The Zoom H4–my Views

It’s time for a techno-geek update.  As you know, I record not only podcasts for this site, but also several other podcasts.  One aspect of my podcasting is recording my lectures so that the students can go and review the material again at their own pace, in their own time.  I had originally started with the Griffin iTalk (no longer available) and my 60 gig Photo iPod (also no longer available).  I had issues with sound quality and a “skipping” and “repeating” when it recorded.  So, I moved on.

The university graciously provided me with a 30 gb iPod video, and the XTreme Mac MicroMemo. The quality was quite good, but unfortunately the iPod dock connector is not designed for rigorous use riding in my shirt pocket, while bouncing around the front of a classroom lecturing.  In addition, the battery would last only for about 2 hours between charges, so it was not a good solution for back to back lectures.  So another solution was required.

My brother had recently purchase, on the advice of Scott Bourne (of fame among others) a SamsonTech ZOOM H4 Handy Recorder.  After listening to him talk about the features, I made the plunge, and purchased one for myself, along with an Audio-Technica lapel microphone.  So far, I have decided this is “the best” solution, and I would recommend this to most anyone, with only a few reservations and caveats.

The H4 is quite powerful and I encourage all of you interested in such things to go read the specs.  While it’s appearance (see below) can lead one to suspect a tazer and not a recorder, it is quite useful as a standalone recorder, or with  microphones.  The two built-in microphones are quite good to this layman’s hearing, and have that angle to them so as to record true stereo sound.  I used the standalone feature to record audioscapes during my recent trip to Monterey CA, and perhaps will post an “audio adventure” podcast, for those interested.  At the bottom of the recorder the astute observer will notice two black round “circles” that are actually inputs for microphones.  This ingenious design will allow for both Phono jack connectors and the XLR connectors for microphones.  One can record up to four tracks, overlaying one track while listening to the others.  Not useful for lectures, but I can see how musicians can fall in love with this portable mixer!  On top of all these cool features it runs on 2 AA batteries and they last over 4 hours–more than enough for the stresses of my lectures!  Oh–and did I mention it stores your recordings on removable SD cards, so that you can choose the size storage you want, and can easily swap it out for additional storage.

So how did I get all this to work?  Well, first the lavalier microphone has a powerbox that clips to the belt, and the XLR cable connects into that box.  The XLR cable then will plug in to the H4 and I am off and running!  Sort of.  The shortest XLR cable I have found was 3 feet, which meant I had an audio cable belt, so I cut it in half, and created my own, shorter cable.  Once I worked that out, I was off!  I recorded initially as “track 1” and found that it quite easily recorded my lectures.  The only drawback here is when recording as tracks one is not given the option to trade quality for recording time.  That is, I could only record as a .wav file, and not as an mp3 file.   Easily fixed.  I record as one channel of stereo, and when I bring it in to my audio editor, I just restore it to Mono.

Zoom H4

Drawbacks?  Well, some are little inconveniences and nothing is a real showstopper.   The H4 isn’t designed to be worn, so unfortunately it doesn’t come with a belt clip.  I would love to see that as an optional accessory.  For now, I shove it into my pants pocket.  That’s not a real “flaw” as much as a merchandising opportunity.  Also, I haven’t been able to figure out if I can set the date/time stamp for the files.  I am not sure that one can, but this leads to another problem–the menu.  There are several different context sensitive menus which are fairly easy to navigate, but you have to work a combination of the joystick style button on the front, and the selection wheel on the side of the unit.  This can get confusing, especially when the joystick also can be used to serve other functions as well.  Finally, as I mentioned, I would like to be able to select .mp3 format when recording tracks.  I suspect that the designers assumed users of that mode would want the highest quality possible, but they shouldn’t overlook other possible reasons to record a mono track.  Obviously the CODEC is there, so this should be an easily modified feature.

Overall, it is a great product, and an absolute joy to have when travelling.  I will be conducing my first formal interview using it in a few weeks, so hopefully I can have more thoughts on this product in the near future.

The Prof

PS:  I should be receiving a Zoom H2 soon, and will be posting my review of the unit soon thereafter.  It looks like a great unit, and apparently others agree.   I am told there is a backorder in the 10’s of thousands for this unit.  So, go check out the specs.