A new audio toy! (Reviewing the Zoom H2N recorder.)
My previous portable recorder (an M-audio Microtrack II) is on its death bed, and I’ve spent some time researching what device ought to replace it.
(Though it’s discontinued now, I really couldn’t recommend the Microtrack to anyone. I originally got it because it could work with 48-volt phantom-powered XLR mics via XLR to 1/4″ TRS cables, with 1/8″ mics, line-level inputs or digital SPDIF devices; it was a flexible device, portable, not too expensive, and the sound was…acceptable. Paired with my Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone, it saw me through several years of interviews, though its internal battery stopped holding a charge for more than an hour or so. Long after the warranty expired, I tore it open to replace the internal rechargeable battery with a new iPhone battery, giving it a temporary new lease on life. But a couple weeks ago it simply stopped recording altogether. Time for something new.)
So… I’ve done a lot of research, agonized over price vs. features vs. sound quality, and I have to say I’m a little surprised by where I wound up. It seems like the more you learn about these portable recorders, the more you realize there is no good one-size-fits-all solution. Even if price were no object, there’s just no portable recorder out there at the moment that can do everything I want it to. In the ~ $500 and below price range, it seems like you have to decide which is more important: connectivity/features or audio fidelity. (Zooms devices are packed with features, but they don’t have the most pristine preamps. The Sony PCM-D50 sounds great, but doesn’t have XLR jacks or many of the bells and whistles that appeal to my engineering side. If pressed, I’d say the Zoom H4N is probably the best compromise/best value in this price range even if the sound isn’t amazing.) But in short, if you need to record in a lot of different situations, chances are you’ll want more than one recorder–perhaps one for professional work and one for spur of the moment recordings. And having a small backup recorder is always a good idea.
When I first looked into the Zoom H2N, I was thinking of using it mostly as a backup for my “main” recorder, and as a knock-around portable recorder that I could carry with me wherever I go. For one, it doesn’t have XLR mic jacks to use with professional microphones. Furthermore, the device’s predecessor (the Zoom H2) had a reputation for great internal mics (particularly for recording acoustic music) but suffering when recording through its 1/8″ mic/line-in jack. After playing around with the new H2n, I’ve found that it not only sounds great for its price point (the preamp on the external input, while not miraculous, is pretty darn good) but the device’s internal mics can also be set up in a number of interesting configurations, including as monaural cardioid–perfect for recording radio interviews. But at the core of what makes the H2N so compelling to me is its ability to record in mid-side stereo.
If you’re not familiar with mid-side (MS) stereo here are the important things to know:
1) MS is a recording technique that uses two microphones, a “mid” mic with a cardioid pickup pattern and a “side” mic using a figure-eight pickup pattern. The mic elements are positioned perpendicularly so the null point of the cardioid coincides with the null point (the “waist,” if you will) of the figure-eight mic.
2) Rather than panning each mic to the left and right side sides of a mix as in conventional stereo recording, you mix MS recordings through a unique method, called a mid-side matrix. Once you’ve set up the MS matrix in your DAW or mixer (or inside the recorder itself as is possible with the H2N), you can control the amount of stereo by mixing more or less of the “side” mic relative to the mid mic. This means you can change the stereo image after the recording.
3) When you sum a MS stereo recording to mono, the the left and right “lobes” of the figure-eight side mic cancel each other out, leaving you with only the mid cardioid mic. This means your stereo recordings will translate very well to monaural radio broadcasts or podcasts. (BTW, it surprises me how many podcasts out there are in mono–presumably to cut bandwidth in half? I’m looking at you, TAL. You too, Snap Judgement.)
In addition to the MS mode, the H2N can record in conventional X-Y stereo as well as in “4 channel surround” mode. Surround mode simply means it simultaneously records the X-Y and MS mics as two discreet stereo pairs. Plugging in an external mic, however, overrides the X-Y pair, which means you can record with the internal MS mics (in whatever stereo or mono configuration you want) AND an external mic or stereo line input at the same time. This opens up all sorts of interesting engineering possibilities–say, recording an interviewee via the external mic while capturing your own voice with the built-in mics, or recording an interview in an interesting-sounding location and being able to capture background ambience while still getting a solid voice recording.
What you’ve been waiting for…Here’s a test of the mid-side mic using only the mid mic:
And now with mid and side mics together. Listen to how the stereo image and the balance between my voice and the organ shifts. It sounds like I’m moving the mic, but I’m not; that’s all done in post production by playing with the mid-side matrix.
Here’s a test with the typical 90 degree X-Y stereo configuration:
Now here’s an excerpt from a tape synch I recorded earlier today. The side mic is cancelled out, leaving me with a pretty solid monaural voice recording.
Now listen to the width of the stereo image as I add some of the side mic back in. Here it is with side mic at half volume:
And here it is with mid and side mics at equal volume:
And now with the side mike a bit louder the the mid mic:
And if you were to sum any of those recordings to mono, it would sound like the first excerpt. Cool!
OK, now a test of the external mic input. Here’s my trusty Rode NTG-2, powered by its internal battery, going into the H2N via a impedance-matching XLR-to-1/8″ cable:
Interestingly, I noticed is that if plug-in power in set to “on” on the H2N, the Rode sounds quite trebly, and not as full sounding. I’d recommend keeping plug-in power “off” until you need to use a mic that requires it.
And here’s a dynamic cardioid mic via the same cable:
And just for fun, here’s a test with another new toy, the Roland CS-10EM binaural mic/earphones. (The earphones aren’t great, but being able to record AND monitor binaural audio at the same time is pretty slick!)
Though I didn’t intend to buy the H2N to use as my main recorder for interviews, I think it’s going to be. The internal mics sound excellent, and I can set them up to work as a mono cardioid, which is perfect for voice recordings. Though the mics are susceptible to p-pops and plosives, a foam windscreen pretty much eliminates the problem. Of course, you need to be careful about handling noise as is the case with all recorders using built-in mics. My biggest complaint is simply that it’s sort of awkward to hold during an interview, but hopefully the screw-in mic-clip adapter/handle thing will help with that (which, in a totally lame move by Zoom, is NOT included but is available as part of a $40 accessory kit).