Recently I've been getting a few jobs that require both portability and track counts greater than the four I usually deal with using my Sound Devices 744T. In terms of building a kit that can offer both of those factors, along with a wide number of options and similar performance level to the Sound Devices kit then there isn't much out there that doesn't cost somewhere near the thick end of £5000; and that would be before you add on all of the extra accessories that go with it. This is where the Zoom F8 comes in. It costs less that £1000 and appears, at first glance, to have a lot of the functionality of something vastly more expensive like the SD 788T or Sonosax SXR4+. So lets explore that and see just how well something this low cost can perform the tasks demanded of much more expensive kit.
The Zoom features eight mic/line inputs on Neutrik combo TRS/XLR sockets. The XLR's are for the mic level input and the TRS for the line level inputs. This is my first minor quibble on the design. If you don't bring along an XLR to TRS cable you cannot take line level inputs at all. TRS cables are non locking and carrying an extra kind of cable can be a bit of a pain if you want to travel super light. The second point worth raising is that none of these inputs are configurable as digital. Everything goes through the F8's AD/DA, meaning that kit that has digital outputs will need converters.
That being said, the preamps are actually really very good. Long gone are the noisy mic pres of the old handheld recorders that Zoom are famed for. This really is a very different beast to the H4n and it's brethren from any other manufacturer. The fact it has eight really good preamps would suggest that this sort of technology doesn't need to be quite as expensive as Sound Devices / Sonosax / Zaxcom would have us think. But of course as we'll see later the products from those guys are offering us far more than "just" a multitrack recorder with great preamps and mix functionality.
It also has four outputs in two stereo pairs. The main output is on a pair of balanced TA3's and the other is an unbalanced pair on a mini jack which you'd have to split. Both are fine and work as expected. They've both got selectable output level between mic and line, and completely routable in any way that you like, meaning you can send whichever input or a mix track you like to any output, which does give you options, as everything is routable post or pre fade, allowing you to build a specific mix of tracks if you send post fade. My issue with the routing options here begins with arming tracks. Everything that is armed gets sent to the main mix and only armed tracks are listenable.
It's got Timecode too, which makes for simple syncing with camera. I like that the Timecode inputs are on BNC connectors. It makes a nice change to not have to buy a cable with a £30 connector on one end of it. However it's timecode will not run if the F8 loses power. It doesn't seem to hold time when there are no batteries inside or the external power is not connected, which would suggest it doesn't have a battery internally for holding timecode like the equivalent Sound Devices would.
But it holds time quite well once it's been jammed and left separated from it's master clock.
I'll post a video covering it's clock accuracy and how to go about measuring clock accuracy at a later date.
In the quick adjustment of a menu item it is also possible to turn the F8 into an eight input, four output USB recording interface, and as such must be considered as an all in one audio box for any recordist who also edits their own material, as this can be used as the front end to any DAW out there (except Pro Tools, due to incorrect latency settings and no driver adjustment) making it a really good compact centrepiece around which you can build your studio system. Not only that but the fact it can be battery powered for ages on the Hirose power input means it would be perfect for use with a laptop while travelling. This is a feature that none of the other major manufacturers do (unless you include Dante over ethernet, which is a feature upgrade for the Sonosax SX-R4+).
Additionally to the USB, but also separately, is the Bluetooth remote control function. It's one of those ideas that sounds great as a concept but actually in practice isn't quite as good as you want it to be. The app is iOS only, so no Android users please, and the latency in the system is a bit much to make quick mix decisions. Also mixing on a screen has zero physical feedback as to what you're controlling.
Bluetooth as a control protocol though is well defined and has been used across a wide range of devices. When it's implemented properly like where Sony has leveraged the technology for its wireless gaming controllers you get a near zero latency control option, and that's what I'd like to see here. A hardware Bluetooth controller that can be powered by the same power options as the F8, with a headphone mix feed and a USB port for a keyboard. It's something that I'm guessing Zoom could do quite easily. They already have the protocol in place and would just need to build a fader surface with a row trim encoders (switchable to pans).
Extra Special Zoom only mega feature...
Finally the big Zoom feature... Their weird 10 pin port that they use on some of
their handheld recorders to attach accessories. It's definitely an odd inclusion. The accessories currently available are all microphones (and one dual channel mic pre input). Even if you did really like those mics, none of them really fit with this product line, and unless they plan to make proper use of the connector for things that might actually benefit the average sound recordist (see What If? below) then this part of the F8 may aswell be discarded.
I suppose with time this port could be utilised by modules specifically designed to expand the functionality of the F8; potentially elevating it to a higher level. I'd be keen to see Zoom do something like an AES module with AES3 and AES42 with SRC functionality for digital mics.
The form factor of the Zoom F8 is a bit of a technical marvel in some senses. It's both smaller and lighter than the 744T and offers that extra mix functionality and with six