The previews of the Zoom H4n have generated a lot of excitement so I added a few airline miles to the family account and ordered one of these new hand held recorders.
Zoom Field Recorders
I’ve had a Zoom H2 field recorder since they were delivered and it has been a very satisfactory tool. I’ve used it to capture audio for my YouTube videos, to record hula accompaniment for my wife, to archive band rehearsals, and to save ideas for original compositions. A very satisfactory tool, but not quite CD quality, not quite the tool I would use for high quality recording. The self-noise just peeks into the quiet spots and long fades, the mics roll off a bit above 16 Khz.
I have posted some comparison tests between the H2 and other recording chains here on Home Brewed Music: a comparison with my best studio recording chain and a shootout with several other field recorders. In both cases the H2 was “amazing for the price” but not the winner.
The H4 preceded the H2, cost a bit more, does multi-track recording and has XLR inputs and 48V phantom power for serious microphones. There have been many complaints about the user interface and the fragile feel of the controls. I’ve never used one myself, so I can’t say anything about the recording quality.
Both these units offer a remarkable level of functionality, with multitracking on the H4 and surround sound on the H2, and both function as a USB interface for recording directly on the computer.
What’s new with the H4n?
This year Samson/Zoom announced a new recorder, the H4n. This unit has a larger LCD screen, improved user interface, and according to the manufacturer, improved mic preamps. I ordered one as soon as they were available and it arrived today.
The H4n is only slightly larger than the H2, but it is just that bit too big to be comfortable in a shirt or pants pocket. And the mics sticking out without protection also make it unlikely as a pocket device.
The bright orange LCD screen on the H4n is a big improvement over the H2 and H4. The look and feel is also more impressive, with a style and solidity that are missing from the earlier units.
The gain setting on the H4n is a big change from the H4 and H2. Both those recorders have a 3 position level switch, which sets the preamp level before the a/d converters. Then another control sets the recording level from 1-100, but this setting is applied after the a/d converter and mic preamp. This means that only the 3 position switch can actually lower the recording level in a way that prevents overload and distortion, and the second finer control is essentially useless.
The H4n has only the incremental gain control from 1-100. Hopefully it is implemented so that it turns down preamp gain and controls overload. I’m counting on the smart guys at the Zoom H2/H4/H4n forum to poke around and figure out the details.
I was expecting features like auto-level, limiting, and auto-record, but Samson/Zoom surprised me by including a Mid/Side decoding function in the preamp as well.
Recording with the H4n
Well, how about some clips? The big bright screen on the H4n makes level setting easier than the H2, and with my recording mode all set to stereo 44.1/24, recording is just as easy as the H2 – one press of Record starts standby mode for level checks, then one more press and we’re storing bits.
After a quick recording a feature I never thought much about – a monitor speaker – turns out to be very comforting. Just hit play and there’s confirmation that you captured something. Its time to move the tracks to the computer, and this would be good time to compliment Samson/Zoom on their manual. This little recorder has a ton of features and the manual has covered every one I’ve needed so far. Page 35 clearly explains how to connect the H4n to the computer over the USB connection and it worked like a charm on my XP SP3 system.
Another improvement is obvious and very welcome – this new unit is a USB 2.0 High Speed device. The previous H4 and H2 are both USB 2 compatible, but they are anything but high speed. This H4n makes my standalone cardreader obsolete. Switching cards in and out draws attention to a potential problem, though. The door over the SD card slot does not look rugged enough for the use it will get. I kind of expect to see a lot of these with masking tape or gaffers tape covering the SD slot when they get older.
Hey, as long as it’s hooked to the computer, let’s see how it works as an audio interface. Maybe I’m just having a good night, but everything goes smoothly, Adobe Audition 1.5 sees the Zoom H4n and records a decent track.
Here’s a little “Opihi Moemoe” using the H4n as an audio interface, using the built-in mics. The positioning is about 30″ between the guitar and mics:
or download opihi.mp3
Sounds pretty good to me, but in the fade at the end you can hear a bit of noise. Hmmmm.
A four way comparison
The main comparison is between the two Zooms, the Fostex FR2-LE, and my main studio recording chain, a John Hardy M-1 preamp feeding a LynxTwo-C A/D converter. A pair of Shure KSM141 mics provide audio to the Fostex and John Hardy. I tried to group all four units as close as possible.
Each of the clips is mono, I kept only the Zoom track from the mic that was pointed toward the guitar. The streaming clips are MP3, but the download is a PCM WAV file and considerably larger. I positioned the guitar 3 feet from the mics. This is a quite a strenuous test of the recording chain, because the guitar is such a quiet instrument that plenty of gain is required even for much lesser distances.
or download 1-1-fr2.wav
or download 1-2-h2.wav
or download 1-3-h4n.wav
or download 1-4-jh.wav
I’m a bit disappointed with the results here. I was hoping the H4n’s new preamp and mics would provide a big improvement in noise performance compared to the H2, but I’m not hearing it. Listening to the long fade at the end of the clip, both the Zoom units exhibit more noise than the other two systems. Of course this is an extreme test, and with a more normal recording distance the noise wouldn’t be a problem. And the source of the noise might be the mics rather than the preamps, so it’s only fair to compare the H4n with one of the Shure KSM141 mics.
Using external mics
The Fostex with Shure mic:
or download 2-1-FR2.wav
The H4n with Shure mic:
or download 2-2-h4n.wav
In these clips the guitar is a little closer to the mics, about 30 inches. This is still far enough to require a lot of gain, and both units exhibit some noise. But again the H4n is a touch noisier than the Fostex in the fade at the end of the clip. With the external mic, though, the difference is a lot smaller.
In the four way comparison, the studio chain with the Hardy preamp and Lynx converters was clearly the quietest. How does the H4n do in a head to head with the champ?
The H4n with Shure mic:
or download 3-1-h4n.wav
The Hardy with Shure mic:
or download 3-2-jh.wav
This recording has the guitar even closer, less than 2 feet and just far enough to avoid proximity effect. With lower gain and the external mic the H4n sounds a lot less noisy but still just a hair more than the Hardy and Lynx.
And so the story is told
I’m really quite impressed with the H4n. It has a solid feel and a look that inspires confidence. The controls work cleanly and seem sturdy. The large bright display makes the unit much more friendly to old fogey eyes like mine. The manual is substantial because the feature set is pretty amazing. I’ll probably only scratch the surface, but plenty of other musicians will find use for the multi-track recorder with overdubbing, effects, metronome and so on. Folks doing interviews and recording lectures can benefit from the limiter, automatic gain control, and auto-record.
How is the H4n as a solo acoustic guitar recording tool? I’d say about 95%. The tonal balance of the recordings are fine, the dynamics are good. I’m quite happy with how the guitar sounds with either the external mic or the built-ins. I’m a little bit disappointed by the noise performance, though. A bit closer placement, a little noise reduction software in post, it’s a problem that can be solved, but I was hoping for world class performance from this little unit and I’m afraid it’s not quite at that level.
This entry was posted on Saturday, March 7th, 2009 at 11:29 pm and is filed under Audio, Comparisons. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.