The Zoom H4
The Zoom H4 is a palm-sized multi-function stereo recorder from Samson International, the same company that makes some very popular and cost-effective guitar accessories. The H4 is packed with useful features for the guitarist, including:
- Mono or Stereo Recording of 24-bit/96 kHz digital audio as well as in MP3 format with bit rates up to 320kbps
- Built-in X/Y pattern true stereo microphones
- 2 combination XLR-1/4-inch input jacks with phantom power for external microphone or guitar recording
- Support for up to 8GB using an approved SDHD card
- Four-Track recording (a mini studio in you pocket!)
- Built in metronome and multi-function tuner
- Built in guitar and amp simulations
- Stereo headphone jack with adjustable volume control
- Acts as an MP-3 player or WAV file play-along device (when properly configured)
- Acts as an SD card reader/writer when connected to a computer
- Acts as a USB audio interface when connected to a computer
The last two features alone are practically worth the price. Add on all the others, and the Zoom H4 is a bargain.
Simple Set Up
The Zoom H4 requires only a few easy steps before it is ready to start recording: insert an SD card (a 128MB card is included, but you'll probably want to get one with more recording capacity), insert two AA batteries (alkaline recommended), and turn on the power.
An AC adapter, USB cable, wind-screen microphone-cover, tripod adapter and CuBase LE (audio software) are also included.
You are quickly ready to record in stereo, using the very nice X/Y pattern microphones. Press the large circular button on the front of the Zoom H4 to enter "Standby" mode. This allows you to adjust the recording input. Press the Record button again to capture sound.
If you want to record in 4-track mode, you'll need to use the small menu selector on the front of the H4 and jog-dial on the side.
Key Features For Guitarists
The Zoom H4 is packed with features (see the list in the introduction, above). To learn details, download the Operation Manual directly from the manufacturer. I'll cover a few features for guitarists in more detail below.
Record via Mic or Direct Connect
You could use the Zoom H4 to record with it's built-in stereo X/Y pattern microphones, and you'd be very happy with the results. But you can also direct connect via the two combination XLR/Phone connectors.
Simply plug in one guitar, two guitars, a guitar and a microphone, a guitar and a keyboard, or any combination of one or two devices with an audio output that uses a standard guitar cable or XLR cable.
Next, tell the H4 which inputs to use by pressing the center MENU button toward the bottom of the unit. The INPUT menu appears. Next, use the Jog-Dial until the SOURCE option is selected and press the Jog-Dial in. Move the Jog-Dial up or down to select the input you wish to use. In Stereo-Mode you can select MIC or INPUT1/INPUT2. You have additional options in 4-Track Mode. If you've plugged in, you'll want to use one of the INPUT1/INPUT2 options.
Tuner & Metronome
When you pull out your Zoom H4 you can leave your tuner and metronome packed away.
The built-in chromatic tuner automatically detects the nearest note and displays the name of that note above a series of dots representing how far above or below 'in tune' your guitar is. Adjust your tuning until the center dot is filled in.
The metronome can produce a variety of sounds (click, stick, cowbell), from 40 - 250 beats-per-minute at a range of volumes and patterns. It can also provide a count-in before recording begins.
Looping a passage is a great way to learn. Listen over and over, or play along over and over, until you can play it correctly. The Zoom H4 calls this feature A-B Repeat.
Set the starting point (the A point), then the ending point (the B point). When you press Play, the passage will play over and over until you stop it.
Play-Along for Practice
Though not obvious in the manual, the "Play Along" feature, especially when combined with Looping, is a powerful practice tool for the guitarist.
The manual does not clearly describe how to setup the Zoom H4 to practice along. I will. It looks long and complicated, but it's actually only long. Once you complete these steps, you'll use this feature over and over.
To play-along for practice, you will use 4-Track Mode and the Mixer function. For file transfer (to add the file you wish to play along with), you will need to connect the Zoom H4 as an SD card reader.
First, I recommend that you obtain a copy of Transcribe!, or a similar sound-file speed control program. With Transcribe!, you can slow-down the sound file or change the pitch to make practice much, much easier. In addition, Transcribe! can export the file in the correct format for use on your Zoom H4.
