REVIEW: ZOOM AUDIO'S H4N PORTABLE RECORDER
Over the past few years, the increase in computer power, coupled with an explosion of boutique production environments, has placed a demand for manufactures to create easier ways to capture source materials. This has led to a proliferation of choices in the portable recording devices market. The H4n is Zoom's latest entry into that arena.
At press time, there were over 30 models of portable devices available and over a dozen of them within the street price of the H4n (around $350). Due to the commonality of these products, this article will focus on some of the unique qualities of the H4n. For in-depth specifications of the H4n, you'll want to check out Zoom's Website.
THE GOOD STUFF
The H4n's look mirrors many manufacturers' current layouts, particularly its top-mounted condenser microphones. Although they are in a fixed X/Y position, with a quick twist, the capsules adjust from a 90- to a 120-degree directionality ensuring no audible phasing in the recording. The H4n also comes standard with two combo XLR/1/4-inch inputs, including an 1/8-inch stereo microphone jack. The 1/4-inch line inputs are provided for guitar, bass and keyboards, while the XLRs allow for unbalanced sources, such as external dynamic and condenser mics.
One caveat, although the unit does provide +24V phantom power for more economical electric consumption, many pro condensers' demand +48V, so check this out before purchasing a dedicated microphone to use with the H4n. The importance of these inputs cannot be overstated. Besides the fixed mics allowing for quick tracking of instantaneous break-through musical ideas, the other inputs allow for a more elaborate set-up without the need for costly adapters, a feature missing from many other more expensive units.
The biggest strength of Zoom's H4n is its ability to record up to four tracks simultaneously. For a band setting, this allows a direct close microphone scenario in addition to capturing a controlled "room tone," which typically adds more realism to a recording. A multitrack mode (MTR) also allows the user to combine recorded tracks common in an overdubbing session.
Another very important strength of the unit is that it can be used as an audio interface. A USB connection allows the user to plug directly into a laptop or desktop computer to access DAW software, and Zoom includes Steinberg's Cubase LE to get you started. Using the H4n as an interface allows input of two tracks during a recording session or transfer of a previous recording stored on the included 1GB SD card.
Possibly the most unassuming feature, yet probably the most useful in the H4n's built-in playback speaker. No longer is it necessary to consistently carry around an earpiece just to verify your recordings.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
While the features of the Zoom H4n are too numerous to list, there were some shortcomings. The unit can definitely be used for both low- and high-budget post production environments. Use for dialogue (in controlled settings), sound effects and Foley would possibly be the best professional application for this unit. While it would suffice for demo recordings, the H4n's built-in microphones did not have the recording characteristics demanded of lead tracks in a professional music-recording situation; specifically on a main vocal. I did feel confident, however, that the unit was more than sufficient for background vocals, instrument beds or pads that would be mixed in a secondary position. In fairness, Zoom does not necessarily promote that as a factor for the H4n but it is always great to push the envelope. The unit, without a doubt, is best suited for capturing ideas quickly, recording live performances without set-up hassles, as well as band practices.
The construction of the H4n really was my biggest concern. I was not that impressed upon first viewing of the product. In fact I was disappointed. Being in a production environment for quite some time now, one thing that you never want to interfere with the creative process is the potential for gear to break. This is not to say that the H4n would break, but most of the buttons including the general feel of the recorder gave the impression that it was a toy. Both the top and side buttons felt flimsy. Immediately I envisioned how long it was going to be before one of the buttons would cease functioning. The sliders on the side also did not seem to ensure a confident placement when trying to set it to a specific mode. To be fair to Zoom, I did searches of prior reviews on the H4n. What I found was that there exists more praise for the H4n than negative reaction regarding the construction. Overwhelmingly, other reviewers not only were happy with the construction of the H4n, but were also giving it great accolades relative to the prior Zoom models.
Due to the overwhelming amount of choices, Zoom's H4n faces stiff competition. Its price point is at the peak of the "affordable" range but also places it among many other popular models. If I was going to drop $350 for a recorder, and my focus was sound quality, I would probably hold off, save some more money and step up to the next category of recorders. The H4n, however, has so many strong features that it would be hard to find all of the conveniences in any one recorder that's currently out there.
Mike Swittel is an Audio Mix Engineer/Producer, based in Ormond By The Sea, FL. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.