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Old December 12th, 2010, 12:59 PM   #1
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Nice all-around mics for Zoom H4n?

So this is a bit of a rehash of a thread from a year or so ago, but as we have lots of new correspondents online I wanted to throw this question out there again; apologies to those who have responded previously.

We do a lot of stage shows (musicals, band, orchestra, choir) at the school where I run the Video Production Unit; we're quite happy with our Video quality but now it's time to kick our Audio quality up a notch. It's a very nice, newish theater which was designed by some big famous sound designer, so the acoustics are quite good.

Right now -- and don't laugh, this is the best they'll let us do -- we record sound from a Zoom H4n on a mic stand placed front row center, with the onboard mics just peeking over the lip of the stage. They've actually complimented us on the sound quality and it does sound pretty good for what it is, but I know it can be better. To me it's obvious we could benefit from some decent mics plugged into the XLRs of the Zoom, but I could be wrong about this assumption. Perhaps the internals of the Zoom just aren't good enough to show any benefit from better external mics.

But if my assumption is correct, what specific mics do people recommend for this? I always assumed some sort of hyper would be good to help reduce sound from the sides and rear, but most have just recommended cardioid condensers. If so, which ones? From other threads it seems that a pair of Rode NT5s or AT4021s might be good all around, reasonably priced choices. Are there others that the experts would recommend? Or is this another one of those audio things where it really doesn't matter that much?

I know it would be best if we could mic the performers, hang some mics from the rafters or just put stands on the stage; from studying the advice of the experts in the Audio forum I know that more expensive equipment is never a substitute for better mic placement, but this really just isn't going to happen, so we're sort of stuck with the general configuration we have. A Decca Tree just isn't in our future. I can't really afford a briefcase full of a dozen specialized mics and capsules, but if we can make significant improvements I'll gladly spring for a couple of new mics. I've already got a Rode NTG-2 that I use on a boom for more conventional shoots and I like it quite a bit, but as a shotgun that's not the right mic for this situation, is it? I'll just buy another if it is.

Thanks for any advice. And yes, I realize that if someone asked a similar question in the camcorder realm I'd be all over them for wanting a cheap solution to a complicated problem ;-)
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Old December 13th, 2010, 12:35 PM   #2
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I'm no audio expect by any means, but after doing some reading on this forum and watching some reviews on Vimeo - the Audio Technica AT4053b looks like a great mic for indoor use, as does the Rode NT3.
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Old December 13th, 2010, 03:46 PM   #3
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For stage productions you have to take into consideration the front left and front right of the stage too. Many times people are in those areas speaking/singing and need to be picked up. That means a 4 track recorder. If that's out of the question, then consider putting mics into the camera as well as into the stereo recorder for a total of 4 tracks.

That being said, I think a good all around setup would be a Tascam DR-680 (8 track recorder with 6 mic inputs for 800.00). It's cheaper than the Edirol R44, which is only a 4 track. I have had good recults with the Rode NT4 stereo mic in the center, pointing slightly up, and a pair of Rode NT3 mics on the front left and front right of the stage. Another possibility is to get 4 NT5 mics, or 2 sets of matched pairs. They are cardioid capsules, which are a bit less focused than a hyper. A hyper would be more useful if you were out in the audience and trying to avoid side crowd noise. When the mics are at the stage, you want to pick up a wider field. And if you kicked it up a notch to the Rode NT55, which is an NT5 with low cut filters and additional Omni Caps, you would have even more options. But the NT55 matched pair is more expensive.

Anyway, I would say that a Tascam DR680 and 4 Rode NT5, or NT55 mics would do the trick cleanly and elegantly.

Short of that you can take your chances with the Zoom H1N for the center stereo, then go into the camera with the front L/R mics. A matched pair of NT5s is 429.00 at B&H. An NT4 stereo mic is 529.00 and has less positioning options, though it's really cool to just have one mic to point and have a perfect X/Y configuration.

Yes this post is all about Rode mics, but I think you get the most bang for your buck with these mics for this purpose. Also the Choir teacher can kick in for them too and share them for use with the Choir. Same for the DR680!

So for about 1,700.00 you have a sweet recorder to get up to 8 tracks simultaneous recording, and 2 sets of matched pair NT5s.
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Old December 13th, 2010, 06:18 PM   #4
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Thanks for the advice, guys. The Rodes have been on my radar for a while as I am a happy VideoMic and NTG-2 owner, and Rodes always appear to give great bang for the buck.

But I was leaning more towards the NT3s than the NT5s because they look more versatile and rugged and are pretty close in price, and the response curve looks a bit flatter (audibly?). Do you guys have any thoughts on this issue? Is the NT3 a worthwhile step up from the NT5?

About placement, we could go 4-channel on the H4n, with the onboard mics for center stereo and the external Rodes, say, for wide right and left, or even directly into the front cams. We have been using the onboard shotguns on the front Z5Us for sound reinforcement and they're surprisingly good given how far away from the action they are. I'd imagine using real mics on stands closer to the stage would be even better, even if the internals of the preamps and such in the cams aren't that great.

Thanks for the advice -- keep it comin'!
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Old December 13th, 2010, 07:09 PM   #5
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The NT3 is a larger mic and larger capsule: 3/4" vs the NT5's 1/2" I have only just got my pair of NT55s today, so I haven't had a chance to test them against my NT3s, but I suspect you'll have a fuller sound with the NT3s due to the larger capsule. Also the NT3 can be battery operated, and it has a switch to turn it off (unlike the NTG-2 that drains the battery of you leave it in). The NT3 is 3 times as heavy too, but on a mic stand that doesn't matter.
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Old December 13th, 2010, 07:36 PM   #6
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Those were my thoughts exactly. Looks like a good candidate, but with sale prices at B&H right now, they all look like incredible bargains. A pair of NT5s for $400, pair of NT55s for $750, pair of NT3s for $500 -- good times.

That Tascam looks very nice as well -- could be a very worthwhile future upgrade.

Thanks for the feedback (no pun intended). If we do this in stages, will the better mics be noticeable if we're still using the Zoom?
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Old December 14th, 2010, 02:33 AM   #7
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I think it's one of those "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" things. Better mics into the Zoom might or might not sound better - depends how good the audio chain in the Zoom is - it might be a case of the Zoom becoming the weakest link and preventing you from getting much improvement.

Anyhow I think the worst thing that will happen is that you won't see much improvement with the Rodes into the Zoom so then you could accelerate an upgrade of the recorder and in the end I think you'd be a happy camper.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 12:09 PM   #8
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Oh I've owned a Zoom H4, and the Rode mics are a great improvement over the built in mics. Still the H4N IS the weak link. With it's menuu driven adjustments, and so so pres, you may get some distorted decordings if you're not careful. I suggest recording some practices to get an idea on the levels. And remember that audience applause is the loudest thing that will happen, and that's not happening at practice. Record at 24bit and err on the side of too low as far as recording levels goes. You can always turn it up in post - especially at 24 bit.

Using the recorder in 4 track mode forces it to record at 16 bit I believe.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 12:25 PM   #9
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Speaking from experience, external mics (other than XY stereo mics) will provide a step up in quality while still using the Zoom.

- What is your budget?
- What is your primary genre and instrumentation?
- What is your primary goal with the recordings?
- Who are the primary users of the equipment? (student techs? you?)

If the forum allowed uploading of mp3s, I would post an organ & violin sample I did with a Zoom H4 and a Crown SASS. Instead, I guess I have to link to another forum...

http://www.gearslutz.com/board/attac...via_fpc_02.mp3

Do not purchase the Rode NT4. It will not improve your imaging.

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Old December 14th, 2010, 03:19 PM   #10
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This is all fantastic information and much appreciated. I've always assumed the Zoom is the weakest link in the overall chain, and within the Zoom subchain, I'd assumed it was the mics. So upgrading to nice external mics now gives us a step up, paving the way for a further upgrade to a better recorder in the future.

Budgetwise, I'm comfortable with the cost of a pair of NT3s or thereabouts, for now. As I mentioned in my first post, we record plays, musicals, small and large Jazz and Big bands, chamber and full orchestra, and choir concerts. Currently we're looking for the best sound we can get, given our restrictions, for our DVDs, but we've been approached about doing audio-only recordings for the Jazz and Concert Bands, presumably for CD distribution as well as archive purposes. We try to have the kids do most of the work although I end up doing it half the time.

