Friday, August 05, 2016

Zoom F8: Overview and Features

It's been a long while since I posted anything about digital audio recorders. That's because I am still totally happy with three hand-held units: the Olympus LS-10 and LS-11, plus the Sony M10. All of these I have written about quite extensively on this blog. And these posts have garnered a lot of interest from you, the reader. For that reason I am kicking off another series, this time to document my experiences with the Zoom F8.

In the next few posts you can expect practical information, tips, user experience reports, and so on. I am not going to call this a "review", but it will help to supplement those reviews already extant (links at bottom). You can expect me to write about compatible SD cards, power options, and practical usage tips. Plus some recommendations to Zoom for their next firmware update.

Introduction and Requirements
My own recording and compositional practice has not often required the use of phantom-powered microphones, so my Fostex FR-2LE hasn't seen much use. Though it has excellent pre-amps, the fact it uses Compact Flash (CF) cards is a big hindrance to me, since everything else I own (including multiple cameras) instead utilise SD cards. I realise that much of the rest of the professional industry, including Sound Devices, standardised on CF cards. So I was ready to jump ship but hoped I wouldn't have to.

The Fostex also has a rather dated user interface. One big issue for my workflow is that you cannot mix file formats on a single disk. The disk must be reformatted simply to change from 48 kHz to 92kHz (for example). Besides this, I never sorted out a portable power implementation that would get around the requirement of carrying a large number of AA batteries. Now, I like the flexibility and general availability of this standard format. I have maybe 20 Eneloop AA cells, to use in flashlights, cameras, portable synths, and recorders. But they don't give much recording time when using phantom power.

I had several other requirements. Recording multichannel (that is, more than two channels, AKA stereo) is something I've been doing more and more of, if only to capture both airborne sound (with microphones), structure borne sound (with contact mics) and electromagnetic radiation (with induction coils). It would be great to manage all three with one recorder.

My recordings are often fairly unplanned and uncontrolled. It's not like a film set when the requirements are well known ahead of time. I might be recording very quiet ambiance one minute and a loud machine the next. Or even a band in rehearsal or live performance. The functional requirements of these scenrios are often quite different.

On top of it all, I have physical limitations and need the lightest kit possible. I know that no-one likes extra bulk, but for me it is not even an option. That's why I don't use blimps for my mics. Yes, a nice Rycote is invaluable for stopping wind noise, but it's far too much for me to manage. A small stand, T-bar, two mics, two XLR cables, recorder, and backup battery is already pushing my limits.

Finally, as a trained audio engineer, sound quality is of utmost importance to me. That should go without saying. But many users get by with poorly built recorders with high noise and distortion features. How else to explain the popularity of the Zoom H2 and H4 on independent film sets and for field recording? There are much better tools, but sometimes people settle for what is popular.

Zoom F8 Features
When the Zoom F8 was announced I took notice but more or less dismissed it based on the brand. Previous Zoom units had been poorly made, prone to breakage, and mediocre in sound quality. But they were inexpensive. The H4 was improved by the H4n, which provided four channels of recording for only 300 clams. The H5 and H6 introduced a unique interchangeable mic system, and allowed 6 channels of simultaneous recording. Sound quality was also improved, though there were still better-sounding units on the market.

The Zoom F8 is the company's first foray into a larger recorder, designed for use in a bag as opposed to in the hand. It has numerous features that position it in the professional market. Most important of these is the inclusion of accurate time code, so the recorder can be locked to other devices on a set. That's the last I am going to speak of this feature, since I have no current use for it. But knowing it is available makes the Zoom F8 more flexible and future-proof.

The F8 is an eight input, 10 channel recorder. It can capture 8 individual isolation tracks (ISO) plus a stereo master (LR) in one pass. It has both a slate mic and slate tone from a front-panel switch. Files are recorded into dedicated folders with individual takes logically numbered. It's easy to set track markers during recording. For convenience the unit has a pre-record function. The time varies with recording rate, from a maximum of 6 seconds to only one second if using 192 kHz and 24 bits. An excellent addition is dual track recording, which duplicates channel inputs 1 to 4 on channels 5 to 8, with different settings (record level, limiter, etc.) at your control. This makes it easy to have a safe backup track that can be configured to make "overs" impossible.

