Kodak Zi8 – Pocket HD with Audio Input

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

I was already in Hawai`i on my vacation – can you take a vacation from being retired? – when I learned of the new Kodak Zi8. Now I already have a collection of video cameras that gets me teased by my wife, but this new shooter was too good to pass up. I’ve had it here in beautiful Kailua, O`ahu for a couple of weeks now and posted two videos.

I’m pretty pleased with this new camcorder. Let’s look at the pros and cons:

It’s Pocketable

It’s compact. It’s right on the edge of being too big for a pocket camcorder, but I’d say it still works. Here’s a shot of the Zi8 next to a Motorola Razr:

Zi8 and Razr Side by Side

Zi8 and Razr Side by Side

I’m embarrassed that I shipped my Flip Mino HD off to a friend before I did this comparison so I can’t show them side by side or show comparison videos.

Another factor that makes a good pocket cam is a low price, and the Zi8 does fine on that score. And while the user interface is a bit more complicated than the Flip or Vado cams, the Kodak has a bit more flexibility as well. The options are easily accessible with the control layout. It takes decent stills along with several video formats.

It’s Expandable

Compact Flash memory continues to ride the price curve down, down, down, so the ability of the Zi8 to use accessory cards lets the user take advantage of bargains when they appear. I often shoot a set of music that continues for an hour or longer. A 16 Gbyte SDHC card combined with the included AC adapter makes the Zi8 a great tool for my kind of shooting. For places where AC isn’t available, the battery in the Zi8 can be replaced with a fully charged spare.

The other big feature for my use is the stereo microphone input. When I shoot my solo guitar performance videos I usually record the sound separately, then synchronize the audio and video in post production. Recently I’ve been using a Sanyo Xacti HD2000 camcorder that has many great features including an audio input, so I’ve been able to record direct to the camera using high quality mics. The HD2000 is a just a little too bulky to be a true pocket cam, and it busts out of the “disposable” price range by quite a bit as well. Now with the Zi8 I have an affordable shooter that I can feed audio into.

The reason for needing an external mic is simple physics – the camera has to be some distance from the subject, but the microphone needs to be close to the subject, at least for the kind of stuff I do, recording solo acoustic guitar in less than optimal rooms.

Here’s a picture that gives an idea of the problem:

Zoom H2 audio into the Kodak Zi8 camcorder

Zoom H2 audio into the Kodak Zi8 camcorder

The room in this picture is a screened lanai, or porch, in Kailua. Beautiful Kailua beach is about 50 yards away, so the surf is always audible in the background. The trade winds are usually blowing through the surrounding trees, and a fairly busy street goes by the back door. There’s no soundproofing or room treatment of any kind, so getting a decent sound is a challenge. Notice how far the camera is positioned from the guitar – 5 to 6 feet away. At this distance, the guitar is not very loud, while the surrounding waves, wind, and cars are quite obtrusive. But with the audio input in the Zi8, I can use the Zoom H2 as a stereo microphone, and place it about 1 foot from the guitar. Here the signal to noise ratio is much better.

But It’s Not Perfect

Naturally, the Zi8 has flaws, some minor, some a bit more troubling. I never thought about the flat bottom of the Flip Mino HD until I tried to position the Zi8 on a table without a stand. Oooopss. The Zi8 has a rounded bottom that requires some kind of support for any placement.

The feel of the Kodak is a bit flimsy compared to the Flip, but those flimsy bits give access to a replaceable battery and various connectors. The zoom capability seems like a bit of a joke to me, it works in digital mode so it impacts picture quality, and it operates in discrete steps that would be very distracting during a shot. The bundled Media Impressions software has a number of issues, judging by the discussions at the support forum but I was able to title and trim one clip with it.

**EDIT Nov 19, 2009**The italicized comment that follows talks about my problems with the AGC on the audio input, but I’ve since learned that there is no AGC. Ooops!! I must have been overloading the input pretty heavily. I plan to continue to explore the audio input in a future post.**End of EDIT**

The biggest negative issue for me is the AGC, automatic gain control, on the audio input. This function raises the gain when sounds are low, which raises the background noise. It also makes level setting more difficult. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m hoping for a firmware upgrade someday to turn off the AGC. In the meantime, I’ve come up with a setting that seems to get the job done, by setting the Zoom H2 to low sensitivity and turning down the audio sensitivity on the Zi8.

So How’s the Video?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post I mentioned that I’ve done two video clips with the Zi8. Here’s the first one, shot in indoors daylight, an original composition I call Kui Lima:

and here’s one demonstrating the low light performance of the Zi8, an old song called Kalena Kai:

So that’s the story as I see it. For my particular application, shooting solo performer music videos, this little cam seems like a pretty good tool for the job. And like always in the fast moving world of consumer technology, we can look forward to the response this cam generates among competitors.



