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This article was originally published in issue #27
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Let’s say you want to record a musical performance. You can either take the music to a studio, or you can take recording gear to the music. For most of us, live recording is a balancing trick between convenience and getting decent results and typically that means doing as much as we can with gear that’s easy to carry and quick to set-up. Enter the Zoom H6 Handy Recorder.
The H6 is the current largest of the Handy Recorder range from Zoom, featuring six inputs and recording uncompressed multi-track WAV files or MP3s onto SD cards. And it’s got good old-fashioned, easy to use knobs. Five of them! Let me explain.
Take a look at the case and you’ll find four side-mounted combi-sockets (channels 1-4) for mic or line level signals (sadly no Hi-Z instrument input), and a silver “head” with a stereo mic set-up completing the count of six inputs. Each channel has its own single function gain knob, pad switch and select button (with indicator LED), with a single gain knob and a pair of (linked) select buttons for the stereo pair. A set of transport controls and a 2” LCD display completes the front panel.
Notice those “single-function” and “dedicated” controls? They are why the H6 is easy to use. Just plug-in the mic/line sources that you want to record, hit the select buttons, twist the knobs to set levels (if you get your levels too hot the channel LEDs flash - so you can do it without even looking at the colour display which shows levels for all six channels at once!) and press “Record”.
As well as multi-track band rehearsals (with a DI box and both dynamic and condenser mics) I’ve used the H6 as a simple stereo recorder to record a thunder-storm, my (rather loud) Harley, song ideas, guitar practice sessions, video voice-overs, and my daughter working on a vocal duet with a friend - just because it’s so easy to grab and use - without a menu, shift key, or multi-function control in sight.
OK - actually there are menus and multi-function controls in sight - but the point is that when it’s time to record you don’t need to worry about them. So, that’s the ease of use taken care of, but this wouldn’t be a Zoom if didn’t have a few options.
A menu button gives access to the deeper controls, including the “life saver” combination of pre-record and backup-record. In pre-record mode the H6 constantly buffers to the memory card - then when you hit the record button it keeps the most recent two seconds, which is just about enough to avoid missing surprise starts. Backup-record saves an additional set of LR tracks at -12dB from the main recording, which gives a safety net when the performance suddenly gets louder than you expected. There is a limiter built-in, but so far as I can tell it’s in the software, so it occurs after the analogue/digital conversion - which means that it can’t stop a high peak from clipping the converters - which makes it not very useful. That said, with 24 bit recordings it’s easy enough to leave plenty of headroom in the first place.
The menu also gives access to a low-cut filter and the compressor/limiter settings. Personally, I’ve tended to avoid using these as it’s always going to be easier to judge compression later after uploading the tracks to my DAW, but they’re there if you want them. You can also set-up your record folders, phantom-power, stereo or multi-track output for audio-interface use, normalise, edit & trim audio files, set-up your input and output mix, adjust playback speed and/or pitch, loop, overdub, and there’s even a metronome and tuner built-in (and probably a bunch of other things that I haven’t found yet).
Along with the adjustable-angle XY stereo head (with override socket for an external stereo mic with switchable 2.5V), you get a Mid/Side head (it’s got a built-in MS decoder) which is useful for when you want to have control over the stereo width (and useful for rehearsal/small gig recordings), and there are optional extra heads available with a shotgun mic or a pair of additional combi-sockets if you need them. You even get a foam windshield in the box.
Nice to haves? There’s not much really. A padded soft bag or case to take the body with a stereo head fixed would be useful, as would some way to fix it to a mic stand (the H6 is threaded for a camera tripod), and the external power supply is part of the accessory pack - but then it’s a standard USB rated adapter so you’ve probably got a dozen or so of those lying about anyway (and battery life is very good).
I think Zoom has managed a good price/quality/features balance with the H6 and produced a seriously good and useful location recorder. OK, the main body is plastic and you will need to look after it; but handling noise is commendably low, the mic heads fit solidly and easily and sound quality appears to be a definite (and very usable) step-up from previous models, both on the spec sheet and in use.
Oh, and you get a copy of Cubase LE in the box too. I think Zoom really nailed it with this one!