Up until now, using the Zoom H4N as a standalone recorder with good mics has worked fine for me. But I’ve evolved into a stickler for good audio, and I’m fortunate to be working with an outstanding sound recordist, Lisa Cooper. Together we are finally bumping up against the limitations of using the H4N for recording: it’s hard to read the meters on the Zoom when it’s in a sound bag (where the levels are located on the wrong side to be visible); the H4N pre-amps are somewhat noisy; the limiter sucks, and you can’t quickly send signal from left to right channels or both without digging through several layers of menus. Not to mention that when powering a 48v phantom power mic, such as my Octava MK012, the batteries drain in just a few minutes. When I read Kurt Lancaster’s rave about the MixPre in his new book, DSLR Cinema, I decided it was time to ante up.
It turns out that, even in online discussion forums, there’s scant clear information about how to correctly cable the Zoom H4N to the Sound Devices Mixpre for optimum recording (that is: recording that is as hot as possible, but that won’t clip on the recorder before it hits the limiter on the MixPre). I had to wade through at least a dozen different forum conversations before I finally found most of the advice I needed. I found the rest of it today during a trip to Guitar Center in Seattle. So I’m documenting the right steps here for anyone else who is ready to reach for pristine audio while keeping the trusty Zoom H4N in your sound bag.
So here’s the scoop. You can’t just plug normal cables from the mixpre into the zoom at default settings, because the signal coming out of the professional-grade mixpre is too hot for the consumer-grade Zoom to handle. But, with the right cable and a tiny jewler phillips head screw driver, you can make it work acceptably, and by adding an in-line attenuator that costs less than $25, you can make it work perfectly. More about that in a minute. But first, the cables.
There are two options for cabling the mixpre to the zoom: You can run either from the tape out, in which case you’ll need trs-to-dual phono jacks, or, you can buy two xlr female-to-phono cables. But there’s a problem with both: The signal that is output from each of these is different, and neither is quite right for the Zoom’s line-in.
While you COULD just run xlr female-to-xlr male from mixpre to zoom, you don’t want to do that. Doing so enables the noisy preamps on the Zoom, and you damn sure don’t want that after making that big investment in the mixpre’s vastly superior, quieter preamps. You need to use phono jacks for plugging into the Zoom to bypass the preamps. (A tip for those of you who know as little about audio circuitry as possible, like me: phono jacks are those 1/4″ jacks that look like old-school headphone jacks. They plug into the same hole on the bottom of the Zoom H4N that your XLR cables do – but into the middle instead of the three pronged connector that surrounds it.)
But wait, there’s more. If you do connect the MixPre to the Zoom as described above using the xlr-to-phono option, you will need to add 15-20 db of attenuation to get the correct level into the Zoom. To achieve this, you need to buy an inline attenuator, preferably a selectable attenuator, that lets you dial in how much attenuation to apply. And, you would need to by two of them if you want to send signal to both channels independently, which you almost certainly will want to do. So, lots of stuff to buy with this option, and it’s not cheap at $45 a pop for each attenuator. And why would you want to add all that extra weight and awkwardness to your lean, mean sound bag anyway? No, you want to use the following option instead.
The way to go is by running this 3.5mm TRS to dual 1/4″ cable from the MixPre’s tape out -> line in on Zoom. This ALMOST works out of the box when you plug it in. But there’s a big problem lurking: even when you dial down the recording level on the Zoom to 1 or lower, the audio signal will clip on the Zoom before the limiter kicks in on the MixPre. Incidentally, you don’t want to dial your recording level to .9 anything below 1, trust me – I tested it and got horrible results every time. And you also don’t want to turn down the level of the tape out on the MixPre – I tried that and it still clipped on the Zoom no matter how low I turned it down.
The quick solution is to get a jewler’s phillips head screwdriver and turn the factory setting on the MixPre’s limiter 1/4 turn to the left. By default these are set at their highest gain on the MixPre. Turning the screw to the left activates the limiter at a lower gain level.
With this configuration, I found a workable setting was to set both recoding inputs on the Zoom to 5. The tradeoff is that it’s now slightly harder to monitor recording levels on the MixPre, because the LEDs, which normally go three steps into red before clipping, now clip at the second light. So you have to ride your levels down a little further into the green and use less of your LEDs than is ideal when watching your levels while recording.
The better solution is to purchase an in-line attenuator for the 3.5mm cable, which will allow you to keep the limiter set at it’s default value, while sending a signal that is reduced by 10db to the Zoom. Then, you can up the recording level on the Zoom to compensate until it’s dialed in perfectly.
I could find only one option for a -10db TRS attenuator that will get the job done for around $25. I’m sure somebody else makes them – if you’re aware of other options, please let me know. I’d like to find something clean and simple like the Pink Noise cable made in the UK, but with less attenuation than the 25db that it has.
Incidentally, the sound bag I’m using, the Think Tank Wired Up 10 with optional mic drop in, really deserves a separate review of it’s own, which I’ll post another day. It’s killer.
UPDATE: After using the M-Audio -10db pad almost daily for a few weeks, we’ve identified a problem with this approach, and an even better solution. Check out Part II of this article for the full scoop.
I did some more Googling and found this possibility for attenuator cable with 3.5mm jacks: http://www.core-sound.com/attenuator-cables.html
However, it’s either -11db or -20db. I’m still hunting for a -5db cable.
Thanks so much for this! Just got my MixPre in the post recently, and like you, had been searching around forums to find the best way to connect it to my Zoom.
You bet. Let me know if you come up with a better solution.
Hi there, we sell and make custom audio cables for DSLR Audio, our now famous -25 cable has been sold all over the world in the 100’s and we continue to bring new products to the market, thanks, John McCombie
I’m about to become a customer of your -25db cable, because I like the possibility of using the MixPre to run audio directly into the camera, bypassing the need to sync audio for situations where I need really fast turnaround.
Also, I’d be interested in purchasing a TRS cable that had a -5 to -10db attenuation, if you made one. But what I really want is a 3.5mm to dual 1/4″ photo that had -5 to -10db built in. That would be sweet, but I suppose the market for such a cable is probably pretty small. But you could own it!
Follow up: The Pink Noise -25db cable is fantastic, and has become my preferred solution to the above problem. See sound comparison tests I ran here: http://www.danmccomb.com/posts/1043/zoom-h4n-mixpre-audio-recording-comparison/
Hi Dan and thanks for the tips this sounds like a great way to go we’ll be investing in the mix pre very soon, this picture of your gear is great, what is the sound bag you have here it looks about perfect for our needs.
The MixPre is a fantastic item that will really improve the quality of your audio. And the sound bag we use deserves a review of it’s own, something I’m planning to write very soon. But in the mean time, here’s the info: it’s the Think Tank Wired Up 10. It’s the closest thing to the perfect sound bag I’ve ever used. They call it a “multi-media” bag, but in my opinion it’s strictly a sound bag – I avoid mixing my camera’s and audio gear in the same bag.
Great article!!! I have been researching this EXACT setup for a while now. I purchased the H4N as a “beginner” recorder for capturing sound effects and ambience recordings for use with small films. I create music and sound-scapes/scores already and wanted to add this as an extra service plus I love working with audio. I teamed my H4n up with a Rode NT4 stereo mic (which cost more than the recorder) and my choice for the H4n was purely due to reviews and features for the price.
What I found was the same thing many have found. When you start increasing the MIC gain above about 30, you get a constant noise hiss which is very evident when reviewing on a nice monitor setup. I kind of expected this may happen especially with the soft ambient sound I was trying to capture. I created a test rig using a disused soundcraft 12v mixer with high quality pre-amps, pelican case and 12v battery. Connected to the phono inputs on the H4n I only required setting the H4 to 10 to get full soundrange of very quiet signals and quality was great. Lugging around a 15kg case everywhere is not a good solution though.
This is where I am right now. I am looking to get the MixPre (would love the 302 but it’s twice the price for features I probably don’t need) and by your article it seems it will match well with a small mod. I am preferring to use the XLR output from the mixpre to the phono input on the H4n over the tape out and am also deciding to create my own attenuator circuit built into a dedicated cable set I will use based on instructions found here:
Pulled from a thread here:
Now, I have an electronic engineering background so know what to do here easily but was interested to hear if you think it would work well to create a -20db attenuator using the XLR outputs? I can experiment with different attenuation resistors easily but wondered why the option to use the tape out from the MixPre is preffered or if it was just the easier/cheaper option. If you can use a solodering iron this method only costs a few cents if you have an XLR to TRS Phono cable you can modify.
Again, thanks for posting. I would not have been aware of this otherwise.
Ah ha, so that’s why I never got good results when I set the recording level below 10 on the H4N! Thanks for sharing your test results.
I don’t see why you couldn’t connect the XLR line-out to phono jacks, since you have the skills to make the cable. Seems like a great solution if you can build one with an inline attenuator. I used the tape-out for two reasons: 1. it is a single cable that with right-angled connector keeps low profile in my sound bag; and 2. Because it sends a consumer level signal that the Zoom is more closely matched to (yet still requires attenuation), as opposed to the xlr line out, which apparently sends a hotter signal. So you might have to add even more attenuation than -20db.
Let me know what you find out if you go with this approach, and thanks for the great breakdown.
Checking back here again. I got the MixPre today when at work and set it all up as soon as I could when I got home. As with everything I seem to do with electronics and audio, you set out to do somehing and have loads of small things you have to sort out. The MixPre solves one issue with the H4n, but here come all the other issues.
Firstly, this little device is exactly what the H4n needs. It is great quality. My plan was to use an unused Lowpro sholder camera bag I use to use for my Cannon camera. Looked like heaps of room (which there is) but I forgot that the XLR cables coming out each side take up loads of room on the sides. Too much to squeeze in the bag unless I cut holes. Since I need to make a custom cable with pad I decided to get right angled XLR connections which will fit it in nicely.
Next, I want to monitor from the MixPre and wanted the H4n phones out to feed the tape in on the MP so I could listen back to recordings but again, I need custom right angled plugs to fit it all in and prevent them snapping off. So I have a list and will hit the electronics store tomorrow after work.
Testing the setup without any modifications I can instantly see what you are talking about. The XLR out (from MixPre) to Phono in (On H4n) gives me overload before the limiters kick in even when set to 1 on the record input. Sound is AMAZING though, so clear and even better than my test rig with the Soundcraft mixer so I am very happy so far.
One reason I want to use the XLR output is it’s just a much more rugged connection than a small 3.5mm connection but where did you get the 3.5mm to dual Phono cable (or did you fabricate it or use adapters)?
Also one thing I wanted to check with you Dan was the first test I did with everything connected up, the mic gains were pretty high. It caused the mixpre to limit the signal but then with the H4n connected to the XLR outputs from the mixpre it started this weird pulsing “overload” loop where the signal would keep pulsing upto max then back down to 0 until i disconnected the H4n or decreased the mics gain? Even with the H4n completely Off it happened. If I kept the mic gain a little lower it was fine. Did you find anything like this?
I am calculating a number of pad values up to about 40dB which I will test and see what works best. I believe that a -20dB pad will reduce the signal enough to have the limiters function and have a strong signal into the H4n with an input gain around 10 or so. This would be great as the S/N would be perfect for professional recordings.
Again I have to thank you for this post because I would not have been prepared for the modifications I would need and would have had disappointing results for the money that has been shelled out now. Will keep you posted on the results of my tests.
Your experience with cable management is precisely the same as mine: it’s a real maze routing everything inside the bag. Add to this the fact that the Zoom fits awkwardly in the camera bag because you have to have it facing up to hit the record button, and it wants to lie on it’s side in most bags.
I actually sold my Petrol sound bag and bought a bag that I instantly fell in love with: the Think Tank Wired Up 10. It’s got pre-cut holes throughout the bag that make cable routing a snap (although some of them are so small you have to really work to get XLR connectors through them.) I highly recommend this as a sound bag, even though it’s designed for “multi-media” applications (sound and photo/video).
