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Sound Devices and Zoom: affordable high end recorders

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Old Friday 29th June 2018, 21:24   #1
Borjam
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Sound Devices and Zoom: affordable high end recorders

Seems this hasn't been noticed here before, so there we go.

Turns out that both Zoom and Sound Devices are now selling high performance recorders at prices well below $1000. That was unheard of Sound Devices before.

It seems that everything begun with Zoom stepping up their game and releasing the F8, an 8 input recorder designed for motion picture/video applications with very good preamp specifications.

Sound Devices followed suit with the new MixPre series. The first models released were the MixPre 3 (three microphone preamps, it records three channels and a stereo mix) and the MixPre 6 (four microphoe preamps).

Later Zoom released the F4, a scaled down version of the F8 with four mic preamps.

What is really amazing are the prices. I am quoting prices from a German dealer, VAT included, but good to have an idea of the orders of magnitude involved.

Zoom F4: ~ 500 euro

Zoom F8: ~ 700 euro (on sale because a new improved F8n model is coming, it would be close to 1000 euro)

MixPre 3: ~ 750 euro

MixPre 6: ~ 1000 euro.

I have purchased the MixPre 3 myself and I am really amazed. Granted, it's a really expensive recorder. But before these models were released last year Sound Devices entry model was the 702 at more than 3500 euro.

So what's different?

Well, for a start the small MixPre seem to keep the same key specifications of their larger siblings. That means outstanding preamps and a terrific headphone output. The latter is really critical when recording in nature. They have also paid a lot of attention to the ergonomics, with very comfortable to use faders and a very bright screen that can be read in full daylight.

The MixPre also has M/S decoding, real analog limiters (I have tortured them a bit and they work very well) and outstanding high pass filters to help battle low frequency wind and/or handling noise.

Compared to the larger 702, the MixPre doesn't generate time code (but it can accept linear SMPTE or HDMI timecode), it doesn't have digital I/O, and it doesn't record into two different media simultaneously. Except for those motion picture features the MixPre really belongs to a comparable performance class.

Although I haven't tried the Zoom models, reviewers point out that the headphone amplifier isn't as good as the MixPres (people say it's good, but the MixPre is excellent) and metering can be a bit cumbersome, especially in the F4 with a low resolution monochrome screen.

Although in my opinion the MixPres are better (that's why I got the MixPre 3) the Zooms are a terrific value. In any case the gap in sound quality between the high end models and these affordable ones has really shrunk.

Note: Sound Devices has released cheaper versions of the MixPres with a "M" suffix, but they are more catered for musicians. They replace options such as M/S decoding with musician oriented features. I think that for nature recording it's much better to opt for the "non-M" models.

Note that both the Sound Devices and Zoom units can have some learning curve to master. Especially the MixPres have a double personality as production mixers with a recorder inside and flexibility makes them a bit harder to use. Anyway there is an easier to use "basic" mode and it can be really rewarding to devote some time to master them.

I forgot, another nice feature of these recorders is that they integrate pretty well with video and still cameras that often have an atrocious sound. There are other options for that market of course, with the Tascam DR-60 and DR-t0 as excellent examples, but the performance is not the same.

Disclosure: I purchased the unit for my own use, I don't work for Sound Devices nor Zoom, and I don't even work for any audio equipment dealer.

Now, the toys:

MixPre 3

MixPre 6

Zoom F4

Zoom F8
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Old Friday 28th September 2018, 07:06   #2
BCNightjar
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Thanks for this run-down. I have been eyeing up both the Zoom F4 and the MixPre3. Do you have any thoughts on the preamp performance between the two? There are a couple features of the Zoom that I prefer for field recording, such as the ability to record in mono (since I use a mono microphone - stereo results in larger file sizes with no advantage) and a pre-record buffer (6-seconds on the Zoom). I previously emailed SoundDevices enquiring if they would address either of those issues in a Firmware update, and was told by them to just buy one of their top-end recorders for thousands more! I've also heard very poor reviews of the battery-life performance of the MixPre, although this can be overcome with additional battery packs.
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Old Friday 28th September 2018, 11:03   #3
Borjam
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Quote:
Originally Posted by BCNightjar View Post
Do you have any thoughts on the preamp performance between the two?
I only have experience with the MixPre 3, I own one.

In numbers both are comparable as far as I know. The MixPre has some
advantages, though: limiters and high pass filtering in the analog domain. The Zoom does a clever trick to implement a limiter in the digital domain at the expense of some A/D resolution. On the other hand, the MixPre limiters have a fixed 500 ms release time (adequate for dialog recording and similar applications) while the Zoom is much more configurable.

