Zoom 4 Handy Recorder Issue 56
Despite the howls of protest, this little recorder
turned out to be quite handy indeed.
Text: ‘Handy’ Stewart
The first time I used the Zoom H4 recorder was at a
protest rally. I grabbed it as I rushed out the door – late
as I was for the event – only to discover on approach that
the unit didn’t come supplied with AA batteries! ‘No big
deal’, I figured as I sped through Woolworths like a man
possessed trying to find the batteries aisle… ‘I should have
With the batteries purchased, I rushed up the road to
the municipal hall where a large crowd had gathered to
hear several people speak, and camera crews from various
nightly news teams and boom mic operators jockeyed for
position in the overcrowded space. At this point I hadn’t
the faintest notion how to use the Zoom H4. I knew the
unit probably only came with a small SD card (120MB as
it turned out – far too small for general news gathering
applications, in my opinion, especially at higher sampling
rates) so I put it into 16-bit/44.1k recording mode via one
of the easily-selectable backlit recording format buttons on
the front panel, hit record – which dropped it into pause/
record mode – checked the level (which seemed okay),
hit record a second time and off it went. I nonchalantly
wandered to the front of the stage and placed it discreetly
on the podium right under the speaker and left it there for
the duration of the rally.
The Zoom H4 is a stereo recorder and (as I much later
discovered) a four-track recorder all in one. The four-track
recorder, in fact, allows for overdubbing, panning, mixing
and bouncing the results to a stereo file, and even includes
a chromatic tuner (that can only be accessed via the
Combi-connector line inputs), a metronome and various
guitar and multi-effects – not something I was expecting
from the unit at all, but highlights the predisposition of
Zoom towards guitars and amps. The H4 even has mic
modelling options if you’re recording via the built-in stereo
mic (otherwise known as glorified preset tone controls). If
I’d known, I would have recorded the protest rally via the
‘Neumann U87’ preset! The only restriction of ‘four-track’
mode is the 16-bit/44.1k sampling rate. But wait, that’s
not all, every unit also comes with a copy of Cubase LE
software, which allows the H4 to act as a stereo audio
interface to boot.
The Zoom H4 is a hand-held SD recorder with two fixedposition condenser mics arranged in an X/Y configuration
at the top of the unit, and protected by a reasonably sturdy
‘roll cage’, much like the Sony PCM-D1 we reviewed last
issue. The H4’s super-lightweight plastic construction makes
it a breeze to carry around, to the extent that at one point in
AT 104
my first H4 outing, I frantically searched all my coat pockets
as I was convinced that I’d dropped it! It’s not small, but at
190g, it’s almost lighter than my new mobile phone.
Sonically the unit performs beautifully. At 24-bit/96k,
in particular, the in-built mic configuration provides a
smooth stereo image and a balanced and delicate tone. I
used the unit to record lots of different outdoor location
sounds at this digital resolution, from early morning
bird-calls – which sounded breathtaking on the recording
– to ocean surf and driving rain. Higher sampling rates
like 24-bit/96k are far more capable of capturing and
reproducing the delicacies of natural ambiences and other
high-end sounds than 16-bit/44.1k, especially where ‘pink’
and ‘white’ noise-type sounds like a raging ocean, wind
and rain are concerned. It’s also good for brushed snare
work. The Zoom H4 was more than capable of separating
out the nuances of these broadband sounds at its highest
sample rate in a natural-sounding way, without the digital
recording medium crunching it up into a harsh, grinding
overtone. I’ve had experiences in the past where a digital
location recorder reduced the subtle mayhem of the ocean
into something more akin to the sound of a cement mixer
– thankfully the Zoom H4 didn’t hear it this way. The
only drawback was that, at this elevated sampling rate,
the miniscule 120MB SD card supplied with the unit
could only record in stereo for a tick over three and a
half minutes! Ridiculous! (Thanfully the H4 now comes
supplied with a 512MB card, which is better, but still only
a ‘starter-card’ at best.)