Once you have the sound file at the speed and pitch you desire, here's how to put it on your H4 for play-along:
- Save your sound file as a 44.1Khz, 16-bit, WAV file (you can do this with Transcribe! or many other sound-file programs).
- Attach the H4 as an SD Card Reader (Press Menu, then Select USB with the Jog-Dial, scroll to Connect To PC and select that with the Jog-Dial. See the owners guide for additional details).
- Locate the 4-Track Folders. These are named PROJ001, PROJ002, etc. Select one and drag your sound file into that directory. Do not delete any file in the folder. Do not delete the Prjdata.zif file!
- Disconnect the H4 from your computer.
- On your H4, in 4-Track Mode, select the project containing your sound file.
- Press the Menu button and find the Stereo Link option. Use the Jog-Dial to turn this option ON for either tracks 1&2 or 3&4. This is necessary for correct playback of the file you just loaded. For example, to select tracks 1&2 for Stereo Link, press down on the Menu button, then scroll down (using the Jog-Dial) until the Stereo-Link option is highlighted. Press the Jog-Dial to display the Stereo-Link menu. Press the Jog-Dial in to modify the setting for Tracks 1&2. Scroll UP. The indicator changes to ON. Press in on the Jog-Dial, then press the Menu button twice to return to the top-level menu.
- All four buttons on the left side of the Zoom H4 are probably green. Only the buttons for the Stereo-Link tracks can be green for proper playback. For this description, that is tracks 1&2, so leave those alone.
- Next, you need to tell the H4 which input is for your guitar. To connect your guitar to Input 1, press the Menu button toward the bottom of the unit to enter the Input Menu. Press in on the Jog-Dial to modify the Input Source. Scroll up until IN1 appears and press the Jog-Dial in. Return to the main menu by pressing the Menu button.
- Unless you wish to use the X/Y microphones for audio input, turn them off by pressing the "4" button once (the light will turn off).
- To play the track you loaded, you must select it. Press the "1" button once to select the linked tracks (1/2 will appear next to "NO DATA"). The cursor in your main menu should be sitting next to "NO DATA". If it's not, use the Jog-Dial to move it there. Now, press in on the Jog-Dial one time. "NO DATA" will be highlighted. Use the Jog-Dial to scroll up (or down) until the name of your song appears, and press in on the Jog-Dial to select it.
- Plug your guitar into Input 1, press up on the Menu button to begin playback.
It's a lot of steps to set this up. However, any subsequent files you want to play along with are much easier, since all the set up is done. Simply connect to your PC, copy over the file, and select it for playback.
Upgrading The Firmware
It's amazing that some electronics manufacturers do not provide ongoing support for devices. Luckily, Samson does, and you can always get the latest version of the operating system for the H4 on their Software Updates page.
For those of you with a Mac, the latest firmware makes the Zoom compatible with OS-X Leopard. It also allows the new SDHD memory cards, for up to 8GB of data space (for a list of those tested by Samson, see here).
Areas For Improvement
I recommend the Zoom H4 to anyone looking for a record/playback/practice device for guitar or voice. Still, even though it's a pretty good first generation device, there is room for improvement.
If you've ever used an Apple iPod, you understand how simple a great user interface can be. The H4 does not have one. Press the Menu button straight down for one set of menu's, press it toward the bottom of the unit for a different set, use the Jog-Dial to scroll or select options... it's all a bit confusing at first.
Also, the battery compartment is not meant for large hands. You have to slide out a small latch then fold back the top to access batteries and the SD card slot. Battery life is good, but there's no battery strength indicator. This is a huge problem if you go to record, and just as you reach the end of a long tune, the unit turns off! Be safe: use the supplied AC adapter if you don't want to run through the song again.
Finally, make sure you get the right capacity SD card the first time. Getting the SD card out of this thing takes some real determination. It can be done, but not without thin fingers or (better still) a set of tweezers. A better card ejection device would solve this problem.
Even given the drawbacks of the unit, this is one great little device at an affordable price. I recommend you pick one up.