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Review of the Zoom H4
And other solid state audio recorders
The Zoom H4 is one of the many solid state hand held recorders on the market today. This kind of device records directly to a memory card. The advantage is that there is no motor noise that gets recorded along with your intended source. Ideally, this lets you capture pristine recordings.
After the H4 arrived from zZounds, I was quick to put it to the test. It only took a few minutes to learn how to load load the SD card and batteries, operate the navigation system and set the sample rate. Then I was out in the kitchen, banging on pots and pans, in the garage slamming doors and dropping tire irons, in the bathroom capturing a toilet flush--ah, you know the joy of a new toy.
Back at the computer, I connected by USB and the mac instantly opened a drive icon and there were my files. I opened up Kontakt, made a new preset and dragged the files dirrect from the H4 to Kontakt, then saved in the files+samples kontakt format. Amazingly fast and easy.
Why I got the H4 rather than another solid state recorder
There are so many great products in this class it is hard to figure out which to get! The H4 is certainly not the newest, and since it came out in 2006, several others have appeared, boasting more and better features.
1. The H4 has combo jacks in addition to built in condenser microphones. It also has phantom power, so you can connect your studio condenser mics to the H4 as well as your dynamic mics. The combo jacks also accept line level 1/4" plugs in addition to XLR. This is excellent for dubbing off of any line level source. (I often connect to headphone output jacks after carefully setting the level.)
2. Because of these combo jacks, you can not only use your favorite mics, but your favorite preamps as well. Your best mics+RNP+Zoom H4 anyone? With this combination your H4 can exceed the sound quality of most DAWS with average audio interfaces and preramps.
3. The final reason why I choose the H4 over others is the selectable bit depth and sample rate. It will do 24/44.1 khz, 24/48 khz, 24/96 khz as well as the more common 16/44.1 khz and various mp3 bitrates. For me having a 24 bit depth 44.1khz sample rate was essential for sampling.
Things I like better on other units
1. The major drawback of the H4 is the small display. While it gets the job done, its tiny compared to the Tascam DR1 and others.
2. While the recorder functions well, the build, particularly the transport "joystick" button, does not inspire confidence. It has not failed to work however.
3. The H4 is only a USB 1.1 device though. That means slow transfers, compared to the devices that offer USB 2.0 transfer. Keep in mind that audio files can be quite large.
First the audio quality of the H4, even using the onboard mics, was much higher than I anticipated. The 2 condensers set in the XY pattern are very effective for picking up sources in stereo, whether close or far away. The quality was far superior to the MiniDisc unit I have been using for sampling and of course is miles above recording with cassette.
However, I ran into two issues with the H4. The first was handling noise. To get the best recording, you will need to either use external mics, place the H4 where it is stationary, or, mount the H4 on a camera stand. Mounting hardware is included for the latter. If you are holding it in your hand the recorder will pick up even the tiniest movements your hand muscles make. The second issue was the sound of static like clicks in my first recordings. Fortunately this issue was resolved with a firmware update from the zoom site.
The unit can be powered either by an included AC adapter or by 2 AA batteries. When you connect to your computer it is powered by the host computer. You can also use the H4 in 4 track mode, which is good for songwriters that want a quick and dirty multi track device. You can also use the H4 as a USB 1.1 audio interface. With Mic and line inputs on the unit, you could record track at a time into a software sequencer. Or if you wanted, you could connect external preamps (with a DI) to the line inputs to get an even better sound for your mics, guitars, synths, whatever. You could even use the H4 as a budget master recorder, connecting your mixer outs to the line input. The quality should exceed what we used to get on DAT tape, especially using higher bit depth and sample rates.
Its a great device to have, and its the only device in its class that I know of that has onboard XLR/Combo jacks in addition to stereo mics. In retrospect, had I have known that the quality of the onboard mics was as high as it was, i would have been tempted to go for a unit with a larger display. But if you want to record through your mic collections, and have an easy way to record line level devices, I don't think anything will beat the H4 at this price.
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