Zoom H4 Tutorial for Absolute Beginners

This tutorial will teach you how to record sound effects using a specific field recorder, the Zoom H4.

I wrote this tutorial some time ago. I recently found it tucked away in a folder. It was written some years ago when the Zoom H4 was first released.

Why release this tutorial if the recorder is so old?

It’s a good step-by-step guide to field recording. It’s written for someone who hasn’t recorded sound fx before. The tutorial will teach you how to operate a field recorder, set levels and record sound effects. It also has a final section that explains how to transfer sound fx to your computer from the recorder.

The Zoom H4 was one of the first portable field recorders. It certainly was one of the first to popularize inexpensive sound fx gathering.

The more recent Zoom H4n is far advanced.

Since the Zoom H4 has been discontinued it will be cheap. It’s a great way to get started field recording.

What is the Zoom H4?

The Samson Zoom H4 is a consumer portable sound recorder. I suggest this recorder to the Airborne Sound field recording interns because it captures decent sound at high quality (96 kHz, 24-bit), yet is inexpensive. It’s also tiny and can be used discreetly in conspicuous environments.

The low price comes with some drawbacks. The two main issues are that it is hard to set recording levels accurately, and it performs poorly in windy conditions.

This tutorial will show you how to record sound effects using this recorder.

What You Will Need

  • The Zoom H4 recorder
  • 2 AA batteries (charged, of course)
  • 1 Samson-approved Smart Digital (SD) card
  • A windscreen, such as the WindTeck series of windscreens
  • A computer with a USB connection
  • A USB cable

Preparing the Recorder

Before we begin, we need to prepare the recorder by adding batteries and a SD card.

  1. Load the batteries. The Zoom H4 takes 2 AA batteries. These batteries power the recorder for about 3-4 hours.
    1. To open the battery compartment, flip the recorder over and pull back the tab behind the microphones, as shown in the picture here.
    2. Pull the compartment door up and flip it back.
    3. Pull the compartment door up

      Flip the compartment door back

    4. Insert the batteries.
    5. Insert the batteries

  2. Insert the Smart Digital card into the compartment.

    Note: ensure that the SD card is not locked. There is a tab on the side of the SD card and a label that indicates which position locks the card and prevents writing onto the card. Slide it to the ‘unlocked’ position.

    1. Insert the card into the slot as shown in the photo below. Press it until you feel a springy click as it locks in place.
    2. Insert the card
      Press the card until it locks in place

    3. Close the compartment door.

Getting Ready to Record

  1. Turn on the recorder
    1. Find the ON/OFF on the side of the recorder.
    2. Turn the recorder on by sliding the ON/OFF switch upward toward the microphones. The recorder will power up after about 10-15 seconds.
    3. Turn the recorder on

  2. Erase the SD card. Before using the recorder for the first time erase, or ‘Format’ the card. This will destroy all information on the card and clean the slate for our new recordings.
    1. Press the ‘Menu’ button on the front of the recorder. You will see the Menu list.
    2. Press the menu button

    3. Use the scroll wheel on the side of the recorder to scroll down the list until you see the ‘Card’ menu item.
    4. Press the scroll wheel inwards to select the ‘Card’ menu item.
    5. Select ‘Format’ from the following menu.
    6. Select ‘Format’ again. The recorder will erase the card. This may take up to 30 seconds or so.
  3. Set the sample rate. At Airborne Sound we record at 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution.
    Set the sample rate

    1. To select this preference, simply press the ‘1’ button on the left side of the recorder. The screen will display your recording preferences (see the image to the right).
    2. Press the menu button to return to the Home Screen.

Recording Sound Effects

Capturing audio is a three-step process:

  1. Arm the Recorder. The first step is to arm the recorder. Press the ‘REC’ button on the recorder. It will begin to flash, indicating it is ‘record ready’. At this point it is not recording. This is indicated by the pause REC icon in the upper right of the screen. The purpose of this is to monitor the input levels before we commit to recording on the card.
  2. Set the Recording Levels. While the recorder is armed two black bars will be rising and falling on the display. These indicate the strength the audio signals reaching the recorder. The top bar at the top represents the volume for the left microphone channel and the bottom bar represents the volume for the right microphone channel.
  3. Set the recording levels

    A bar at the far left of the display indicates an almost inaudible sound. Bars extending to the right side of this display indicate a very loud sound.
    The numbers at the bottom of the indicate dBFS, or the loudness of the sound.

    Note: A sound reaching 0 dBFS will be damaged.

    You can modify the input levels by using a switch on the side of the recorder. There are three settings: Low, Medium and High. Sliding the switch to ‘Low’ will decrease the input level. Sliding the switch to ‘High’ will boost the input level.

    Choosing recording levels, or the level of the input volume, is tricky. After you have armed the recorder, watch the levels for 30 seconds.

    I aim to set the average level around -12. This will provide a decent input level but will also allow for sudden jumps in volume, such as a sudden shout in a crowd recording, or a loud horn in a traffic recording. I find it better to allow this ‘headroom’ than to get the levels as close to 0 and risk sudden, loud sounds going over 0 and thereby distorting the sound.

    Adjust the recording level switch so that the average level is around -12 dBFS.

    Note: if you are recording outside, slip the windscreen over the microphones, as seen below.

    Zoom H4 and windscreen
    Zoom H4 with windscreen

  4. Record!
    1. Press the REC button. This will ‘punch in’ and start recording audio to the H4. The REC button will become a solid red colour and the display will show the timer tracking the duration of the recording.
    2. Recording

    3. When you are finished, press the REC button again. The H4 will stop recording and display ‘PLEASE WAIT’ on the screen as it processes the sound file. This will complete after a moment and you will be returned to the Home Screen.

Copying Sound Files from the H4 to Your Computer

Now that you have finished recording, you can copy the sounds from the Zoom H4 to your computer.

  1. Turn off the H4.
  2. Connect the H4 to a computer with a USB cable. Plug one end of the USB cable into your computer, and the other, smaller end into the side of the H4. Once this is done, the H4’s screen will ‘Boot Up’ and display a ‘USB Mode Select’ menu
  3. Use the scroll wheel to scroll to the menu item ‘Connect to PC’
  4. Press the scroll wheel inwards to select this menu item. After a moment the screen will display ‘Now Connecting to PC’ and the H4’s card will appear on your desktop. Mac users will see white disk image named ‘H4SD’
  5. Card image on desktop

  6. Open this disk. There will be a few folders displayed. Your sound files will be in the ‘Stereo’ folder
  7. Sound files in desktop window

  8. Drag this folder from the H4SD and drop it onto your Mac to begin transferring the files. This may take some time since the connection is pretty slow
  9. Once you are done, eject the disk
  10. Unplug the USB cable. The Zoom H4 will automatically shut off

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