It started out as any ordinary day.
I woke up. Brushed my teeth. Took a shower. Made some eggs. Tested my Zoom H4N before packing my camera bag, but the sucker wouldn't turn on. So yeah, I panicked a little. This $300 recorder had saved my butt on numerous occasions, and it helped me make my first (real) short film Strangers. There's sentimental value as well!
So I put fresh batteries in - still wouldn't turn on. I put "stamina mode" on and played with a hundred other settings - still nothing. Maybe it fell one too many times during my impromptu voice over sessions? Maybe it sat in sun too long? Maybe it just decided to take a nap.... forever.
I didn't spend too much time worrying why my Zoom H4N decided to take the eternal nap. I was wondering what the heck I'm going to use for audio now. I did a bit of digging, and turns out there's some much better options.
If you google "DSLR filmmaking" and "DSLR audio" chances are you'll see recommendations for the Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic, with the Zoom H4N. Big shotgun mic plugs into the zoom, and it records on the SD card, and all is right with the world. But in practice, not so much.
In my experience, the audio quality is not the greatest, unless the subject is 6 inches from the microphone. Great for voiceovers. Awful for filming. The signal levels are stupidly low, and when I bump the gain to 100, the noise is just overwhelming. With a little tough love in post with Adobe Audition (another life saver) the end product is manageable, but still a headache to get even that far.
As a microphone, the Zoom is great for recording ambient noise. But as a mixer, it just can't handle a mic like the Rode NTG-2. The pre-amps are too weak, and the noise is too high for it to be used as a proper mixer.
So I went shopping for a new audio companion. I picked up the Tascam DR-60D, and I'm now in love with it. Sound quality is great. 4 audio inputs, 3 levels of gain, plus a nice, big, round knob the adjust the input levels. It plugs straight into my 5D's audio input, so I can have a scratch track to sync with. Or if I play my cards right, it can record straight to the video and not have to sync anything at all! It also fits perfectly right under the camera, so I don't have to worry about dropping anything when I try to hold the boom, the mixer, and my sandwich.
If you get the Tascam DR-60D from B&H Photo, they also throw in PluralEyes 3 for free (a $200 software that magically syncs all your audio at once). What would take me 1 hour of dreadful, manual audio syncing will now take me 2 clicks and 5 minutes of waiting! Magic I tell you.
My Zoom H4N served me well. In its 2.5 year run, it has seen me through my first short film, an entire web series, and numerous emergency ADR sessions. But fear not! Just because I can't use it to record audio, doesn't mean I no longer have any use for it. I do have a lot of papers on my desk that need weighing down.