Boost Your Zoom H4n Recordings

 

I’m sure many of you have heard of the Zoom H4n field recorder. Maybe you own one and that’s the reason you’re here ;) It’s popular, it’s small, ultra portable and affordable. I take it wherever I can. And yet I wish the quality of the recordings would be better sometimes. Recording low volume ambiences is very hard, the hiss from the mic pre-amps is considerable.

Then, there are these cool moments: I recently bought a little piece of hardware for my studio mic when I realized it could also catapult the quality of my Zoom H4n recordings to a whole new level! It’s the great feeling when you discover you can use your pan for roasting meat, but with a small modification also cooking pasta, cutting vegetables in small pieces and making coffee all at once. Let’s have a look.

What’s The Problem With The H4n?

The H4n is a $250 device. Microphones and pre-amps need to share the cost of the device with all other included components.

Recording loud sound sources is not a problem. I find the H4n to have a great sound overall. But as soon as you try recording more subtle sounds like wind, ambience, some crickets chirping, you need to crank up the H4n recording level a lot. But not too much or you’ll end up with a strong noise floor.

I found the upper limit to be 60. And 60 already introduces quite some hiss. As a rule of thumb: When you can’t hear your sound really well at 60, it’s too quiet and you should not bother recording it. Still, you can reduce some of that noise using tools like iZotope’s RX.

Zoom H4n

The Test Setup

I came up with this unscientific scenario for my quick test. I put the H4n and an external mic on my balcony, walked to the other end about 6m away, moved some flower pots (1), stirred some earth in a bigger flower pot (2), rattled a bubble wrap sheet (3). In the end I read a short passage of a software license agreement from that distance.

blog-fetheadsetup

This is how it sounds like: H4n, built-in mics, rec level set to 60.

It’s very quiet. So I had to amplify it. Here’s the same recording, just louder.

H4n, built-in mics, rec level set to 60, boosted in Logic by 16dB. Pay attention to hiss!

Ingredients For Better Recordings

For this tip you need the Zoom H4n, an external microphone that’s capable of phantom powering itself from a battery, and a cable to connect the external mic to the inputs of the H4n. Although the H4n is able to provide phantom power to a mic, for my trick to work, the phantom power by battery is important!

Because with external mics, too, we’re still faced with the same subpar pre-amps of the H4n. Meaning quiet sounds will be of bad quality and will have a lot of hiss and noise if recorded above a rec level of 60. And with external mics it seems to be even worse! Here’s a recording with an external mic on H4n phantom power straight to the H4n. To be audible, I needed to boost the signal by 24dB.

H4n, Røde NTG-2 mic, rec level set to 60, boosted in Logic by 24dB. Even more hiss here!

We need something to cleanly boost the output of the microphone before getting to the H4n. We need another pre-amp. And I just happened to find one that’s so small, it will vanish in your gear!

The Magic Ingredient

I initially bought one of these for my dynamic studio microphone and got curious if this idea I had in mind could work. The FetHead is a pre-amp that gives you 20dB of very clean signal boost. But it needs phantom power to operate! The microphone also needs phantom power. And the H4n can, of course, only provide phantom power to one of these devices in the chain. And this is where the battery comes into play!

  1. Put the battery into your external mic to provide it with phantom power.
  2. Plug the FetHead directly into the mic and connect the other end to the H4n with your normal XLR cable.
  3. Enable phantom power on the Zoom H4n to provide the FetHead with energy.
fethead

Now, the mic and the FetHead are both powered! The FetHead is boosting the mic’s signal by 20dB and you can start recording quiet nature sounds. Because the FetHead is plugged in between the mic and the cable to the H4n and it’s small size, it will literally vanish. No clunky additional gear to schlepp along. By just getting the FetHead, you improved your recordings significantly for a mere 70€. Let’s listen to the same recording setup with vanilla FetHead in the signal chain.

H4n, Røde NTG-2 mic, rec level set to 60, FetHead. NO boost in Logic. Nice!

