprisingly small — the F4 and F8 get very close, in terms of audio quality, to the Sound Devices MixPres, and do it at a lower price point.
Low-output dynamic microphones such as the Electrovoice RE-50, a very popular reporter’s mic, are often problematic; smaller, cheaper recorders require cranking the input gains all the way up, resulting in hiss and other noise. The F4 and F8 have plenty of clean gain to give good results from any microphone. That increased quality also allows you to record at a lower level, which means that you can accommodate louder peaks without worrying about distortion, or relying on limiters to control unexpected loud sounds.
Here are a few sample recordings made with typical reporters’ microphones in a quiet sound booth. The F4 and F8 seem to have the same preamps — at least they sound very much the same, so we didn’t bother duplicating all the sound samples. In each sample, we take a short pause to listen for residual noise. It’s not perfectly silent in that pause, but most of that noise is ambient sound — even in a treated sound booth there’s a bit of leakage of ventilation noise, exterior road sounds, etc. It’s pretty amazing that these recorders are quiet enough that we can hear that!
The limiters on these recorders are pretty good, but they ARE digital limiters, which affects the levels after the audio is captured and converted to digital. Even though they’ve improved the limiters through firmware updates, this style is still not quite as good as true analog limiters (like those you find on Sound Devices recorders) which can control clips before the A/D conversion. That said, if you’re careful to set your levels a little lower, and don’t pound the limiter too hard, these limiters can effectively control short transient peaks. And you can engage the limiters, making many adjustments to their settings, on a track-by-track basis, if you desire. There’s also a “dual-record” function, which automatically records a lower-level “safety” track along with the primary track, giving you a backup that should be useable if your main recording has any crunchy, distorted peaks. That cuts your recording track count in half: you can only record two main input channels, along with the two safely tracks, on the F4 (or four tracks on the F8), which is one of the strong arguments for splurging on a recorder with more tracks than you might think you need.
Both recorders have large, easily-readable screens. The F8’s screen is much higher resolution, is in color, and quicker to update than the black-and-white screen on the F4, but it also has more to show, making it a bit more cluttered. The F4’s monochrome screen is easier to read in bright light. Both screens display plenty of info, with many display options available with a spin of a knob. Neither of these is a touch screen, and that’s actually a good thing: it’s quicker and easier to make selections and adjustments with knobs and buttons.
Like the screen, the front panel of the F8 is more crowded than that of the F4, with smaller, harder-to-grab knobs. Both knob arrays are useable, although for very elaborate live-mixing of multitrack sources, if you don’t need to be too portable, you might want to invest in the optional F-control FRC-8: an external control panel with large slider-style faders, and a few knobs, that are much more practical for a live mix.
There’s also a smartphone app for the F8 that can connect via Bluetooth, which gives you larger meters, recording controls, and even the ability to make level adjustments. I find it difficult to make smooth adjustments on a touchscreen, but it’s nice to have the option. It’s also much easier to enter metadata about the recordings via this app than on the recorder’s tiny screen. The F4 does not have Bluetooth, so this app cannot be used with that recorder.
Much like the Sound Devices MixPre series, the F4 and F8 are designed to be used as both multitrack recorders and field mixers, able to record discrete tracks, yet also to make a stereo or mono mix on the fly. They can feed to a camera, or a live audio uplink, or simply to a recorded track, to capture a mix in real time.
In order to do that, the recorders are configured to be able to record individual inputs to their own discrete tracks, and to record a mix of those elements, with each input sent to the mix bus with a volume independent of its input level — as well as stereo panning, and other processing. This can create a bit of confusion about setting record levels — there are two controls: an input gain, or “trim,” and a fader level. The input trims should be set to record ideal levels on each individual channel. Then the level faders (the front panel knobs) can be used to send more or less of each channel to a stereo mix, which can also be fed to the main outputs.
By default, the front panel knobs are faders — the input trim for each channel needs to be set with the menu button and the adjustment knob above that. You CAN switch the function of those knobs so that they control the input trim instead. On the F4, you can scroll through the display screen modes until you see one with a representation of the knobs, and then use the menu knob to select the word “fader” on the right side of the screen, and change it to “trim” instead.
You can do that in a similar way on the F8: in the System menu, there’s a submenu called “Track Knob Option” where the knobs can be assigned to “Trim” “Fader” or “Mixer.” That last mode allows you to quickly toggle between assigning the knobs to control Trim, Fader or Pan when in the display mode pictured below, with on-screen representations of the knobs.
On both machines, using the physical knobs to control the on-screen equivalents can be a little disorienting: the knobs are not motorized, so they don’t automatically jump to the settings as shown on screen; it takes some twiddling of the knobs to match their on-screen status before you can make adjustments. Once you get used to doing this it makes sense, but it can seem as if the knobs aren’t working if you haven’t matched the on-screen knob’s position.
This can be a bit confusing compared to a simpler recorder with only one control for a channel’s volume. In theory, you should set the input trims to a safe level at the beginning of a recording, and not ride them in real time. You can use the fader knobs to make real-time adjustments to a live mix, but those front-panel knobs will NOT adjust the level of the individual track, unless set to “trim.” In most cases, my priority is getting ideal levels on individual tracks, so I personally prefer setting those knobs to trim mode so that I can adjust individual track gains in real time. If your priority is sending a live mix to a camera, or other device, you my prefer to have those knobs set to “fader.”
