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Zoom H4 Handy Recorder

August 1, 2007
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Zoom H4 Handy RecorderPICTURE, IF YOU WILL, A THIRD-GRADER HURRYING HOME from school to check the mail, only to be greeted by the disappointment of an empty mailbox. It has been weeks now, and the amazing Ten-In-One-Scope he ordered off the back of a comic book still hasn’t arrived. When the thing finally does show up one day, the ’Scope—advertised to function as a microscope, a telescope, binoculars, and seven other cool spy tools no eight-year-old should be without—turns out to be a flimsy contraption featuring four plastic lenses that combined are hardly powerful enough to give an ant a sunburn.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, that third-grader was me, and the good news is that nearly three decades later, I feel like my real Ten-In-One-Scope is finally here. It came in the form of the multi-function Zoom H4 Handy Recorder.

It was worth the wait, because this remarkable flash recorder performs an astonishingly wide array of recording and processing tasks for such a diminutively sized (and priced) piece of gear. For starters, the H4 acts as a stereo field recorder, a 4-track recorder, and a guitar preamp/effects processor. It also connects to your Mac or PC via USB to function as either an interface for such recording software as Digital Performer, GarageBand, or Cubase LE (which is included with the H4), or as a data storage and transfer device. In the latter role, the H4 lets you drop mp3 or WAV files straight onto your hard drive so you can instantly burn CDs of your latest rehearsal, gig, or 4-track recording. Way cooler than burning ants!

As you get acquainted with the H4, you may find that from certain angles, it looks a bit like a spaceship. The exhaust ports, if you will, are the combination XLR/1" input jacks, and the laser cannons are the two shiny condenser microphones—which are permanently aimed in an X/Y pattern (a time-honored mic arrangement often used by professional engineers to record live music in stereo). The joke around GP headquarters is that the H4 might also be useful for scaring off a mugger in a dark alley, because its shiny mics (with their protective chrome “roll bars”) look more than a little like the business end of a stun gun.

To make this spaceship appear to fly, mount it on a standard tripod using the Velcro-based attachment sled. Unmentioned in the H4’s manual, this somewhat crude accessory screams “design afterthought,” but, hey, better late than never. The kit functions perfectly, and will be welcomed by all H4 owners—particularly “tapers,” who love capturing live music from high above the crowd. With the included 128MB SD card, the H4 can record just over two hours of stereo mp3s at 128kbps. But recording entire festivals shouldn’t be a problem if you upgrade to a 2GB SD memory card, which boosts recording time to as much as 34 hours in stereo mp3 mode, or 380 minutes in stereo WAV mode. This larger hunk of flash memory is particularly helpful in 4-Track mode, because the H4 only multitracks WAV files, which will max out the H4’s stock 128MB card relatively quickly. (A 2GB card provides approximately 380 minutes of recording time.)

For more casual recording at rehearsals and gigs using the onboard mics, the H4 is most accessible when placed at arm’s length on your music stand, where it sits conveniently upright on its stereo input jacks—if it’s running on batteries. (Two AA batteries provide between three and four hours of record time.) Unfortunately, the DC jack resides on the bottom of the H4, which makes laying the unit on its side or back mandatory when its wall-wart power supply is plugged in.

The only other real operational bummer I found with the H4 is that when you’re recording in Stereo mode and want to start a new audio file (to, for example, mark the beginning of a new song), you have to hit the record key three times: Once to take the H4 out of record mode, once to get it back into record-pause mode, and a final time to start recording again. And you can’t hit the key too fast, or your “hits” won’t register. It may seem nitpicky to ding the H4 for the short break in recording this process requires, but a lot can happen in three seconds. You can miss a tune’s downbeat, or the bandleader’s special instructions about the coda. And when you’re onstage, this extra fidgeting may make you feel a tad self-conscious, because you know no one wants to see you messing with anything but your guitar.

There is a substantial learning curve in store for first-time H4 users, but anyone who has enough technical aptitude and patience to learn the basic ins-and-outs of a typical cell phone should find the device reasonably easy to master. For me, the most baffling task was upgrading the system firmware via the Internet. (A less cryptic explanation of this process in the manual would be welcome.) Otherwise, once I learned the joystick-like workings of the Menu key, and figured out that the jog dial could also be pushed in to make certain crucial selections, I found I rarely needed the manual to unlock the H4’s many powers. The tuner, the amp modeler, the metronome, the 4-track recorder, phantom power, and the limiter (a great insurance policy against clipping in loud situations), as well as the various modulation, delay, and filter effects (we’re talking everything from ring mod to analog delay to spring reverb) were all fairly easy to access within the H4’s menu hierarchy.

The guitar tones on the H4 are good, and they cover everything from clean à la Fender to mosh à la triple-rectified Mesa (the sounds are actually identical to those on the Zoom G2 floor processor). Though these tones sound fine through headphones (I used a set of Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs Studiophones), they definitely gain backbone and sizzle when the H4 is run through external studio monitors or home stereo speakers.

Really, when it comes to sound quality, the H4’s big strength is not its guitar models as much as its stellar X/Y-pattern recording in Stereo mode. You can of course, plug any pair of microphones into the H4’s phantom-powered XLR jacks, but the onboard condensers sound terrifically clear, and your WAV or mp3 files come back with minimal hiss.

Four-tracking with the H4 is simple enough, but just be warned that tasks such as changing the fader levels (which is done using the onscreen mixer), setting up Auto Punch, or going back-and-forth between the mixer and preamp/effects sections of the unit are slightly time consuming, and may cost you momentum during inspired recording sessions. Personally, after plugging the H4 into my MacBook and having the recorder instantly pop up as a USB interface in GarageBand (where I can take advantage of that software’s

modeled guitar tones, pre-recorded loops, extended track count, and easy editing features), I haven’t accessed the H4’s onboard 4-track since.

But that’s just my story. The beauty of the H4, of course, is that in another scenario—demoing tunes on a tour bus, for instance, or sketching out song ideas under a beach umbrella, or doing your first ever multitrack recording on Christmas morning—its 4-Track mode is a godsend. In other words, this wild recorder is a jack of so many trades, it surely has something to please everyone. It’s hard to imagine an active guitar player who wouldn’t want this sonic Ten-In-One-Scope in their gig bag.

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