Zoom H4N Review: How to Get Better Audio for DSLR Video [Reel Rebel #6]

Zoom H4N Review: How to Get Better Audio for DSLR Video [Reel Rebel #6]

If you're using a DSLR for capturing video, or if you like to separately record audio tracks for your video, you will definitely want to consider a portable digital audio recorder. In this week's Reel Rebel, we'll be reviewing the Zoom H4.  The Zoom H4 is likely the most popular digital audio recorder for DSLR video because it can record as many as four channels at once and it has direct XLR mic input connectors (including phantom power).  We'll also be giving you some tips on how to use it, so as not to shoot yourself in the foot.

Knowing What is Important -> Audio

It seems that everyone making videos today wants to be "that director." You know the type: framing the scene between their hands, acting the part of the "visionary" setting up the perfect shot. However, in the process of looking like you know what you're doing, which you probably don't if you're reading this, it's easy to forget about a factor that is equally as important as your video: audio. That's where the Zoom H4n comes in. Shooting video on a DSLR camera is cheap, and occasionally cool, but they all seem to have issues with audio. With this in mind, it's probably best to record your audio externally.

Now, I could throw a bunch of numbers at you, which you're probably not going to like. I'm not going to do that to you, though. Suffice it to say that no one wants to listen to your crunchy audio, regardless of how good the video is.

The Solution to Bad Audio = Zoom H4N

The H4N is your one-stop-shop for all of your simple audio needs. and it's a snap to get up and running. Just plug your mic into the business end of the H4N, plug your headphones in, and try not to hit yourself in the head too hard when you realize you didn't actually turn the mic on. When you get your audio going, make sure that your meters are about three-quarters of the way across. This makes your sound audible, but not deafening. Push record twice, and the little red ring around the button should become solid.

The Final Touches

Now that all that's done, your last step is to slate the scene. Now, if you still want to keep up the whole "looking cool" theme, pick up a professional-looking slate from your local photo store. Honestly, though, all you need to do is clap in front of your face where the camera can see it and the H4N hears it. That way, you can sync the audio up in post production. If you skip this step, you've basically just shot yourself in the foot before you've even begun editing. You could still limp your way to a final product, but it would be so much easier to just not skip this step.

There are a ton of ways for your video to suck. Pick up an H4N and ensure that your audio isn't one of them.

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View The Full Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Stephen Schweickart with vscreen where we make video for businesses. Today, we’re going to do a product review of the Zoom H4N

Everyone wants to be the cool director with his hands in front of his face, framing up what will surely be an Oscar-worthy shot. But in the process of trying to look like you know what you’re doing (PS. You don’t. Otherwise you wouldn’t be watching this video) it’s easy to forget about something that is just as important as your image...the audio. And that’s where the Zoom H4N comes in to save the day.

Shooting video on a DSLR camera is cheap and cool, but they all have problems with their audio, so recording your dialog externally is a must. I could throw a bunch of numbers at you like 48K, 44-1, 16-bit, but I won’t. Just suffice it to say that no one wants to listen to your crunchy audio regardless of how pretty your image is. The H4N is a one-stop shop for all your simple audio needs, and it’s a snap to get up and running.

Just plug your mic into the business end of the H4N, plug your headphones in, then try not to hit yourself in the head too hard when you realize you didn’t turn the mic on. When you get audio flowing, make sure your meters are landing at about three-quarters of the way up so the sound is audible, but not deafening. Then push record twice so the red ring around the button is solid.

Your last step is to slate the scene. If you want to keep looking really cool, pick up a professional looking slate from your local photo store and use that, but all you need to do is clap in front of your face so the camera sees it and the H4N hears it so you can sync the audio up in post. If you skip this step, you’ve basically shot yourself in the foot before you even made it to the editing station. You could still limp your way to a final product, but think how much easier it would have been if there wasn’t a bullet hole slowing you down.

There are a lot of ways for your video to suck, pick up a Zoom H4N to make sure your audio isn’t one of them.

