New Tricks for the Zoom H2

By David Battino
July 24, 2009 | Comments: 5

Zoom packs a staggering number of features into its audio gear. The H2 handheld digital recorder (see our review) has four microphones, a metronome, a guitar tuner, the ability to capture two seconds of sound before you hit the Record button . . . and it works as a USB audio interface for your computer.

Zoom H2 as USB mic
The Zoom H2 works as a USB mic too.

Zoom H2 mic patterns
Zoom H2 mic patterns. I spoke into the 90° side and turned off the rear mics.

This last feature saved the day for me recently. I was traveling and needed to record some audio examples for another piece of gear I was reviewing, the Electro-Harmonix Voice Box. The analog line input on my cheap HP laptop is horrifically noisy, so I used the H2 as an audio interface instead. That delivered a much cleaner sound, though I discovered I had to power the H2 with batteries during recording. Running it off my laptop's USB power produced a buzz.

Back home, I needed to record a voiceover for a radio demo. I hauled the laptop, a Rode Podcaster USB mic, a mic stand, cables, headphones, and a pop filter into the closet. It was a hot day, though, which triggered the laptop's fan. Rather than scrounge for a long enough USB cable to move the laptop out of the closet, I decided to try recording directly into the H2 instead.

The last time I'd done that, the narrator produced a bunch of P-pops. (It's hard to talk across the microphone when there are four mics.) So this time, I clamped a pop filter (Amazon link) to the closet's clothes bar, pushed some hanging pants apart to make a little vocal booth, and recorded into the H2's front mics through the filter. The H2 lets you monitor on headphones while you're recording, so it's easy to hear the effect of positioning. Because I was going for the "authoritative announcer voice," I tried to stay within four inches of the mics, which bumps up the bass.

Another cool feature I discovered was that clicking the H2's Play button while recording inserts a marker in the file. I did that between each take rather than starting and stopping the recorder, which could have disrupted my concentration. When I subsequently loaded the WAV file into BIAS Peak to extract the good parts, I was delighted to see that the markers showed up as vertical lines over the waveform. Command-clicking inside those regions instantly selected entire takes.

After extracting the best take, I loaded it into Ableton Live, the multitrack arrangement program I used to assemble my Digital Media Insider podcast (RIP). I then added the voice file and example music I'd received from the show's host, Frank Sowin of Frank Financial Advisory. Frank produces a monthly newsletter for his clients and is looking to branch out into radio.

The music is a clip from an instrumental recording of Jefferson Starship's "Find Your Way Back," performed by Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico. Obviously, we'd have to license it to use it in a commercial production, but here I used it just to demonstrate how music can move voices along. By dragging the file left and right on Ableton Live's timeline, I lined up the beats with specific words in the voiceovers to highlight their meaning. I also used volume envelopes to "duck" the music and keep it from overpowering the voices.

Here's a clip of the intro, before the Q&A part of the demo starts. I enhanced my voice slightly with iZotope Ozone 4, making it a tad louder and brighter, but I was happy with the basic sound of the H2. If I were to remix this, I'd probably collapse the voice to mono for a more intimate effect; I was so close to the stereo mics that there's a bit of blurriness. Cleaning up Frank's voice was more of a challenge, because he had only a headset mic (and a noisy computer input as well). I nuked some of the background noise with BIAS SoundSoap and then applied more drastic EQ and compression with Ozone, but you can definitely hear the difference mics make.

MoneyTalk Demo Intro (924KB MP3)

What unexpectedly useful features have you discovered in your gear?

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You mention that you "had to power the H2 with batteries during recording. Running it off my laptop's USB power produced a buzz."

I've got an H2 but didn't know that was an option -- changing what powers the unit when it's plugged in via USB. Or did I misread?

You can power the H2 via USB with the side-mounted power switch on either On or Off. When the power switch is Off, I get a buzz. When it is On (presumably using battery power), the buzz disappears. I didn't see any menus where you can control this behavior.

I have a Zoom H4n it is really good also. It's like a swiss army knife for audio. It works really well as a standalone 4-track or as a USB audio interface for my MacBook Air. It's so flexible that it easily pays for itself and is worthwhile even in a really small portable setup. They call them "Handy Recorders" and the Handy is a key part.

I don't understand how you defend using an HP business laptop for audio, though. The time you wasted just on this one job pays for the Mac upgrade. Even worse, outside of MacBook Air, all Macs have 24-bit analog/optical in and out built-in, as well as FireWire for a multichannel digital connection that doesn't hit your CPU for anything.

It's like if you're a photographer, you can get ColorSync for free in a Mac, or you can get a PC for a couple of hundred less that has no color management. The PC will ruin the color of all of the photos you process with it. Nice savings.

Thanks for writing. I've heard good things about the H4n; we'll try to get a review up soon.

I bought the HP laptop primarily for writing, emailing, and PowerPoint-presenting on the road, not audio. (I use my Mac tower for most audio projects.) So my criteria were low price, light weight, Intel CPU, and reasonable looks. I also have an HP calculator with exceptional quality, so I had good feelings about the brand. With an external audio interface, the audio input sounds fine, and the H2 is small enough to bring anywhere.

This laptop is a few years old, and cost $300-400 less than the cheapest Mac laptop at the time. Today, I'd buy a netbook and save even more. I try to buy cross-platform software like Live, Reason, Dreamweaver, and Fireworks so I can bounce between computers. Dropbox and Gmail are great for that, too. I use both platforms (plus the iPhone) almost every day.

Point taken, though: Often cheaping out costs you more in time and frustration. In this case, it's working pretty well.

> I've got an H2 but didn't know that was an option
> -- changing what powers the unit when it's plugged
> in via USB. Or did I misread?

If the H2 is like my H4n, there is a menu within the Zoom where you can choose how it responds when plugged in via USB. On my H4n, USB power was turned off by default and I had to enable it.

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