Physically, the unit feels instinctively a little fragile, and
the last thing I was ever going to attempt was a ‘drop’
test. It’s not what I’d call robustly built: the battery
compartment door feels quite delicate and the buttons
and switches all feel a little fiddly and hard on the
fingers, apart from the central menu key which feels
loose and ambiguous – the ‘nipple-joystick’ makes the
unit feel more like a personal hand-held Nintendo than
an audio recorder. Just to dwell on this particular control
for a moment, I’d much rather have seen a dedicated
‘stop’ button on the H4 than the one incorporated into
this centrally located multi-control button. Once armed,
there seems no obvious way to drop the unit back out of
record-ready, since there’s no control anywhere on the unit
labelled ‘stop’. The first time I tried to abort a recording I
had to turn the unit off!
The side-positioned on/off and stepped input gain switches
are all small and stiff, with black-on-black labelling,
making it difficult to read in all but the brightest light,
at which point the backlit sample rate and record buttons
aren’t easily viewed either. Having said all that, this unit
is built to a price point (a little over one-fifth the price
of the Sony PCM-D1), so it would be unfair to expect it
to have the same ergonomic maturity or build quality of
something vastly more expensive. And besides, all these
little shortcomings are easy to get used to if you’re primarily
interested in the unit’s recording potential – just don’t
expect to be able to get very far without a much larger SD
card than the one supplied with the machine. As it turned
out, I only managed to capture the first seven minutes of
the protest rally speeches that night… not much more than
the first waffling introduction!
The H4 ‘Handy Recorder’ has a menu-based phantom
power option to drive two external condenser mics, which
connect via the aforementioned Combi connectors. So if
you have a favourite stereo pair (or a single stereo mic) or
perhaps you simply want the mics at a distance from the
recorder, you can connect them up and use the individual
low/medium/high input gain switches on the side of the
unit to set up your left/right recording levels. Finessing
the gain can then be addressed via the backlit LCD screen
under the ‘level’ menu option.
There are also compressor and limiter functions, which
allow you to control peaks and help prevent clipping on
your recordings, but you have to choose one or the other
from the same sub-menu; you can’t run both. The limiter
is great at controlling radically different audio signals
without introducing any noticeable distortion, unlike the
compressor, which tends to ‘pump’ and release awkwardly,
creating fairly jerky and clumsy compression artefacts. My
suggestion would be to leave these features off if you’re
trying to capture quality location sounds, but if you’re
source is going to be unpredictable, the limiter will be
your best bet by a long shot, and serve you much more
transparently than the compressor. Set your levels relatively
conservatively and worry about compression later when
you’re in a better position to finesse the controls.
Handling noise of the H4, as you might expect, is pretty
dominant over a recording if you’re not careful, so the unit
is best left to its own devices when capturing audio. To that
end the unit also comes supplied with a handy little harness
device, which cradles the unit and allows it to be screwed
onto a mic stand or tripod. There’s also a foam pop-filter,
which is reasonably good for speech control, but not much
chop once the wind gets up over about 10 knots [knots?
You’ll be quoting in the Beaufort Scale next – CH]. If you
don’t want your location sounds to be subject to the dreaded
‘buffeting’ effects of wind in the capsules, I’d advise you to
get a windshield for the unit, or take it out of said wind!
Dynamic Music
(02) 9939 1299
Quality sound.
Versatile recording options.
Bonus Cubase LE disc.
Fiddly controls.
Supplied SD card (still)
too small.
The H4 is a quirky little unit with
some unusual four-track recording features that will be handy
for some, and never used by
others. As a conventional stereo
digital location recorder, the unit
sounds as good as others many
times its price. The H4’s controls
leave a bit to be desired but for
the price these shortcomings
are easily forgiven.
The Zoom H4 is a handy recorder, as its name suggests.
It’s been great for recording all kinds of outdoor sounds,
interviews and even drums on a session where I put it up on
a rafter in the studio and let it record for an hour with the
compression preset activated. The resultant digital file was
then simply exported from the unit via its supplied USB
cable, fed into my recording session and cut up to fit the
track. Simple. It sounded great, involved no leads or preamps
and captured a wildly bombastic stereo recording of the room
in a way that I would never have managed with conventional
mics and stands. That was the coolest result I achieved with
the H4 – very handy indeed, I thought. It may not be the
most robust or ergonomic portable recording device ever
made, but it’s cheap and above all else, it sounds great.
AT 105
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