Zoom’s run of releasing tasty ‘n’-spec updates of its products doesn’t disappoint with its top field recorder.
Review: Stephan Schütze
I want to start this review by responding to some statements I have heard about Zoom devices. They often get labelled as ‘cheap’ alternatives, or only suitable for amateurs, with critics citing various issues from noisy preamps to build quality and just a general feeling that Zoom products are not suitable for professionals.
I have been recording sound for 20 years, my libraries are used by many of the biggest producers in the world and yes, a significant number of those sounds were captured on Zoom devices.
I am not going to claim that a $1000 Zoom recorder is in the same league as a $6000 Nagra or Sound Devices machine, but if you are obsessing about the ticket price of equipment then I would suggest you are focusing on the wrong thing.
When I recorded a series of rare aircraft, including a Spitfire, Kittyhawk and oddities such as the Australian-designed Boomerang and Wirraway, I was able to record the interior of these planes for one reason only; because a Zoom H1 was small enough for a pilot to safely and happily carry it in a leg pocket while flying.
The ‘best’ piece of equipment for any job is the one that lets you get the job done. I have strapped a Zoom H4n onto the bottom of a skateboard, I have attached various Zoom devices to cars and motorbikes, and there is a Zoom H2n which fell off a boat and found its final resting place at the bottom of a lake in Melbourne.
I prize the quality of a recording very highly and so I am of course very interested in how the preamps on the F8n perform; but I place a high value on the ability to capture the sounds needed, and that often demands a variety of devices for a host of situations. For over 10 years I have found many reasons to use Zoom devices.
Before I even switched the device on, I was impressed by its size. I pulled out my H4 to compare. It was the first Zoom device I purchased — over 10 years ago — and frankly, there’s not a huge difference in size between the two. Remarkable, considering the significant difference in capabilities.
For the Zoom F8n I did something I rarely do; I started by reading the manual. Usually I prefer to learn by doing, but I wanted to be thorough with this device and make sure I understood what it was capable of and how the manufacturer thinks it should be used.
It revealed a solution to a problem I’d been manually solving for 20 years. Back then, when I hired my first portable recorder (a portable DAT) the very helpful woman providing the gear showed me a useful trick. By using a Y splitter cable, I could take a mono mic signal and split it into two channels with different input levels so if a sudden loud sound occurred, I would have a second ‘safety’ copy of the sound at a lower level to avoid peaking.
The F8n has this functionality built-in. A single mic can have its signal duplicated onto a second channel at a lower input level. This is bloody brilliant and would save me a fortune in splitter cables and messing around with extra gear.
The more time I spent with the Zoom F8n the more its available functions and their accessibility, became its strongest feature. It has a clear, easy-to-use interface; one of the best I’ve used on a device of this type. The colour display makes discerning information at a glance much easier and the simple rotary dial with built-in push button makes back-and-forth navigation quick and intuitive.
Obviously recording quality is critical, but as a tool to be used the F8n appears flexible and reliable.
Stephan Schütze has been a location recordist and sound designer for nearly 20 years. His sound libraries are used by many of the top production companies in the world and in 2018 he released the first book on audio production for new reality formats.
There is one thing that bugged me about the F8n: The layout of the mic inputs is ‘wrong’. While it might seem like a small thing, for me, it’s a design flaw that could have been easily avoided.
At one point during testing I could not figure out why I was getting no signal. Everything was on, all the routing was correct, phantom power was activated, yet still no sound. I finally tracked down the problem. I had plugged my mic into Input 4 instead of Input 1. Huh? Why would I do that, and why does it matter to this review?
The F8n has four inputs on each side, 1-4 on the left and 5-8 on the right. The issue is how Zoom has arranged these inputs. On every device I have used if you turn the device so you are looking directly at the left-hand side, they read 1, 2, 3, 4 from left to right. The F8n has reversed this.
To me, this is a little like a car manufacturer flipping the brake and accelerator pedals around, you just don’t do it. There is a long-term established layout that everyone else seems to follow, so why change it? My Sound Devices 788 follows left to right, Nagra do, Tascam do, etc.
Much of my work over the years has been opportunistic. Oftentimes I’m driving or walking, sometimes not prepared for recording at all, when an event happens that I want to record. Manufacturers include pre-record buffers for exactly this type of scenario. In those instances, I have to respond quickly in order to capture the sound, reverting to habits built up over time. The reverse numbering scheme could make me miss a take. While in some ways this is trivial, it would also have been trivial for Zoom to have gotten it right in the first place.
AUTOMIX UPS THE FUNCTIONS
The F8n was preceded by the F8. You can read Greg Simmons review online for a comprehensive look at the clocking and sound of the original device. The clocking tested very well then, but Zoom claims to have improved accuracy in the timecode when the F8n is powered off. Working in non-linear audio for most of my career I have seldom used timecode functions, but it will be a welcome upgrade for many users.
In the time since the original landed, Zoom updated the design a little, but most of the work was done inside the box. With a host of new features.
The Automix function is one of those. It’s incredibly useful for podcast producers or anyone using multiple microphones for different sources. With Automix on, the F8n detects signal input from each channel and attenuates unused mic channels. This reduces unwanted noise as well as reducing the chances of feedback. The real benefit is in the time saved during post-production. I could unload all my channels and clean them up for my podcast, but the Automix feature does this at recording time and cuts the time required to get your content out to your audience.
It’s significant because the sound quality gap for hardware is continually decreasing, and users are looking at what other advantages their equipment offers. Professionals in audio production are always burning the candle at both ends, so features that save us time start to look like real game changers.
Other improvements on its predecessor include: a new Fader Mode view, instead of the knobs on the home screen; Digital Boost for the headphone output (up to +24dB); selectable volume curves for headphone output (I really like this one); and a maximum fader level increased from +12db to +24dB. Thankfully, with all these being software updates, they’re now available to F8 users, too.
NOT A LIMITING FACTOR
A big addition to the F8n is a new set of advanced limiters. Zoom claims these provide protection against incoming signals peaking, and it seems to work as advertised.
The ‘look-ahead’ limiters take advantage of the F8n’s digital architecture. By delaying the signal a few milliseconds, it can take the content directly through the mic, assess it, process it and then pass it on through the rest of the signal chain uncorrupted.
Obviously, this cannot compensate for a signal too loud for your mic diaphragm to handle, but beyond that it works well. I would have loved to test it with something like gunfire sounds as the very quick changes and huge output levels would really show the effectiveness of the advanced limiters, but I spent a while whispering and then suddenly shouting into the mics and the final recordings went from very distorted with the limiter off, to strong but clear with the limiter on. This works for me.
CLOCKING THE NOISE
At the other end of the spectrum was my ‘quiet place’ test — an old wind up clock miked with a Sanken CS1e in a dead quiet space. I’m always more interested in how these devices handle the softest of sounds, which the F8n did quite well.
The Zoom F8n has an input gain with a range from +10dB to +75dB which is a broad range. The clock came through nice and clear, and there was still almost no unwanted noise when boosted up to 60dB. Above 65dB the noise was at a level I wouldn’t desire, and the range from 70-75dB was unusable. However, that’s less than 10% at the top end where bad noise was introduced; comparable with devices that are much more expensive than the H8n.
This device uses eight AA batteries, and when using alkaline batteries that is going to get pricey pretty fast. Rechargeable batteries are the way to go, and Zoom gives you the option to attach an external battery back via a Hirose connector. Having both AA and an external rechargeable battery maximises my options, especially if I’m on a remote location where a faulty built-in battery would kill the entire job.
The various functions for routing allow for a variety of input setups, like the previously mentioned mono signal split into two channels. It also supports ambisonic input and even converts A-format mic signals to B-format within the device. The F8n also supports a range of recording formats, sample and bit rates up to 24-bit/192k.
When I first started recording, I kept wondering why everything was distorting. Turns out the default routing is post-fader, which was simple to change when I figured it out and returned to my habit of monitoring pre-fader.
You can control the F8n remotely via your mobile phone, which sounded like a brilliant idea until I read it was iOS only. It’s a pity considering the prevalence of the Android operating system. I hope those lucky iOS users are taking advantage of how useful this could be.
Finally, the F8n includes a built-in slate microphone, which I think is a cool idea as it allows you to add notes while recording even when your mics might be at a distance from the recorder. This is another function I would have used over the years if I’d had it.
While some manufacturers desperately flog useless features to sell a sequel product, this update to the F8 is a pleasant antidote. It’s a solid recording device with nice, quiet preamps, and the range of functionality gives it a broad user base. It can comfortably capture live musicians or concerts, record in remote places, cover jobs that need SMPTE for linear sync, or it can simply be a convenient device to use in the studio for foley or voice recording.
Zoom has always crammed as much as it possibly could into its devices. Within its price point — probably even up to twice what you would pay for the F8n — I would be confident selecting this device over other available choices to get the job done.