About the Author -
Mark Robertson is the Founder and Publisher of ReelSEO, an online information resource dedicated to the fusion of video, technology, social media, search, and internet marketing. He is a YouTube Certified, video marketing consultant and video marketing expert, popular speaker, and considered to be a passionate leader within the online video and search marketing industries. View All Posts By -

What do you think? ▼
  • vikramadhiman

    Video Marketing and Video SEO Expert. Interesting. Would you be interesting in creating a course about this online at http://www.wiziq.com/courses/ - It would help more people join in and pick up stuff and benefit from your experience. I'd definitely love to attend this. However, being several miles and continents away, can also do so if it was online.
    p.s. I do work with WizIQ Courses – so this could look completely biased. Would also love to talk to you about how we can leverage video marketing for WizIQ courses as well.

    • http://www.reelseo.com/ reelseo

       @vikramadhiman Thanks.  I'd love to help but I'm just too overloaded right now so I'm putting the brakes on those things but thanks for asking.  Ill leave this in the thread for now in case another person wants to hit you up, like @Grant Crowell ;-)

  • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

    Good article, thanks for sharing. I recently made the mistake of not telling my own videographer to bring a slate (and left mine at home), and not even thinking of doing the "clap" – so trying to sync the audio on two videos is a real pain. My question: wouldn't you need an XLR-1/8″ cable, since DSLRs typically have an 1/8″ mic input?
     

    • CAL_Living

      Pearl eyes software is designed for this very needed solution. check it out …. Regarding your XLR-1/8″ cable question: the Zoom H4N works independent of the DSLR camera, so no need to plug directly into the camera, then use the above software for easy sink

      • dlundin

        @CAL_Living It's Pluraleyes.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @dlundin  @CAL_Living Thank you both! It seems to me that it makes more sense to just have a shotgun mic attached to your DSLR, and any separate digital recording device (like the Zoom H4N) can be something positioned close to the speakers, even with lav miss attached to them both? 
           
          For others, Pluraleyes can be found at http://www.singularsoftware.com/pluraleyes.html. 

        • CAL_Living

           @Grant Crowell  @dlundin Thank You dlundin for your help in correcting my reference to pluraleyes :)
           
          Grant, you should see the vast resources at http://nofilmschool.com/dslr/ .
           
          This is all about DSLR, you must consider that the DSLR is a photographic camera and it has the ability to capture approx. 10min of Video.
          At the end of 10min the camera becomes over heated. Canon and other manufactures have created Video Cameras that have the large sensor like the DSLR's and contain audio recording abilities.
          I will leave off with, There are many ways to setup your equipment to capture film, video, audio. the question is what is the quality you end up with?
           
          think on this:
          Remember that many people will stay and watch a subpar video, when the audio is clear.
          But very few will stay to watch a good video with bad audio…… 
           
          best of luck, as we are here to share and help others like yourself.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @CAL_Living  @dlundin Thanks for making this resource available and your excellent tip! I just downloaded it and will be reading it this weekend. I'm definitely planning to use it for short clips and no longer than 10 min, since I've too frustrated working with my Canon AVCHD camcorder (HFS 200) that take a long time to transcode lengthy video files. 
           
          Any recommendations on a DSLR for shooting HD video with decent audio capabilities (for external mics) ? I'm looking into the Nikon D7000 and am highly impressed with the quality, but always open to checking out other models.
           
          BTW, I very much like your FTC disclosure page at http://nofilmschool.com/disclosures/. Too many publications still fail to disclose any business relationships between themselves and bloggers, and I'm one of those folks who strongly believes that transparency is what consumers want with any informational content.

        • dlundin

          @Grant Crowell @CAL_Living @dlundin I use a Canon 5D and t2i. It's not that the cameras will overheat, although the t2i must be watched, it's that 12 minutes is the maximim recording time. You just need to restart it. Since I shoot with two cameras, I just reset one at a time so they never hit the 12 minutes and quit. I use the Rode video mics on both cameras but only to synch with my Zoom. By the way, newer cameras like the 5D 3 don't have a 12-minute limit, it's like half an hour.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @dlundin  @Grant  @CAL_Living That's quite the price difference between the Canon 5D and the Rebel T2i — like several thousand dollars! I've wondered when doing a two camera setup (and getting two angles),  if you use the better camera for the close-up shots or the wide angle shots?
           
          That being said, the T2i does have great reviews on B&H Video. Any recommendations on a lens to go with the body? (I've been recommended a zoom or wide-angle by my photographer, although the one on the B&H site for $369 seems like a decent standard lens to start with.)
           
          Thanks again, everyone, for your help!

        • dlundin

           @Grant Crowell You have to remember that the T2i has a crop factor and the 5D is full frame. So if you put on a 50 mm lens on a T2i, it's going to be more like an 80 mm lens, which really puts a crimp on shooting things in wide angle. A 24 mm lens is almost 40 mm. There are so many differences between the cameras but I'll tell you what. The T2i puts out very good video quality. I have no problem interchanging my footage. Another thing to consider is that the 5D has more ISO settings. The T2i goes 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. while the 5D goes 100, 160, 320, 400, 640, 800 etc. and has far less noise at the higher ISO settings. But if you want to get the T2i to have those settings, you can kind of "hack" your camera with Magic Lantern which will give it those ISOs (and a whole lot more). Lenses are not cheap so once you get in a system, you sort of lock yourself into a system. My indispensable lens is the 24-105 mm for either camera. Unfortunately, it's an F4. So I also like a faster lens, and I have a 35 1.4, 50 1.4 and an 85 1.8. For the money, you can't go wrong with the 50 1.4 but even better is the macro 50, which is 2.5. It let's you get much closer even though your losing a little light.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @dlundin Thank you once again for your extensive expertise in this field! So I'm looking at two Canon DSLR packages right now:
           
          1) First there's your recommendation on the T2i with the macro 50 ($549 + $279 on B&H photo)
           
          2) Second, is the Canon EOS 60D with the Canon EF-S 18-135mm lens (on B&H for $1,200 at http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/732048-REG/Canon_4460B004_EOS_60D_DSLR_Camera.html) 
           
          Here's my scenario. Most of my work will be of close-up interviews rather than shooting from far. However I foresee some situations where I will be shoot from a distance as b-roll footage (like of a speaker giving a presentation), and then the close-ups will be my interview with them (with either me in the shot or just them), and some of just me solo. 
           
          Granted, I'm just a novice-intermediate with photography, but I do plan on taking good photos to go along with the video footage. Possibly, to use them in freeze frames for the embedded video, and certainly in published articles. Some settings are likely to be in conference rooms, and mostly indoors. I don't know if any of these factors any affect on the equipment recommendation, but it sounds like what you've recommended can be pretty versatile.

        • CAL_Living

           @Grant Crowell  @dlundin As for Me, I wish you the best…. 
          A few other items I think you may benefit from, non-related to the camera of choice: since Grant stated, "I'm just a novice-intermediate…" things to think about are: Blocking your shot, learning that a XCU is in your face of emotions, and Wide Shots are more to establish to the viewers where the shot takes place. also consider using the "Ken  Burns" effect on the still images.
          another resource to check out: www.cambridgeincolour.com
          this will conclude my participation, hoped I was of some help to you, Best of luck in the future :)
          Cal 

        • dlundin

          @Grant Crowell I would go with your second setup. I bought my T2i secondhand from eBay because it was my second camera.

  • timschmoyer

    I used to use the H4N and still do for important projects, but most of the time I just record directly into the DLSR now using Magic Lantern's firmware to disable the AGC and to add a +32db boost. You do need a mic that provides a pretty hot audio lead, though, for this to work.