The good news, as mentioned above, is that the audio quality is very clean on these recorders, so you can set the input trims a bit lower than you might with another recorder that has noisier inputs. After a little practice, you’ll get a sense of where your trim levels need to be with your favorite mics, in your usual recording situations. It’s always a good idea to do a little test recording to check your levels. In an interview situation, perhaps ask an unimportant question to start, so you can set your levels and it won’t matter if your settings are too high or low in the beginning. But in the real world, sometimes you need to be up and running fast, so I find that it’s best to be able to adjust trim from that front panel knob.
On both machines, near each input channel’s knob on the front panel, there’s a button marked PFL. That stands for “Pre Fader Level” on most old school mixers (and is pronounced “piffle” in studio-speak . . .) On these recorders, pressing this button will switch the screen to a display of many adjustable parameters for the selected channel. Then, by turning the large selector knob used for all menu navigation, and pressing to select, you can quickly adjust many aspects of that channel’s status, including input trim. It’s not quite as fast as just twisting a knob, but it’s not too hard to do. The PFL button can also be used as a solo, sending only that channel to your headphones.
A very welcome professional feature on both recorders is dual SD card slots. Cards up to 512 GB can be used. These can be configured as redundant back-ups, or to record files in different formats on each card. One card can record .wav files, and the other can record .mp3. One card can record mono or stereo .wav files while the other records an interleaved “poly” file that packages all tracks into one file. That poly file can be split, or de-interleaved, in most editing programs, or with easily available audio utilities.
Audio can be recorded as .wav files at 16 or 24 bit, up to 192 kHz. MP3 files can be recorded at 128 kbps, 192 kbps or 320 kbps, although we strongly suggest always recording original audio as .wav files, and only using .mp3 for final delivery (if at all).
The F4 and the original F8 have a removable caddy that holds 8-AA batteries. You can order extras of this caddy, so you could have a spare loaded and ready to swap in during long recording sessions.
The caddy is plastic, and the flaps covering the batteries feel pretty flimsy. I’m not confident of its durability, but if you’re gentle with it when changing batteries, it can probably last. The F8n got rid of the caddy, and the AA batteries load directly into a compartment on the back of the machine. This seems more durable, but eliminates the ability to make a fast-swap of AA batteries in the field.
Battery life is widely variable, depending on how many tracks you’re recording, whether you’re using phantom power, and what kind of batteries you’re using. As with all devices, you’ll get much longer record times with high-capacity NiMH, or Lithium, rechargeable batteries, compared to Alkalines, but it’s nice to know that it will run on AA batteries that you can buy anywhere. You could get up to six hours of record time with those, and more with Lithium or NiMH batteries, or if you’re not using phantom power. You can increase battery life by dimming the screen and the indicator LEDs, and turning off phantom power when not needed. There’s even a setting that will send a lower phantom power voltage to your mics (some condenser mics operate just fine at less than 48 volts — check your mics . . .)
For long recording sessions, it’s highly recommended to use an external powering solution: both recorders have a professional hirose locking power connector, which will take 12 volts of DC power. The F8 also has a 2.5mm DC power input that works with a provided power adapter. Some users have reported success using external USB power banks with an appropriate adapter, but keep in mind that most external USB batteries provide only 5 volts of DC power, and the F4 and F8 require 12 volts. The F8n can also accept 18 volt power, which is more common in remote power systems. There are adapters that will bump the voltage from 5 to 12, so those external battery banks might make an affordable solution. It’s highly recommended to have charged AA batteries in the machine even when using external power. If the external power were to run down or be disconnected, the Zooms will switch over to AA power, rather than abruptly switching off and possibly losing a recording, as cold happen if you lost power suddenly with no AA batteries installed.
Both recorders have surprisingly sophisticated timecode options, for syncing with video cameras and other devices. Both can read or write standard SYMPTE timecode, via BNC connectors on the back. The F4 has a dedicated camera-return input, for monitoring camera sound. That input can be recorded, or simply monitored.
Like most recent Zoom recorders, the F4 and F8 can operate as USB interfaces, to send audio signals directly into your computer. They are Core Audio compliant, so will work with Mac OS machines with only a slight adjustment of the AudioMIDI configurations. On Windows machines, you’ll need to download ASIO drivers from the Zoom website. With the most recent firmware updates, you can record to the internal SD cards and to your computer at the same time.
The F4 and F8 are impressive recorders, making interfacing with other devices in a professional environment easy and reliable. While not inexpensive, they offer excellent value and are the least expensive recorders among those with similar capabilities and quality. Even beyond their professional-level characteristics, they’re appealing simply because of their form. Hung on a strap, or in a bag, they free up a hand that might otherwise be holding a smaller recorder. Metering is comprehensive and easy to see. Like all Zoom products, there’s a bit of menu-diving required for set-up and configuration, but the menus are well organized, and navigating is fairly intuitive. Zoom has already improved both recorders significantly through updates to firmware, so their capabilities might even increase in the future. Most important: they sound great.