Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Zoom h4n & Sound Devices 442

Zoom h4n & Sound Devices 442:

a match not made in heaven, but on earth...

As much as I'd like to buy a great 4-track field recorder with time code, I can't afford one.
I can't even afford a 2-track with timecode.
The flexibility in naming the tracks and take numbers and having a mathematical link to the camera as well as an auditory one are but two of the features a great recorder would offer.

However, as money would have it, at this current time, I have a h4n.
In fact it is a battered h4n, in which I have replaced the headphone jack and broken the on/off switch, being reduced to turning it on and off with the leg of an LED or other such component.

For the record I don't use it onset as it would be too difficult to use in a hurry, but I'm often just offered another in its place. Which I'm kinda okay about, also kinda not.

When looking at the compatibility of the h4n and the SD442 online I didn't come up with much except forums that quickly went off topic and had people debating the number of recordable inputs on the h4n - for the record there's 4. (It says so in the manual H4n Manual)

The current film landscape has the usual onset setup as 1 boom and the actors lav mic'd, let's say 3 actors = 4 inputs.

The h4n can record all this alone, but it's interface is terrible for adjusting volume and for monitoring, it also has no routing options or output options. Not dissing the h4n, it just doesn't and I need them.

Enter the SD442, 4 inputs, 4 pre-fader direct outs, 2 master XLR outs, 2 master TA3 outs, headphone out, mono mic out, a couple returns and last but not least - mic powering (48V and 15V). That's not all but that's the basics.


It also has monitoring options, a great VU/PPM meter and nice preamps - something the h4n does not have.

If you're going to record onset sound you need monitoring options (for troubleshooting), you need output/routing options (recorders and camera) and it's great to be able to record multiple tracks, so that if you have problems with one lav it doesn't spoil the whole lav track (on a 2-track recording).

N.B. H4n's are so common, it's likely that multiple members of your crew may have them, including cameramen and maybe the actors themselves. Use 2 if possible and you can set one up as a 2-track backup recorder.

Here's how I hook up my 442 to a h4n for 4-track recording:

442 direct outs 1 & 2 run into the EXT Mic input on the h4n and 3 & 4 run into inputs 1 & 2 on the h4n. Done.

I made a cable that splits the stereo 3.5mm jack needed for the EXT Mic input to two TA3 connectors and then made two TA3 to XLR cables for the input 1 & 2.
If you run the direct outs as I stated they will appear on the h4n as they appear on the mixer - left to right. 
It's that simple and here's why it doesn't completely suck.

As per the h4n manual the EXT Mic input and inputs 1 & 2 are closely matched in performance.
EXT Mic - Impedance 2k Ohms with level -7 to -46dBm
Inputs 1 & 2 (XLR) - 1k Ohms with level -10 to -42dBm

The 442's pre-fader direct outs come after gain, HPF and the input limiters. This means that setting up your recorder with your mixer and creating a good gain structure is critical - even more challenging if running to 2-track back up from the master outs.

The default setting on the 442 direct outs is line level. Which you do not want.
The h4n will flash all sorts of red and the signal will distort even when the gain on anything is low. You need to change this setting in the 442 Setup menu, which is all in the Setup Chart (SD442 Setup Chart).
You can either run at line level or mic and you'll want to change it to mic. You'll also want to change the default Tone/Slate option so that you can send the 1kHz sine wav tone to the direct outs as well as the master outs.
This is how you calibrate your mixer and recorder, just like in any mixer recorder calibration (see H4n Setup with SD302).

To run the 2-track back up recorder you just run the 2 master balanced outs of the 442 to the inputs 1 & 2 on another h4n and pan accordingly on the 442. Then you can use any of the monitoring options to deal with the way you hear your audio.

Why not just run 2 h4ns and only use the 1 and 2 inputs? I hear you ask. You can. Do it.

The benefit in recording 4-track on one h4n is to cut down on possible syncing issues in post.
2 recorders means syncing the 2 recorders and syncing to picture in post. I've done it. It works 80% of the time (this is not mathematically accurate).
One of the problems with running two recorders without timecode is that over time (long takes) they will slightly shift and present syncing problems.
Not only that but the assistant editor or editor may lay the 2 stereo tracks into a timeline in a different order. This is due to the h4n filing system which dumps the 4 tracks into two stereo files (another draw back).

So one shot on the timeline may have the track list:
1 - Mic L (Boom)
2 - Mic R (Main Lav)
3 - Input 1 (Support Lav)
4 - Input 2 (Bit Lav)

And for another shot it could be:
1 - Input 1(Support Lav)
2 - Input 2 (Bit Lav)
3 - Mic L (Boom)
4 - Mic R (Main Lav)

You know what would solve these problems real easy?
A good 4-track field recorder with timecode.

But until then, you gotta work with what you've got.

Interesting Reads:
H4n full analysis
SD442 with H4n

UPDATE: After using this setup on a few shoots there are notable drawbacks to the audio quality on occasion from the EXT mic inputs on the h4n.
On some takes a hum may appear on the track, this is most likely due to the unbalanced nature of the input. It is easily removed via a good noise reduction tool, but it's a bad thing to have from the get go and noise reduction isn't a good practice to rely on.
I know what'd be a better fix... 

UPDATE 2: The sound that was appearing on the EXT mic input was the result of stereo encoding technology in the device and was fixed with firmware update 1.90. 

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