The new Zoom F4 field recorder was recently announced, so I decided to share my initial thoughts on it. If you’re not familiar, it’s a portable digital audio recorder that can record 6 individual tracks and a stereo mix, and it features built-in time code, high-quality mic preamps, metal construction, and some nicely designed controls. At the time of publishing it sells for $650 USD, which is a good price for a recorder with these kinds of features.
Last year I wrote about the Zoom F8, which is similar. The F8 has a few more features and the ability to record up to 10 tracks. It sells for $999 USD (the price hasn’t decreased since it was released). I highlighted the fact that most people will never need to record 8 audio tracks simultaneously, making it overkill. I also emphasized that new people trying to start a career in location audio would be better served by saving up for a Zaxcom or Sound Devices recorder.
I still feel that way about the Zoom F8, but the new Zoom F4 addresses some of my qualms. The F4’s ability to record 8 tracks is more aligned with people’s real-world needs in video production, so you’re not paying for more machine than you need. Its $650 USD price tag is also more reasonable, making it a decent option for upcoming location audio people to consider.
What features does the Zoom F4 lack that the F8 has?
The F4 has a monochrome display. This isn’t as nice as the 4-color display that you get with the Zoom F8. For example, the meters on the display of the F8 are colored green, so you can more easily identify them with a quick glance. The display on the F4 is also a bit smaller than the one on the F8.
The F4 also doesn’t have the wireless, Bluetooth-powered iOS control feature of the F8. So, you cannot control the F4 remotely with an iPhone, iPod Touch, or an iPad. This may be a bummer for some, but the exclusion of this feature doesn’t bother me.
The Zoom F4 also only has 4 combo XLR inputs. The Zoom F8 has a whopping 8. However, you can attach the separately available EXH-6 module to the back of the F4, which adds 2 additional combo XLR inputs to the device.
What features does the Zoom F4 have that the F8 lacks?
There are a couple of useful buttons on the face of the new Zoom F4 that you won’t find on the more expensive F8. An “OPTION” button enables you to quickly access additional features without having to dig into menus. An “OUTPUT” button enables you to quickly adjust the level of the main XLR outs, or the 3.5mm “SUB OUT,” which you can connect to the mic input on a DSLR, for example.
But, the real star of the show is the INPUT 5/6 button…
This button is part of a dedicated “return” section on the Zoom F4. Not sure what that is? Read on, dear friend, read on… The right side of the F4 features a 3.5mm input labeled RTN (INPUT 5/6). The face of the F4 has a button labeled INPUT 5/6. The idea here is to use these as a “Camera Return.” What is that, you ask?
In video production it’s always a good idea to send the main camera an audio feed from the sound equipment. This way the camera gets a good sounding mix of the audio from the sound recorder. When you do this, the director, the DP and the other important people on set will be able to clearly hear the sound when they review a shot or a scene on set. It also helps the post-production people.
The person running the sound equipment will send a special cable to the main camera called a “breakaway cable.” This cable plugs into the audio inputs of the camera, feeding it the sound from the audio equipment, and the cable also plugs into the headphone output of the camera, so the sound operator can listen to the sound in the camera remotely, to make sure it sounds good and that there are no problems.
What features do the Zoom F4 and F8 share?
There are a lot of similarities between these two recorders. They’re the exact same size. They both have the same preamps. People generally give these preamps very good reviews on their sonic performance. They both feature the 10-pin Zoom module connector on the back, which enables you to add a built-in mic, such as the SGH-6 shotgun microphone capsule.
Both units feature time code inputs and outputs. To the average, solo run-and-gun DSLR shooter, this probably doesn’t mean anything. But, to someone who is trying to become a professional location audio person, getting a portable digital audio recorder at this low price with time code is a big deal.
In professional video shoots the sound person is often expected to maintain sync between the cameras, the audio recorders, the video recorders, and the time code slates. This is done by deciding what device is going to be the master clock for the time code, and by periodically jamming all of the other equipment to its clock.
Audio recorders with built-in time code features like this have traditionally been extremely expensive. It was until the Zoom F8 came around that any lower-priced options even existed.
Who should buy the Zoom F4?
I think the new Zoom F4 is a good choice for location audio people that are just starting out. The fact that it has time code features and it’s substantially less expensive than the Zoom F8 is amazing. A new sound person can definitely get great sound using a more affordable Zoom H4n or Tascam DR-70D, but, the additional money they’ll spend on the Zoom F4 for time code capabilities seems like it’s worth it.
If you’re a hobbyist, the Zoom F4 may be more recorder than you need. If you don’t yet own key pieces of audio equipment like a good wireless lav mic (such as the Sennheiser G3), or a good sounding shotgun microphone (like the Rode NTG-3), then you will likely be better served by investing your money elsewhere.
I still think the Zoom F8 is a good choice for experienced location audio professionals who need a lower-priced backup system for lower-priority jobs. I also think the new Zoom F4 is a good choice for this kind of person. These people already own premium systems by Sound Devices or Zaxcom. Sometimes they need another system in case an extra job pops up while their other gear is in use.
What about the Tascam DR-701D?
The new Zoom F4 is similarly priced to the Tascam DR-701D. While the two units are similar, overall I think the Zoom F4 is more appealing in general. If you’re strictly a DSLR shooter, and you want to sync your camera with your recorder via HDMI cables, the DR-701D is a much better choice for you. Outside of that, I think the Zoom F4 comes out on top. It seems more flexible, and the layout makes more sense to me.
Is there anything wrong with the Zoom F4?
The little rubber feet at the base of the Zoom F4 easily fall off, especially when you’re taking it in and out of an audio bag. Remember, this is ultimately a low-budget piece of equipment. This doesn’t surprise me.
A bigger problem is its slate tone. According to page 118 of the user manual:
The MAIN OUT 1/2 and SUB OUT 1/2 faders do not affect the level of the slate tone.
This is not good. One of the main purposes of slate tone is to use it to adjust the audio levels of other equipment you connect. For example, if the main XLR outputs of the Zoom F4 are connected to a breakaway cable, and that cable is connected to the audio inputs of the main camera of a shoot, you cannot use the slate tone on the F4 to adjust the audio input levels on the camera.
Simply put, the volume level of the slate tone on the F4 should match the volume level of the Main Outputs. The way the Zoom F4 is now, you would need to plug a tone generator, like the Shure A15TG, into one of its inputs and use it as a slate tone to set the levels of cameras and other equipment you attach.
SIDE NOTE: If you’re not 100% sure how to adjust the levels of audio equipment, such as when you plug a mic into a preamp, or when you plug the outputs of a recorder into the inputs on a camera, be sure to read my How to Set Audio Levels post. It’s an easy-to-understand tutorial written specifically for video people.
The lack of a proper slate tone on the F4 tells me one thing: the people who designed it simply do not understand how and what it is used for. This is a huge problem, and a huge red flag. However, the Zoom F8 had similar issues with its trim/fader knobs when it first came out, and Zoom corrected them later with a software update. I certainly hope that this is something they fix. It’s a huge miss.
However, the device itself, taken as a whole, looks like a pretty good option.
Thanks for checking out this post! If you have any thoughts to share, I would love to hear them in the comment section below (even if you totally disagree with me).
Zoom F4 - Amazon USA, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de
Zoom F8 - Amazon USA, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de
Sennheiser G3 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.fr
Rode NTG3 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Zoom H4n - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Zoom H5 - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr
Tascam DR-70D - Amazon USA, Amazon.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr