In January of 2010, I bought my first sound recorder: a Samson Zoom H4n. At the time, I knew essentially nothing about field recording—I selected the device based on the recommendation of several musician friends. I didn't think of it at the time, but trying to capture nature sounds and live music are two entirely different worlds of audio.
Now, with a year of real world experience under my belt, I have gained some valuable insight about what I actually want from a handheld recorder. Here are my main issues with the H4n as a solution for field recordists:
The built in microphones have no cage. It is almost as if Samson wants these things to snap off. Incidentally, one of mine did, and the resulting failure is the subject of the latter half of this entry.
High self noise (hissing) when trying to capture quiet audio sources. To be fair, I should probably be using external mics for nature recordings, but I'm told the XLR inputs are even worse.
There are no analog dials for adjusting gain; levels are controlled by buttons on the side of the device. Any adjustments made while recording will generate all kinds of clicky handling noise. (The H4n does have auto-levels, but in my experience the results are very unreliable.)
This thing burns through batteries like crazy! While this is probably unavoidable for field recorders, the problem is exacerbated by one extremely important point: in low lighting, I can't see the levels without the backlight on. (I use 2700mAh Sanyo rechargeable cells.)
The H4n has a pile of features I'll never use that surely contribute to the price. I don't need fifty on-board studio effects, a phrase trainer, tuner or metronome, for example.
The H4n takes fantastic recordings, and it really shines in favorable scenarios where the audio source is reasonably loud—it's just not the best tool for the job I was hoping to accomplish. When we return to the United States, I will eventually replace it with a Marantz PMD661. If my research is accurate, it should address all of my complaints about the Zoom.
With all of that said, I'll let a few recordings speak for themselves:
Now, on to that broken microphone.
While making a (terribly boring, in retrospect) recording of a restaurant in Estonia, I foolishly set our H4n on a narrow shelf near a hallway. A few minutes later, it was knocked off its perch by a passerby, dropping a few feet to the ground. It landed on the conspicuously unprotected microphones, and just as I feared, one of them snapped off.
To my relief, even though the left channel microphone was dangling precariously from the recorder by three tiny wires, it still worked. For the last six months, I've been gently setting the broken mic in place for every recording. It is a temperamental "fix", as it falls out with the slightest bump. Unfortunately, I didn't have much luck with super glue, and I didn't want to cover parts of it with tape.
About a week ago, the left channel stopped working completely. Not being able to make recordings has been really frustrating—almost as maddening as when our 50mm prime lens stopped auto-focusing in Mongolia from all the dust (thankfully, I was able to disassemble it and clean out the grit). I've really come to love documenting the things that move me, and it is really disheartening when I can't.
On our recent motorcycle trip, my friend Pete and I looked it over, determining that there must be a loose connection—undoubtedly due to the stress of the microphone hanging by its wires for the last several months. Unfortunately, with no small tools to speak of, there was little we could do about it.
This morning, our guest-house is playing really beautiful Lao music in the restaurant attached to it. Instinctively grabbing my recorder, paying no mind to the broken microphone, I rush out to capture the scene. But without a stereo image, the results lack depth—the soundstage is flat and uninspiring. Dejected, I start to feel sorry for myself, thinking about how much we love listening to our other recordings. I am filled with the sensation that our adventure has gone deaf (or mute, I suppose).
Eventually, I realize that a sour mood isn't helping the situation, and that I ought to do something about the problem instead of lamenting it. So, with the help of our guest-house owner and a lot of miming, I'm able to borrow a soldering iron at nearby shop. Meanwhile, Tara scours the village for electrical tape, returning triumphantly. With all the tools I need in hand, I get to work disassembling the microphone.
Without a parts diagram, it is difficult to know what I'm doing. Making matters worse, I am a little too impatient with my inspection, which results in my accidentally severing the connection on all three wires. Ack! Well, if there wasn't a loose connection before, there certainly is now.
Since I'm not sure which wires go to what leads, I plug a pair of headphones into the recorder and turn on the monitor, trying every permutation until it scratchily comes to life. I'm grinning ear to ear as I tell Tara the correct color combination, which she jots down on the inside cover of our guidebook. I'm so relieved the microphone still works!
The next step would be to re-solder the connections, but the wires hanging from the recorder are far too short to work with. Since I wasn't able to locate a screwdriver small enough to disassemble the whole device, I'll have to use donor wires of some kind to make them longer. One look in my "cables and things" bag reveals an old USB cord we never use. A couple of snips and some plastic-chewing later (wire strippers would be nice!), and I'm ready to go.
I quickly realize that I've been lent the world's worst soldering iron. The tip barely gets hot enough to melt solder directly, much less heat wires enough to tin them. The tool has clearly not been cared for, and the tip is so oxidized I can't remove it to clean the contact. As a result, it takes nearly an hour of mucking about to manage a superficial connection, and the solder never really flows properly.
The end result is the worst soldering job I've ever seen. I doubt the brittle connections will last, but for now, it works! With the donor wires attached to the microphone, the only thing left to do is reconnect them to the wires on the recorder, and hope for the best.
Once everything is re-assembled, I do what I should have done when it broke in the first place: wrap the bottom half of the microphone in electrical tape to hold it securely. Who cares if the windscreen is partially covered, or if the stereo image isn't "perfect", at least it works!
By the time I'm done, the music is too. Oh well, I have no doubt we'll be able to get a few more recordings before we get home. It feels really good to have our ears back!