The Zoom H4n digital field recorder has become wildly popular among independent and zero-budget filmmakers. And yet many professional sound recordists roll their eyes and moan “why? For heaven’s sake, why?” whenever the Zoom is mentioned.
So why the love and the hate?
The love part is easy – it’s cheap (relatively speaking) at around €200. I’m sure we’d all like to buy Sound Devices field recorders and mixers: indeed, I have their products bookmarked in my browser, ready for the day when I become unaccountably wealthy. But for those of us who don’t make a living from filmmaking, compromises have to be made.
I didn’t buy the Zoom H4n for filmmaking – that wasn’t even on the horizon when I got it. I bought it for podcasting and it’s proven to be perfect for that. I use it at the 44.1KHz 16-bit settings (CD quality) for recording interviews, either over Skype or in person. In the latter case, the built-in X-Y mics have shown themselves to be of excellent quality, saving me the trouble of rigging external mics or lavaliers. For film work, the X-Y mics have never been of any use whatsoever. This is significant because more recent Zoom models, such as the H5 and H6, have detachable mics, and you might as well leave them off, thus making the recorder a little less fragile.
The H4n is capable of 48KHz 24-bit recording, which is pretty much the standard for film work. It has limiters, in case you make a mistake with setting the record level or something unexpectedly loud happens – but limiters aren’t something on which you want to rely. It’s far better to get your record levels correct in the first place, and that brings us to one of the H4n’s greatest weaknesses for film work.
The record level is set via a rocker switch on the side of the machine. When you have time to test sound levels and can leave them set throughout the recording, this is adequate. If you need to adjust levels during the recording, it’s hopelessly clumsy. This flaw would be rendered irrelevant if you use a mixer. Then you’d set the Zoom to the 0dB tone from the mixer and do all the adjusting for levels on the mixer itself. But our budget hasn’t, so far, allowed for a mixer.
The later Zoom models – the H5 and H6 – have thumbwheels on the front panels for adjusting volumes, and that’s a much better solution.
Another black mark against the Zoom – frequently mentioned by audio pros – is the weakness and noisiness of the pre-amps. Unless you’re getting a very strong signal from the mic, or you’re using a mixer with good pre-amps, then you’re going to find yourself constantly near the top of the recording scale in order to get a strong recording.
We have the Rode NTG-2 mic, which is okay, but not Rode’s strongest performer. It’s not a good match with the H4n. In fact, we found ourselves running out of steam so often that I ponied up for an inline pre-amp, the FetHead Phantom from Triton Audio, as I mentioned in a previous post. It’s a far from perfect solution, but until I can afford that Sound Devices mixer… well, you know. I’d strongly recommend testing out any mic you have, or are thinking of buying, before opting for the H4n.
Another slight irritation is the record button. You hit this once to go into monitor mode, where you can hear the audio through the headphones and see the record levels on the display. In this mode, the LED light around the button flashes. To actually record, you hit the same button again, at which point the LED switches to steady and the timecode starts running. This has caused problems a couple of times with inexperienced sound crew where the director would call ‘roll sound’ the recordist would glance at the Zoom and, seeing the flashing red light, would get the impression it’s recording and call back ‘speed’. The result is missing audio for that shot.
A final irritation is that if you put the recorder on a tripod, as we often do, the battery compartment becomes inaccessible. That means dismounting each time you change batteries, which, in our experience, is three or even four times a day – more (a lot more) if you’re using phantom power to drive the mic.
What’s to like? The display, including time code and record levels, is clear in any lighting conditions. And, um, that’s largely it in terms of specifics.
On balance, it doesn’t sound good, does it? But the truth is, as an all-rounder, and as an inexpensive entry to digital recording, the Zoom H4n does pretty well. The sound quality is good and apart from a few niggles about the controls, it’s a handy design.
I’m not convinced it’s the best option out there today if your only interest is recording for film. I know a lot of low-budget filmmakers are keen on the Tascam DR-60D which sells for around the same price. That has a form factor better geared towards filmmakers and, by all accounts, much better pre-amps. However, given that I use this recorder for podcasting too, the Zoom is the more versatile machine, not least because of those X-Y mics.
If I were buying a recorder today, I’d look seriously at the Tascam for filmmaking, or at the Zoom H5 for a more general-purpose recorder. It too has better pre-amps – one of the Zolascope team has one on which we ran some tests. It performed well with the Rode mic, even without the inline pre-amp.
You can get more details of the Zoom H4n – or its more recent successor, the H4nSP – at Zoom’s site.
Zolascope reviews are of equipment we’ve bought and used ourselves. We don’t run paid-for reviews.