I am currently using Zoom H4 Handy recorder as my prior recording device in an endangered language documentation project. Until some more useful recorder becomes available Zoom is likely to be the choice number one for field linguists or all those who need a cheap device for recording audio in professional quality.
I am not going to praise the features and capabilities of this device. Google knows them. What it does not know are the features I miss on Zoom (or any other portable recording device priced below 500 €).
Most cons you are buying with a Zoom H4 concern the user-friendliness.
No time and date
Recorded files have all the timestamp of 09/16/2005 00:00. Yes, it is unbelievable, but it is true. You have to keep track of so much metadata manually so why not doing it for time and date, same as some 20 years ago.
No battery life info
You just have to guess how long will the batteries last. Some 20 s before powering off the display shows blinking text "Low Battery!". At least they could have made the display background light on when displaying this message to attract your attention. A pity they didn’t. Zoom really does not have battery life info anywhere in any of its confusing menus.
A recorder I’d like to buy should have the option of some extra flashing eye-catching light to attract my attention. Or it should send some acoustic alarm signal to my headphones so I can hear it while monitoring the recording. It should have the option of giving no externally audible alarm signal of low batteries because annn aaacccoooussstttiiiccc sssignal would be inevitably recorded. Battery life must be visible any time on the device. While recording I do not want to touch the device and navigate to the fifth sub-level of some mysterious menu just so see how much battery power I’ve got left.
No available recording time visible
Zoom keeps the information of available recording time hidden deep in a menu. If you know the place you can navigate there in 8 steps. You’ll need 3 steps out of that menu. This will add four loud clicks to your recording. A recorder I’d like must have available recording time all time visible and same clever alarming technique which does not audibly affect my recording.
Full card recordings hard to handle
If the SD card gets full (which happens very often with long studio quality recordings), all you get is a quiet little display message: Card Full. The record button still happily lights red as if Zoom would record further and you even hear in your headphones what it would have been recording if the card wouldn’t be full. You stay completely unaware of a full card if you monitor just the audio and not the display of Zoom H4. Luckily Zoom does not loose all the data recorded when the wave file ended abruptly. Less luckily these wav files either can’t be copied off the card or have problems to open in some software (because they are corrupt). One solution that worked for me was to read the wav directly off the card in Adobe Audition as far as possible and let save it on hard drive by the software.
Settings reset after SD-card format
Before the recording I have carefully set up Zoom 1. to record from my external microphones, 2. the voltage of the phantom power for them, 3. recording level for the left channel, 4. recording level for the right channel, 5. sampling rate of the wav file 6. bit rate of the wav file. All these settings distributed rather deep in all possible menus (since these settings aren’t really much related, are they?). It took quite some time. Then I checked the available recording time. (Of course somewhere else in another menu. Recording time has nothing to do with recording quality either, has it?) I then decided to put in a new fresh SD-card. I formatted it and alas, all my settings were reset to default. I had to set up again every single one. Very funny, indeed.
I hope I could illustrate how confusing the menus of Zoom are in the cons described above. I was kidding you just a little bit; actually there are four handy and usable presets for recording quality which combine the sampling rate and bit rate. So it was 5 resettings instead of 6 theoretically possible.
Also, the navigation through the menus is extremely illogical and unintuitive. A technically skilled person need approximately 1 full day of using Zoom to effectively use the absurd controls without mistakes and staying cool when doing it.
The menus of a good recording device must allow quick navigation (what about using a mini-keyboard on the device or a touch screen?), have very fast response (no animation, please) and show related settings together in one place. Is it really that complicated for device developers to work it out? And keep the menu structure flat!
No mono recording
You want to record only one channel instead of two? Not with any of the two inbuilt microphones. But even if you record with an external mono microphone Zoom still records a stereo wav file. Even if there is no input on the other channel. This means for you half the recording time, double the file size, double the time copying to PC, and spending time editing the result file in a piece of software to save it as mono wav. I don’t like it a bit.
Either internal or external microphones
Zoom has two good internal microphones. You can make really decent recordings with them. (If you don’t touch Zoom while recording.) A pity you can’t use any of them in combination with an external microphone to make stereo recordings. Why the hell not? External microphones are expensive and it would really save money to record one speaker with an external microphone and another speaker with one of the internal microphones instead of buying another external microphone for that.
