Easy-to-Use Audio Studio-to-Go

The Zoom H4n has become one of my favorite tools, but most people have never heard of it, or seen it, or even know that such a thing exists.

Zoom makes portable audio recorders–pocket sized recording studios about the size of Sony’s original Walkman, but so much more versatile. This is the ideal companion for a digital camera or camcorder–with far better sound, and far more control over the recording process. It’s ideal for recording of music rehearsals, recitals, and performances. It’s handy for audio interviews, and for the recording of meetings. With proper cabling and a phono pre-amp, you can digitize your vinyl LPs. It’s a useful four track audio recorder, so you can use it to make a record. And, of course, you can use it to listen to music, speeches, podcasts, any audio recording with remarkable fidelity because everything is digital.

Let’s take it from the top…and the bottom.

On top, there is an X-Y (crisscrossed) pair of small microphones. The quality is good, the sound is clean, and they can each be adjusted to cover either a 90-degree pickup area (for more intimate situations or to reduce unwanted noise), or a 120-pickup pattern (to pick up a wider area). Or, plug one or two professional microphones into the bottom (1/4 inch phono plugs or XLR connectors). Or, plug an 1/8 inch mini stereo cable into the mic jack on the back). Control the input level by watching digital VU meter on the small golden screen (backlit when necessary) and adjusting the rocker switch with one finger during the record session.

Here’s a closer look at the screen. No, it’s not iPhone quality, but yes, it’s functional. Time code runs on top, file number next, then sound levels. Buttons below allow track selection, and in another mode, allow selection of files and formats. Buttons are small, screen is small, but everything works fine in the field.

You can choose to record in either .wav (high quality) or .mp3 (low quality, but smaller file sizes) at various sample rates. In multitrack mode, you can record on each of up to four tracks, or play back on up to three of them. Buttons are small, but overdubbing is within the capabilities of this little machine, and that’s useful if you are recording your own tracks for a music demo, for example, because you can listen to your primary vocal while laying down a harmony track, for example, or listen to the drum track while playing your saxophone).

For more sophisticated work–and an easier time–use the Zoom H4n as the interface between, say, your microphones and a more robust Digital Audio Workstation (such as Logic Pro, Garage Band and Samplitude), but, sadly, not ProTools, which requires only M-Audio devices.

Need a metronome or a guitar tuner? They’re built-in, too.

You will record on an SD card. Power comes from either an AC cable or handy AA batteries. You can plug the Zoom H4n into your computer via a USB micro connector. If you need more battery time, flip into “stamina mode” which shuts down some features and dramatically increases recording time (6 hours in normal mode, 11 in stamina mode).

 The Zoom H4n is all so well thought out! I wish every product was as thoughtfully designed!

Recently, I used the Zoom to record audio interviews while recording video interviews on the Olympus PEN EP-3 digital (still) camera. I placed the Zoom just out of frame, and later, in editing, matched the audio track from the Zoom with the EP-3’s video and audio tracks (once synchronized, the Olympus audio track was muted, and subsequently, replaced). Under the right circumstances, this is a better solution than a wired external microphone or a finicky wireless microphone. What’s more, the Zoom provides broadcast-quality results. The sound quality is fabulous. And because the Zoom is small, it fits into my small shoulder bag alongside the small micro four thirds Olympus PEN EP-3. This is a complete HD quality remote shooting rig that I can easily carry in a shoulder bag with plenty of available space for an iPad, wallet, cell phone, ear buds, and (much) more. Add a 32GB SD card, and I can carry hundreds of record albums with me, just in case I feel like listening, not recording.

There is so much more. If you’re intrigued, simply download the instruction manual.

The Zoom H4n price: under $300. And, for $199, you can enjoy a similar device with reduced features with an H2n (seems less sturdy to me, though). And if that’s still too much, Zoom offers a $99 alternative, model H1.

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