Musician-quality portable audio recorders aren't hard to come for less than $500, but only the Zoom H4n offers the capability to record up to four channels of audio simultaneously. To hear the difference four channel recordings can make compared with standard stereo recording, we enlisted the help of Alan Stewart and Jesse Clark from the Bay Area music group Agents Del Futuro. The guys set up an impromptu rehearsal at their recording studio to let us capture the sound of a variety of instruments.
The following slides let you compare the sound of the two recording modes, and provide a visual reference of the recording environment.
For recording acoustic guitar, we used the H4n's built-in limiter on the recorder's stereo microphones, and the integrated general compression setting for the guitar's piezo mic output. The first recording features only the stereo microphone recording, which sounds clean and accurately reflects what was heard in the room. The second recording adds the sound captured from the direct piezo mic, which adds additional warmth and low end. The difference is especially noticeable with the chords played about halfway through the recording.
Acoustic guitar (stereo mics with limiter) Listen now: Acoustic guitar (stereo mics with limiter, direct piezo mic with compression, 3-channels) Listen now:
For recording drums, we placed the recorder in the back of the room, engaged the limiter for the stereo mics, and applied the H4n's "Drum Compression" preset to the overhead and kick mics we placed on the drum set. In hindsight the compression might have been a little too extreme for the casual drumming involved here (a general compression setting would have been fine), but the extra oomph of the kick drum mic in the second file makes the sound a little more dramatic.
Drums (stereo mics with limiter) Listen now: Drums (stereo mics with limiter, overhead snare mic and kick drum mic with compression, 4-channels) Listen now:
For this recording, we used the same drum microphone set-up as the previous recording, but Alan joins in on the lap steel guitar. We also bring the recorder's stereo mics into the center of the room to pick up more of the guitar amplifier. The differences between the two tracks are more subtle here, but again, the added oomph of the independently mic'd kick drum makes the second recording a little more polished sounding.
Drums and lap steel (stereo mics with limiter) Listen now:
Drums and lap steel (stereo mics with limiter, and overhead snare mic and kick drum mic with compression, 4-channels) Listen now:
This time around, we placed the H4n at the center of the room and used an overhead ribbon mic on the vibraphone and the direct piezo mic from Alan's acoustic guitar (same one heard on the first recording). I think the difference here really shows off what four channels can do, turning a simple live recording into something with a studio-quality sound suitable for a band demo.
Acoustic guitar and vibraphone (stereo mics with limiter) Listen now: Acoustic guitar and vibraphone (stereo mics with limiter, plus ribbon mic on vibes and piezo mic on guitar, both with compression, 4-channels) Listen now:
For our final test, we recorded an instrument that's difficult to capture: an African thumb piano (also known also as a Kalimba). On the first recording, you'll hear the H4n's stereo microphones using no compression, and with the mic capsules flipped inward at a more focused 90-degree angle. The second recording brings in the sound of two piezo contact mics mounted on the sides of the instrument and panned to the left and right. There's some extra handling noise in the second recording because of the mics being jostled, but the difference in tone and depth is remarkable, and the stereo effect of panning the piezo mics adds an interesting dimension.
Thumb piano (stereo mics only with no compression, 90-degree mic pattern) Listen now: Thumb piano (stereo mics with no compression, 90-degree mic pattern, stereo piezo mics with compression, 4-channels) Listen now: