This “handy” little unit does so many things that any review will have to be selective, and I will concentrate on its stereo portable uses, as well as its non-portable ones, leaving the admittedly limited multichannel capabilities for a followup, or perhaps another reviewer. My interest in it, which made me purchase one, is the portable recording capability, especially in high resolution digital.
I’ve now spent a Summer with the H4 recording loons, trains, and other outdoor sounds, and, as we get into Fall, such events as the nearby Kettleby Fall Fair parade, with its fire engines and marching bands. Some of this was done at 96 Khz sampling rate, but much of the cottage stuff was done at 44.1, CD quality.
And this leads me into a description of its capabilities. As you look at its left front face, there are vertically aligned buttons, from bottom to top, for MP3, 44.1, 48, and 96 kHz. The menus, selected by a sequence of pushes and 4-direction movements on the Input Menu control under the display, and the right-side Jog Dial allow full control of digital parameters, including bit depth to accompany sampling rate, and the various resolution possibilities within the MP3 realm. The latter area is not of current interest to me, but will become moreso as I prepare some of these outdoor recordings for posting on this site, and iTunes.
The H4 records onto Secure Digital (SD) cards, and is currently configured for a maximum card capacity of 2 Gigabytes, with a vague promise of this doubling sometime soon via a downloadable firmware update.
I guess I should point out here that there is always a tradeoff between resolution and recording time, and this is how it works with the ZOOM and a 2 Gig SD card, starting at the highest rez and shortest time, which equation is 96/24: 60 minutes +/-, but recording at 16 bits adds another 1/2 hour or so; CD rez - 44.1/16: just over 3 hours, but it will reduce to 2 or so if you decided to up the bit rate to 24. Both are very respectable continuous record limits, and compare well to other flash-card based recorders.
If you want to go for mediocrity right off the bat, you can cram as much as 34 hours onto a 2 Gig card, making audio logging (broadcast or otherwise) another use for this recorder. Talking about logging reminds me of my early days in radio when the loggers were huge open reel machines with 12-or-14-inch reels running at slow speeds. How things have changed!
And all of these numbers should double when 4 Gig capability comes online, hopefully, soon. As noted, I’ve done most of my recording at 44/16 and at 96/16, the latter because my professional DAT recorder also operates at the latter bit rate at double speed and will archive most of these recordings, the rest going onto hard disc once I get my computer memory and speed upgraded to handle the supplied CueBase multitrack editing program. But more on that anon.
Let’s look now at inputs and outputs on the H4. At bottom are a pair of dual balanced input jacks that accept XLR, TRS, or simple phone jacks, with the outboard AC power supply input in between. Speaking of which, I was initially mystified by the fact that the wall wart puts out 9 volts, but the recorder runs completely on 2 AA batteries, that is, 3 volts. It later occurred to me that perhaps the extra 6 volts are supplied for computer interface, but then, it’s supposed to run off the computer’s voltage on the USB 2.0 connection. And how does it provide 24 or 48 volt phantom from the 3 volts in field use? Frankly, I never did try that, because most of my field recording is done with 6-volt phantom, something the H4 conspicuously lacks.
Therefore, I used either outboard phantom boxes with my electret mikes, or the built-in supply on my treasured Shure VP-88 stereo mike, surely the best outdoor stereo recording microphone ever designed. And much of the time the ZOOM was fed by my even-more-treasured Stellavox AMI 48, undoubtedly the best portable microphone mixer ever made.
Stereo miniplug Line and Headphone outs are on the H4′s left side, just around the corner from the Sample Rate buttons, along with a headphone level control, the On/Off switch, and the USB port. At top is the crossed cardioid stereo electret microphone. Intended as a major selling point by ZOOM, this sexy looking device is actually a major design failure and disappointment for reasons I will outline shortly. Initially, I’ll just say that it got very little use after initial field testing.
But before that, some background on the general recording technology employed in the H4. According to the spec sheet in the excellent and thorough 100-page manual (page 87-8), A/D conversion is 24 bit with 128-times oversampling, and playback at identical resolution. Files are standard WAV or MP3 in each format’s variety of modes, with 4-channel recording restricted to 44/16, and only 2 tracks at a time. I’m not sure I’d call that 4-track capability, but I never was into Portastudios, anyway.
More important, analog playback through the H4 is limited to 48 kHz, so to even properly hear one’s higher resolution recordings, they must be transferred via USB to the computer to be stored, copied, or auditioned at full resolution. I guess I can’t really fault ZOOM for not including 96K DACs, but, then, Pioneer did include them in its PDV-LC20 portable DVD player. It would be nice if they even offered a standalone USB-input DAC as an accessory for those wanting immediate resolution satisfaction, so to speak.
