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.
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.
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!
- Put the battery into your external mic to provide it with phantom power.
- Plug the FetHead directly into the mic and connect the other end to the H4n with your normal XLR cable.
- Enable phantom power on the Zoom H4n to provide the FetHead with energy.
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
- Rycote Portable Recorder Audio Kit for Zoom H4n. Cost: $160
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! :)
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€.