This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 20th, 2009 at 4:43 pm and is filed under Video. 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.

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    18 Responses to ' Kodak Zi8 – Pocket HD with Audio Input '

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    1. Chuck Cheesman said in post # 1,

      on November 11th, 2009 at 10:22 pm

      Well Fran, I bought one of these little buggers pretty much based on your review. :-)

      There’s an old Gibson LG-1 arriving at my house tomorrow, and assuming it arrives in one piece I’ll give the Kodak a test run so I can show off the guitar.

      Very nice playing as always…

      Cheers,
      Chuck

    2. Edward Hamlin said in post # 2,

      on November 13th, 2009 at 11:22 pm

      Hey Fran! Nice stuff. I just picked me up a zi8 after my zi6 unceremoniously died and I hooked it up today with my H2 for the first trial run. I think you’re still getting better results, but I can see that the combination is a winner. I’ve got to tweak the gain on the two units as you did and see what’s just right.

      First attempt is here:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgbQe1PCW_Q

      More to come…this does make it REAL easy, doesn’t it? ;))

      Aloha
      E

    3. Bill F said in post # 3,

      on December 5th, 2009 at 7:13 am

      Nice performance! Thanks for sharing you productio experiece with the zi8 and zoom.

    4. Fran Guidry said in post # 4,

      on December 6th, 2009 at 12:56 pm

      Thanks, Bill. Can you share your knowledge with me? I’d like to have an avatar displayed with my posts here like you do, but I can’t figure out the trick.

      Thanks,
      Fran

    5. Fran Guidry said in post # 5,

      on December 8th, 2009 at 9:00 am

      Yeehaaa, I figured out the avatar thing!!

      Fran

    6. dsi r4 said in post # 6,

      on December 15th, 2009 at 9:32 pm

      Bundled software isn’t Mac compatible but necessary for smooth playback of 1080p video; price doesn’t include an optional memory card.

    7. Fran Guidry said in post # 7,

      on December 22nd, 2009 at 9:05 pm

      When you’re right, you’re right. When the Zi8 was getting down to $149 at Best Buy with a 4 GB card, that was a pretty sweet deal, but now that they’re asking $209 with no card, the Flip Mino HD doesn’t seem so overpriced.

      But I sure like the AC power and user memory – makes for much longer shot times. And the audio input is a feature even if I find myself doing parallel recording anyway.

      Fran

    8. Rod Tompkins said in post # 8,

      on May 7th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Fran,

      Nice playing! Thanks for your review of the Zi8. I got one right after they came out and and use it all the time on gigs and with K-6 general music students. I agree with your observation about the AGC (or ALC, as some say). It might not say it in the specs, but I spoke with a Kodak tech and the Zi8 does have some form of AGC or at least an agressive compressor. I had dreams of plugging my digital piano’s stereo output right into the Zi8 to get some nice video with crystal clear stereo sound. However, I was quite disappointed. No matter how low I put the volume down on my piano and the Zi8 input volume, the Zi8 cranks up the input when I’m playing softly and squashes it down when I play even at medium dynamics. This results in a lot of hiss (all from the Zi8) during silence and a very compressed sound when I’m playing. Occasionally, you can hear some obvious distortion. Listen to the beginning and end of this video to hear what I’m talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPDmMtw91sM

      In this clip, I have the volume on the piano so low I can barely hear what I’m playing through the speakers. You can hear the Zi8 crank up it’s own noise floor in the spots where I’m not playing. At the end when I’m letting the last chord fade, you can hera the Zi8 turn the volume back up.

      I still love this videocam and use it all the time, usually with the internal mono mic. But if I want the sound quality of my music to be heard, I will simultaneously record the piano output into my laptop, then sync it with the video later. If they could fix this issue in a later version (and give it a better zoom) this would be the perfect unit for musicians wanting to get quick good-quality video on gigs or at home.

      Keep playing!

    9. Fran Guidry said in post # 9,

      on May 19th, 2010 at 7:02 pm

      I’m assuming that these cams are built around commodity chip sets, and the ones available don’t have a “no AGC” option.

      Limitations in audio quality are a constant complaint in the video world, though. I’m starting to think that it comes from the film world, where parallel recording is the norm. I’ve certainly made a field recorder a part of all my shooting.

      Fran

    10. Rod Tompkins said in post # 10,

      on May 22nd, 2010 at 7:13 am

      I just bought a Yamaha Pockettak C24 for capturing audio when I’m using the Zi8. It has a stereo line in jack and the option for ALC to be turned on or off. Actually, even with the ALC on it sounds great. The C24 is half the size of the Zi8, so I have a very compact setup for getting some decent video with excellent audio.

      It’s amazing how little mention there is of this AGC issue in Zi8 discussions. Glad I stumbled onto your site.

