DSLRs have a number of advantages for video projects, but audio capability is not one of them. It is reasonably easy to feed audio from an external microphone into a DSLR, but it’s hard to control how the camera handles it, and it’s even harder to listen to what’s actually being recorded. Add to this lack of user-friendliness the fact that DSLR audio processing circuits are not likely to win any audio fidelity awards, and it’s not hard to understand why many DSLR shooters prefer to use external audio recorders whenever possible. In fact, I wrote about my own approach to “dual system sound” a few months ago.
This is all a long-winded way of introducing the fact that the Zoom H4N digital audio recorder – which has been ubiquitous in the microbudget video world for years – now has some real competition, and that it’s something that should be of real interest to DSLR shooters. The competition in question is the Tascam DR-100MKII. It’s almost exactly the same price as the H4N, and I’ve been curious to see how the two units compare.
I recently got my hands on a DR-100MKII, and here’s what I found.
As you can see in the photo above, the Tascam, with its black aluminum enclosure, looks a little more rugged and high-end than the H4N, which combines metal with plastic. Whether or not this advantage is more than skin-deep is a matter of opinion: I prefer metal over plastic for durability, but the H4N’s “rubberized chassis” does make it less prone to slipping out of my hand, and it doesn’t amplify handling noise the way the thin metal shell of the DR-100MKII does.
The DR-100MKII weighs a tiny bit more than the H4N (10.2 vs. 9.9 ounces), but both devices have a nice, solid heft to them.
One of the hallmark features of the H4N is that every hole has a double function. For example, the strange-looking orifices on the bottom of the device will accept either an XLR or 1/4″ plug. The DR-100MKII has ordinary XLR inputs, which means that if you’re faced with a 1/4″ sound source (for example, if you’re recording a musical performance, and the live sound guys offer you a 1/4″ feed off their board), you’ll need a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter in order to plug it into the DR-100MKII.
On the other hand, the DR-100MKII is not shy about providing buttons and knobs. I was immediately impressed by the side-mounted dials that allow for individual control of two different audio inputs. Zoom came out with a firmware upgrade a few months ago that allowed for individual control of its audio inputs as well, but they’re still controlled by the tiny buttons on the side of the device. In addition, the DR-100MKII offers a three-position mic gain control (on the back of the device) that acts as the coarse input level control. On the H4N, there is no such control, although the internal levels do have a very broad range. Neither device is designed for on-the-fly mixing the way a full-featured field mixer is, but – even though it takes both hands and a couple of fingernails to twist the dials – the Tascam at least lets you see what your levels are set to at a glance.
An interesting design aspect of the DR-100MKII is that it has redundant power supplies. While recording a clip, I opened the back of the device and removed the AA batteries. It kept recording, because there was some charge on the internal battery. On the H4N, removing batteries while recording a clip (or, more likely, batteries dying while recording) would have resulted in a complete loss of the entire clip in progress. While not fool-proof (obviously, both sets of batteries could fail), the Tascam’s dual power sources provide a welcome layer of protection against accidental data loss in the field.
It is worth pointing out that, unlike the DR-100MkII, which exclusively records two channels of audio, the “4” in “H4N” refers to the device’s ability to record four channels of audio. This feature, along with the built-in tuner, metronome and track editor all have one thing in common: I’ve never used them in the two years I’ve owned the thing. Between the complex menus, the “gotchas” (it’ll only record two tracks at a time: the other two tracks have to be overdubbed), and the fact that I just don’t think to reach for the H4N when I want to tune a guitar, these functions are not of significant benefit to me.
A key feature of the H4N is the “X/Y” orientation of the microphones. In theory, this allows you to capture a stereo sound picture of whatever you’re recording. The DR-100MKII, on the other hand, seems to have been designed around the logical assumption that most people want to point a microphone directly at the sound source. Since the two mics less than two inches apart, I would suggest forgetting about trying to record any kind of meaningful stereo effects, and just set one mic’s input level lower than the other and consider it a backup in case an unexpectedly loud sound distorts on the primary channel.
How well do these built-in mics work? They work fine. Not great, not terrible, just okay. They’re built-in mics, after all. Here are the sound files from a simple test I recorded.
The Zoom sounds slightly better to me, but under different circumstances, I’m sure the test could easily go the other way. To be perfectly honest, I’m not going to spend a lot of time testing internal mics because, while some video shooters use the built-in microphones on audio recorders because they’re better than the internal microphones in their camera, anything that requires high-quality audio (e.g. dialogue or interviews) should be captured with an external shotgun or lavalier mic. So, to me, the primary tests of a sound recorder are how well it interfaces with my microphones, and how easy it is to use.
External Mic & Audio Processing
Both the Tascam and the Zoom record WAV files at 24-bit/96kHz, which is greater than the broadcast standard of 16-bit/48kHz, so there’s no clear advantage to either unit on the bit-crunching side. However, those files are only as good as the audio that it contains, so the audio processing circuits within the device are of greater concern to me.
First, I plugged my Audio-Technica AT897 into each recorder and did a quick test to confirm that the devices would record (and provide phantom power to my mic). I then spliced the audio back-to-back, and checked it out. Here’s the audio.Both devices sound identical to me. You can hear my voice, and the sounds of rain and traffic outside my window. I took the file into Sonic Visualizer and looked at a spectrogram view. Again, virtually identical.
Then, I unplugged the microphone and cycled the gain of both devices all the way up and down. For the Zoom H4N, the range is from .1 to 100. On the Tascam DR-100MkII, the dials simply go from 0 to 10. This is a crude but effective way to test the “self-noise” of each device – the amount if digital noise added to a signal even when – as in this case – there is no signal.
. In this comparison, the Zoom H4N is on the bottom. As you can see, both devices are very quiet (pink means noise in this diagram). At maximum gain, the H4N appears to have a bit more noise than the DR-100MKII, but without knowing exactly how much amplification each unit provides, this may not be a fair comparison. In broad strokes though, both devices obviously do a pretty good job.
Both the Zoom H4Nand the Tascam DR-100MKII offer high-quality digital recording capability at a reasonable price. If you’re a musician, the H4N’s compact size, rubberized, easy-to-grip case, 1/4″ jacks, and extra, menu-accessible functions might be just what you need. For video production, however, the Tascam DR-100MkII offers plenty of industry-standard inputs, highly visible gain dials, and a potentially shoot-saving redundant power supply. While it lacks some of the bells and whistles of the H4N, it seems to have all the features I need, and – more importantly – to put control of those features at my fingertips.