Re: 3.5 to dual phono cable, I purchased my cable at Guitar Center for $7.99: http://www.guitarcenter.com/Live-Wire-3-5mm-Dual-1-4—Y-Cable-101172559-i1166742.gc?source=4WFRWXX&CAWELAID=29471271
Re: pulsing sound – that is caused by over-engaging the limiters (and it’s possible to do this on both the MixPre and the Zoom but over cranking the audio levels, but it’s much more apt to happen on the Zoom because its limiters aren’t nearly as powerful).
If you’re hearing this, it’s almost certainly because the signal that the XLR out is sending to the Zoom is way too hot for it to handle, even turned to .01. And keep in mind that the Zoom won’t give you good quality recordings at those low levels. I found that you have to set the level at at least 8 to record full spectrum clean audio on the Zoom.
One last note: if your mic gain are turned up so high that it’s constantly engaging the limiter on the MixPre, you WILL hear this pulsing sound as well. Turning down the mic gain will fix the problem. The limiters on the MixPre aren’t truly unclippable if you seriously overload them. It’s more like, they’re pretty much unclippable for brief spikes of audio (which is what they’re designed to catch) but not for taming a wall of sound. You can ride the levels hot, but you still have to stay on the horse.
Re: attenuation – I think your calculations are close to the mark. However, if you use -20db alone, that won’t be enough if you’re using the XLR out (it would be perfect for the Tape Out, though). In order to get away with the -20db pad with XLR, you’d have to turn up the limiter threshold on the MixPre, so that the limiter would engage more quickly. But that’s really not a great thing to do, I discovered, because the LEDs on the MixPre are calibrated in such a way that when you turn up the limiter, it limits the amount of signal hitting the leds. So instead of having three lights, you “limit” yourself to less and less the more you turn up the limiter threshold.
I emailed Sound Devices and asked them whether dialing in the limiter was an OK way to attenuate signal to a recorder, and they recommended against it, which is what I suspected. So getting the right attenuation amount is the best solution.
It’s great to hear I’m not the only one out there solving these issues – let me know how it works out for you as you continue your tweaks.
One final thought: wouldn’t it be cool if Sound Devices built a MixPre size device that had a built-in SD card recorder?
Just reporting back to this. I ahve had a good look through all your posts and there is some gerat tips here especially for the small 1-man-band film and audio producers. Some mates of mine will get some good inspiration.
Anyway, using the above information I posted I was able to figure out what components I needed to test a -20 / -30 and -40 dB pad for connecting the MixPre to the H4n. The first test was all I needed. The -20dB pad allowed full mix volume with limiting from the MixPre into the H4n with a record volume set to 30. You can find the system I put together here:
If anyone else has the H4n and has been dissapointed in the record quality of low volume audio, save and invest in a MixPre. You wont regret it at all. The quality, build and features are well worth it.
I’m glad to hear the -20db was enough, because there are lots of commercially available options to get -20db cables and pads. Thanks for the link to your site – that’s quite the setup you’ve got. And yes, I completely concur: MixPre rules!
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Well it appears the zoom h4n I just purchased needs a punch in the ARM.. Would all this info still apply to the mm1?.. Was planning on splitting xlr signal out from mm1 into zooms xlr inputs. And theiadjusting the two lines in.. one a little hotteri than the other. Suggestions?.. Have not purchased the mm1 as of yet.. I would have invested in another unit if among the hundreds of positive reviews about the H4N msomeone would have mentioned this sub standard preamp issue. Thanks.
The solution outlined here should work as well with the MM1 as it does with the MixPre. If you want the signal hotter in one channel than the other, you’d just drop the recording level in one of the channels (don’t raise the level in one, because as outlined above, that would mean you’d begin clipping or engaging the crappy limiters on the H4N).
Does this info apply to the mm1. Want to split xlr out from mm1 into h4n xlr inputs.
