GEAR: Zoom H4n

It has been 31,266 days since moving pictures required more than just stunning visuals. How’s that for a fancy little piece of trivia?

The Jazz SingerIt was The Jazz Singer, released October 6th 1927, that gave audiences the first full length motion picture with synchronized dialog sequences. To give you an idea as to how long ago that was, Al Jolson (the lead actor) had blackface scenes. I feel bad just typing that.

It took me only one bad experience to realize that each project has three main ingredients: images, audio and a story. The quality of the final product is only as high as the weakest of those three elements. Pretty simple, I know. But of the three, audio has always provided the biggest challenge for me. To be honest, it still does.

One of the biggest drawbacks to shooting DSLR – especially on the 5D Mark II – is audio capture. The Panasonic HVX200 (which I had worked with prior) came standard with a pair of XLR inputs; night and day compared to the 5D’s 1/8th inch jack. I had used a top-mounted video mic for the entire All for One series, but by the end I still wasn’t in love with the quality.

I have a good friend who recently retired after spending thirty-odd years with CBC producing one hour documentaries, but not before earning his fare share of wall candy – including a Gemini award and seemingly countless other nominations. He was the first to turn me on to the Zoom H4n and it’s near endless possibilities.

Before delving into all the bells and whistles I’ll outline my modest usage of this one-stop-shop of audio gadgetry.

Zoom H4n MountedWorking from the camera out, the H4n’s 1/8th inch line-out mates perfectly with Canon’s 5D Mark II. With the simple installation of Magic Lantern’s Canon firmware, the camera now offers audio metering (along with a whole host of other things I’ll save for a future post). Not down with independent firmware upgrades? That’s cool, the H4n has you covered with it’s 1.9″ display metering up to four audio tracks.

The device will record in one of three modes. Stereo allows for recording and playback of two channels and since the line-out mixes down the two channels anyway, it has tended to be my selection of choice when playing audio right through for a camera record. Now this might come as a shocker, but the 4CH option records.. well.. four channels – both XLR inputs as well as the two onboard mics with independent mixing and metering. Finally the MTR option allows a two channel record with a four channel playback – the best choice when dubbing or sequencing music tracks.

A handy little trick I learned, if you’re running the audio through the device into your camera, press the record button once. It will blink and you’ll begin to see levels on your camera without it recording onto the SD card. Press the record button one more time and the data will be stored onto the SD card. Either way the audio passes through the H4n’s preamp – offering a clean boost to audio levels.

As for the unit’s other abilities – ones I have admittedly not used yet – they truly crank up the value.

  • The top-mounted mics have selectable recording patterns, a quick twist of the microphone capsule switches between 90° and 120° for ultimate versatility
  • The built in low-cut filter and limiter takes out droning background noise like wind or an A/C unit
  • Automatic recording allows you to auto-trigger the record process when the signal rises above a preset level, while the pre-record feature keeps a constant two second cache allowing you a little bit of breathing room when you’re fumbling to hit the record button.
  • If you’re a guitarist, you’ll be happy to see it has a built in guitar tuner – this one has me scratching my head too, but I’m not going to complain. I no longer have an excuse to be playing out of tune.

Even with this list I still feel like I’m just scratching the surface. It’s a unit I’m definitely still growing in to as I continue to expand my knowledge of the audio side of things.

One quick word of advice – always monitor your audio on headphones. I made a bonehead move while shooting Unfinished Business and during one of my interviews pressed play instead of record. It was a great 20 minute sit down completely lost as the H4n fed re-recorded audio into my camera. Oh well, live and learn right?

That’s what Hollywood has had to do. Just remember – Al Jolson performed blackface scenes.


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