That’s it. It’s pretty easy to setup and you can make far better recordings with your external gear. If you’re interested in the gear I use in conjunction with my H4n, here’s a list of things I have as a „price sensitive“ field recorder.

Tip 1 – Improve A Standalone H4n Device

If you plan on using your H4n in handheld mode, get the following gear and you’re set.

As everything Rycote does, it’s very good but also very expensive in my opinion. This kit shields the mic from normal wind and takes your hand off the case so handling and vibration noises don’t get picked up.

This is my standard kit, I take it EVERYWHERE! :)

rycote-windkit

Tip 2 – Go External

Here’s what gear I use when I really have time, space in my bags and need a high quality recording.

  • I have a Røde NTG-2 shotgun mic to record a narrow field of view. Important is that the NTG-2, as a condenser mic, needs phantom power. And that phantom power can be provided by a battery! Cost: $269
  • To solve the wind sensitivity, get a windshield. I got a Rycote Windshield Kit 6 as enclosure. Cost: $649 (ouch, what’s so expensive about a little plastic?)
  • And of course my magic device Triton Audio FetHead. Cost 70€.
rodentg2
rycote-kit6
FetHead
  • Sören Pawlowski

    Thanks for this great Sample

  • Henry Rafael B. Posadas

    Have you tried using the newer Fethead Phantom (It let’s the Phantom Power power the fathead AND the mike) with an NTG1 instead?

    • Nope not yet! I’ll need to check out the specs and see what this means. It would be awesome if you didn’t need the battery. Then this would be applicable to ALL potential mics. Super news, thanks a lot for the info!

    • @henryrafaelbposadas:disqus, this is what TritonAudio put as a note below the FetHead Phantom: „Note: With Rode NTG2 microphones, especially in combination with mobile recorders, we advice to use a regular FetHead, please see this detailed description.“ Then they link to my website :)

      I guess maybe a mobile recorder cannot release so much power to power both devices, that’s why they don’t recommend it. In general it’s probably possible, but maybe not with a mobile recorder. When I do a second order, I’ll get one of the Phantoms and test it out :) But this will probably take a while, I’m currently set :)

      • Henry Rafael B. Posadas

        Sorry for the late reply (just saw your answers). Thanks for answering. I should have read your response first, I bought a fethead phantom and tried it with an NTG2 and it didn’t work, although it worked fine with my AT2020. Before reading your answer above, I ordered an AT875r. I do hope the AT875r, H4n and fethead phantom combination works. If not, I might need to order a regular fethead instead. I’ll share audio samples once it arrives and do test. Thanks!

  • LATRIPV Olje

    Great! Truly great to see there is a solution to the dreaded H4N amplifier problem, though what kind of battery is it you are talking about that delivers phantom power and how is this set up with the FetHead? Thanks

    • Hey. You can unscrew the NTG2 and insert a normal AA battery into it, like into a flashlight. Look at the Rode website http://www.rodemic.com/microphones/ntg-2. There it says „The NTG2 operates either from a AA (1.5V) battery or P48 phantom power which can be supplied by professional cameras, audio recorders and power supplies. The battery power option makes the NTG2 ideal for scenarios where the camera does not supply phantom power such as DSLR video.“

      This means you can either use the mic with a camera that does not support phantom power, or like in this example to use the FetHead in-between mic and recorder :) Did that help?

  • dinesh yuvi

    what if i use
    Azden FMX-22 Portable Field Mixer
    as a preamp,i will be getting better gain than fethead and i get phantom built in for 2 channels,and i can get stereo recording and i can play with panning knobs in azden also it has limiter and many features,,,whats ur opinion?

  • Anugrah T. Bahl

    Even the last recording with Fethead is not clear. why? It is got hiss/noise.

    • The noise you hear is distant traffic. It’s not super quiet where I live and I was on the balcony on a normal business day. Most of the hiss from the preamp / mics is gone with the FetHead, the remaining rest of noise is just nature and trafifc.

 

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