Zoom Q8/Q8n4k – 3 tips and tricks


This little thing is the Zoom Q8. It’s a camcorder, sort of, but with a bit of a twist. More about that later. It came out in 2015, and I’ve had this one for several years, but recently, I think I’ve figured out the best way to use it for my purposes, so I thought I’d make a video just to share a few of those ideas.

Now planning this video, I looked up online and I found that it was still a current model, so I thought “That’ll be good, if people want to try what I’m doing they can go and buy themelves one.” Then, of course, literally a couple of days ago I saw on my YouTube feed a review for the new, updated version, which is called the Q8n4k. So this thing, it’s no longer a current model, but look I’ve watched the reviews for the new version, and I think everything I”m going to say about how I use this thing will apply to the new model as well. So if you want to go and get yourself one of them, then great, and if you’re a bit like me, and you’re a bit of a cheapskate, you might be able to pick up this original model second hand, because there’ll be other people upgrading.

I’m not going to review this thing, because there are plenty of reviews up online already, and they take you through all the features, but I’ll just let you know briefly what it is and what it does.

This Japanese company Zoom has been making clever, cheap music products for a long time, and probably they’re best known among musicians for their audio recorders like this one. This is called a Zoom H4, and it’s just a box with a couple of stereo microphone inputs here, which you can record with, and then on the other side there are these inputs where you can plug in some other mics, and it all just records onto an SD card under here, so these have become so common in the music business that you can talk about “I’m just going to use my Zoom recorder”, and everybody knows exactly what you’re talking about, you’re talking about one of these. This is an older model, Zoom H4, there’s a new one called an H4n which is probably even more common than this one.

So getting back to the Q8, you could think of this as a Zoom recorder, with a camera built into it. In audio terms, it’s more or less in line with the H4n, which is the successor to this one, but generally speaking you could think of it as, yeah, just another Zoom recorder, except in this case it has a camera built into it. I’ll take this windsock off and you can see there’s our XY microphones, this sort of pops up like this, so that it stands and points in the right direction, and then you can see in there there’s your XY pair of microphones.

It sort of looks like a compact camcorder, sort of like this Sony one here, but it’s quite different, really. In camera terms it’s really more like something like this, this is a poor man’s GoPro. The lens on the Q8 is much more like the lens on here. It’s a fixed focus, very wide angle lens, no zoom or anything like that. So it’s sort of sub-smartphone level in terms of video quality, I’d say. It does record slightly higher than full HD, but gee the lens is so soft, I don’t really think that all those pixels really help very much, to be honest.

But what it is is an extremely wide angle lens. I don’t know if you can see on there, it says 160 degrees, supposedly, and I think that’s probably pretty right, based on my experience. And the sheer wide angle nature of this lens is one of the critical features of it, which I’m going to talk about in a little bit.

In the new version, by the way, the lens and the sensor have both been upgraded, but I do notice that the new lens says it’s 150 degrees, whereas this is 160 degrees. That probably won’t matter to most people, but possible it may matter to me. I’ll see if I can figure that out if I ever get my hands on one.

So taken all together as a unit, this device is extremely useful for someone like me. I need to be able to capture good quality audio, and reasonable quality video, quickly and easily, and without turning my gigs into a film set with crap set up everywhere. It took me a while to nut this thing out, but it’s become pretty central to my strategy, and if it broke tomorrow, I’d probably go and buy a new one.

So in terms of price, we don’t have Australian prices yet for the new version, but this one here is still selling at around the $600 mark, as I’m making this video. So look, considering you can buy a little handycam like this secondhand on Marketplace, I got this one for $100, and then the Zoom recorder, even if you want to buy the H4n, the new one, you can get them secondhand for sort of $200-250, you’re paying a fair bit for having everything integrated into a camera. So why do I think it’s worth it? Well, I’ll see if I can explain how I’ve figured out how to make this thing worthwhile.

So the first thing to look at is how this ridiculously wide lens allows you to place the camera incredibly close to the band that you’re recording. So I did a bit of recording out in the street the other day, with a trio, and I had this camera set up on a microphone stand, in front of Ian here on the flugel horn, and it was incredibly close. We were playing in front of a shop, on a fairly narrow footpath, and there was easily space for wheelchairs or whatever to pass behind the camera. It was almost as close as you might normally have a microphone for vocals, and I think having the camera on a mic stand kinda might actually trick people into thinking that’s what it is, and that’s part of what I like about it. Standing there and playing in front of it, it’s seriously hard to believe that you’re actually in frame, it’s that close. You can hear Ian here, he can’t quite believe it. “We’re very close to this camera now, mate!” Now, you might have noticed, this image is very distorted, when the camera’s that close, especially around the edges of the frame, and if you were just focusing on creating really good looking video, there’s probably no way you’d choose this angle or this lens, but remember, I’m not here to create goreeous looking music videos. I’m really about capturing the audio in high quality, and then capturing watchable video to go with it. And doing it all quickly and easily enough that I can maintain a flow of fresh content without all the video production distracting from the main job that I’m doing when I’m on the gig, which is to be playing good music, not to be fiddling around with cameras and all sorts of stuff.

