Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review - Zoom H4n Handy Recorder

The Zoom H4n is a compact digital field recorder, perfectly suited to recording live performances.

The Hunt

I used to use my trusty Yamaha 4-track recorder (hissy, even with dbx) to record live impro songs. A year or so ago I got the bug to start recording again, this time digitally. I hunted around to find a cheap MiniDisc recorder on eBay, and hey presto, found one. It worked nicely, too, as a 2-track digital recorder - except that the digital audio is trapped on the MiniDisc, and you can only get analog audio out. (Well, with my unit, anyway.)

I decided to go on the hunt for a new digital recorder for gigs. The requirements were simple:
  • Built-in stereo microphone
  • Stereo line-in
  • 4-track simultaneous recording
  • Record to digital media
Oh yeah, and
  • Affordable

There are a whole slew of recorders out there that meet most of these requirements... but very little that could do simultaneous 4-track recording while keeping a lid on the cost. I only found one device that met my needs: The Zoom H4n. I've used Zoom equipment before; a lifetime ago, in a covers band, one of the guitarists had a little Zoom belt unit for effects. Very cool, very versatile, a little hokey. Should I take the plunge and buy some Zoom equipment?



The Zoom H4n is a digital field recorder, recording to SD media. It has two primary input sources: twin mics and a twin 1/4-jack/XLR input. The twin microphones (arranged to provide an excellent stereo field) can be set to cover either a 90-degree or 120-degree spread. There's a headphone/line out jack with an independent volume control.

Recording and playback

There are three recording modes on the H4n. The stereo recording mode takes audio from either the microphones or the 1/8-inch/XLR input, recording to WAV or directly to MP3 format. The 4-track mode takes audio from both the microphones and the jacks, recording two distinct WAV files. There's also a "MTR" mode where you can record individual tracks and do overdubs, bounce tracks, that sort of thing; I use this primarily for recording live gigs, and really haven't ventured in to that side of things. (Even if I did, I'd probably use PC-based tools instead of the device.)

Recording is straightforward - no manual required. Choose the recording mode and tap the record button once to prime it. The record button flashes to let you know it is waiting, and at that point you can check levels. Tap record again to start recording. Tap stop to stop. Simple.

A rocker on the side of the unit is used to set the recording level. In 4-track mode you can adjust the recording level of the microphone and jack inputs separately.

Playback is slightly more complicated; press play. You can use the track forward and back buttons to cycle through the recordings you've made. If you don't have headphones handy, there's a speaker in the back suitable for the "did it really record that?" test, or for quick previews.


The device has a big screen (with amber backlight), and a whole slew of buttons, rockers and wheels for driving. I've seen small devices that try and overload lots of functionality on buttons to conserve space. Thankfully, the folks at Zoom didn't do that; buttons typically have one clear use, which makes it easier on the brain. The recording/playback interface is pretty easy to drive.

To access system settings (of which there are a lot), you use a menu button and wheel on the right side of the unit. The wheel lets you scroll through options, then clicking the wheel (similar to using a mouse wheel as a third button) accesses that menu item. It's quite natural to access those settings using your thumb if you are holding the device in your right hand. The only problem I have is that sometimes, if you're not careful, you can actually scroll the wheel one notch as you click it, taking you to a menu you might not have expected.

Several of the buttons are backlit. The record button blinks when primed, and is steady red when recording. When using the mic or the line inputs, other buttons are backlit to show those inputs are active. The backlight on the input buttons flicker when the levels get close to peaking - a really nice touch.


The mounting options are very thoughtful on the H4n. The device screws in to any common camera tripod. It also comes with an attachment that screws in to the bottom, then fits neatly in to the claw on a microphone stand. If you're doing hand-held recording, it has a rubberised grip, but I still find it is slightly prone to squeaks.

At a theatre venue, I try and place the device where it will get the best stereo spread of the stage without obstructing the audience's view. The backlit buttons can create an issue here; at our Brisbane Arts Theatre shows, the device is right at the foot of the roughly one-metre-high stage, in the centre, so those backlit buttons look really bright. Nothing a bit of gaffer tape can't solve.

I tend to start the recording well before a show starts, and stop it after the show is finished, just to save multiple trips to the device or drawing attention to it.


The twin microphones do a great job for all of the applications I've tried, including recording of live stage shows and close-up voice recording. By twisting the individual mics a half-turn, you can set the device to record either a 90-degree field or a 120-degree field. I haven't experimented much with that, but I certainly do find the wide 120-degree field to be sufficient to pick up a stage show when the device is placed at the foot of the stage, front-and-centre. All of the recordings from One Bride for Seven Brothers used the device with a 120-degree field, and it was still wide enough to pick up the piano (at 9-o-clock to the recorder).

The H4n comes with a custom wind sock to protect from pops if you're close-up vocal recording. (I find it also makes a great first line of defence from the fake blood we squirt around at Prognosis: Death!.)

If you want to bypass the built-in microphones for your own set, there's a 1/8-inch stereo jack underneath the device used for essentially replacing the microphones. Again, I haven't experimented with this, but it seems like a pretty smart way to extend the flexibility of the H4n; for example, you could record four line-level tracks simultaneously (as long as you're willing to accept the same recording volume for tracks 1+2 and tracks 3+4). The placement of this jack is awkward; if you have something plugged in, the device no longer sits flat on a surface.

As an added benefit, the two microphones make the thing look quite a bit like a taser. I wouldn't recommend carrying it around as a security device though ;)

Battery life

Although the device comes with an A/C adapter, years of errant there-despite-best-efforts hum in sound equipment make me use batteries. The H4n takes two AA batteries. I have found that recording 4-channels simultanously (so WAV format, without any compression), I get about five hours of recording. When I record a show in mp3 format, after about 150 minutes of recording the battery meter drops from 3 bars (full) to 1 bar. I haven't pushed the device to its limits with battery life yet; I'd rather not gamble on missing part of an improvised show I'll never get back again.

File structure

When you format an SD card in the device, it places three directories at the root of the card, one for each recording format. Under those it places 10 directories each, cleverly named "FOLDER01" through "FOLDER10". When you're ready to record, there are buttons on the front of the device that let you pick the destination folder. I've experimented a little with renaming those folders or creating sub-folders undneath them, with mixed results; a few times the device has complained that it couldn't save data, at which point I switched it to use one of the folders I hadn't fiddled with.

I have a 16 GB SD card in mine, which is lovely; recording in mp3 format, there's room for days and days of recording. I have found the H4n takes longer to start up with a high-capacity card; mine takes 10-12 seconds to start from an off state.

PC Connectivity

The H4n has a mini-USB input on the side for plugging in to a PC. When you plug it in, the device asks you if you want to use it as a storage device (giving your PC access to the directory structure), or as a sound input device. As I am writing this, it occurs to me that it might just function as a 4-simultaneous-channel input if you have the right software; I must try that out!


As well as the bundled USB cable, wind sock and microphone stand holder, the H4n comes with a snazzy plastic case. This thing is almost perfect; I really like the idea that my precious recorder has a rigid case to protect it from the stuff rolling around in my gig bag. It secures closed with a small plastic clip, and I find that clip opens just a tad too easily for my liking.

The H4n also comes with a copy of Cubase LE 4 for editing your work. I've only just scratched the surface of Cubase; for the moment a simple tool like Audacity is sufficient for my needs, but I can see that something more powerful like Cubase will be useful.

You can buy a remote control device to drive it from a distance; all of the front panel controls are replicated, of course minus the big screen. Because the device is somewhat sensitive to noise if you are holding it or pushing buttons, this gives a nice way to access features and change settings without introducing noise.

Recording quality

Arguably the most important aspect of the device is the quality of recordings. The jack/XLR ins are as clean as you would expect. You can check out an example: Esteem on Uncomposed was recorded this way. (Contrast that to Blink, which used the Minidisc taking a straight line-level out. Far more hiss.)

The verdict

I'm absolutely ecstatic with the H4n. Physically, the unit is compact, tidy, and easy to use. Sound-wise it is nice and clean. It provides a heap of great features for a pretty reasonable price - the US street price is about $300, often packaging in a few free accessories. If this one were to meet with an untimely accident, I'd replace it with another H4n without a second thought.

Photo by penmachine. Written by .


Amy said...

That last bit sounded rather ominous. Planning an 'accident'?

(As you can imagine, I am hardly in the market for such a device, but it was interesting to find out that your scary looking voice-stealing monster box is actually quite harmless.)

Girl Clumsy said...

It does look like a taser, doesn't it?

I actually use a Zoom H2 for work, which I assume is the earlier or simpler version of the H4.

The H2 looks more like an old-school microphone from the 40s - the H4 can't obviously maintain that due to its mic placements, but hey, taser works!

I will agree the Zooms are easy to use - and considering I'm a tech idiot and only use basic recording & playback functions for work.

I still only have a 512mb card in mine, and it records as MP3, so I get about 4 hours of recording, which is generally enough for a fair few media conferences (although I do find I fill it up at parliament during long speeches!).

I find with the H2 though that if I plug my station mic in, I get a low-level hiss on the audio. It seems to compress the audio level down, and add almost a "rain" type sound (excuse my lack of appropriate descriptors!).

I tend now to leave the mic off altogether - I'd rather get good sound than try to shoehorn the station logo into shot!

Eventually I would like to buy my own audio recording device, and I was already figuring it would be something like a H4, considering I'm familiar already with the system.

Congrats on your review!

Luka said...

The article provides a quick note on the file system, stating that manual folder naming / creation is possible in some cases. How did you achieve that?

Telecom Company said...

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