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Archive for November, 2018

Things I Like About the Zoom F8

Posted by Tom Benedict on 06/11/2018

I figure the progression of recording equipment I’ve used is pretty typical: I started with an inexpensive handheld, a Tascam DR-05, progressed to a four channel, four XLR input recorder, a Tascam DR-70D, and most recently bought a used Zoom F8 that I’ve been using for the better part of a year.

Most of the time when you change gear, there’s something you miss from the previous one. When I moved from the DR-05 to the DR-70D I added two inputs, added XLR jacks, added dual-level recording, etc. But I lost stereo-linking (the DR-05 only has one gain setting for both channels) and I lost deterministic gain (the DR-70D doesn’t tell you how much gain you’re applying, unlike the DR-05). I expected to face the same problem when I got the Zoom F8.

With the exception of the larger size and weight, though, I really didn’t lose anything. And what I gained was worth every penny. The more I dug through the menus, the more stuff I found that would make my life easier when I’m out recording. Here’s a fairly long laundry-list of the things I love about my Zoom F8 (with v.5 Firmware):

  • It has eight inputs. Every time I’m told I’ll never need that many inputs, I look back at the number of times I’ve plugged something into every single one. I’m constantly playing with different mics, different setups, different ways to record the world around me. Having eight inputs means I can plug in my SASS, a mid-side, an ORTF pair, and two spaced omnis all at the same time. It’s fun in a box.
  • It took the Tascam dual-level recording feature and made it better. When you set up dual recording on the F8, it splits the input and delivers it to two tracks. Every control is available on that second track. You can set it to a different gain level in case the first channel clips, but you can also set one up with a high pass filter and one without. Or one with a limiter and one without. One with a limiter and the other with -10dB gain as a “safety track”. Whatever you want, you can do it. It’s just another track.
  • You can set up four “groups” of gain control, so stereo or quad recordings all have their gains tied to a single knob. This was one I really missed when I moved to the DR-70D. Most of what I record is in stereo, so having the ability to link gains is massive. Even better, you can combine this with dual-level recording to have two pairs of stereo tracks from a single pair of inputs, each with their own gain knob.
  • The advanced look-ahead limiters that came with the v.5 firmware on the F8 work really really seamlessly well. I was surprised by how well these worked. I had the opportunity to use my F8 as an audio interface during a voice acting workshop (more on that in a sec), and during the live-directed battle emotes I was yelling loud enough to clip. But both of the directors told me it sounded fine. Even better, looking back at the tracks there was no sign of clipping. It’s smooth and seamless. (Quick side note: No matter how good your limiters are, you really don’t want to keep running into them. They’re insurance in case your gain was set too high, not a mode you want to operate in on a regular basis.)
  • The F8 can act as an audio interface. For a lot of people doing field recording, this won’t be a big deal, but I also do voice acting. It’s entirely possible to voice act into a recorder and load the tracks into a DAW afterward. I did that for some time with my DR-70D. But having the option to record through the F8 straight into a DAW, especially for a live-directed session, is awesome.
  • With the new v.5 firmware, the F8 can act as an interface while recording to SD cards! This came in handy for online workshops and would be great for online live-directed sessions. I could use my F8 as an interface to participate in the workshop, and I could record my own mic in one channel and the workshop as a whole in a second channel. I know it’s possible to make an interface talk to a DAW and to programs like Skype and Discord simultaneously, but this took all the risk out of it. I got native-quality recordings without the possibility of a software glitch costing me the session.
  • The input/output routing, combined with its ability to act as an interface, makes for a very powerful analytical tool. I’m beginning to get into measurement and characterization of the mics I’ve been building. The inputs and outputs on the F8 work great for injecting signals directly into a mic preamp, and when you combine them with an amplifier and speaker, can be used to measure the microphone as a whole. (That will be the topic of a future post.)
  • The F8 takes two SDXC cards. How you use them is up to you. You can record in PolyWAV on one card and individual WAV files for each track on the second, or you can record the ISO tracks on one and a stereo mix-down on the other, or WAV on one and MP3 on another, or any combination you can come up with. I use the second card as a backup and record PolyWAV to both. That way if I inadvertently erase a track or an entire day’s recording, I can recover from the second card.
  • The F8 can run off of eight AA batteries, but it also has a DC barrel jack and a four-pin Hirose for external power. The DC barrel connector is for an external AC supply (which is great when you’re using it as an interface) and the Hirose is for external batteries. I got a pair of Talentcell DC bricks that’ll each give me over 24 hours of recording time. I’m not a huge fan of the Hirose connector because I’ve had them fail at work, but if your gear is kept snug in a sound bag and not hanging off the back of a telescope, they’re pretty solid.
  • The preamps really are quite nice. When I went from the DR-05 to the DR-70D I got a 9dB (~8x) improvement in the equivalent input noise, which was huge. Going from the DR-70D to the F8 I got another 7dB (~5x) improvement. At -127dB EIN (unweighted), the preamps are really really quiet, which makes the +75dB of available gain on the preamps mostly useful without blowing up the noise floor.
  • But my favorite part of this whole thing is that you can save the state of the recorder as a configuration file that you can load again at some later date. No worries about missing a setting or forgetting to toggle something. I can plug in, turn on, and load the configuration of my choice. Ready to roll! Here’s the list of what I’ve got set up right now:
    • Mono Ch1 – Good for single sources, parabolic, voice acting
    • Mono Ch2 – Good for single sources, parabolic, voice acting
    • Mid-Side Ch12 – Mid-Side stereo mic
    • Mid-Side Ch34 – Mid-Side stereo mic
    • Stereo Ch12 – Left-Right stereo mic (SASS, ORTF, A/B, etc.)
    • Stereo Ch34 – Left-Right stereo mic (SASS, ORTF, A/B, etc.)
    • Stereo Ch1234 – For running dual stereo rigs
    • Quad Ch1234 – For running quad rigs like my spherical mic. All channels tied to one gain knob.
    • Dual Ch12-56 – Dual level recording setup for channels 1 and 2
    • Dual Ch34-78 –  Dual level recording setup for channels 3 and 4
    • Dual Ch1234-5678 – Dual level recording setup for running dual stereo rigs
    • Interface Ch12 – For when I’m using the F8 as an interface. My local mic goes on channel 1, the computer’s sound goes on channel 2

I’ve completely ignored the other half of the F8: that you can use it as a location mixer. Some of the mixer features of the F8 make it a really solid tool for doing location sound. But since that’s not really my forte, I can’t give you my take on it. As a field recorder, it’s excellent.

UPDATE: And just this morning, Samuel Greene from Zoom announced there’s a firmware update for the Zoom F8 (v.5.10E). And that’s one more thing I love about my F8: Zoom’s excellent customer support.

 

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