(click thumbnail)ZOOM H4 Handy Digital Recorder
Broadcast, studio, live sound, field
Two-track, four-track; SD card media; 16-bit/24-bit; 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 96 kHz sample rates; onboard mics; USB 2.0; ships with Steinberg Cubase LE software
• Very versatile
• Good built-in mics and mic modeling
• Very good A/D
• Clearly labeled, easy-access connectors and switches
• Low price
• Mic preamps slightly noisy
• Can be complicated to use
A marvelous little handheld recorder that lives up to its “Handy” nickname.
Recently, we’ve seen a flood of two-track digital recorders that record to Flash memory. They are highly portable, have no moving parts, and can transfer recordings quickly via USB to a computer for editing. These wonderful devices make field recording incredibly convenient. You can use them to capture live musical performances, band practice sessions, music lessons, field samples, interviews and podcasts.
At just $299 street price, Zoom’s H4 Handy Digital Recorder is the lowest cost unit available. Yet compared to competitive products, it includes more features such as four-track recording and XLR mic inputs with 48V phantom power. Plus, it acts as a USB audio interface!
Unlike other Flash-based recorders, the Zoom H4 operates either as a two-track or a four-track recorder. Four-track mode allows simultaneous playback of four tracks and recording of two tracks. When all four tracks are recorded, you can mix them, bounce them to mono or stereo, then add more tracks. You can add effects such as guitar amp emulation, chorus, compression or delay. Other unique features are a metronome and guitar tuner.
In stereo mode, the Zoom H4 can record 16-bit or 24-bit WAV files at 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz or 96 kHz. A full range of MP3 bitrates are available as well. In four-track mode, the unit records at 16-bit/44.1 kHz.
Built into the H4 are two studio-quality electret cardioid condenser microphones in an X/Y pattern for true stereo recording. Bars over the mic capsules protect them from damage, and a foam windscreen is supplied for outdoor use.
The H4 records to a Secure Digital (SD) card. A 128MB SD card is included. With a 2GB card, the H4 provides up to 380 minutes of recording in 16-bit mode (CD quality), and 34 hours in MP3 stereo mode.
This versatile device can operate as a USB audio interface, which lets you record instruments and vocals to your computer. The H4 is bundled with Steinberg Cubase LE multitrack recording software, which works with both Windows and Mac. So, for $299, you get a digital audio workstation as well as a two-track/four-track recorder. The audio format must be 16 bits, 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz in USB interface mode. Zoom supplies a USB cable and a handy USB/Cubase LE startup guide.
The unit runs on two AA batteries or an included power supply. Continuous battery-powered recording time is four hours, shorter with phantom switched on. Dimensions are 2.75 inches x 5.22 inches x 1.38 inches.
On the front of the H4 are a backlit 128 x 64 pixel LCD screen, sampling rate buttons/indicators, a stereo/four-track mode LED, record button, and a cursor button that selects menus, play/pause, or change file. You press the record button once to set levels and press it again to record. Arrayed along the left face are an 1/8-inch stereo jack for line output, 1/8-inch stereo jack for headphones, headphone volume wheel, on/off switch, and a mini USB port. On the right face is a jog wheel and gain switches (L/M/H) for the external inputs and internal mics. All the connectors and switches are clearly labeled.
Mic inputs on the end are balanced XLR; line inputs are unbalanced 1/4-inch, both in a combi connector. The line inputs can accept signals from a mic preamp, mixer, electric guitar, bass, or keyboards.
You use the cursor button and jog wheel to navigate through the many options and settings that the H4 offers. You'll need to read the manual and practice the navigation, but eventually you can access all the features. Fortunately, the manual is clearly written. Also supplied are a simple recording guide and a patch list that describes dozens of included effects patches.
