Portable audio recorder can capture four-track recordings

Article By : Brian Dipert

As soon as live concerts return, this engineer will be pulling his mics, stand, and cables out of storage again, thanks to a recent gear acquisition.

For perhaps obvious reasons, I haven’t been able to enjoy the abundance of live music concerts this year that I normally attend (I can hear Red Rocks from my house, I’m so close), or that I binge-ticket-purchased at the beginning of this year, while early-bird deals were being offered and before the pandemic lockdowns began. Fortunately, AXS (who puts on many of the shows in the Denver, CO area) has proven to be more reasonable than Ticketmaster with respect to granting refunds; I’ve gotten back every dollar I’ve spent, even the mailing fees. That all said, I’m skeptical we’ll see the return of sold-out shows prior to 2022, at the earliest, and online streaming just isn’t the same thing (no matter that the sounds and views of the artists are admittedly a whole lot better).

All of which admittedly makes what I’m about to tell you about a bit surreal. Long-time readers may recall that in the early- and mid-2000s, I went through a phase of doing a lot of live concert recording, beginning with CD-quality capture and expanding from there into large sample size and high sample rate content. My recording platforms were varied: a portable DAT deck, several generations’ worth of Creative Labs Nomad portable media record-and-playback units, several different laptops, and even a Pocket PC. In all of these cases, however, the recording media was rotating in nature, either tape or an HDD (yes, even with the Pocket PC I’d PCMCIA-connected a battery-powered external hard drive). And in addition to the recording platform itself, I also had to haul along a dual-channel phantom power unit, microphone preamp and ADC. The setups were bulky, expensive, and chewed through (many, many) batteries like crazy. All of which, along with the increasing prevalence of readily available, high quality, and cost-effective soundboard recordings directly from the artists, led me to eventually mothball my own recording gear.

Well, as soon as live concerts return, I’ll be pulling my mics, stand, and cables (at least) out of storage again, thanks to this recent acquisition: photo of the Zoom H4N Pro audio recorder

photo of the side ports and buttons on the Zoom H4N Pro audio recorder

It’s Zoom’s H4N Pro, the improved-preamp successor to the H4 and H4N, the latter of which I’d used professionally for several years to capture soundboard audio from conference and meeting presentations. The dimensions are 6.25×1.5×2.75 inches (157.2×37×73 mm), with a weight of 10.6 ounces (294 g). It comes in multiple color options; mine’s the red pattern shown above. And although it normally sells for north of $200, I picked up mine on sale (plus a further one-day promotion discount) for $165 plus tax at Woot. I might not be using it for a while, but I still can’t pass up a killer deal.

I’m guessing that the first thing you noticed when you looked at the photos is the XY stereo pair of unidirectional microphones jutting out of the top. Look at the bottom and you’ll also see hints of the two locking XLR jacks for external mic use; there’s also a stereo 1/8” mic/line input jack. The XLRs support 24/48V phantom power; the integrated preamps and ADCs support recording resolutions up to 24-bit/96 kHz and a claimed -120 dBu EIN noise floor. You can use either the integrated or external mics or combine them for four-track recordings that simultaneously capture both live room sound and a stereo board feed, for example.

The integration of multiple previously required components into one compact device is obvious from the features outlined in the previous paragraph. The other “Moore’s Law” factor involves storage. The Zoom H4N Pro supports direct recording to 1.260×0.945×0.083 inch (32.0×24.0×2.1 mm) SDHC memory cards of up to 32 GBytes in capacity. Ironically, even tinier (0.591×0.433×0.039 inch, 15.0×11.0×1.0 mm) micro SDHC cards also exist in that (and higher) capacities; I suspect that Zoom stuck with the SD card form factor for ease of user handling. And regarding higher capacities, while I suppose that Zoom could have also included support for the SDXC and SDUC standards, keep in mind that we’re talking about audio-only content. You can store a lot of sound in 32 GBytes, even at a 24-bit/96 kHz multi-channel configuration. And if that’s not enough, direct recording to a USB-tethered computer is also supported.

Finally, let’s touch on power consumption. There used to be no way that I could make it through an entire full-day music festival without swapping batteries on my various pieces of gear (or alternatively powering everything from a bulky external battery pack). In part this was the result of the devices’ power-hungry “old school” DSPs and other circuitry; in large part it was an outcome of the devices’ aforementioned motor-driven rotating storage media. Conversely, Zoom claims that the H4N Pro, which records in both uncompressed WAV and compressed MP3 format (the latter at various user-selectable constant and variable bitrate options), will capture 44.1 kHz/16-bit dual-channel audio for about 6 hours on a set of two AA alkaline batteries or about 8 hours using two AA NiMH (2450 mAh) batteries. If that’s not enough, there’s “stamina mode,” which extends the per-dual-AA record time to about 10 hours using alkaline batteries or about 12 hours using NiMH (2450 mAh) batteries. And if your day is really long, a spare set of two AAs isn’t exactly a hefty payload, is it?

As EDN’s resident teardown fanatic, it would be natural for you to ask me “Hey, what’s inside that thing?” Since I just got it and plan to use it for a long time, I’m not going to disassemble mine! Instead I’ll point you to this published teardown of the prior-generation H4N from another enthusiast:

Clearly delineated ICs I noticed included an Etron Technology EM638165TS 64 Mbit SDRAM and a Renesas D78F0536A SoC, the latter presumably acting as the system’s “brains.” What else did you find interesting?

Last but not least, I of course supplemented the main unit purchase with a few accessories. I already had plenty of 32 GB SDHC cards lying around from my longstanding (and to-date still largely unrealized) DSLR-mastering aspirations. Here’s what else I got:

Now we’ve just got to get this pandemic under control, re-open arenas and other live music venues, and I’ll be set! With that, to quote Porky Pig, “That’s all, folks,” at least for this particular post. Sound off with your thoughts in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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