  • nathanskillen

     @timschmoyer
     The problem is you still need the ability to monitor the audio during recording with headphones to detect any problems (popping, scratches, hum, dropouts etc.)Worked on a short film that did this via a Beachtek and didn't find out until post that all the audio was pure hiss… 2 days of shooting down the drain

  • vikramadhiman

    Video Marketing and Video SEO Expert. Interesting. Would you be interesting in creating a course about this online at http://www.wiziq.com/courses/ - It would help more people join in and pick up stuff and benefit from your experience. I'd definitely love to attend this. However, being several miles and continents away, can also do so if it was online.
    p.s. I do work with WizIQ Courses – so this could look completely biased. Would also love to talk to you about how we can leverage video marketing for WizIQ courses as well.

    • http://www.reelseo.com/ reelseo

       @vikramadhiman Thanks.  I'd love to help but I'm just too overloaded right now so I'm putting the brakes on those things but thanks for asking.  Ill leave this in the thread for now in case another person wants to hit you up, like @Grant Crowell ;-)

  • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

    Good article, thanks for sharing. I recently made the mistake of not telling my own videographer to bring a slate (and left mine at home), and not even thinking of doing the "clap" – so trying to sync the audio on two videos is a real pain. My question: wouldn't you need an XLR-1/8″ cable, since DSLRs typically have an 1/8″ mic input?
     

    • CAL_Living

      Pearl eyes software is designed for this very needed solution. check it out …. Regarding your XLR-1/8″ cable question: the Zoom H4N works independent of the DSLR camera, so no need to plug directly into the camera, then use the above software for easy sink

      • dlundin

        @CAL_Living It's Pluraleyes.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @dlundin  @CAL_Living Thank you both! It seems to me that it makes more sense to just have a shotgun mic attached to your DSLR, and any separate digital recording device (like the Zoom H4N) can be something positioned close to the speakers, even with lav miss attached to them both? 
           
          For others, Pluraleyes can be found at http://www.singularsoftware.com/pluraleyes.html. 

        • CAL_Living

           @Grant Crowell  @dlundin Thank You dlundin for your help in correcting my reference to pluraleyes :)
           
          Grant, you should see the vast resources at http://nofilmschool.com/dslr/ .
           
          This is all about DSLR, you must consider that the DSLR is a photographic camera and it has the ability to capture approx. 10min of Video.
          At the end of 10min the camera becomes over heated. Canon and other manufactures have created Video Cameras that have the large sensor like the DSLR's and contain audio recording abilities.
          I will leave off with, There are many ways to setup your equipment to capture film, video, audio. the question is what is the quality you end up with?
           
          think on this:
          Remember that many people will stay and watch a subpar video, when the audio is clear.
          But very few will stay to watch a good video with bad audio…… 
           
          best of luck, as we are here to share and help others like yourself.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @CAL_Living  @dlundin Thanks for making this resource available and your excellent tip! I just downloaded it and will be reading it this weekend. I'm definitely planning to use it for short clips and no longer than 10 min, since I've too frustrated working with my Canon AVCHD camcorder (HFS 200) that take a long time to transcode lengthy video files. 
           
          Any recommendations on a DSLR for shooting HD video with decent audio capabilities (for external mics) ? I'm looking into the Nikon D7000 and am highly impressed with the quality, but always open to checking out other models.
           
          BTW, I very much like your FTC disclosure page at http://nofilmschool.com/disclosures/. Too many publications still fail to disclose any business relationships between themselves and bloggers, and I'm one of those folks who strongly believes that transparency is what consumers want with any informational content.

        • dlundin

          @Grant Crowell @CAL_Living @dlundin I use a Canon 5D and t2i. It's not that the cameras will overheat, although the t2i must be watched, it's that 12 minutes is the maximim recording time. You just need to restart it. Since I shoot with two cameras, I just reset one at a time so they never hit the 12 minutes and quit. I use the Rode video mics on both cameras but only to synch with my Zoom. By the way, newer cameras like the 5D 3 don't have a 12-minute limit, it's like half an hour.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @dlundin  @Grant  @CAL_Living That's quite the price difference between the Canon 5D and the Rebel T2i — like several thousand dollars! I've wondered when doing a two camera setup (and getting two angles),  if you use the better camera for the close-up shots or the wide angle shots?
           
