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Computer-Free with Zoom H4n
Good option if your computer room is loud
Total: $170 (not including 2 AA batteries or an AC adapter for the Zoom, see Optional Upgrades)
There are two advantages to this approach. First and most significant is that this lets you do your recording in whatever room has the best acoustics. This means a room that's quiet and echoes the least. A great choice can be a closet. You want to avoid or at least minimize sounds from sources like traffic, people talking in other rooms, air flow from your forced air heater or air conditioner, and fan or hard drive whirring on your computer. In order to avoid your recording sounding hollow, with subtle echoes, you also want sound dampening around you - clothes in a closet do this remarkably well.
The second benefit to recording on the Zoom is that it provides superior recording options compared with the more common computer hardware.
The Zoom can be a little bit intimidating at first, but it's really quite simple to use, once you get the hang of it. The instruction book that comes with the Zoom is good. Please try to read through it. If we can't convince you to do that, at least keep it handy as a reference if you get stuck.
Physical setup for the Zoom H4N
To setup your Zoom (see the image for help finding the various options referenced here):
Open the right side panel and insert the SD memory card. The SD card in the "Parts to buy" link above is a 32GB card, which should be good for about 30 hours of recording at the quality settings recommended here. WARNING: cards larger than 32GB will not work in the Zoom devices. Smaller cards will, but with proportionately reduced recording time.
Pull the windscreen over the two microphones. It will be an awkward fit due to the shape, but that's OK.
To turn on the Zoom, slide the power button on the side of the unit down, toward the bottom of the unit (to power down when you're done, slide down again and hold for a few seconds).
Set the date and time the first time you use the Zoom, at daylight savings time changes, if the batteries are removed for an extended time, or if you ever notice the date or time is off. To do this, press the Menu button on the right side of the Zoom, right below the wheel (note that turning the wheel scrolls between menu items, pressing the wheel like a button selects the current menu item, pressing the Menu button again goes back to the prior level):
Scroll down to SYSTEM by turning the wheel, then press the wheel
Scroll to DATE/TIME (default) and press the wheel
Use the wheel to move between fields, press it once to shift the wheel so it changes the value of the selected date or time segment, then press it again to lock that value and move on to the next. Move over to OK and press the wheel button to save. Note if you press Menu here, it will not save it the change. To save, you must press the wheel button on OK.
Press Menu, and Menu again to return to the home screen
Put the Zoom into Mono mode.
Scroll down to INPUT and press the wheel
Scroll down to MONO MIX and press the wheel
Use the wheel to select ON, then press the wheel again
Press Menu, then Menu again to exit back to the home screen
Change the recording rate from WAV 44.1kHz and 16-bit recording depth to WAV 44.1kHz and 24-bit recording depth.
Scroll down to REC (short for Record) and press the wheel
Scroll to REC FORMAT (should be the default selection the first time you use the Zoom), press the wheel again
Scroll to WAV44.1kHz/24bit, press the wheel, screen should return to the REC SETTING menu showing the REC FORMAT of 44.1/24
Press Menu, and then Menu again to exit back to the home screen
Note you can also change this from the main screen by pressing the 4 shortcut button right below the screen, but we wanted you to get accustomed to using the Menu button and wheel. Aren't you glad you know both methods now?
If you are using rechargeable batteries in the Zoom (highly recommended if you're doing a lot of recording and not using the AC adapter - the Zoom eats through batteries fast), then change the setting from Alkaline to Ni-MH:
Scroll down to SYSTEM and press the wheel
Scroll to BATTERY and press the wheel
Select your battery type (ALKALINE or Ni-MH) and press the wheel
Press menu, and menu again to return to the home screen
Note that if you make a bunch of changes to other settings and just want to reset everything to the original settings:
Scroll down to SYSTEM and press the wheel
Scroll down to FAC RESET and press the wheel
Select the YES response to reset the unit
You can then repeat the above steps to get the Zoom ready to record
Press the MIC button on the lower left of the face of the Zoom so it glows red
If connecting headphones under this configuration (we recommend using headphones), plug them into the headset jack on the left side of the Zoom.
Position or hold the Zoom so the dual mics at the top of the unit are facing your mouth. Unfortunately, this means you can't easily read the display at the same time. Note that however the Zoom is positioned, you want to be sure you avoid noises from shifting your hand as you hold it or touching the table or desk on which it's sitting. It will pick up any such noises and those will ruin your recording.
Press the REC button (with the red dot in the middle of the button). The red ring around the button will start blinking, meaning that the recording is paused. While paused, you can see the volume meters actively monitor the recording levels and the headset will be playing back the sound the Zoom hears.
Check the volume. While paused, talk and watch the volume meters move based on the sound. The top bar is the Left and bottom bar the Right. Note the numbers below these two bars. Those are the decibel (dB) levels, ranging from -48 on the left to 0 on the right. The louder the sound, the further toward the right and toward 0dB. The goal is to get these as close to zero (bars filling all the way to the right) without actually reaching zero, which would cause clipping. Ideally, you can reach those signal levels without turning up the recording levels, because that would also amplify all the background noise. Do this by putting your mouth as close to the mics as possible when you speak without getting so close that the Zoom starts capturing excessive breath noises and pops when you say words with Ps and Bs. There should be no more than a few inches between your mouth and the mics.
Set the volume. While still paused and monitoring, this is a good time to make adjustments. Turn up or down the recording volume from the default of 80 using the REC LEVEL + and - buttons on the right side of the Zoom. That will change the volume of the recorded file. You can also turn up or down the headset volume using the VOL + and - buttons on the left side of the Zoom, also from a default of 80. The headset volume has no effect on the recording volume.
Press the Play/Pause button or the Record button while the REC light is blinking to unpause and begin recording. The red light around the REC button will stop blinking.
Press the stop button when finished recording.
If you have an SD card reader on your computer, the easiest way to get at the files is to remove the SD card from the Zoom, put it in the computer, launch/open it on your computer, and navigate to the folder STEREO\FOLDER01 (unless you changed the folder # on the Zoom). Then move or copy the files to your preferred location on your computer where you can find them with Audacity. Moving the files will free space on the card for future recordings.
If you do not have an SD card reader, or if you just prefer to transfer the files directly from Zoom to your computer by USB cable, you can do that, effectively using your Zoom as the card reader:
Connect the USB cable to your computer and the mini USB port on the left side of the Zoom
Press Menu on the right side of the Zoom
Scroll down to USB with the wheel and then press the wheel
Select STORAGE and press the wheel
At this point, you should be able to access the files stored on the Zoom as if it were a USB drive.
Navigate to the appropriate folder (STEREO\FOLDER01 is the default folder), and move or copy the files to your preferred location on your computer where you can find them with Audacity. Moving the files will free space on the card for future recordings.