ZOOM F4 MULTITRACK FIELD RECORDER
Simmo called the F8 a game changer, so what does he call the F4? Game over?
Review: Greg Simmons
In 2015 I had the awkward pleasure of reviewing Zoom’s F8 field recorder. I say ‘awkward’ because I expected to dismiss it as a toy due to its unbelievably low price and equally unbelievably high feature set — the audio gear equation didn’t add up. And yet, there was so much to like about it and so little to dislike.
The audio gear equation has three parts: features, price and sound quality. You can have any two at the expense of the third… usually. Products that break the formula are potential game changers. The F8 proved to be one of those products. Compared to its competition it was ridiculously cheap, well featured, and I could not be critical of the sound quality. I made the ‘game changer’ call, and it was quickly proven true. I’ve since used the F8 on dozens of recordings, and clients have often praised the cleanliness of the sound.
No matter how cheap something is, the contemporary market always pushes for cheaper. And so it was with the F8. Even though it offered eight respectable XLR mic inputs at a price that was lower than its competitor’s four input and two input offerings, people who didn’t need eight inputs were asking for the same performance and ruggedness at an even lower price. Somewhere in Japan the agonised cries of ‘What is wrong with these people?’ must still be echoing through a boardroom!
The less-for-less logic is simple, but borders on simplistic: if Zoom can make a serious eight-input field recorder at such a low price, surely they can make a four-input version for even less. But how much less? Taking away half of the preamps and AD converters is not going to reduce the cost by 50%. It still requires the rugged enclosure, the batteries, the connectors, the output circuits, the visual display and all the digital smarts required to run the interface and manage the data. Considering the low cost of the F8, there can’t be much saving in simply removing four inputs.
Zoom already offered an affordable ‘less inputs’ alternative with the H6, the flagship of their H series ‘Handy’ recorders. It has four XLR mic/line inputs and six tracks of recording capability. Replace the detachable microphone capsules with the optional EXH-6 and you get six XLR mic/line inputs. The preamps are not of the same calibre as the F series, and it is designed as a handheld recorder, but the price is right.
This proposed new member of the F series, the F4, needed to fit neatly between the F8 and the H6, without making either redundant or outpriced. It must’ve been quite a challenge for Zoom’s design engineers. How did they fare?
The F4 is a six-input, eight-track field recorder designed for over-the-shoulder use in location sound recording for film and video. It has four Neutrik Combo series mic/line sockets on the left side panel that record to tracks one to four. Inputs five and six can be fed from either a 10-pin connector on the rear (intended for use with Zoom’s modular stereo microphone capsule system) for recording to tracks five and six, or via the 3.5mm TRS ‘Camera Return’ socket on the right side panel for monitoring. An internal mixer allows a stereo mix to be recorded to tracks seven and eight. The stereo mix can also be routed to three different stereo outputs: the Main output on a pair of 3-pin male XLRs, the Sub output on a 3.5mm TRS socket, and the headphone output on a 6.5mm TRS socket.
All four preamps are identical to those in the F8 and are as comprehensive as you could wish for. Each input has individually switchable phantom power, a High Pass Filter adjustable from 80Hz to 240Hz, a polarity invert option, a built-in delay for synchronising different input sources, and a comprehensive limiter with hard or soft knee operation and adjustable threshold, attack and release. There’s optional MS decoding, the ability to link multiple trims (gain controls) together, and a very useful PFL button that offers a choice of PFL or Solo behaviour. The Main and Sub outputs feature the same limiter and delay options as the inputs.
The F4 can record .wav files in mono or poly (interleaved) formats with 16- or 24-bit word sizes at sampling rates from 44.1k to 192k, and mp3 files from 128kbps to 320kbps. All files are written to removable SD cards. The F4 has two SD card slots and is capable of recording to both cards simultaneously. It can also record different things on each card in real time — for example, multitrack files on one card and a stereo mix for the dailies/rushes on the other. It also features a dual record option when using inputs one and two, allowing each input to be recorded to a second ‘safety’ track at a lower level in case of clipping (this option is only available when inputs three and four are not in use).
The F4 features two modes of powering: internal battery pack or external DC via a 4-pin Hirose socket. It uses Zoom’s BCF-8 battery pack, the same one used by the F8. This is a clever move that reduces development costs and avoids trapping the user into buying specific battery packs for each new product. It holds eight AA cells, and can be fitted with alkaline, nickel-metal hydride or lithium batteries. As with the F8, the battery pack slides into a compartment on the back panel that is covered by a hinged metal door and secured with a thumbscrew.
