Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Zoom H4N in-depth review

So you are thinking about getting an audio recorder for Canon DSLR with the Zoom H4N

Reasons that I thought about buying…
So if you have watched my review on Canon 7D here, you know that using the on-camera mic is not great.  I knew that I needed to add-on to the camera to allow for better audio recording.  I read review after review of people discussing an on-camera mic, but I really wanted the added flexibility of multiple channels of audio.  I wanted to be able to plug-in multiple mic's for field recording and I wanted it to be simple.  Funny story, I actually got my wife to agree to getting it because she was a big fan of Ghost hunting.  I told her that she could use it as a great EVP recorder.  Turns out, it's a horrible EVP recorder, because of it's high quality, the chances of "interference" causing "unknown" sounds to be recorded is pretty low. That being said, the Zoom H4N has become the de-facto standard of off camera audio recording.  There are many imitators out there, and even Zoom is trying to up-sell people to the new Zoom H6N that is about to be released.  But the abilities of this little recorder make it flexible enough to do just about anything.

Here is what I actually use it for.....
I use this as the main input for mic'ing and ultimately sending the audio into my camera.  The nice part of this is that I can record multiple mic inputs at the same time either on multiple channels or just from the x/y stereo mic on the zoom.  I will typically mount the zoom on top of the hot shoe on top of the camera if I am running and gunning or shooting an event like sports or concert type events.  It captures the stereo field rather nicely, and also has the ability to set limiting and compression for those moments that you want the maximum audio signal that you can.  In more advanced setups for interviews or training videos I usually run a separate condenser mic in order to get closer to the subject.  Originally, even though you could have this as a recorder, plugging into the Canon 7D directly out of the Zoom required a intermediate device or cable in order to cancel out the AGC from the 7D.  I bought a JuicedLink device to have the signal on half of the stereo channel to max out in order to allow the signal be controlled on one channel.  Now with the latest 2.0 firmware for the 7D, you just need to set the levels in the camera to Manual and then make sure the levels in the camera are set to not peak, and in the Zoom both the record level and the headphone out level so that the camera does not peak out anywhere along the audio chain.

Here are the things I didn't expect or didn't like...
Learning the menu system and learning the different options in the Zoom can take some time.  Recording multiple inputs at the same time with multiple mic's can be a bit tricky.  The Zoom also has updated the firmware to allow for setting input levels while recording multiple sources.  I highly recommend updating if you want to do multiple mic setups.  The biggest surprise was when I accidentally tipped my camera bag over into a river at the top of a waterfall.  The Zoom went off the 100 foot waterfall and survived the fall, not even a scratch on it.  I did the bury it in rice for a couple of days trick to get the water out.  And to my surprise, it worked.  Even the microphones sound no worse for wear.  I have used the Zoom in meetings, concerts, interviews, and in cold and hot weather.  It just works.  I haven't come across any flaws that I can find.  The only thing that I had to do is get a fuzzy wind screen.  The foam screen that comes with it doesn't help with wind. When shooting with the camera I typically don't even record on the Zoom, I just turn on Monitoring  (in settings) and go directly into the camera.  If you want to monitor with headphones, then you need a splitter cable for coming out the headphone out.

Here are the super cool things that I love about it...
If you are going to get serious about shooting video with a DSLR, you are going to need some way to get quality audio with the video.  The Zoom makes this possible with a portable, quality audio, at 24bit 96Khz.  I love my Zoom and would replace it immediately if it ever got lost or broke.  Because it is so portable, and the battery life is very good -- about 4-6 hours of continuous recording, taking on a shoot is a no-brainer.  I am going to look seriously at the Zoom H6N.  The added flexibility for the 6 channels and the different on-board mic options is a very nice set of added features.  I would highly recommend this piece of equipment for anyone trying out film-making.  It has about every feature you could ever want from a portable and high quality audio reproduction.
Common settings that I use...
Record Settings, 24 bit WAV, mp3 variable
Input Monitoring On
Record levels
Headphone out levels
Camera settings Manual levels
Multiple microphones attached

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