Tuesday, 13 November 2007

I'm doing more and more audio recording lately, and between a little dictation, some random music recording and more importantly the interview needs for the Internet IT talk show I co-host, I decided to go ahead and purchase my own portable digital recording system and microphones.

ZOOM_H4Note: I'm going to explain what I was looking for and a little bit about why, but before I do that let me cut to the chase and tell you that I bought a Zoom H4 Handy Recorder (lots of details at that link) and a couple Shure Beta 87A microphones with the appropriate cables. The feature set of the H4 turns out to be amazing, and I'm pretty excited about using it. I can also tell you that my early initial tests are quite encouraging quality-wise, but the real test will come over the next several weeks as I go to conferences and other places and get to put the gear through some real-world paces.

I had a number of priorities on my list when I started looking for a recorder. In a perfect world I'd get all of them. Wouldn't a perfect world be nice? Anyhow... The priorities were:

High-priority items

  • High-quality digital audio - Simply put, the fidelity of the recorded sound must be terrific, clean and without distortion, and I have to be able to count on the recording to be properly timed (not compressed or stretched when compared to other recordings from the same session).
  • Ability to use two or more external microphones with phantom power built into the recorder - Depending on the various mics I might throw at it, phantom power may or may not be needed.
  • Digital recording to commonly-used removable media, preferably SD cards - I already have a number of SD cards that I use for various purposes, and my laptop and other equipment all have SD slots, so it just makes sense.
  • Ability to leverage storage above 2GB - If I'm buying SD cards, I want to be able to buy high density, large capacity ones, and many devices are limited to 2GB.
  • Easy to get recorded files to the PC for editing.
  • Uncompressed audio capability and multiple bitrates to choose from.
  • Usability - It needs to make sense to use and I have to be able to set options and use it without earning a graduate degree in the ABC-brand device.
  • Small and portable in size - Ideally the microphones should be the largest part of what I have to carry around.
  • Removable batteries - The industry is rife with stories of devices that have built-in batteries that can't be serviced by the owner, which in my book is over the edge of ridiculous.
  • Runs on AC power as an option.
  • Firmware upgradable - Audio gear is also famous for being buggy, so I want to be able to download new firmware and apply it myself.
  • It has to be under $500.00 or else it's off the list.

Lower-priority items (good- or nice-to-have)

  • A built-in microphone for quick recording and portability would be nice for quick and dirty sessions and open environments (non-interview or -instrument or what have you), but it has to be of high-quality, or else it just doesn't do me any good.
  • Native MP3 recording as an option - if the quality is there, I want to have the option to record in this (compressed) mode since much of the time that's where it will end up, so in some cases it may help save some time and storage space to create native MP3s at a high bitrate.
  • Let me plug it straight into my PC or laptop via USB to move files, ala drag-and-drop.
  • As long as we have USB transfers, powering the device over USB 2.0 would be perfect for all those I'm-out-of-battery moments.
  • Instrument capabilities - I'd like to be able to plug my guitar in and record away, for example.
  • Guitar tuner built in - as long as it's plugged in, why not?
  • Multi-track mode - While we're at it, more than two channels to record on would be nice. I'll record the guitar and then add the vocals or another instrument later. Yeah I know, asking for a lot.
  • One button for really easy - even magical - menus and navigation. I'm thinking about interfaces like you find on the Zune, iPod or even iPhone (I can dream eh?), etc. here -- easy to use and quick to do stuff.
  • And a price under $300.00 would be even better, please (for the recorder only that is, the external mics are going to freakin' be a couple hundred bucks each, I know that).

So, how did I fare? At $243.0, the price was right, so that's a good start. The Zoom H4 meets almost all the requirements on my list (which is why I bought it), with a couple notable exceptions. The navigation and controls are not exactly simple (which is ironic since they call it their "handy recorder"), as you have to juggle a jog wheel with one hand and a directional button control with the other to establish your settings and navigate the menu. The screen is small, very small.

But, the latest upgrade of the H4 software (v2.0 which I had to download and apply to my new device as it was just recently released) makes some improvements to the readability of the screen, plus it does things like add support for the larger SD-HC cards up to 8GB (yay!) and a variety of other improvements as well as some cool new features. There have been five updates to the H4 software released over about the last year providing fixes and enhancements, which shows they're seriously improving as they go - a good sign.

My first experience recording with the H4 was a good one. We recorded two live shows for RunAs Radio at the Microsoft Dev Connections conference. I found a problem though when I tried to use my new microphones and cables. I had bought XLR-to-1/4 inch phono cables, not paying close enough attention to the jacks on the Zoom recorder, which can take either 1/4 inch or XLR on a combo socket. The problem is that the only way the recorder's phantom power works is if you plug in an XLR connection - There is no phantom power available when you plug in a 1/4-inch jack. So, I had to replace the cables I bought with the ones I need.

I've used the recorder in some test scenarios as well as in one formal, must-work recording session, and it performed very well. I've also just arrived in Barcelona, Spain for TechEd Europe, where I'll be recording a number of interviews. So, after this week I will be able to do a hands-on review. So far, so good, and I anticipate the same results after using the H4 as a production recorder.

Add/Read: Comments [4]
AudioBlogging | Tech
Tuesday, 13 November 2007 02:47:56 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Tuesday, 13 November 2007 06:09:33 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Hey Now Greg,
I like the idea of the interviews from events. Maybe some future RunAs shows can include them. A recent DNR show has some interviews from Mark Dunn which were great.
RunAs Fan,
Tuesday, 13 November 2007 11:53:20 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Hi Greg,
I just bought me a a@http://www.zoom.co.jp/english/products/h2/index.php@ZoomH2 recorder and I'm very impressed about the excellent recording quality. I will use it for my podcast - so Zoom has some very good tools for us podcasters :-) - This friday I will record a session about Microsoft Search Server 2008 with a tech guy from Microsoft Germany - so it will be the first recording with the new device.
Friday, 06 March 2009 14:17:33 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)

How does it fare with video? I have heard issues with syncing correctly makes it impossible to use as a separate audio feed for video production.

Any tests or thoughts?
Greg Woolf
Wednesday, 20 May 2009 13:53:06 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I am about to record a concert of 1 hour and 15 minutes. How long a period of time can I record at 44kHz without compressing?

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