There are numerous power management options to conserve battery life, comprehensive timecode capabilities, and remote control via Zoom’s optional FRC-8 control surface.
The F4 measures approximately 178mm x 141mm x 54mm and weighs 1030gm without batteries. It comes supplied with an AC adaptor, a Hirose connector for use with the AC adaptor (more about that below), a camera mounting plate and a cable for using it as a USB audio interface with a personal computer or iOS device. Bring your own SD cards.
COMPARED TO THE F8
Considering that the F4 was conceived as a scaled-down version of the F8 for those who didn’t need eight inputs and wanted to pay less, it’s worth looking at what’s been taken out to bring the F4’s price down. It’s also worth looking at what’s been added, either as new ideas from Zoom’s engineers or in response to user feedback on the F8.
First of all, and most obviously, the F4 has four less mic/line inputs. This has saved considerable space on the front panel, allowing for larger gain knobs and a row of four keys across the top — three of which save significant time in the menu system. The ‘Option’ key offers access to built-in shortcuts such as TC Jam, Trim Link and Clear Clip. The ‘Output’ key offers quick adjustment of the Main and Sub output levels. The ‘Input 5/6’ key provides access to the menu settings for inputs five and six — essentially determining if they will be recording from one of Zoom’s modular mic capsules attached to the rear panel, or monitoring from the Camera Return socket on the right side panel. The fourth key replaces the F8’s Slate Tone toggle switch, moving it to the right side of the front panel and leaving more finger room around the Menu key and navigation dial. Note that, unlike the F8, the F4 does not include a built-in slate microphone.
Four less mic/line inputs also means four less female XLR sockets, saving considerable space on the right side panel. This allows the F4’s Main Outs to use a pair of industry-standard male XLRs, rather than the F8’s TA3 connectors and their required adaptor cables. I think this is a good thing, but other location professionals might disagree. The USB socket and Hirose power connector have also been moved to the right side panel.
Surprisingly, the F4 includes the same timecode capabilities and BNC connectors as the F8. Competing brands often make timecode an optional extra, or make a more expensive ‘timecode version’ of their field recorders. I had assumed timecode would’ve been one of the first things to go to bring the price down, but that’s not the case.
Similarly, it’s worth pointing out that the F4 retains the two SD card slots found in the F8. In an interesting departure, however, the F4’s SD card slots are on the rear, immediately above the battery compartment and behind the hinged metal door that secures the battery pack in place. This is another clever move that simplifies the F4’s machining and therefore brings the cost down. The F8’s side-mounted SD card slots –—with their oh-so-cool magnetic-latching covers — were certainly more convenient to access, but added complexity to the machining and therefore to the overall cost. They are also possibly the F8’s only weak points, and look as though they could be easily broken off. I would not be surprised to see the F4’s simplified rear-mounted SD card slots appear in the F8’s successor.
A welcome addition to the F4 is the Camera Return socket, sorely missing on the F8 and a source of regular criticism. On a shoot it is common for the sound engineer to send a mix to the camera, freeing the camera operator from audio duties and saving a lot of synchronising work later. To ensure the mix is not overloading the camera inputs or having other problems (e.g. faulty or disconnected cable), the sound engineer takes a signal back from the camera’s audio output to monitor what is being recorded on the camera. Having a dedicated stereo input to accept this signal back from the camera frees up valuable inputs, while the Input 5/6 key makes it fast and easy to monitor when required.
Unlike the F8, the F4 does not include a separate input socket for the AC adaptor. Instead, the supplied AD-19 AC adaptor (the same one used by the F8) is provided with a clip-on Hirose connector. This is an ingenious move that simplifies the machining and cost of the F4, and frees up panel space. Zoom’s promotional material mentions three powering methods, but there are really only two: internal batteries, or external DC via the Hirose socket. Whether that external DC comes from an AC adaptor or an external battery pack is irrelevant because both come in through the same connection point.
The F4 is the same form factor and dimensions as the F8, give or take a millimetre here and there. It’s about 70 grams heavier though — despite losing two XLR sockets, four input circuits, four data encoders, two TA3 sockets, and the input socket for the AC adaptor. I doubt that the Camera Return circuitry and extra three switches on the front panel count for much in the weight department. It feels just as rugged as the F8, perhaps more, so I’m guessing the excess weight is due to using lower-cost construction materials that offer the same strength as those in the F8 but at greater weight. I have a hunch that these alternative materials might also explain the F4’s bulkier retro styling. I prefer the cleaner contemporary look of the F8, but that’s a minor niggle.