Operating the H4 requires a lot of button presses - more than competing units such as the Edirol R-09 Flash recorder. For example, to connect an Edirol R-09 USB port to a computer, you just plug in the USB cable. With the H4, you also need to go to the menu, jog down to “USB,” press the jog button, jog down to “Connect to PC,” and press the jog button. In fairness, the H4 must have several menu choices because it is so versatile.
When I set up the H4 as a USB audio interface, both Cakewalk Sonar and Cubase recognized it and received audio from it. When set up to transfer files to the computer via USB 2.0, the H4’s data transfer rate was slow at 0.85 MB/sec.
Setting levels with the H4 is a major operation. With the Edirol R-09, you set the recording level by pressing the up/down level buttons. With the H4, you select “Input Menu,” jog to “Level” and select it, press jog again, and jog the level up or down. That can be a pain when you record in the field and need to make adjustments quickly. On the other hand, the H4 offers automatic level scanning, which sets the recording level for you. Unlike constant automatic gain control, it simply sets the amount of gain needed based on the received signal level, then it leaves the gain alone.
Using the H4 in four-track mode is more difficult than using a dedicated four-track recorder/mixer with dedicated controls. Still, the H4 lets you do multitrack recording without the need to carry around an extra multitracker.
In general, the H4 is harder to operate than dedicated stereo recorders but offers more features.
How does the H4 sound? Using its internal mics with no processing, the H4 was very good for the price. I recorded a quiet acoustic guitar a foot from the mics. The playback sounded wide-range and clear with a little upper-midrange emphasis. Some quiet background hiss was audible during playback, so I wouldn’t use the H4’s internal mics for critical studio recording of quiet instruments. But the sound was certainly usable.
The built-in mics are X-Y cardioids angled 90 degrees. The stereo stage they produce is narrower than real-life sound sources, but much wider than the stereo stage you get with built-in omni mics. A sound source 45 degrees off center was reproduced halfway to one side between my monitor speakers.
I checked the sound of the H4’s mic simulator, which tailors the frequency response of the internal mics to sound like a Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD-421, Neumann U 87, or AKG 414. I thought that the simulation was well done. It's amazing how good those internal mics can sound when tuned like a 414 or U 87!
Being cardioid, the internal mics pick up a lot of handling noise. As long as you don’t make any adjustments or move your fingers while holding the H4, you won’t hear the noise. The H4 can be mounted on a mic stand or tripod, thanks to the supplied strap-on platform with a 1/4-inch 20 threaded insert.
I did an A-B listening test between the H4 mic preamp and a Mackie 1604 VLZ mic preamp. I connected two Neumann KM140 mics first to the H4 mic inputs, then to the Mackie preamps feeding the H4 line inputs. I played an acoustic guitar one foot from the mics. I stopped playing a few times to record the background noise in my quiet studio. To my ears, the Mackie had about 3 dB or 4 dB less hiss and a little more detail than the H4. Also, the H4 mic preamp’s signal had a low-level 700 Hz tone, which I heard with internal or external mics at high gain, with phantom on or off. This tone would be inaudible when recording a rock band at low gain.
I also performed an A-B test between the A/D converter in the H4 and the A/D converter in an Echo Mia audio interface. The KM140 mics were amplified by Mackie 1604 VLZ mic preamps, which fed the line inputs of the Zoom H4 and the Mia card. The two A/Ds sounded almost identical with equal noise levels, but the Echo unit sounded very-slightly-more detailed and realistic. The H4’s signal recorded through its line inputs did not have the 700 Hz tone that I heard when I recorded through the H4’s mic preamps. [Zoom associates the tone with battery usage and says that recording with the AC adapter should be much cleaner than with battery power – Ed.]
As those A-B tests show, you’d get better quality and lower noise using an external mic preamp with the H4. However, its A/D converter is nearly as good as that of a quality sound card.
The Zoom H4 is more flexible than competing units, but as a consequence, it requires more button pressing to operate. It offers good sound and lots of features at a very low price.
Bruce Bartlett runs a commercial recording studio and is the author of Practical Recording Techniques 4th Edition published by Focal Press.