Thursday, November 1, 2007

How to record in mono with a Zoom H4

There are now three ways to record in mono with a Zoom H4.
  1. In stereo mode you can record to one track and leave the other track empty.
  2. If you've upgraded to the Zoom H4 2.0 firmware, you can record in mono mix, which means both your left and right channel will have identical data.
  3. You can use the 4-track recorder mode.
For the first few months that I had my Zoom H4 I was scared of the 4-track mode. It looked more complicated, and if you didn't make sure to configure it correctly you could end up overwriting old tracks every time you record a new one. But now that I've started using 4-track mode, there's no going back. I think.

So let's take a look at the three options in detail.

Record on one channel only

When you first take your shiny new recorder out of the box, it will be set to record from the built-in microphones. Since they're stereo mics, this means you'll be recording in stereo. While this is great for recording music, it can be a bit disconcerting if you're recording an interview with a single person. If the mic isn't perfectly positioned, listeners will hear the voice coming louder through either the left or right channel.

If you switch from the mic input to the Input 1&2 option and plug in an external, mono microphone, you'll get a recording that looks something like this:

This isn't the end of the world, because you can use your digital audio editing software on a PC or Mac to turn this into a true mono track. Just select all the information in the left channel and either paste it into a new mono file or onto the right track to create a dual mono file.

But when you're making your recording in the field and listening through your headphones, this means you'll only be able to hear in one ear. Since the Zoom H4 already has a pretty quiet headphone jack, this can be a serious problem.

Another disadvantage to recording this way is that you're wasting space on your SD memory card. In stereo mode, you can record about 3 hours of 44.1kHz WAV data on a 2GB card. But if you're only recording to one channel, you really should be able to record 6 hours.

So let's look at some of our other options.

Mono Mix recording

Just over a week ago, Zoom issued a firmware update that enables Mono mix recording. What this means is that you can create two-channel mono recordings in stereo mode.

If that sounds confusing, let me break it down. The Zoom has two built-in microphones. If you're using them to make a recording, the Zoom will average the sound and split it equally to both channels. That means that while you're still technically creating a stereo track, (in that audio is being written to the left and right channels), the information on each channel is identical. If you plug in an external, mono microphone, that information will be written to both the left and right channels.

In other words, you'll get a track that looks something like this:

Here's how to enable mono mix recording:
  1. Press the Input Menu button (push the bottom of the navigation pad on the front of your unit).
  2. Use the jog dial on the side of the unit to scroll until you see mono mix.
  3. Push the jog dial in (as opposed to up or down).
  4. Move the jog dial up or down to turn mono mix on or off.
  5. Push the navigation pad to return to record mode.
There are a few advantages to using mono mix in stereo mode instead of creating mono recordings in 4-track mode. First off, you can record in 44.1/48/96kHz. In 4-track mode, you can only record in 44.1kHz. And second, the Zoom H4 2.0 firmware enables new features like a low-cut filter, a battery meter, and a record time remaining meter. But those extra features are only available if you're recording in stereo mode.

So why would anyone still want to use 4-track mode unless they were recording band practice? Because in 4-track mode you can create true mono recordings, which means you get 6 hours of record time out of a 2GB memory card.

4-track mode

The one and only advantage to making mono recordings in 4-track mode is that you can actually record to a single track and effectively double the record time of your memory card. And that's enough for me. This is the mode I use most often. Notice how the resulting track shows up on a single channel.

If your goal is to produce a mono audio file, you're all set. If you need to duplicate the tracks and create a dual mono file, you can easily do this on your computer, which probably has more than a few gigs of memory.

Here's how to set up mono recording in 4-track mode:
  1. Hit the center button on the navigation pad (the one that says menu on the front).
  2. Use the jog dial on the side of your unit to scroll down to Mode.
  3. Push the jog dial in and a new menu should pop up.
  4. Scroll down to 4Track Recorder and push the jog dial in again.
  5. A Now Loading screen should pop up and then you'll see a new menu screen with no battery meter or remaining record time meter.
The 96/48/44.1/MP3 buttons on the right side of the unit no longer have anything to do with frequency or recording formats. All of your recordings in 4-track mode will be 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV recordings. So here's what you do next:
  1. Push a button on the left to select a track. For simplicity's sake, you might just want to make a habit of pushing the first button, which has a 1 on it.
  2. Push the menu button (at the center of the navigation pad).
  3. Use the jog dial to scroll down to Rec Mode and push the jog dial in to select that option.
  4. Make sure the record mode is set to Always New, and then hit the menu button on the navigation pad to exit.
If you forget to set the record mode to Always New, every time you start to record a new track, you will overwrite an old track. So even though your H4 should remember your previous settings every time you boot up, it's a good idea to check this setting before starting any important recordings.

In fact, because I'm paranoid, I always make a backup recording by running a line out into an MP3 recorder in my pocket. That way if anything goes horribly wrong with my recording I should have another copy. Since it's MP3, it will be lower quality, but it's better than nothing.

So to recap:
  • Go ahead and make stereo recordings if you're lazy and don't care about monitoring your recording in the field.
  • Mono mix recording offers almost every feature you could ask for.
  • 4-track mode offers the one thing missing from Mono mix: extended record time.
I hope this little tutorial makes your life a bit easier.

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Anonymous said...

Hey...thanks for the post...I just got my Zoom 4 and was having real trouble recording in mono. Took me about five minutes to figure it out with your notes...thanks again.

ruehlhp said...

Thank you - excellent explanation! Regards Hans

onjoFilms said...

Wow, thanks. I was looking all over the web for this info. Excellent.!

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