Monday, September 12, 2016

Proposals for a Zoom F8 Pro

After a series of digital recorders that were targetted at the lower end of the market, Zoom surprised us last year with the excellent F8 recorder. Now they have announced the Zoom F4, an even more cost effective choice, at least for those who only need four microphone inputs. Check out my previous article for the differences between the two models.

But there are quite a lot of users wanting a more capable recorder, something that would sit above the F8 as a flagship model. In an earlier article I listed various firmware improvements for the F8. But further enhancements will require redesigned hardware. Hence this article, which will put forward proposals for a hypothetical Zoom F8 Pro.

Some of these features are already available in professional units from other manufacturers. Including these abilities will allow Zoom to play with the big boys. Certain features I suggest go even beyond that, and might well make the F8 Pro unique; these I have flagged with the word "innovation".

Everyone likes a small recorder that is easy to pack and doesn't break one's back. But usability is just as important. The F8 is hampered by a front panel that is too small for the number of controls, leaving operation rather fiddly. The F4 has made several improvements in this regard, since it only needs to provide access to four channels in the same panel area.

An increase of even 20% in the are of the front panel would help greatly. This can be accomplished without increasing the overall volume of the unit, by reducing the depth and stretching it out. In fact, this would result in a form factor more similar to brands such as Sound Devices.

I am not sure how this would work with the two bags that Zoom have released, but there are plenty of other solutions on the market.

The front panel on the F8 Pro should have the Output and Option buttons introduced on the F4. These reduce the need for menu diving and eliminate the use of the Stop button for shortcuts. (I have already complained about that implementation.)

I propose a Custom button that would lead to a user menu. In a configuration setting, we would select from the available menu options, putting our most-used features closer to hand. Certain camera manufacturers provide this functionality, but I have not seen it on a recorder. Innovation!

A long press of Function could access predefined templates, so that complete settings -- including input, output, and headphone routing matrices -- could be loaded by name. These templates could then be shared between units using the SD cards. Innovation!

The F8 assumes that an XLR input is at microphone level and a TSR input is line level. This is terribly annoying. We need a way of specifying for each input the sensitivity level and impedance. I would be happy enough for these controls to be in software, just as phantom power is currently. Though for some applications a hardware switch is certainly better. Small toggle switches do not take up much space.

The input sensitivity should ideally have three values to accommodate dynamic microphones, condenser microphones, and line level. An impedance setting should allow switching in a high Z circuit for instruments. And maybe even a super-high (mega Ohm) setting for piezo microphones. Innovation!

This would be especially welcome when using the F8 Pro to record a band, or acoustic instruments that use a pickup. Instruments could be plugged directly into the recorder, without the need for a DI box. This would also help field recordists like myself.

A dedicated Lock switch would ensure that levels and controls are locked down and cannot be changed. Better yet, if this had two positions, they could be customised to lock the controls one wished. For example, you might wish for all transport controls to be locked while still allowing trim to be changed. Innovation!

I have had amazing success using LiPo batteries from Tracer, as you can read in a previous article. Zoom should partner with such a company to produce a battery sized for the AA battery compartment (as an extra-cost option). My tests indicate this could last around 10 hours. For most use cases, this would completely eliminate the need for external power. Innovation!

Notably lacking on the F8 are digital IO connectors. These would allow the F8 Pro to be used alongside external pre-amps, mixers, and other professional gear with digital connectivity.

Though I have found the implementation of the F8 digital limiter to be excellent, it's not as useful as a limiter that comes before the A/D converter. This is a common complaint of people used to Sound Devices recorders.

Oh yeah, same for the filter.

To free up a bit more front panel room, the headphone level control could be placed next to the headphone jack on the front edge of the right-hand side. I find that positioning more natural.

The F8 is only rated to handle 16V input on the Hirose connector, even though many common batteries come off the charger with greater potential. The F8 Pro should be rated to 18V, just to be safe.

Add a dedicated internal battery, so that the clock maintains timing even when the unit is off.

Could the stop button be illuminated, please?

There is always room for improvement in any recorder. As good as the F8 and F4 are, an F8 Pro would attract many audio professionals who otherwise won't shift from Sound Devices, Zaxcom, and other brands. I do hope that Zoom sees the need for such a device. Most of the work is already done. The F8 Pro would build on the F8 in the same way that the F4 has filled in the gap for those who want a cheaper unit.


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