Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Coming soon: Zoom H4 review

Well, I bit the bullet and ordered a new flash recorder today. I went with the Samson Zoom H4. It should be here within the next few days, but I might not get around to posting my thoughts until we get back from Paris.

I've been working in radio since 2000, although my experience with audio recording equipment goes back a bit further. In high school I interned at WCPN in Cleveland, and worked with an old Marantz tape cassette recorder and learned how to cut tape on a reel to reel machine. In college I learned to play with carts (which are really just 8-track tapes, but calling them "carts" makes them seem more professional).

By the time I began reporting professionally, digital audio tape, or DAT was all the rage. And there were some great things about DAT recorders. A machine about the same size as a Marantz tape cassette recorder could record extraordinary quality digital sound. The tapes had timecode, meaning you could pop a tape out and put it in a different player and easily fast forward to the part you need without having to reset a counter.

But the professional DAT recorders were expensive, at about $2000 per unit. And DATs had a tendency to warp if you used them too many times, but you wouldn't know this until you went to playback a bad recording. And the machines were kind of big and clunky to carry around, didn't take standard batteries, and the rechargeable batteries lost their charge pretty quickly.

So we gradually made an unfortunate shift at the station. We started using minidisc recorders. They're cheap, small, and perhaps most importantly, easy to replace. They could run for hours on a single AA battery. But most minidisc recorders are made for consumer use, not professional. If you want a pro unit, it's about as big, clunky, and expensive as the DAT recorders.

For under $200, you could pick up a minidisc recorder. While it might only last a year before it breaks, you could get ten of them for the price of one DAT recorder. But you get what you pay for. The inputs aren't as sturdy and tend to break when you need them most. The preamps aren't great, so you tend to record more hiss than with more professional equipment. And the sound you're recording is actually being compressed to ATRAC format, Sony's proprietary MP3-like compression scheme. Perhaps most disturbingly, even though you're recording a digital copy, most early minidisc recorders didn't include a way to digitally transfer your recordings to a computer, meaning you had to play them back as analog files anyway.

Still, despite the problems, minidisc recorders made field recording a very simple task. And while the station I used to work at is making the shift to flash-based recorders, I decided the easiest way to set up my freelance operation would be to pick up two used minidisc recorders off of eBay. You always want two, in case one dies on you. This is true even of more expensive equipment, but it's less daunting with the cheap stuff.

I have a Sharp MD-SR50, which I can use in a pinch, but I learned early on that you get a lot of extra hiss when recording from the microphone input. It seems to work pretty well from the line-in jack.

And my favorite recorder is my Sony MZ-R50. It's one of the earliest models of Sony minidisc recorders, and one of the sturdiest. It's a bit bigger than newer models, but it's made of actual metal, not plastic. The buttons are well laid out, and it comes with both a rechargeable battery and an attachment for using AA batteries if your rechargeable dies. As minidiscs go, this is one of the best options out there.

I dropped my baby while I was working on a story on legalized gambling in Pennsylvania for Justice Talking. I was visiting one of the first casinos to open in the state, and while waiting for security to let me onto the floor, my MZ-R50 fell a few feet from my hand onto the floor. When I went on to my next interview, I noticed that every time I touched the recorder, I got a loud crackling sound. So I set it on the table and left it there for the duration of the interview.

I forgot about my little accident until today, when I ran out to do another interview, and got the same loud crackling. I typically run a backup of every recording I do. But that backup is running on an iRiver IFP-790 MP3 recorder plugged into the line-out jack of my minidisc. I don't have the time, money, or energy to hold two microphones in someone's face. So my backup was useless, and the best I could do was try to hold perfectly still while my subject was answering questions and only shift in my chair *crackle* when he wasn't talking.

I have a story due next week, so I have a number of additional interviews to complete this week, and it's really too late to get a replacement recorder. I wouldn't go to a bricks and mortar store for equipment. Few have what I want, and none have it anywhere near the prices you can get online.

But I still decided I needed to do something, and so I ordered the Samson Zoom H4. I've had my eye on it for a while. It's cheaper than the Marantz PMD 660, M-Audio Microtrack, or Edirol R-9. It's been getting pretty good reviews, and it actually seems to have more functions than any of those units.

It includes two combo xlr/quarter-inch inputs and stereo condensor mics. It acts as an audio transport when you plug it into a computer, meaning I could use it to record interviews in the field, then plug it into a laptop to use as a complete recording solution. Not only can you drag and drop the recordings you've already made, but you can plug a mic in and voice stories in the field, making it a nice supplement to the Alesis 8USB mixer I have at home.

Anyway, so I order the H4, plus a 2GB SD card to store recordings and then run out to my next interview which is over an hour's drive away. I get there, set up my aging equipment and wouldn't you know it? It works perfectly. I can't get it to crackle no matter how hard I try.

Still, I'm glad I ordered the H4. It'll be nice to record directly to wav files that I can drag and drop to my PC. And it's a new toy to play with.


Rob said...

Here is a 3 channel mixer that I have used with DAT recorders and video cameras.
Works great and is very small and light weight.

Rob said...

Here is a 3 channel mixer that I have used with DAT recorders and video cameras.
Works great and is very small and light weight.

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