    11. Bernd said in post # 11,

      on August 22nd, 2010 at 7:45 am

      Hi Fran,

      just stumbled over your website from a link found in acousticguitarforum.com. Your experiences with the zi8 and the Zoom H2 helped me a lot.

      More than that, the design of your homepage is one of the best I have seen so far. I’m about to create my own site at the moment and some of your ideas how to organise themes and facts help me a lot.

      Thanks for that !

      All the best to you from far away Germany!

      Bernd

    12. Fran Guidry said in post # 12,

      on September 5th, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      Bernd, I’m so glad were helpful to you. Thanks for stopping by.

      Fran

    13. Jon Tsujimura said in post # 13,

      on December 27th, 2010 at 3:26 pm

      Wide angle and Macro lens attachment for Kodak Zi8

      Fran, I thought I would share this link with you and your readers.
      http://guidewired.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/kodak-zi8-mod-wide-angle-lens-w-macro-attachment/

      The link contains info on a wide angle and macro lens attachment for the Kodak Zi8. The lens attaches to a magnetic washer that is attached to camera. Really interesting.

      Jon
      Mililani HI

    14. Martin said in post # 14,

      on January 16th, 2011 at 12:30 am

      Hi
      I just bought Zi8 on Friday and did several testing yesterday. This is what I’ve found.
      http://img80.imageshack.us/img80/5861/zi8behavior.jpg
      There are difference between channels. I found the same “AGC” as Rod Tompkins spoke about.
      I would be satisfied with it, if anybody would confirm my observation.
      I’ve searched through YouTube and the silent indoor clips looks like the difference between channels is common with Zi8.
      But i want to record music and voice separately into channels, so this is not big issue for me.
      Thank you.

    15. Niels said in post # 15,

      on March 4th, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      hello Fran,
      thanks for your tests with the zi8 and the microphones. I think your music is quite sweet.
      I already had the zi8 and your tests put me on the trail for a AT 822, so I have both now.
      I have a question about the zi8: when I plug in an external mic a hissing sound appears in the recording. To try and isolate the problem I plugged in just the AT 822 cord; the same hiss was produced. So it is not ‘self noise’ from the AT.
      Recordings with the internal mic sound clean.
      Is that a familar zi8 problem that I should live with? Or do you think I should go and return the zi8?
      thanks,
      Niels

    16. Fran Guidry said in post # 16,

      on March 4th, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      HI, Niels,

      I’m glad you found some use from my posts.

      I’m assuming you’ve inserted the battery in the AT822 and turned it on. If you have an old cassette recorder or minidisc you can try plugging the AT822 into those to confirm that it works.

      If you don’t have any way to test the mic further,I would return the unit and bring the mic with you to confirm things when you exchange.

      The audio with the mic should sound better than the camera mic, not worse.

      Fran

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    About the Blog

      Howdy, my name is Fran Guidry and this is my Homebrewed Music blog.

      I play Hawaiian slack key guitar and recorded my solo acoustic CD at home. Most of the recording information I find on the internet seems focused on bands, drums, multitracking, and so on but my main focus is recording solo acoustic guitar. Lately I’ve been enjoying video recording along with audio, so that shows up in the blog as well.

      I’m also a guitar nut. I love big ones and little ones, handmades and factory guitars, cheap ones and expensive ones. So I’ll be sharing the fun of exploring guitars as well, along with the challenges of amplifying acoustic guitars for live performance.

      Welcome!

    Philosophy

      My recording philosophy is pragmatic, skeptical, not super critical. After all, the performance is by far the most important component of a track, and every aspect of any recording is a matter of taste.

      But I do like to know “about stuff.” Back in hifi days I learned about double blind testing. I learned that we humans can easily hear differences that don’t really exist. The more I’ve learned about our human auditory system, the more I’m skeptical of what people say they hear, especially if they claim that a particular microphone or preamp or cable has some magical property.

      I’ve only been recording since 2001, and when I started I found the usual places on the internet. I sought advice and accepted it, thought I would improve my recordings by using more expensive equipment. It didn’t work.

      Two things that did seem to lead to better recordings were experience and room treatment. Getting an appealing sound is the combination of many small details, and learning those details only comes from experience. Amd the sound of the recording space is obviously a big factor.

      I’ve only recorded seriously using digital technology, but I remember trying to record rehearsals and gigs back in analog days. I don’t have any nostalgia for analog recording and playback systems at all. I think even low end digital systems can capture marvelous recordings. So when I look at gear, I look for good specs: low noise, broad flat frequency response, wide dynamic range, low distortion. I’m not interested in colorful components, mics and preamps with a sound, I want the sound to be the sound of my guitar.

      But the last word is that I’m just learning and I hope you find something useful in my posts.