But let’s concentrate on the positive for the moment, and examine the strengths exhibited by the ZOOM H4 in several months of regular use over this past Summer. It is quite easy to set up once you’ve read the manual (and read it you must, especially to master the Menu/Jog Shuttle interaction process). I won’t go through all the available features, since explanations of these are easily available online, but setting levels was also a bit tricky. There are Low, Mid, and High sensitivity microphone (1) and line (2) switches on the right side of the recorder, which give you ballpark ranges, while exact settings have to be accessed in the Menu under Level, and set for each channel with line inputs using the Jog Shuttle control, also on the right side just above these switches. I’d prefer a continuously variable universal level control, but this system works well, but does almost necessitate use of the Limiter Function. You can also choose Auto level, but I found that it tended to reset its thresholds very audibly when recording music or outdoor sounds with wide level variations. This made it unusable for me.
For this recording I used a pair of Church Audio omni electret mikes (made by violinist Chris Church, who plays and tours with guitarist Jesse Cook, and makes these in his Huntsville shop when at home) sheathed in WindCutter fuzzy sheathes custom-made for me by Rebekah in Wisconsin (email@example.com). They were mounted on my recording hat, which I call “Silly Tilly”, which is not, in fact, a Tilley hat (I’ve got one of those too, for golf and adventuring), but a convenient wearable microphone mount which I’ll profile in another review soon. For the moment, just check out the photo here. You’ll see the necessity of keeping one’s head still for such recording, and I situated myself on a corner of the route as the parade comes down the hill to get the best lateral pass-by soundstaging. I was very pleased at the result, though last years’ was just about as good at 48K on a Denon DTR-80P DAT portable.
Getting back to the ZOOM, let’s look at the shortcomings of its own microphone system. Though the H4 comes with a plastic cradle and Velcro straps to hold it in, this cradle does not deal with the literally microphonic effects of the combined recorder/microphone/handhold interface. I tried using small Sorbothane feet between H4 body and cradle, but this was undercut by the vibration-amplifying (like a tin-can-string telephone) Velcro straps (which found their uses elsewhere), and these I replaced with elastic bands. This reduced handholding effects by absorbing them in the cradle/sorbothane, and the addition of a small tripod (curiously, the ZOOM cradle does not have a proper microphone thread, but one designed for camera accessories) worked well as a handle for holding the whole recording apparatus, with possible boom-like extension. But there was still some jiggle noise, so unless you hold it very still, the noise problem remains. Frankly, a real professional handheld recorder/microphone system should have appropriate shock mounting for the mike, and this lack made it essentially unusable for me.
On a positive note, the line/mike preamps have lots of gain in their 3 stages, with plenty for most electrets, only outboard 6V required. They are also very quiet, with one exception, again relating to the attached microphone for the most part. There was a low-level whine from either the SD card or its power supply (the card is situated directly below and between the mike capsules) that marred my attempts at recording very distant and quiet loons at the lake. This is mitigated by the higher levels from either an outboard mike preamp or mixer. So, in sum, sexy as the mikes look, their performance is significantly compromised in the most demanding real-life recording circumstances. Also, the supplied foam windscreen is, simply put, a piece of cosmetic crap, whose major contribution is to fall off at the slightest movement of the H4.
Other shortcomings include the small display (don’t forget your reading glasses!), the aforementioned fussy level setting, and rather awkward shuttle through files with the input menu fast forward-and-back lateral controls on the Menu multi-button. The latter, however, can be left for manipulation in the computer’s post production facilities, I suppose, but a little more ergonomic ease would be welcome, along with shock-mounted mikes, and 6-volt phantom.
That said, this is a remarkable achievement in a small recorder of very high performance that transcends the recording time limitations of many of its competitors, and does so at a price that trumps them all. It’s also quite rugged, and mine has survived a few quite scary drops along the way. I wouldn’t mind a Hold feature, something I depended upon with my little Denon over the years. And all the special effects for musician/recordists (which I haven’t mentioned because they’re no use to me), could be neatly replaced by a good RTA function on the display, but I’m sure that’s asking too much next time around.
So I’ll be happy with this iteration of the ZOOM H4, especially with 4 Gig SD capacity anticipated, while I look at the promise of such newer, more expensive delights as the KORG MR-1 and MR-1000 DSD recorders to further break open the boundaries of mobile recording fidelity.
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