Sunday, May 11, 2008

Zoom H4 Portable Digital Audio Recorder Review

I recently bought the Zoom H4 Digital Audio Recorder for use both as a field stereo recorder for interviews during trade shows, and also as a 4-track recorder for a local a-cappella group.

H4_black This weekend I put the recorder through its paces and recorded a few different scenarios under varying background-noise levels and recording conditions, as well as different dynamic ranges. However, none were made in a studio setting, so these samples all reflect open spaces or a regular building without any sound-insulation or echo-cancellation. All recordings were done with the recorder held in hand. For even higher quality recordings, the device comes with a tripod mount.

Here are a few sample recordings that were done in 44.1 kHz sampling, 16-bit format and later converted to MP3 format after the editing process - use your favorite media player to listen to them. For the outdoor examples I walked through Marblehead this weekend and recorded a few different audio scenes: ocean waves on the beach and crashing against a seawall (MP3), docks at the town landing and harbor noises (MP3), patrons at the local Starbucks engaged in various conversations (MP3), children at the carnival in town (MP3), more carnival impressions (MP3). Some of these outdoor settings were especially difficult recording environments due to the wind today, which was quite strong at times. However, the noise guard that comes with the recorder worked well and reduced wind noises to a minimum.

For the indoor recordings, I have two samples of my son practicing on the drums: Seven Nation Army (MP3) as well as a drum pattern from some Linkin Park song (MP3). Those were particularly tricky to record because of the dynamic range, but in the end I found the right gain setting during recording and then the right mixing approach in the audio software. Last, but not least, to test the vocal recording-quality of the device my wife offered a short rendition of the chorus from the song Ukulele Lady (MP3) by Richard Whiting & Gus Kahn on her ukulele.

After returning from the field work, It was easily possible to transfer the audio data to the PC either using a USB cable, or by plugging the SD card into a card-reader attached to the PC - both methods worked fine.

Overall I'm very impressed with the results from this handy little audio recorder. It offers different quality settings, different gain levels, and has very nice built-in microphones in an X/Y pattern, so you get great spatial separation of the channels. From direct recording to MP3 for quick podcasting work to high-quality stereo recording with 96 kHz sampling in 24-bit resolution, the device has a broad range of applications and nicely delivers the corresponding quality.

There is just one glitch in the device that can at times be annoying: when turning the power-switch to the "On" position, the device normally takes a few seconds to boot, but sometimes the screen just stays dark. Another power cycle usually fixes the problem.

Also, the accompanying software that came with the recorder is an OEM-version of Cubase LE and it is over 2 years old, so it simply doesn't work on Vista. I tried to upgrade to the latest full version of Cubase 4, but the Steinberg website didn't offer any downloads or online upgrades - big mistake! However, I was able to simply use Audacity to edit the audio files produced and then encoded them to MP3 format using Lame

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