Samson Zoom H4n – 4 Channels of fun

Samson H4n with the Third party windscreen on

Thought I’d do a small update with a piece of hardware I’ve been having fun both using and learning at the same time – this is a great little device that is used for recording audio.

 

 

 

As a device its compact, measuring 70mm Wide, Around 160mm Long. This would have it similar to a slider phone extended, but the 35mm height makes it seem fairly chunky when used in comparison. Still though, this is a recorder, not a phone! So fare’s very well when for a lot of cases it could replace or minimize the need for a mixer on the field.

Samson H4n with the Mics visible A large part of the size is taken up by the stereo  condenser microphones at the top. Seen in the bottom right of the image here, you’d be forgiven for thinking this makes the device look like some form of taser device. They can swivel slightly to adjust the pickup range from 120 degrees to 90, although for my purposes of vocal recording, this does not make anywhere near as much difference as proximity.

Because this is a second generation device, they have picked up from their mistakes on their processor, which is the Samson H4.  The largest problem was an underbaked interface, which was viewable by a screen with 128 x 64 pixels. The newer version has a 128 x 128 display, giving it a much more square like appearance also due to the screen being much taller. The screen can show all four tracks levels at once comfortably, and the user interface has been remade to take advantage of the larger display, with more actual hard buttons to press for shortcuts to get to places. I would have liked less reliance on the jog wheel however, where it’s use is probably the biggest learning curve in finding where to get to things. For example of the jog wheel being annoying, to use the rather nifty guitar tuner, you need to press the menu button, scroll to tuner, scroll to guitar, then chromatic tuner, then start. That could be more intuitive to find by using a more graphical based way using shortcut navi soft style keys that nokia have adopted, but guess that is the room for improvement.

A recorder lives or dies by its audio specifications, and this doesn’t disappoint – you are talking the capability to record all four channels at 96Khz, 24bit quality in WAV or Mp3 audio on the fly – that covers pretty much everything from there and gets you all the way to full spec DVD quality sound.

A Large downside is conversion of audio onboard. Personally I’ve been recording everything in WAV, but if you have limited access to a pc, you’ll need to convert down to mp3 using the device. This is painfully slow, to the point of being unusable. My recommendation is, if you need it, use mp3 on the device as the actual quality, but that does kill the quality and how editable the data is.

As a sidenote, the BWF format is also encoded in your recordings. This is cool because it lets you tap the record button while recording, to leave a timestamp at that point. You can use this to help synchronise things, such as a improvised clap track, when someone swears and requires post editing out, or when sound bites should be inserted. The best software I’ve found that can read BWF Notes turns out to be Reaper currently, although adobe audition can as well. On the negative side, Audacity does not read BWF data, even as of writing 1.3.9 had mention of supporting it. It almost a mixed blessing though, because in trying Reaper and how awesome it is, I’m likely a convert to it.

The main difference between this and other hand held recorders is that it can do four channels of audio at once. Besides the microphone or 1/8 Inch input at the top, you have a more professional 3/4 Inch or XLR – With a clever way of spacing the inputs to have the connection accept either one to save room. It can even give full Phantom power to give your thirsty shotgun’s or extra condenser microphones the juice they need to run.

This is fantastic for recording, because you are able to split your voice out from any inserted sound, and have the ability to tune it out in post editing. Infact the audio mixing of the H4n is great in that it is recorded at the optimum level, then when listening via the headphone or stereo output live, you can specify the mixing levels – the microphone could be loud and slightly to the left, while the event or other sounds from the other inputs can be much lower so you can talk over them, to the right giving a good illusion of a soundstage. The fact this is done live and internally is great.

Storage is by SDHC cards, meaning a max of roughly 32gig. That’s plenty of room for lots of recording. Realistically, the one gig card it came with for me is fairly useless, giving about 45 minutes of four channel recording in WAV, 16bit 48khz. An 8 Gig card is a nice balance, due to them being excellent value in cheapness.

A current hobby for higher end photog’s is to take their EOS 7D Digital Camera’s, and record HD Video. To complement it, they then use this audio recorder as a way to get top quality audio to the camera. It works because of it being a portable device that can get close thanks to a boom, but also with the ability to plug it into any standard mics or the condensers alone.

In my experience for vocal recording, this is great but don’t expect miracles. You still need to be close to your speaker, and cannot handle it while recording – handling noise such as button presses are extremely distracting in the recorded source.

 

Update 2012 This device is still going strong and has become an all time favorite gadget for me.