Yes this should apply identically to the mm-1.
could i ask what bag are you using to carry this setup. Do you have a link to find one online
Yes indeed, it’s a wonderful bag, the Think Tank Wired Up 10. I traded in my Petrol bag for this one, and it’s been a treat. It’s got excellent cable management ports throughout, and best of all, it’s comfortable and can be used comfortably without use of shoulder straps, which my sound girl really digs.
Thanks for figuring this mixpre stuff out for the H4n. How are you powering the mixpre and the h4n?
Great question! I just made a lengthy post about precisely this question here: http://www.danmccomb.com/posts/1262/wire-a-tekkeon-battery-to-power-mixpre-and-zoom-h4n/
Thanks for this post! I currently have the sound devices mm-1 and I’d like to connect it to my zoom h4n. I’m afraid it might be too hot though, what would you recommend for connecting the zoom and the h4n. Links to gear would be awesome. I’d really appreciate a response soon, I’m looking forward to using it as soon as I can.
With the MM-1, you would need to go xlr-out to line-in (phono plug) because it doesn’t have a tape out jack like the MixPre. This should do it: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/287239-REG/Remote_Audio_CAXF1_4J18_XLR_Female_to_1_4_TRS.html. Add an in-line selectable attenuator, and you’ll be all set: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/68600-REG/Shure_A15AS_A15AS_In_Line_Attenuator.html
Hi Dan… Great work you’re doing here. I’ve been wrestling with these very issues in my attempts to design a lean & mean shoulder rig capable of recording pristine audio on the fly. I am about to purchase the gear but as yet, have not bought anything.
It would appear that the MixPre is the anchor to this puzzle — now the MixPre-D. I’m also sold on the AT875R shotgun mic, and will likely add a wireless source/system as well. My question is… if you had not yet purchased a recorder, would you still go with the H4N? Or would you, at this point… choose something else?
If I were buying today, I’d probably go for the Roland R-26. Having said that, the Zoom H4N, behind a mixer, totally gets the job done for me, and it’s more affordable. The Tascam DR-100 is also popular among dslr filmmakers, but I’ve never used it – worth a look.
You’ll love the AT875R – it’s a solid mic and I find myself using it a LOT even though I have more expensive mics now. It rejects handling noise very well and I find I don’t have to mess with EQ much after recording when I’m using it for dialogue. Love it.
really really appreciate the comment Dan! I just purchased both of those! You really took the guess work out of finding the right equipment.
On the strength of your great advice for connecting the SD mixer to the H4N I bought the Thinktank bag you use.
I hated it! It’s basically a fanny pack with deep unorganized compartments.
I sent it back and got a Petrol Deca Mixer bag – what a difference! Things stay where they’re supposed to and I can get easy access to the sides of the mixer (MixPre-D) and recorder (oh, I ditched my H4N for a Tascam HD-P2 – I needed syncable time code) without pulling everything out.
Funny that you ditched your Petrol bag for the Thinktank.
Still yet, this is a great article and really helped me out – Thanks!
For my purposes, the hip-hugging Thinktank bag is the perfect blend of form and function. Sorry it didn’t work out for you.
Hi Dan, this is a great site very helpful, I am desperate to see if you can help, I borrowed a Zoom H4n from a good friend but I’ve lost the windscreen thingy, it looks like exactly the same colour and fuzziness as yours here, could you let me know where you got it from and the colour make etc, I’m famous for being careless and would rather avoid a lecture this time around if I can help it.
Oh second question – we hooked this up different but will try out your optimised setup next time so in regards to connection of the zoom h4n to mix pre(D) if we only have one mic connected into MixPre-D (Shure VP89) would we just need a single female XLR to Male 1/4″ TRS for connection to zoom or do we need the female XLR to dual Male 1/4″ TRS that you have pictured here.
Thanks Dan and if you can help with identifying your Wind cover on the H4n pictured here I’d be really grateful.
The fuzzy I use for Zoom H4N is called a RedHead. I guess in my case you could call it gray redhead. Kind of like my head. They gray part, at least.
You can find them here: http://www.redheadwindscreens.com.
