You can’t underestimate the importance of convenience and versatility. I have learned as a sound designer that inspiration can hit at any time. Great sounds can sneak up on you, and you will not always have the time or ability to carry around a mess of recording equipment. That's where having a portable recording option available to you at a moment's notice can be handy. For my impromptu recording sessions, I prefer to carry the Zoom H2n with me.
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The Zoom H2n combines microphones and a digital recording device into a single compact self-contained audio recorder. It shares many of the same features as similarly priced models (including the Zoom H1n and the Tascam DR-07X). The features of this recorder include:
- Recording Format: MP3 up to 24-bit, 96kHz WAV files.
- Battery Powered: 2 alkaline AA Batteries can power the recorder for 20 hours of continuous recording.
- Storage: Supports SD/SDHC card, up to 32Gb.
While these are excellent features to have in a portable recorder, they do not set it apart from the pack. The Zoom H2n is outfitted with some unique features that go above and beyond other recorders within, and even exceeding, its price range.
The most notable feature of the Zoom H2n that sets it apart from the competition (and the reason I choose to carry it on the road) is the selectable recording patterns. This recorder includes five microphone capsules, capable of producing 4 different pickup patterns. The patterns include:
- Two microphones arranged in a 90-degree X/Y pair. This is comparable to other recorders and suitable for most recording applications.
- Three microphones arranged to capture Mid-Side recordings. This is a stunning feature for this recorder that is absent from even most high-end portable devices.
- The five mics combine to offer complete 360-degree surround sound recording capability. These recordings are selectable as a 2-channel file or as discreet 4-channel surround sound audio.
I like that I can choose the pickup pattern that best suits what I’m trying to record. If multiple takes are possible, I typically collect an X/Y, Mid-Side, and at least a 2-channel surround recording. That way I cover my bases, and can sort out the best take in the studio later. There is no comparable product on the market that gives me this level of flexibility—especially in such a small package.
One overlooked element of a portable field recorder is handling noise (that’s the noise the recorder picks up through the body of the device just from you holding it.) My first portable recorder was the now-discontinued Zoom H4. It had significant problems with handling noise due to its plastic casing. The issue was addressed on the newer H4n model with the addition of a rubberized coating.
Low Handling Noise
While the Zoom H2n is still housed in a plastic body, it feels much sturdier and is surprisingly resistant to handling noise. The mounting screw on the bottom of the unit accommodates a shock mount, but the ability to easily use the recorder without one is important. Again, the goal here is convenience and versatility. The simplest form factor is the easiest to carry around.
The device also comes with some onboard effects, including a low-cut filter and a compressor/limiter. The low-cut filter can further reduce the risk of handling noise and erroneous rumbles that could tarnish the recording. Regarding the compressor/limiter, I prefer to capture the raw sound without any gain suppression. If I am not confident about my gain settings though, the option can be a life saver.
The recording quality is comparable to other products on the market at this price range. Do not expect the extreme detail and low frequency response of a dedicated stereo condenser like the Rode NT4 or the Audio-Technica AT8022. With this expectation in mind, the recorded material from the Zoom H2n is very clean and useable. I have made ambient recordings of cityscapes, storms, trains, and crowds using this device—all of which have ended up as part of my sound library. They are also available for sale as stock audio effects.
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Cons & Annoyances
As with most outdoor recordings, this digital recorder is susceptible to wind noise. In order to improve my outdoor recordings, I purchased a small dead cat windscreen that fits over the device. I recommend the Zoom WSU-1 Hairy Windscreen.
I mentioned earlier that I like to collect multiple takes using different pickup patterns. Unfortunately, the Zoom H2n’s pattern selection dial is on the top of the device. This means that I need to remove the windscreen in order to adjust the pickup pattern. This is a minor irritation, but I wish the pickup patterns were selectable through the menu.
The pattern selection dial also indicates the direction you should be facing the recorder. Unless you are well-familiar with the device, you will need to remove the windscreen or perform a “snap test” to confirm its proper orientation before you begin your recording. On my H2n, I just added small reference labels on the front and back to indicate the proper X/Y or Mid-Side orientation.
The Zoom H2n is a truly versatile little recorder. For only around $170USD, it is an impressive product at an even more impressive price. It is small, simple to use, and can adapt to more recording situations than any recorder in its class. It is a high value product worth more than every penny. In my opinion, the Zoom H2n belongs in the gear bag of journalists, musicians and sound designers alike.
Which field recorders have you used before? Let me know more about it in the comments below.