So the crazy wideness of this lens does two things. First of all, it lets you set up in the camera in a place that’s not going to annoy anyone, and it’s not going to be obstructed by anyone. Sometimes you can set up cameras in discreet places around the venue where you’re playing, and you can capture different angles and that’s fantastic, but it’s nice to have at least one angle that’s pretty bulletproof in terms of someone deciding to stand in front of it and start chowing down on a Vietnamese hand roll. It doesn’t add very much to the visual clutter of the band setup, which I’m pretty sensitive to. So if you went and used a normal handicam like this one, you would need to get this an extra probably two or three metres away from the band at its widest zoom level, to get the band actually in frame, and that spot is often going to be right in the middle of a thoroughfare where the staff are carrying food through, and where people want to stand, I’ve always been reluctant to set up anything in a place where I think it could be annoying. So this one, the Zoom, can be close enough to the band that it sort of looks and feels like a part of the band setup, and that can allow you to rescue usable video out of situation where there’s just nowhere suitable to put cameras further away.

In the case of acoustic music, like this roving trio, having the camera that close has an extra benefit, because it gets the microphones really close as well. These microphones are condenser microphones, which are kind of like tiny versions of a big microphone like this, which you’ve probably seen being used in recording studios and whatnot. Condensers are great at capturing a lot of detail in the sound, which is fantastic if you’re in a recording studio or in a quite room, but when you’re out in the street, that sensitivity creates a bit of a liability, because they’ll capture everything, including all the background noise. So here’s some video I recorded using the Q8, but I set it up on a tripod just across the footpath from where we were playing. You can hear the music, but you’ll hear it kind of fades into the background of all the traffic going past.

Compare that one to this one recorded right up close, and the ratio of music to traffic, if you like, goes right up.

If you’re listening on headphones, you might be able to hear that the stereo field I’m getting on this one is really wide, in other words there’s a lot of tuba in one side and a lot of banjo in the other side. But if you don’t like that it’s fairly easy to narrow it down in editing so it sounds a bit more natural.

I just noticed actually while I was making this video that the XY angle on these microphones is really wide. I don’t know if you can pick it up too well on the video, but the angle between those two microphones is well getting on towards 150 degrees maybe. If you compare that to the H4, where they’re sort of at 90 degrees to each other, these ones are spread much wider. And that’s probably not a bad thing when you’re micing it that close. Because if you were using the H4, you may well sort of lose little bit of tuba and a bit of banjo out the side of where this angle captures. So that’s just something interesting I noticed while I was doing it.

So that’s my first tip on using the Q8. Get a tripod adapter for a mic stand, and you can get them on eBay. I’ve put an eBay ballhead on here as well, which can be handy. I think it just blends in better with the band setup than putting up a tripod. Disguises it a little bit. Put it unreasonably close to the band, just far enough to get everyone in frame. And then you’ve got something that’s compact, undistracting, and creates usable video that probably won’t get sabotaged, along with audio that excludes most of the background noise and captures a good wide stereo image, if that’s what you’re after. Okay, on to my second tip.

When I’m doing a gig with PA, which I do on most of my background jazz trio gigs, I’ll bring my PA along, I record the audio using my digital mixer. So in theory that means I don’t really need the audio from the Zoom camera. I can still set it up close and I can get those nice safe pictures that I’m talking about, but in the back of my mixer I’ve got an SD card, and that’s capturing separate tracks for all the instruments, so I can mix them later on, and on a good day I can get audio that sounds almost like it’s coming from a recording studio. The music I put on the start of this video was recorded that way.

Now, there’s an issue with that, and that issue is trumpet players. When you set up a microphone for a trumpet player, they’ll usually use it for vocals, like Gianni’s doing here, and for playing into with a mute, but when they’re playing unmuted, they’ll often move themselves away from the microphone. And that’s find from the point of view of the audience, because they’re just hearing the trumpet sound acoustically, but it’s a problem for the recording, because trumpet is very directional, so that microphone sitting there is picking up more or less nothing at all.

So this is a recording that I did a few weeks ago with Lightning Jazz, which is a six piece band, playing here up in Eltham, and you can see Ken here on the trumpet is playing well away from his microphone, and also Paul on the trombone is playing well away from his microphone, and if we have a little listen to what that sounds like, you’ll hear a bit of trumpet and a bit of trombone, but compared with the rest of the band, they sound pretty distant. This is the sound just from the trumpet mic. We’re sort of just hearing him, but we’re hearing just as much drums. And then the trombone mic sounds like this. Again, not that much trombone compared with everyone else. But then, if we listen to the Q8, which is these mics, just down here. You can see this is the recorder on its mic stand just in front of Ken and Paul. On this mic, we get quite a bit of trumpet, and quite a bit of trombone. So if I go back to the full mix now, and just bring them … all of a sudden I’ve kind of been able to rescue that whole mix just by mixing in the sound from these two microphones.