Assuming you’re happy with only four XLR mic/line inputs, all the differences above can be appreciated for their cleverness and, in many cases, are advantages over the F8. There are only two negatives that I can think of. Firstly, unlike the F8, the F4 does not have Bluetooth functionality so cannot be controlled remotely via an iOS device — a wonderful feature on the F8. Zoom is encouraging users to buy the FRC-8 control surface for this purpose, of course. Secondly, after a year or so of using the F8’s full colour 320 x 240 LCD, the F4’s monochrome 128 x 64 LCD looks absolutely primitive. No doubt this is one of the major cost savings in the F4, and helps to price it appropriately between the F8 and the H6. At least it suits the retro aesthetic…
IN THE FIELD
Field recorders should be tested in the field, of course, to ensure they can withstand all the constant travelling, rough handling, temperature extremes, wind, dust and humidity that field gear is exposed to. The review unit arrived just before I was due to embark on a three-week expedition through Myanmar. Australia’s Zoom importer suggested I take the F4 with me and give it a proper field test, something I was more than happy to do.
Pelican cases and their attention-grabbing ilk are not allowed on my expeditions, so the F4 travelled in a fabric shoulder bag purchased from a street vendor in Kathmandu many years ago — the same bag that my Nagra 7 and Zoom F8 have travelled in before. It flew in the cargo hold from Sydney to Bangkok, Bangkok to Mandalay, and Yangon back to Bangkok. It travelled overland from Mandalay to Yangon on a combination of trucks, motorbikes, boats and trains, all the time tucked into that shoulder bag and stuffed inside my backpack or daypack. It powered up correctly every time, and there were no dislodged battery packs, no missing knobs or buttons buried somewhere in the baggage, no damaged sockets, no flattened batteries from accidental power-ups, no ‘unseen’ SD cards and no mysteriously corrupted files. Very reassuring.
My expedition team made a number of recordings with the F4, including some outdoors in very hot, dusty and sun-drenched environments, and all under tight time constraints. The F4 consistently operated as it should, with no head-scratching moments or causes for alarm. One of my expedition team members assumed the role of official F4 operator and had no problems operating the machine through that low-resolution monochrome display, indoors and out, despite being legally blind. And there I was complaining about it…
The F4 uses the same audio circuitry as the F8, so for comments on sound quality I’ll refer back to my earlier review where I compared the F8 as a field recorder against the Sound Devices 702t and the Nagra 7, and as a USB interface against Apogee’s Quartet. I have reproduced the most important part of the sound judgement here, which I still agree with:
“Subjectively, it sounds marginally brighter than the more expensive Nagra 7 and Sound Devices 702t, but that brightness manifests as a subtle sheen that provides an enhanced sense of clarity without any suggestion of harshness or brittleness. I did not find it tiring or fatiguing. At the same time, the F8 does not have quite the same fullness in the lower midrange as either of the other machines. The end result is an ever-so-slightly ‘lighter’ sonic presentation. I must stress that these differences are very subtle and should be considered more as a characteristic tonality of the F8 rather than a criticism.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that the Sound Devices 702t and the Nagra 7 both cost considerably more than the F8 and F4, and both offer only two tracks of recording capability.
You can read the F8 review on AudioTechnology’s website at the link below. The review includes links to the magazine’s Soundcloud page, where comparison recordings can be heard between the F8, the Sound Devices 702t, the Nagra 7 and the Apogee Quartet.
So where does the F4 sit in Zoom’s product range? With its superior preamps, numerous professional in/outs, timecode functionality and over-the-shoulder form factor, it clearly differentiates itself from the handheld H6; I doubt anyone would be stuck choosing between those two based on the application.
Things are not so clear when it comes to the F8. The F4 is a later generation machine offering the same sound quality and timecode functionality, but with more useful and/or helpful features. It only has four preamps, but adding Zoom’s EXH-6 to the rear panel connector would provide another two, albeit at the lower quality of the H series. It’s an interesting conundrum. I’m a big fan of the F8 so it pains me to say this, but unless you absolutely need seven or eight preamps the F4 might be a better option — provided you don’t mind the retro styling and the low-res monochrome display.
In my review of the F8 I called it a game changer, and stated that anything costing more than twice its price was going to be a hard sell. The same logic applies even more to the F4. The F8 was the game changer, but the F4 is the one that will go gangbusters.