The longish release time can mostly be a problem for recordists capturing very sharp transients like gunshots mixed with dialog (the release time would be noticeable) but mostly harmless in nature field recording I guess. Also a problem if you wish to record a documentary about hunting :)

People who record dialogs for picture have commented on the different sound of the preamps, but in that case the microphone also matters, as well as the microphone position, etc.

Quote:
There are a couple features of the Zoom that I prefer for field recording, such as the ability to record in mono (since I use a mono microphone - stereo results in larger file sizes with no advantage)
The worst shortcoming of the MixPre is its documentation.

It has a double personality: audio mixer and field recorder. When recording it defaults to recording a stereo mix and individual channels (called ISOs, from isolated in the motion picture sound trade). By default it offers a stereo mix that is often fed to the camera when shooting video. But that's only a use case.

You can arm/disarm individual channels for recording and you can disable recording the individual mix in the MixPre.

You can even store presets in the unit. In my case, I have three:

- Nature-MO: when recording with a shotgun. In this case I only record one channel (one ISO) in mono, no stereo mix. The same channel routed to both headphone channels for mono monitoring.

- Nature-ST: Two channels in stereo when I use a stereo microphone. Channels 1&2 linked in stereo (so that the gain is exactly the same) and recording just both channels, no stereo mix either. Each one of the channels is panned to one of the headphone channels.

- Nature-3: Channels 1&2 linked in stereo and channel 3 enabled for the shotgun. In this case the three channels are enabled for recording, 1 and 2 are panned to L and R in the headphones, while channel 3 is sent to both headphone channels in mono. Again, I don't record the stereo mix, only three ISOs.

It took some exploration to master it but the MixPre is amazingly configurable.

Needless to say, if anyone wants my preset files just whistle. There's nothing secret about them and they can be shared, it can store them as files in the SD card.

Quote:
and a pre-record buffer (6-seconds on the Zoom). I previously emailed SoundDevices enquiring if they would address either of those issues in a Firmware update, and was told by them to just buy one of their top-end recorders for thousands more!
They have just announced that it's coming in version 3 of the firmware. 5 seconds for the MixPre 3 and 6, 10 seconds for the MixPre 10T.

My guess is that they focused on the amateur/low cost video market and podcasters and they didn't realize that they had released a killer nature field recorder. Regarding the difference in buffer size I'm sure it's a matter of available memory in the SoC.

Quote:
I've also heard very poor reviews of the battery-life performance of the MixPre, although this can be overcome with additional battery packs.
High performance electronics require power. The preamps must be very hungry.
And the excellent display in the MixPre (really superior to the F4, metering is very usable) also needs power.

That said the MixPre has several powering options.

When using AA batteries it's very important to avoid alkaline batteries because the MixPre needs current. They recommend NiMH. Eneloop Pros work very well.

- The 4 AA battery sled provided as standard.

- An optional 8 AA battery sled.

- An optional sled for 2 Sony style L-mount camcorder batteries. These batteries are inexpensive, have a lot of capacity and you can how swap them without stopping the recorder. It can look a bit awkward but it shouldn't be much of an issue in a sound bag.

- A USB-C battery. (Always look for USB-C, the "normal" USB batteries won't provide enough current).

They now mention several third party solutions such as Hirose adapters.

https://www.sounddevices.com/tech-no...wering-options


Battery life can be extended reducing the brightness for the display and the signal level LEDs in the knobs.

https://www.sounddevices.com/tech-no...batteryruntime

In my case I chose the MixPre 3 because I liked the concept, even though the F8 was available at the same price at the time (the F8n was about to be released).

As an advice, well, I would read the user manuals for both and, if possible, try to get a feeling of them in person. In my case I didn't have a retailer nearby so I ordered online.

I would buy the MixPre again, although the F4 with four channels offers Ambisonics, which requires a MixPre 6 in the SD family (which means the price goes up to the 1000 € region). That would maybe make me reconsider the 3 and buy a 6.

Anyway, for now I'm perfectly happy being able to use a shotgun and a stereo microphone.

Hope it helps.

I forgot: Something I liked about Sound Devices as well is that their equipment seems to age very well. Indeed I saw internal photos from the FCC certification and at least in the prototype sent for approval it used high end electrolytic caps, which means a longer useful life. As far as I know they are also committed to offer a long term repair service, I imagine that this policy will also cover the MixPres.

Last edited by Borjam : Friday 28th September 2018 at 11:15.
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