Regarding your second question, the MixPre-D is a whole ‘bother beast compared to my standard issue MixPre, and my setup doesn’t apply to it because it’s got some better options for connecting to recorders like the H4N. See the comments above in this thread from others who have the MixPre-D.
thanks Dan you’re a lifesaver I think it’s gunmetal hopefully it will arrive before i give this back.
I’ve seen the other comments above for setups for the MPD and H4n, that’s great.
Fantastic work btw, loved your Seattle series so far and Gray is cool – like Clooney.
I was wondering is you could shoot me an email as to what equipment your are using, where it was purchased (cables), and how each one connects to each other. Also, how do you have the H4N setup. If you have move on to something that works better for you please let me know. I a beginner just trying to figure out what works with one another. Thanks!
I believe the blog posts I’ve made here and here, will answer this question for you. If you’ve got specific questions about my setup, which is the same as I’ve blogged about, you’re welcome to contact me via email to dan at visual contact.com and I’ll be glad to help you out.
Will this set-up work with the Tascam DR-40?
Absolutely, it will work identically.
Will this setup work with the Tascam DR-100 mark ii?
Yes, it will work identically, and the DR-100 is a great choice. Have fun with it.
Thanks for your helpful tips. I do wedding film making so I am not really into the whole sound technical aspect of the process but I do want a clean audio. I just want to record my H4n to a band or Dj’s mixer and get clean sound but that’s not happening, it seems to be to hot. Can you please tell me (plain word please) what to buy and how to connect so I can over come this issue. I keep reading about attenuator but there are so many I don’t really know which one to go for, please advise.
Thanks a lot !
If you’re getting a too-hot signal out of a mixer, it’s because it’s a line-level signal, which is too loud for the consumer-level H4N to handle. But it’s easy to fix: just add a selectable attenuator between the mixer and your recorder. Here’s one that I use: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/68600-REG/Shure_A15AS_A15AS_In_Line_Attenuator.html. This one allows you to dial in just the right amount of attenuation. You’ll probably want about -20db.
I’m so glad I found this webpage!
I’m using a Zoom H4N as a recorder with a small 2ch location mixer and with the addition of a pair -20db attenuator XLR adaptors (http://www.amazon.co.uk/In-Line-Balanced-Attenuator-Volume-Adapter/dp/B0060GDZTG/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1352824024&sr=1-1-fkmr0) and some nifty cable-making, everything now works as sweet as a proverbial nut.
Zoom H4n firmware 1.7.3 sorts line level problem – now when using TRS inputs it is true professional line level (not consumer) no need to send a mic or attenuated signal etc.
Will only work on Zooms purchased after January 2012 – serial range 0033…. guess something changed under the hood with the H4n between 2009 and 2012.
That is pretty awesome news, Sark. Too bad my trusty old one can’t be upgraded.
Hi Dan, thanks very much for posting this tut, much appreciated! One question i have is – With the recording level of the zoom at 27 there is an obvious difference in the level readings coming from the zoom opposed to the mixer. Do you just compensate in your head for this when using the mixer to monitor the recording or do you monitor the levels via the Zoom’s readout?
When i turn the test sound on the mixer it peaks at 0 but on the Zoom it peaks at roughly about -38.
Great question. The mixpre has a “tape return” switch, which allows you to monitor directly from the Zoom via the MixPre. I always leave that set to tape return, so that I’m hearing the actual recorded value rather than the mixer.
If you’re getting -38, it’s probably because you have a different amount of attenuation from me. But the principle is the same and so you’re good to go.
Just to verify, you have you headphones plugged in to the Mix Pre D or the Zoom and is the ‘tape return’ switch turned on via the Headphone controller by pressing it in and the blue light coming on?
thanks for you help!
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I plug into the Zoom
H4N using phono plugs coming out of my Mix-pre and don’t need anything else. Set Zoom to around .7 input while using tone generator on Mix-pre, set levels on Mix-pre until Zoom is within limits and go to town. Great sound every time. Batteries die quickly though.
Yeah the thing eats batteries when you are using phantom power, most def.