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 extra mic pres and four outputs (minus the AES). Admittedly the Zoom doesn't have an internal mechanical hard drive though so has that to its advantage.
However the smallness also brings with it a couple of issues. First of which is the tiny controls for setting trim, fade and pans. The eight control knobs and 16 buttons occupy an area of 7.5cm by 3cm. The knobs as standard are fine for setting trims and if you don't need to mix then that's fine; but if you do need to mix a bit due to ambient noise then ideally what you need are proper barrel knobs that you can roll the edge of. These are available as an unofficial extra and do help when it comes to mixing, but you then lose quite a lot of space between the knobs to access the PFL menus which allow you to configure your channels with HPF, digital limiters and various other parameters. It's a world away from a Sound Devices 664 or an SQN and for me is much too large of a compromise.
How Does it Sound?
Very good indeed. The topography of the design relies heavily on digital processing, so once it's into the preamp, the HPF and Limiters are all after the A/D converter. This of course is a double edged sword. Firstly it's cheaper to produce, but the main caveat being that a HPF post A/D won't increase headroom to the preamp and a limiter post A/D won't prevent clipping the converters. If you bear this in mind when making decisions then you should get along fine. Use the bass rolloff switches on your mics to increase headroom and don't run anything so hot that you're relying on your limiters to catch the problems.
It's a race to see who can fit the most into the smallest package, but I wonder what other features Zoom could realistically pack in to this box if it were maybe two or three of centimeters wider in order to help with that miniature control spacing; and maybe £200-300 more expensive? Would you get enough room to maybe add some features? I mean these days how large can the additional circuitry for any of these features actually be?
- Additional power circuitry for a rechargeable battery pack?
- Switchable AES on the main outputs?
- Switchable AES on two input channels?
- Dante IO card?
- 512GB of internal storage?
- A battery to keep time and date running while it's disconnected from power?
Does it Work Though?
Well in short; yes it does. (Barring any issues with your SD cards; please read below)
And quite well in fact. The preamps are clean and actually nice sounding. The headphone amp has plenty of level and sounds fine (which alleviated one of my main fears having heard a pre-production model at an industry trade show). The output routing is effective and intuitive. The Timecode generator is fine, but I'd recommend using another device as the master. The Dual SD card recording function is quite handy for redundancy or delivering mix and iso file separately.
It's not without issue though. I had a rather catastrophic media failure on one job where 50% of my files were corrupted unusable recordings and there was no error message or notable problems at the time. Conveniently that job was a live to air broadcast and everything was going direct to the camera, so I didn't need the files and I was not fired on the spot for delivering a load of unusable rubbish. The fault appears to have been caused by the pre-roll recording and the combination of cards I was using. When I turned off pre-roll it went away. Zoom couldn't re-create the issue and only heard one other report of that happening to anyone else, so I'm assuming it is a fairly isolated issue. (This problem went away when Zoom replaced my F8 for the white screen of death)
In addition to that I've been reading about some instability with the menu system when trying to access it at speed, like you might be required to on set. These typically include text boxes not fading and a complete hang in the software. I've not experienced these but they have caused issues for a number of users. (for balance I've also heard reports of the same thing on Sound Devices 6 series...)
This is a very low cost product in this category and in its own way it delivers a very effective package for a lot of things. Some people have said "it's too music focussed" and others that it's simply a bit crap. The way I see it is that it delivers what is actually a really impressive feature set, which is compromised by some inexperience in designing a product for the film and TV production market. These compromised areas do make it less than ideal for a certain set of usage scenarios; like mixing... which, if you actually try it, is only a problem when you need to actively mix more than four inputs at once.
In comparison to it's competition it does come out with the least features. Everything else out there has a broader feature set and have "future features" that will extend their longevity. However as a straightforward eight track recorder it works very well indeed, and for this kind of money you'd struggle to find a device as good as this anywhere else. I can only imagine that if Sound Devices, Zaxcom or Sonosax made a device at this price point it wouldn't have half of the functionality. What we have in the Zoom F8 is a product that has the potential to reinvigorate the market for recorders like this and add some much needed price based competition.
As of January 2017 it also has a fader control surface, which adds functionality of larger Sound Devices and Zaxcom systems for about 1/10 of the cost. The surface also has an additional USB port for a keyboard making data entry that bit easier.
After a full 6 months of jobs out in the field with this recorder I can say that I am happy with it. The track count has allowed me to do a few jobs already that I would otherwise not have been able to do with my 744T or would have had to take my frankly too large Allen & Heath QU-16.
Of course I've also spent some time interacting with other users on the Facebook community for these machines. It seems that there have been problems that people are getting with their units, and even with a report rate of only five users in every hundred, for the sake of completeness I feel they are worth mentioning. Amongst the most frequent reported problems are:
- Screen failure - Machine boots to a white screen. Functions still accessible by Bluetooth control if already paired. Requires a factory replacement.
- Buttons stop responding - usually happens during a working day without any prior warning. Requires reboot. May cause partial loss of recording.
Sadly I feel like it's these sort of gremlins in the software/hardware that are slowing the F8's uptake and will inevitably be its downfall if they are not properly addressed by Zoom's tech support team.
I also experienced the white screen of death in December during a thankfully quiet patch. Zoom UK replaced my F8 with no hassle, and sent me a brand new one. The issue with recording using the pre-roll also seems to have gone away with this hardware revision. So big thumbs up for Zoom's customer support service who took on my warranty return when my original retailer had gone out of business.