The Zoom H4n is an all-in-one digital recorder. Released in 2009, this device is runs on 2 AA batteries and functions as a Dictaphone, 4 channel recorder, or audio interface.
The H4n offers internal microphones for dictation, and also supports two microphones connected via the XLR inputs at the bottom of the device.
Presented as an upgrade from 2006’s H4 digital recorder, the H4n has become a staple for independent filmmakers and traveling podcasters alike. Its battery power and SD storage coupled with built-in recording capability make it ideal for any on the road recording without the need for a laptop or any additional hardware if space is an issue.
Table of Contents
The H4n boasts two stereo condenser microphones mounted at the top of the device in an X/Y configuration. By setting the microphones in this way, the H4n can record a larger area of sound than the standard microphone. These microphones can also be oriented at either 90 or 120 degrees, giving you a degree of control over the recording area.
On the bottom of the device are 2 XLR/jack combo inputs. These can be used instead of, or in combination with the built-in microphones, allowing for a maximum of up to 4 channels of audio in the device (left and right built-in, and input 1 and 2). The ¼ inch jack input works in tandem with the audio interface mode, or by utilizing the built-in DAW meter mode, allowing for composition on the road.
The Mini B USB port on the left-hand side opens the H4n up for use as an audio interface. This eliminates the need to carry other bulkier interfaces that may take up precious real estate in a gear bag. While the preamps in the H4n are noisier than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (reviewed here), there are workarounds for getting cleaner sounding audio, such as an external gain booster.
Clocking in at 7.29 x 15.62 x 3.51cm, Zoom has managed to pack a staggering amount of versatility into a surprisingly small footprint. The device weighs in at 280 grams, which is barely felt when sat at the bottom of a bag. The device is incredibly rugged, with solid construction and a rubberized outer shell. For added security, it is packaged with an additional plastic travel case.
Use for On-Location Podcast Interviews
When recording outdoors on location, the main problems podcasters face are the wind and mechanical transmission noises (traffic, construction, etc) which cause unwanted noise in the recording. The H4n accounts for these inevitable issues and includes a low cut for both the mic and external inputs.
In the input section in the menu, you are able to low cut from 80Hz up to 237Hz, eliminating a good portion of unwanted low-frequency sounds.
The H4n also comes with a wind sleeve which helps to filter out any noise generated by the wind if recording outside. It also includes a microphone stand mount attachment that screws into the backplate for compatibility with a tripod for added stability. This microphone mount can also be used as a kickstand for the device in a pinch.
In the bottom right of the screen, you will find the amount of recording time left on the inserted SD card. Recording at 48kHz/24bit WAV, with a 32gb SD card, you can record 30 hours of audio. By adjusting the audio format to a compressed mp3, you can bring the available recording time up to 200+ hours although, for the highest quality podcast production, I recommend recording in WAV format and only compressing to mp3 when exporting the final mixed track. If you are looking to record large quantities of audio, I would suggest bringing multiple SD cards rather than sacrificing audio quality.
The device can record for approximately 6 hours non-stop on battery power. This makes it ideal for recording with no additional power source, however, if you do have access to a socket then it is suggested you make use of the DC5V port on the bottom of the device.
By switching the device to stamina mode (by removing the backplate and toggling stamina mode on) the battery time can be extended to up to approximately 11 hours. Stamina mode limits recording and playback functions to 44.1kHz/16bit WAV and removes access to any mode other than stereo.
H4n Setup Guide
The versatility of the H4n makes it ideal for any podcaster wanting to record on the go. This section covers how to get the most out of your handy recorder in multiple scenarios.
Solo podcasting with the internal mic
- When solo podcasting, it is important that your two condenser microphones are set to 90 degrees. This ensures that the ambient noise is kept to a minimum, and your vocals are front and center.
- Click the mic button on the left of the front panel to switch to the H4n’s internal microphones.
- Set the recorder on a tripod, or a microphone stand using the packaged mount and screw on the back panel.
- Set the microphone to a comfortable distance away and if you can see the screen, click the record button once to activate signal monitoring. If you cannot see the screen, then click the record button twice and record a test file for playback.
- Adjust the level using the rec level buttons on the right-hand side until the signal averages -12dB, this will give you plenty of headroom for post-production.
- Click record, and do not touch the recorder until stopping the recording.
Interviewing a guest with the internal mic
- When interviewing a guest, ensure that the microphones are set to 120 degrees, to capture both you and the guest
- Making sure the input is set to mic, click the record button, and set the recorder so that it is equidistant from you and the speaker
- Take it in turns to speak into the microphone, monitoring the level, and adjusting to -12dB. if the screen cannot be seen, record a test file by clicking the record once again and adjust using the rec level buttons on the right-hand side of the device
- Click the record button once more and do not touch the recorder until stopping the recording.
Interviewing with external mics
- Plug both microphones into the two XLR ports at the bottom of the recorder
- If using condenser microphones, plug a power supply into the DC5V power supply at the bottom of the recorder (if possible). Then go to the menu, scroll down to input, and then set phantom power to on
- Ensure that the inputs are set to 1 and 2 on the front panel
- Click the record button once to activate signal monitoring and speak into the microphones to monitor the levels. Adjust the level using the rec level buttons on the right-hand side until each signal is hitting -12dB
- Click record once more and press stop when finished recording
Used as an Audio Interface
- Plug both microphones into the XLR inputs at the bottom of the device and ensure phantom power is on if necessary
- In the menu, go to USB, Audio Interface, and click Connect
- Plug the H4n into your laptop/computer using the USB port on the left-hand side of the device
- Making sure the device is coming through on the laptop, click record once, and adjust the signal levels until at -12dB
- Record using the navigation panel on the DAW (the H4n functions as input and level monitor only when in this mode)
Tips for on Location Recording
When recording on location the device must be configured to get the clearest quality audio before recording. The signal level must be adjusted so there is no clipping – this may require adding a wind sleeve, low cut, or compressor/limiter if in extremely noisy environments.
When using external microphones, it is good to keep in mind the potential noise generated using a dynamic vs condenser microphone which uses the built-in phantom power. Gain hungry dynamic microphones will produce more noise, however, condensers are more prone to breaking in a travel situation. To find out which microphone is right for you, see condenser vs dynamic microphone for podcasting.
When picking a location, it is also a good idea to utilize the 1/8 headphone line on the left-hand side to ensure your audio is coming through clearly. This is easily done by creating a demo track and listening for any unwanted audio. Things to consider when listening include unwanted lows, wind noise in the microphone, and movement noise from an unsteady tripod.
The most critical check before you record is both battery level, and SD card space. It is a good habit to check both every time you record, as ensuring you have adequate charge and space reduces the chance of having to cut in the middle of a session to change something out and losing momentum or train of thought. In the case of either of these circumstances, by carrying spare SD cards and AA batteries, you will be able to efficiently resolve the issue and get back to recording.