We've learned from experience about the applause overwhelming the real audio and blowing out the levels, or fooling the Auto function into stepping down the levels so that the music itself is inaudible (lots of threads on the unique behavior of the Zoom's Auto Levels function). I now set the levels using Auto during the sound check, lock the level in manually and engage the limiter to take care of the loud applause levels we will get. Otherwise, if you set the levels for the applause volume, the music is way too low to boost effectively. We have a very enthusiastic student body that would put the Gleeks to shame, and their cheering is ear-splitting (hence my desire for more directional mics to help reduce sound from the rear and sides).

Seems like using four mics and going either into the cams or 4CH mode on the Zoom will get us 16-bit audio either way. Hm. That Tascam is looking better by the minute. My kids don't really need all that food, I suppose.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 03:31 PM   #11
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I wouldn't steer you away from the NT5. They are small and have a strong output level, which helps when using consumer recorders. You can even place them flat on the stage if you want to get closer. The NT3s would be a little more conspicuous. Additionally, they run the risk of running out of power if you run them off batteries.

You are wise to manually lock the gain level. I don't worry about clapping clipping digitally. Claps basically sound like clipping to begin with! (Snare drums too... various types of distortion are sometimes incorporated into snare samples in pop production.) Cheering voices have the potential to sound distorted, but I would encourage you to expirement with not using the limiter. It may actually be adding noise to the signal.

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Old December 14th, 2010, 03:46 PM   #12
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When the kids are actually learning something valuable, it's great. When I'm stuck doing all the drudge work myself, not so much.

I hear what you're saying abut the NT5 vs the 3. I don't think the power thing would be an issue, though; it seems you have more options with the NT3 and the opportunity to self-power the mics lets you avoid draining the Zoom by having to use 48v Phantom, as it already goes through batts at an alarming rate. And then of course there are the 55s, with all that nifty filter and attenuator stuff thingys.

Thanks again for all the advice -- it is much appreciated.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 03:50 PM   #13
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"or fooling the Auto function into stepping down the levels "

Never use the auto gain function!

I would not worry about batteries draining on the NT3 mics, especially in one evening. They last a long time. It is better to use real phantom power though. But with the H4N I would NOT ust that phantom unless it was plugged into a wall..

The NT 5 may sound better. I can't really say, but they are used as choir mics. Do what you can. I'd really suggest the DR680 and 4 good mics again, but your budget is what it is.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 04:01 PM   #14
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Well, yeah, I've never seen anyone who knew anything about audio recommend using Auto. But as a way to set the levels during sound check it works fine. I just wouldn't ever use it during recording. Although we've had very good luck using it on the cams during the shows.

About Phantom vs Internal power: is there a general rule of which affects the sound? Does one provide better audio if all else is equal? And do you need to remove the batts if you elect to use Phantom from the recorder? I've seen a lot of questions about this but no definitive answers. God, I'm such a rook....

A 680 and four mics is definitely shaping up to be the long term plan. Just got to figure out finances and phases and such.

Thanks for the thoughts.
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Old December 14th, 2010, 04:14 PM   #15
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I once checked about the NTG-2 using battery vs phantom, and I found out that with battery you get 6 more db of noise. That being said, I never heard the noise, but for pristine sound I go full phantom. And it is OK to leave the battery in. The mic knows to switch over to battery when phantom is not present.

The thing is I don't know how good the phantom is in the Zoom. Sometimes consumer gear like that doesn't provide full phantom, but mics will still work. I do know that the NT3 mics sound great on battery. I just hate not being confident about my gear, which is why I sold my Zoom H4, then saved up for the tascam. I tell you what, that thing is a recording machine! It's got not only 4 xlr inputs, but 2 TRS inputs, that with a converter you can run 6 mics into it with phantom. On top of that, if you had a little mixer with a s/pdif out, you could record 8 tracks simultainously. Or you can record 6 tracks while mixing those 6 down to a stereo file. Good if you need to hand off a file right then and there, but of course you will want to mix all the files using a computer and good speakers. But I digress...
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