Review of the Zoom H4n by Carl Geers :Ok… I’m here to shout in whispers. Well at least be heard whispering over the hiss of bad audio preamps. I’m talking sound here, the difference between good and bad. The reason your movie won’t suck or your music will rule. It’s all boils down to how noisy your equipment is.
In this day and age audio gear is shrinking as fast as anything else but the price for quality is shrinking as well. Let’s take portable audio recorders for example. The spectrum ranges from bad to excellent and I’ve had the fortune and misfortune of owning both ends of the rainbow. Let me tell you my story.
It all started when I picked up a prosumer SD video recorder, mind you this wasn’t a cheap unit. It was what every indy film maker was using to get his chops down. I bumped into a problem with HISS. I thought it must be my mic, then it must be my cable, then it must be my technique… I was completely wrong. I stumbled on a site that discussed the deliberate inclusion of a “hiss-inducing” audio chip in my “pro-sumer” video camera. I was shocked and realized I’d have to get audio into my projects another way.
I spent huge chunks of my cash on pre-amps, matched mics, long cables, a digital mixer and then ultimately a laptop to use as the editing station. If you do the math I spent over $2500 on gear that, today, is easily replaced by a handheld audio recorder.
I jumped in early when I saw this really small unit that promised pro-quality sound. I spent 349.00 on it and until it started failing electronically I was impressed. But the failing was complete, the unit died less than a year after purchasing it. Granted the company replaced it but not before I picked up the Zoom H4N. The replacement unit now sits on the shelf, I’m reluctant to sell it because I can’t bear to have the same thing happen to someone else.
Now let’s move on, let the water run under the bridge along with the hiss of cheesy sound chips. The H4N is just short of achieving god like status in my kit. The minute I un-boxed it I knew I was in a brave new world of location audio. The heft of the unit is nice. Not too bulky and not a lightweight hunk of cheap plastic. The controls seem nicely placed, all except for the stamina mode switch (cleverly or clumsily hidden away under the battery cover for some strange reason), and easy to operate.
It records to SD cards and with the one that shipped with it, I’ve had absolutely zero problems. In the manual it states that some inferior cards might induce erratic behavior or noise, so do yourself a favor and don’t cheese out on a cheep chip. Battery life seems great and it isn’t built in so you won’t need to haul around an inverter or generator or 5 volt usb battery adapter to charge it up. Just throw in another set of AA batteries and your good to go.
It has a multitude of connections and two built in mics that do an awesome job on their own. Now let’s say you want to get fancy. You’ve got a lavelier, a shotgun and want to record stereo audio of the environment at the same time. NO PROBLEM. Plug your 1/4” or XLR balanced mics into the bottom of the unit. Set the recorder to 4 channel and you are set to go. The audio levels are easily adjusted and the files are recorded into a directory structure that, once you get used to, is easy to navigate.
I’ve even patched from the headphone/line out of the unit directly into the camera. It takes some fidgeting around but I actually got it to work. So not only am I recording to the camera but I’m also able to record 4 tracks on the unit that I can later synch up to the video and audio from the camera.
Talking about synching audio, I stumbled on a tip that I hear works fantastically. It’s a software program called Pluraleyes. I’m not sure if it’s available for the pc since I’m using Final Cut on a Mac. It works like a champ. I used to use a clapper board and dreaded doing multi-cam shoots because I would have to line everything up manually. Pluraleyes just seems to do it all for you in a very simplistic way.
So, you can tell I’m pretty happy with the H4N. In fact it’s hard to find a flaw with it but I’m just an inexperienced hack film maker so keep that in mind. I’ll list the pros and cons now and let you decide.
• Small but not too small, light but not too light.
• Quality construction and fairly intuitive layout of controls.
• Great set of onboard mics.
• Fantastic connectability in regards to mics.
• Has phantom power. ( for powering external shotgun’s that require phantom power )
• Has so much cool stuff built in that you’ll be hard pressed to get bored with it.
• Built in mics are in a precarious position for clumsy users.
• Would be nice to have a separate line out so you could use headphones to monitor while you patch it to your camera.
• Seems like it could be fragile if dropped, I’m not testing this on my own so just understand that I think it would take a beating if dropped even a few feet onto a hard surface.
Oh yah, one other con:
• The foam wind screen blows (literally, across the intersection if it slips off) and transmits wind noise very easily to the mics. It should come pre-packaged with a RedHead!