If I want to use the sound from these mics, then there’s no point just recording it onto the camera. It needs to get into my mixer and be recording in sync with the other instruments. You can sync video later, but you can’t sync audio later (long story). Fortunately, there’s a feature that allows us to do that.

On the back of the camera here, as well as having our microphone inputs, there’s also a headphone input, which is designed for you to monitor sound if you’re recording out in the field with a set of headphones, but I don’t use it for that. I use it to plug in a long extension cable, and on the other end of that extension cable I’ve got a couple of adatpers which just allow me to plug that headphone output straight into my PA system, and that means that as well as capturing the different instruments, like the bass, the guitar, and capturing the vocal mic, all that sort of stuff, I’m also capturing these two microphones being fed through this headphone output and into my recording. So these two mics effectively become just another part of my multitrack recording. And that means that if I’m missing some trumpet or something because he’s not playing on-mic, then I can just go ahead and mix in the signal from these and that can rescue the trumpet where I otherwise might lose it.

The other thing that it can be handy for is just creating a little bit of room sound. So I mentioned that sometimes my gig recordings can sound a bit like a recording studio, which is nice, but sometimes you actually want it to sound a bit more like the room, and a bit less like it’s separate from the room, so by just adding a little bit of the sound from these microphones I can create just a little bit of that room sound and a little bit of stereo field, spacial kind of sense into the recording, rather than everything being very isolated and clean like it is when I’m just recording the multitracks.

That technique works really well in a quiet environment like a concert, or maybe an outdoor gig where there’s not much background noise, but I’ve tried to use it on a noisy indoor gig, and it doesn’t work nearly as well, because those condensers will grab all of that crowd noise along with the trumpet, so you can turn up the trumpet, but you’re also turning up the crowd along with it. So I think a second dynamic mic is probably the answer for those louder gigs.

So that’s my tip number two: don’t waste the signal from those condensers just because you’re recording a multitrack on your mixer. It can be a lifesaver sometimes.

Here’s my third tip. This one only applies if you’ve got a gig with a PA, but you’re using say an analog mixer, and you don’t have the multitrack recording capabilities, and that’s most jazz bands most of the time. These condensers, they’re great at recording acoustic sound, but you’ll find that when they record amplified sound, especially vocals, they’ll tend to sound very muddy and indistinct. That’s just something that happens when you try to record sound coming out of a speaker. It doesn’t work very well. So I’ve got some good results by setting up the recorder like you normally might, but using these two inputs on the back, or even just one of them, to take an output from the mixer as well. So you’re using the microphones to capture all the acoustic sounds, like trumpets and drums and so on that might not be coming through the PA, and then you’re using these two inputs on the back to capture the stuff that’s coming through the PA. And if you can separate the vocals out onto one channel, like if you’ve got a spare mix on your mixer and you know how to do that, then that’s sort of useful, but you don’t really have to. If you just put the whole PA mix into either just one mono mix or a stereo mix into these two channels, then that generally works out better than it really deserves to. And that lets you dial back the detail into those vocals and the electric instruments, and avoid that sort of muddy noise you get on smartphone videos that people take from gigs.

So just to demonstrate that, here’s a recording that I made many years ago with Ruby Page. Here’s the late great Ron Sandilands on Drums with Peter Uppman on trumpet, and here I’ve used I think my old Zoom H4 to capture the audio, and I believe I’ve got an omni mic, which is like a 360 degree kind of mic, sitting on the floor here somewhere around where the bass is, I think, probably between the bass and the drums, and then I’ve used this technique of plugging just one channel of the PA sound into the other side of the H4. So it’s equivalent to what you could do with the Q8, except the Q8 is probably going to sound a bit better than this. But if we have a listen to just the omni mic first, you’ll hear that really muddy vocal sound which I’m talking about. So you can hear the vocals, but they’re really not very prominent. Now if Iswitch over to the PA sound, then we get this sort of very clean sound with lots of vocals, lots of trumpet, and lots of piano, but if I blend them together, starting with the omni, and I might just restart this so we can hear vocals, if I start with the omni, and then I just blend in this PA sound, then without putting in too much effort you’ve sort of created what you could say is a usable mix that you’re pretty happy to listen to.

That’s my three little tips for getting the most out of this little Q8, or the new Q8n4k. And apart from my last tip, they also apply to the smaller versions. There’s a Q2n, and a Q2n4k, and they’re just smaller and they don’t have the extra inputs on them, but if you’ve got a PA you can record through, then you don’t really need those extra inputs anyway, and they do have the headphone output on them that lets you grab those tracks and put them onto your mix if you want to.

I’ve got the first instalment of tracks on my trio playlist up on YouTube now, so I’ll put a link up here and if you’d like to have a listen please do.

I make weekly videos on running my small live music business, so if you think that sounds interesting, then subscribing might be worth your while, and I’ll catch you again next week.

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