No pause while recording
You can only stop recording. When you start again, Zoom starts a new file. Then you end up with plenty of files. Happy merging! (But good software has a command Open append which opens them all in the proper sequence as one big file and it sets even markers at the merging points. Zoom can’t pause and mark it in the recorded file.) A good option would be if Zoom recorder could set markers to the recorded wave file at the place where recording was paused. Even better would be if it would use range markers in the wave file. You can very easily work with and batch process marked ranges of a wave file in a software like Adobe Audition.
No stand by
Even if you never know how long the batteries will last, they seldom can record much longer than 3 h. Have a battery pack with you for your all-day recording session. Zoom has no stand-by mode to save battery power. After you power it off it takes a lot of time to boot when switching back on, especially if the SD card contains much data.
I portable recorder I need should have some power saving technique while being ready to start recording immediately.
Short battery lifetime
3 h battery lifetime isn’t really that much. (Maybe they’d last longer if I wouldn’t need to record in 92 kHz 24 bit.) What about doubling or tripling the lifetime by using double or triple the amount of batteries? You have to have them anyway if you need to be portable with your Zoom H4. Luckily Zoom does not have its own special and expensive lithium ion battery. It uses normal AA batteries which you can buy almost anywhere, (which is really important if your recording site is far from civilization).
User-unfriendly record level setting
Yes, you can manipulate the recording level while recording. But if you want to navigate out of the menu, you are forced to do it by loudly clicking the menu button. Of course if you record with the internal microphones you hear also your hands on the device. Practically this means that you cannot change the recording level while recording because the manipulation affects your recording in either case.
Slow record level adjustment
Do you need to quickly change the recording level from the low to the high end? Not with Zoom. There it takes 30 s. (Not counting the menu navigation time there.) And you can’t change both left and right channel simultaneously when recording with external microphones. One after the other. Are you happy with that?
SD card slot hard to access
Sometimes the card is really hard to get out. Especially if your fingers are wet. Maybe the SD card slot was not designed to be accessible by human fingers.
Unmount off tripod
If you want to use Zoom H4 on a tripod, be prepared to unmount it each time you want to change the batteries or the SD card. And you also need to take the windshield off the internal microphone.
No lock-in plug for XLR
XLR cables are great, but they won’t lock in the connectors Zoom H4 has. Unintentionally unplugging the microphone cable does not only destroy the recording but also harms your expensive microphone.
File system on SD cards
SD cards on Zoom use the FAT (i.e. FAT 16) file system. Zoom officially supports SD cards up to 2 GB. This is about 57 min recording in the highest quality (92 kHz 24 bit). In our project this is the quality we need to use. But we also sometimes need to record longer than an hour. I think the FAT file system was chosen for compatibility reasons (Mac, PC ...). Zoom would be a much better recorder if it would support more modern file systems (also for Mac!) and allow recording media of 8 or 16 GB.
Only one SD card slot
O good option would be to have two or more SD card slots which would enable you to hot swap full SD cards with fresh ones while recording continuously. This needs to have the card slots easily and quietly accessible, of course.
Long WAV files not supported
The problem with wav files is that the format is very old. So old that people thought one would never reach a limit of 4 GB. Today this is very likely to happen in studio quality recordings. Good audio editing software can handle this. For a modern recorder it is necessary to handle this too. So have it on mind you developers when you want to release a good recorder. It isn’t a problem now, because Zoom H4 supports SD cards only up to 2 GB.
No recording to external hard drive
Well, there is some software which promises to do something like this, but it is only for Windows. Why do we need extra software nobody likes to install? Can’t I just plug an external hard drive to the USB of the recorder and record directly on that hard drive? Without intervening (and loudly cooling) PC or laptop. I want it. And I bet I’m not the only one.
No XLR plug for headphones.
Zoom H4 can do super-duper high quality recordings, but if you want to hear them, you have to do it by the noisy and loose 3 mm jack connector, Which gets unusable after some time. I’d like to see some additional XLR output for good studio headphones.
Thinking about a good recorder
Is there a way to make a recorder which would fulfill the above demands and sell it at the price of the current Zoom H4? I think there is. Probably we would have to give up the excellent internal microphones, but it would be worth the acceptable low price. Professionals who need to record sound have good microphones themselves and wouldn’t rely on internal microphones of a recording device which by itself costs as much as one good microphone. Still the upgraded Zoom H4 must be a field capable recorder. Handy, light, portable and not power hungry. Journalists, researchers, and musicians would like them a lot.