          That being said, the T2i does have great reviews on B&H Video. Any recommendations on a lens to go with the body? (I've been recommended a zoom or wide-angle by my photographer, although the one on the B&H site for $369 seems like a decent standard lens to start with.)
           
          Thanks again, everyone, for your help!

        • dlundin

           @Grant Crowell You have to remember that the T2i has a crop factor and the 5D is full frame. So if you put on a 50 mm lens on a T2i, it's going to be more like an 80 mm lens, which really puts a crimp on shooting things in wide angle. A 24 mm lens is almost 40 mm. There are so many differences between the cameras but I'll tell you what. The T2i puts out very good video quality. I have no problem interchanging my footage. Another thing to consider is that the 5D has more ISO settings. The T2i goes 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. while the 5D goes 100, 160, 320, 400, 640, 800 etc. and has far less noise at the higher ISO settings. But if you want to get the T2i to have those settings, you can kind of "hack" your camera with Magic Lantern which will give it those ISOs (and a whole lot more). Lenses are not cheap so once you get in a system, you sort of lock yourself into a system. My indispensable lens is the 24-105 mm for either camera. Unfortunately, it's an F4. So I also like a faster lens, and I have a 35 1.4, 50 1.4 and an 85 1.8. For the money, you can't go wrong with the 50 1.4 but even better is the macro 50, which is 2.5. It let's you get much closer even though your losing a little light.

        • http://about.me/grantcrowell Grant Crowell

           @dlundin Thank you once again for your extensive expertise in this field! So I'm looking at two Canon DSLR packages right now:
           
          1) First there's your recommendation on the T2i with the macro 50 ($549 + $279 on B&H photo)
           
          2) Second, is the Canon EOS 60D with the Canon EF-S 18-135mm lens (on B&H for $1,200 at http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/732048-REG/Canon_4460B004_EOS_60D_DSLR_Camera.html) 
           
          Here's my scenario. Most of my work will be of close-up interviews rather than shooting from far. However I foresee some situations where I will be shoot from a distance as b-roll footage (like of a speaker giving a presentation), and then the close-ups will be my interview with them (with either me in the shot or just them), and some of just me solo. 
           
          Granted, I'm just a novice-intermediate with photography, but I do plan on taking good photos to go along with the video footage. Possibly, to use them in freeze frames for the embedded video, and certainly in published articles. Some settings are likely to be in conference rooms, and mostly indoors. I don't know if any of these factors any affect on the equipment recommendation, but it sounds like what you've recommended can be pretty versatile.

        • CAL_Living

           @Grant Crowell  @dlundin As for Me, I wish you the best…. 
          A few other items I think you may benefit from, non-related to the camera of choice: since Grant stated, "I'm just a novice-intermediate…" things to think about are: Blocking your shot, learning that a XCU is in your face of emotions, and Wide Shots are more to establish to the viewers where the shot takes place. also consider using the "Ken  Burns" effect on the still images.
          another resource to check out: www.cambridgeincolour.com
          this will conclude my participation, hoped I was of some help to you, Best of luck in the future :)
          Cal 

        • dlundin

          @Grant Crowell I would go with your second setup. I bought my T2i secondhand from eBay because it was my second camera.

  • timschmoyer

    I used to use the H4N and still do for important projects, but most of the time I just record directly into the DLSR now using Magic Lantern's firmware to disable the AGC and to add a +32db boost. You do need a mic that provides a pretty hot audio lead, though, for this to work.

    • nathanskillen

       @timschmoyer
       The problem is you still need the ability to monitor the audio during recording with headphones to detect any problems (popping, scratches, hum, dropouts etc.)Worked on a short film that did this via a Beachtek and didn't find out until post that all the audio was pure hiss… 2 days of shooting down the drain

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