Now, stereo recording was effectively all that the LS-10 did, but the H4N has more than one string to its recording bow. The second mode, 4 Channel, allows you to record from two stereo sources simultaneously (e.g. the built in microphone and an external left/right pair). Why? Well, if recording voice or dialogue, you could place an external microphone in the room, then mix the sound from it and the internal mic to create a more spacious overall sound. Alternatively, you could record an acoustic guitar through the built-in mic, but also hook up a pickup or transducer through Input One to get a direct and a more ambient sound. Or maybe, in a gig situation, you could use the built-in mic to capture the live sound in the room, then use a direct feed from the PA/mixing desk to get the best possible combination. Nice!
But that’s only getting started. In its third mode, the H4N acts as a digital four-track studio, allowing you to lay tracks down, overdub, cut in and cut out, set marks and bounce tracks, just as you would have done on an old fashioned tape portastudio. The controls get a bit fiddly here – and to be honest I’ve limited experience of this sort of thing – but it does work. Better still, you can treat each track using a range of fully customisable preset effects, ranging from classic guitar and bass amplifiers (Fender Twin, Vox AC30, Mesa Boogie Mark III, Ampeg SVT) to a selection of usable, treated sounds (chorus, phase, tremolo) and a number of reverbs, delays and chorus sounds for vocalists and mic’ed acoustic guitars. Playing around with the effects, I’m reminded that Zoom made its name by producing great digital effects boxes on a budget, and those on the H4N stand up very well when you consider that they’re really just extras on a recording device. I’m not saying you’d want to record an album on the thing, but you could definitely get down some nice, quick demos that wouldn’t sound too unpolished, using just basic instruments without any cumbersome amplification. That’s an awful lot of power for such a little box.
But how does it perform in terms of audio quality? Well, you have to be aware that the built-in microphones are very, very sensitive, and that you’re wise to set recording levels manually rather than rely too much on the auto options, otherwise you can expect, say, loud, brash voices or a boomy, distorted acoustic guitar where every scratch on the strings clatters through. Take the record levels down and you get a very good sound that – while not particularly warm – is at least clean and not too tinny. Listening to field recordings I made on a nearby beach yesterday, the boom of waves hitting pebbles and seagulls flying over come across in an almost holographic fashion, and there’s a clear sense of spatial positioning with voices or acoustic instruments. Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to try the H4N out on a live band, but I understand from someone who has that you can get a really good, beefy live sound, provided you compensate for the (typically) overbearing noise of the drums by not getting too close and watching your record levels.