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Zoom H4n vs Low end M Audio interface

Discussion in 'Recording' started by sirpicksalot, Jul 1, 2012.

  1. sirpicksalot

    sirpicksalot Active Member

    So I've been digging around and stumbled on these Zoom H4n (Or H2) portable recording devices. From everything I'm reading online these things sound like a dream come true for those like me who are on a budget. I currently have a M Audio Interface unit (lower price range) which I've been plugging mics in directly for recording. The sound is okay, but I have a feeling my Shure Sm81 is not living up to its full potential going through this dinky little interface. So my question here is would I have better results recording through this H4n device? From my understanding you can plug in external mics and the thing even has phantom power. I'm thinking I could use the Shure combined with the Zoom H4 mics for the project I'm currently working on. I'd like something sound-wise that was at the very least a B minus or above. Obviously I'm not going to get perfection with 300 bucks in my pocket. The sound samples I'm hearing of this Zoom product are pretty outstanding though for the price range. It almost seems too good to be true. Anyone have experience with this thing?
  2. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    Well, these days, with every new release of something, further refinements are frequently enjoyed. I love my 4 SM 81's that I've had since their first introduction more than 25 years ago. They gave me beautiful results into the worlds cheapest microphone preamp which was a single 5534 IC chip. And when I purchased those microphones they were only approximately $180 US. The chip was five dollars. Then when I graduated up to the $500 to $1500 microphone preamps, they still sounded stellar. And I even split the output of a single microphone into both the five dollar IC chip & $500 discrete transistor API. In playback comparisons, with a group of people listening, there was really only a nuance of difference. But a lot of this also had to do with the signal source which at the time was a lovely female jazz vocalist. And I could have lived with either even though in the end, I utilize the API. I've also supplied numerous clients with the H 4 in a similar scenario to what you are asking about. Again the microphone was split to both the H 4 and to another inexpensive USB audio interface for simultaneous recordings on both. Both were deemed to be 100% adequate on either. So for your purposes, this is more a decision of your budget then anything else. The biggest factor in this comparison is how your levels are tweaked. Excessive over level will never sound good on anything. Too low a level will cause complaints of excess noise and less definition. So in that situation of simultaneous recording, you could afford to record at 2 different levels. This will give you the choice after the fact as to which one you deem to sound the best. And you don't need special transformer microphone splitters in which to do this. A simple 1 in to 2 XLR cable on a condenser microphone will not introduce excess loading down problems as one would get with a dynamic or passive ribbon microphone. And less distortion would actually be introduced than through a transformer microphone splitter. However the transformer splitter can also offer electrical isolation that could otherwise cause ground loop problems. That's because a transformer isolated splitter generally offers a ground lift switch in order to prevent that problem from occurring. The H 4 also offers limiting and other enhancements that a simple computer audio interface generally doesn't provide. So you have a tough decision in which you have to make. One should also know that simultaneous recordings at 2 different levels is not a new thing. Frequently, gain trims set at a higher level will present a more open sounding recording. But your chances of overload then would be far greater with disastrous results. So a lower gain smoother sounding recording may then be more advantageous. And there is no real way to know what would be best without a comparison. In short, I think you would find the H 4 to actually be more advantageous. It's a little more goof proof in that respect.

    I am a goof so I like to goof around.
    Mx. Remy Ann David
  3. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Yes, the H4N gets a lot of good comments in these forums as being about the best unit of its kind available. However, that's not to say that it does not have its shortcomings, but it is a good 4-channel recorder, and quick to set up. I bought one when they first came out and use it from time to time for unobtrusive recording.

    You do have to be aware of a couple of things when using the H4N. Firstly, the pre-amp noise level is significantly higher than many present-day computer interfaces. It is fine when recording relatively loud sound sources using the built-in stereo mics or when close-miking sources with external mics, but there have been folks wanting to use the H4N for nature recordings and similar low-level sources, and it's that sort of usage that is likely to show up problems with the noise floor.

    The second problem you may encounter is to do with the software drivers. While there is no real difficulty in transferring recorded files (up to 4 channels at 24 bits) to a computer either by plugging the H4N directly into a USB port or by reading the SD card in an external card reader, when it comes to using the device as a real-time audio interface, you are limited by the driver class to 2 channel 16-bit recording.

    Some users have reported whining and other noises on recordings when powering the H4N from a USB port. It looks as though there can be high-frequency coupling inside the unit between the USB connector and the mic inputs, so to avoid this, it would be best not to use USB powering when recording.

    If you bear these points in mind, it's possible to make recordings using the H4N that are as good as any made with computer audio interfaces up to the higher end of the medium price bracket.
  4. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    Boswell indicated a very important and possible quirk in taking the H 4 USB output directly to a computer. It was for that reason that I had indicated the use of an 1-2 XLR cable to actually split the output of the microphone to 2 different devices. But even then, I suggested a ground lift on one of the output XLR's to also prevent a possible ground loop scenario. Especially since you only need to feed phantom power from a single device to the microphone. Lifting one of the grounds on one of the output XLR's will stop the secondary phantom supply from the second microphone input device, from double feeding phantom to the microphone. So that's a simple table one can manufacture themselves and won't cost you an additional $100 or so. Because it's not always 100% necessary to utilize a transformer isolated splitter. Many microphone inputs do not necessarily load the microphone with the 150 ohms suggested. Instead, many only load the microphone with 1500 ohms. So if double terminated into 2 microphone inputs, you would only be loading the microphone with 750 ohms which really will not disrupt your frequency response. We've all done this and it works. It works quite well.

    Because of the additional noise that Boswell indicated can occur, your less expensive interface may provide for a lower noise floor. And then you would be a happier camper. In the land of network television where I come from, we frequently utilize redundancy. Redundancy is always a safe bet to save your ass. Then when something goes bad or doesn't work, you don't have to provide amateur excuses to your client. Which is always, quite frankly, an embarrassment for yourself.

    I've always been redundantly redundant. So when I've done live FM broadcasts, I'm creating not one but actually two, simultaneous stereo mixes while also rolling 24/48 track backups to the multitrack machines. So that's triple redundancy. And doing stuff like that can get quite hairy and quite complicated. But that's what experienced engineers do. Thankfully, you don't necessarily need to go to that extreme but it's nice when you have the opportunity to do so.

    I'm wacky out of my head with routing
    Mx. Remy Ann David

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