Is there anything new under the sun in the world of handheld recorders? Consider this: on which hand-held recorder could you fill up the SD card because you'd forgotten you were recording at 24-bit linear, divide the resulting enormous file into chunks, delete a couple of chunks to free up some space, then convert some of the remaining files to mp3 at 48kbps, and delete the original linear file to leave you acres of recording space? Well, for one, the new Zoom H4n — a 96kHz-capable, SD/SDHC memory, linear PCM four-track digital recorder.
I'm not sure whether any of that functionality is new; Zoom has had a considerable presence in the handheld market with its H2 and H4 recorders, but although I have often seen them used as meeting recorders, I haven't actually had a chance to play with one, until recently.
When I unwrapped the packaging, to my surprise, the H4n was bigger than I expected with a solid feel about it. This is quite a deliberate move; Zoom has "rubberized" the case of the H4n for a more robust feel and less handling noise.
It's a bit on the beefy side, as on the bottom are two XLR sockets for external mics. This is in addition to the built in X/Y mics at the pointy end. And — before the question can form on your lips — yes, the Zoom can record all four inputs at once. It's a fourchannel and a four-track handheld recorder. In fact, you can connect some plug-in power mics instead of the built-in pair for a total of four external mics.
One very encouraging sign is that Zoom ships the H4n with a decent windshield that mounts quite solidly to the recorder. Many of the non-Flashmic designs don't come with a decent windshield, or offer no real way of fitting one securely — well done, Zoom.
The Zoom has three recording modes — stereo, four-channel and multi-track, or MTR. In MTR, you can route any of the four active inputs to any of the four tracks; indeed, you can route one input to more than one track. In MTR mode, you can punch in and out in Overwrite mode. You can manually punch in or preset the in and outpoints, and directly input the times into the counter for pretty accurate punching. It dawned on me while I was playing with this rather expansive feature (for a hand-held recorder) that Zoom was leveraging the technology from its digital portable studio products; I suppose if you have tons of functionality knocking about, as it were, you may as well make use of it. In the digital product world, of course, that's not necessarily even an expensive thing to do.
I must note that the manual is simultaneously comprehensive and slightly incomprehensible: "You can make different recording on multiple tracks separately in MTR mode." And with its plethora of features, you will need the manual. [According to Samson, the company has "created a new, better translated manual that is available on our and Zoom's website. This new manual should also be shipping with product manufactured after August 2009." — Ed.]
And the features come thick and fast — how about karaoke mode? I passed on that even though it promised to remove the vocals from the tune to turn it into a backing track. A full set of tuners, a metronome, guitar amp modeller, wah, phaser, tremolo, ring mod, reverb, et al, are also offered, all with editable parameters and the ability to be combined in a patch. There's a four-track onboard mixer with level and pan controls. For me, more usefully, an MS matrix and a mono combiner setting for the inputs is here. A quick scan of the Zoom website, and you can see that a lot of its digital signal processing expertise has been crammed into this "handy recorder."
Back in the more traditional handheld world, like many recorders, the H4n offers a pre-record buffer, but adds two very nice layers of icing: Auto Record, which drops into record if the input level exceeds a given volume, and Auto Rec Stop, which stops recording if the input level falls below the variable threshold for a given number of seconds. I used these features very successfully to make some notepad-style recordings of my local church music group. Instead of filling up the card with unwanted sermon material (sorry, Simeon!), I had a rather tidily sectioned recording already filleted.
One thing Zoom hasn't stinted on is the H4n's screen; it is large and bright, with meters bright enough to read and a time display you won't squint at. Another nice feature is a built-in loudspeaker; it won't rock your block party, but if you've forgotten your headphones or want to a share the listening experience in a quiet-ish location, then this is another nice bonus.
The ability to plug in external mics in is, of course, one of the best features of the Zoom. You have XLR connectors and phantom power at 24v (battery saver) and 48 volts. I tried some dynamic mics to test the noise with a lot of gain in circuit, and the results were pretty good. I also plugged in a Neumann KM 184 pair, and the sound was very clean and really more than I expected at the price. Giving fair play to the mic amps, I turned the gain down and bellowed into an SM58 and still managed to get a decent recording without any distortion.
To conclude, it's good to put the H4n into perspective. It's too big to be a pocket recorder; for example, the Edirol R09, Olympus LS10 and even Zoom's own H2 lead the way in machines you can pocket without producing a Spinal Tap-esque bulge. And for a pure journalistic device, the HHB FlashMic is a better bet.
However, as an almost universal solution to portable recording, the H4n is unmatched.
Small enough to carry without thinking, with the quality and features to deal with a huge range of audio challenges, the Zoom H4n is a Swiss army knife of its day and at a price you can't ignore — around $350 street. It doesn't replace a Nagra or a Sound Devices recorder (at three times the price, I must note), but it does open the door to everyone who struggles to afford such products. Simply said, the H4n is a remarkable machine. Top marks for Zoom.
Alstair McGhee, a longstanding radio and TV audio engineer for the BBC, is Assistant Editor, BBC Radio Wales.
SECOND OPINION -- Zoom H4n: Distant Locations, Challenging Usage
For those in the newsgathering and field-recording disciplines, hand-held recorders such as the Zoom H4n are truly indispensable. In traveling to distant locations and those that could charitably be described as “challenging,” small, lightweight and solid are essential attributes in a hand-held recorder, as are recording quality and ease of use.
On separate occasions, this recordist has traveled to India with different hand-held recorders: first, with a then-new Sony PCM-D50, and most recently with a Zoom H4n. (In fact, I took a small cassette recorder on a still-earlier trip to India. As you might imagine, audio captured with that device was useless.)
In this instance, ease of use was the most critical characteristic. With virtually no time to peruse the owner's manual, this evaluation was going to be on the fly, and situations were sometimes sensitive. Capturing a mid-day call to prayer outside a mosque, in a region that has experienced inter-religious violence, required extreme discretion. Likewise, speed was of paramount concern when recording a low-caste family demonstrating, in their modest living room, the oboe- and tabla-like instruments they traditionally perform at weddings.
The H4n performs very well. It is certainly small and light enough for situations such as those described above. The H4n is robust and, with minimal examination of the unit and manual, recording was both simple and quickly engaged.
I will say that 16/44.1 recordings captured with the H4n did not match the detail of those made at the same resolution with the other hand-held recorder. Also, though I didn't pore over the manual, I will second Mr. McGhee's "simultaneously comprehensive and slightly incomprehensible" assessment; this lost-in-translation issue is hardly unique to this product, however.
On the other hand, the other hand-held recorder is bigger, both physically and in its sticker price. Physically, it is perhaps 20 percent larger and heavier, but the real bulk is found in the price. The other unit, costing 40 percent more than the H4n, was out of my range.
The portable and field-recording space has become a crowded one as manufacturers apply their digital know-how to this miniaturized and incredibly convenient product category. Given my experiences and the many impressive features examined in Alistair McGhee's review, the Zoom H4n's bang-for-buck ratio is very favorable.