The 8 inputs are split between the two sides of the recorder. These are XLR/TRS combination sockets. If an XLR is plugged in, the F8 automatically records at mic level; if a jack is plugged in, the recording is at line (+4 dB) level. Inputs can be processed for mid-side (M/S) configurations. The input trims can be ganged, so that adjusting the first channel in a set automatically adjusts the other channels as well. Phantom power can be set for individual channels at 24V or 48V. Every channel has phase inversion, an adjustable input delay, a highly configurable digital limiter, and a high pass filter (HPF).

There are three sets of stereo outputs. The main output is on TA3 jacks and the package includes a pair of TA-3 to XLR adapters. Level can be set to mic (-40dBV) or consumer (-10dBV), but not professional (+4dBV). The sub output is on 3.5mm TRS. The headphone output is on a large (quarter inch) jack. All three can be configured separately to any mix combination of channels (using pre or post fader levels). The outputs can also be turned off, to save power when recording. There is an output limiter and also a configurable output delay. In addition, headphones can monitor in mono. Alert signals (for recording start, stop, etc.) can be sent to the headphone at adjustable levels.

Power can be provided in one of three ways. There is a standard coaxial plug that takes 12 V DC from the supplied wall adapter. A removable battery sled takes 8 AA batteries. A 4-pin Hirose jack is rated at 9-16V, and so will work with many existing or custom power solutions. Optimal and cut-off voltages can be set on the unit, which also displays the actual incoming voltage.

The display is a very bright and has a special outdoor high-contrast mode that might only be needed in the arctic. The brightness can be adjusted (as can LED brightness!). There are several different page displays. Two are fixed as input and output mix settings. The remaining four are configurable meters, so you can have different views depending on how you are tracking. These meters are very readable.

All controls are provided on the front panel, so the unit can be operated from a bag easily. The F8 is only 178 x 140 x 54 mm in size. Everyone remarks that it is much smaller than it looks in photos. I had the same unboxing experience! Unfortunately this means that the controls are all rather too small. Don't expect to use this panel with gloves. The total mass is 960g and the batteries add 240g. Build seems excellent, with very solid manufacturing and a metal top plate.

Two SD card slots are provided, so that a redundant recording can be made. Capacities of up to 512 GB are supported, but one should be careful to obtain a card on the recommended list. (I will discuss this further in a later article.) The unit will test cards for compatibility. You can record WAV/BWF or MP3 files at various sample rates up to 24-bit 192 kHz. At this high rate one can record only 8 (not 10) channels, but this is still more than I would have expected. Important pull-up/pull-down rates for video sync are provided. You can also edit metadata, though this is necessarily cumbersome given the lack of a keyboard.

On top of this, the F8 acts as an audio interface for your computer or iPad. Two different ASIO drivers are available, one for simple stereo and the other for four channel recording. The documentation is non-existent on this functionality, so I briefly tested that it works. One trick is that you still need to arm the channels for recording on the front panel. Testing playback with a complex Reaktor ensemble on a Lenovo X220, I noted that the playback with Zoom drivers was no more stable than with ASIO4ALL. I heard some crackles at 20ms latency. So while this feature does work, you might not want to bank your career on the quality of the drivers.

As if all this functionality wasn't enough, a full mixing app is available on iOS, which communicates over Bluetooth to the F8. There is as of yet no Android functionality, despite many requests. I will not be using this feature, since I need a recorder not a mixer, but it does open up the F8 for other applications.

The dynamic range is rated at 120dB and the pre-amp noise EIN at -127dBu. This I need to test further. The signal structure is specified to provide 75dB gain on a microphone input.

The market already provides recorders with all (or most) of the above features, units that are time-tested and battle-worn. The difference is the price. I made my purchase at Pink Noise in the UK. Here the Sound Devices 788T is €8,625 and the F8 €933. That's a 9:1 price ratio! The Zoom F8 is an incredible amount of technology for the money.

Let's see how it works out!

The F8 ships with firmware 2.0 and includes a paper manual supplement for the new features. My experience is based on the most recent firmware 2.1. Beware that older reviews might note shortcomings that have subsequently been fixed.

The manufacturer's page also has links to the manual and firmware updates.

Hugh Robjohns reviewed the F8 for Sound on Sound and was "deeply impressed".

José Frías provides a detailed review at Mixelius.

Tonedeaf has an exhaustive thread, including a shot of practically every menu screen, over on Tapers Section.


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