Six tracks and a lot more
The Zoom H6 redefines versatility with swappable microphone capsules and the ability to record six tracks simultaneously or individual tracks one at a time. Once again, Zoom has brought down the size and price of portable multitrack recording technology while greatly increasing features. Priced below $500 and weighing just over a pound, the H6 can simultaneously capture six tracks of 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/96kHz WAV files, as well as MP3s, onto SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards (up to 128GB) while running on four AA batteries.
The H6 comes with two microphone capsules that you can swap as if they were lenses on a DSLR camera. Four combo TRS/XLR jacks provide additional inputs for external mics or feeds from other audio sources. Each jack has a –20dB pad switch, and the H6 supplies variable-voltage phantom power to all four jacks simultaneously. (Zoom says the H6’s inputs are hotter than those on previous models.) The stereo mic/line input on the XY capsule can also provide plug-in power. Audio output is through the headphone minijack, line-level jack, or rear-mounted speaker. A backlit color LCD provides a graphical user interface, and a mini USB jack provides a connection to your computer.
Front-panel buttons, labeled L and R, enable mic-capsule recording, and buttons for the four jacks are labeled 1 through 4. A knob on the capsule adjusts its input level, and four knobs below the capsule adjust levels for the four inputs. Except for the Record button, which is slightly recessed to prevent engaging it accidentally, all the buttons produce a satisfying click when pressed.
You could operate the H6 with one hand, but because the mic capsule makes it top-heavy, you’ll want to use both hands. The H6’s curved back and sloping lower section help to mitigate its physical imbalance and make it fit more comfortably against your palm.
Along with the two mic capsules, the H6 comes with a foam windscreen, a 2GB Micro SD card and adapter, a USB cable, four AA batteries, a printed manual, and a DVD containing Steinberg Cubase LE6. You also get a plastic carrying case for the entire kit. Options include two additional capsules (see below) and an accessory kit ($74 MSRP, $59 street) containing an AC adapter, a wired remote, and a hairy windscreen for the two included mics.
Mic Check The H6’s capsules quickly snap on and off as needed. One features an X/Y coincident pair—two crossing directional mics that you can rotate slightly to vary the angle from 90 to 120 degrees—suitable for recording relatively close sources such as individual instruments or small ensembles. The other is a mid-side mic that lets you adjust the width of the stereo field, making it better for recording wider stereo images such as concert performances. You can turn off the side mic for mono recording.
Zoom also offers the optional H6 shotgun mic capsule ($162 MSRP, $129 street). The H6 is certainly an odd sight with this 6-inch-long mic attached, especially with the included hairy windscreen, which looks just like an animal’s tail. Fortunately, the combination isn’t as unwieldy as it looks because the mic is so lightweight, and it’s very effective at isolating signals at a distance.
Another option is the EXH-6 XLR/TRS expansion module ($87 MSRP, $69 street). In the place of a mic capsule, it offers an additional pair of XLR/TRS inputs with separate level knobs but no phantom power. The EXH-6 is indispensible when you want to record six tracks directly off a mixing board or use six line inputs or external mics, as long as no more than four of them require phantom power.
Box of Tricks Zoom really packed the H6 with useful features. Using only the mic capsule, backup recording captures a second pair of tracks at a lower input level in case the first pair overloads. Recording can begin two seconds before you press the Record button, or you can set a threshold to start and stop recording automatically. You can drop markers, loop playback between two points, change the playback speed, transpose pitch, instantly normalize the signal, and more. You can even tag audio files with a voice memo, which helps tremendously when you’re organizing remote recordings back at the studio. You also get a built-in metronome, chromatic tuner, and compressor/limiter.
Like any good multitrack recorder, the H6 can overdub on separate tracks during subsequent passes, and you can adjust the level and panning of each track. When you record overdubs, the H6 creates a separate stereo or mono WAV or MP3 file to supplement the previous stereo or mono file. I was doubly impressed that my Mac recognized the recorder as a 6-in, stereo-out audio interface. (Windows requires a driver.)
Simply put, the H6 is a remarkable piece of machinery. If you’ve ever wished for a 6-track recorder you could slip into your coat pocket, especially one as versatile as the H6, technology has finally caught up with your desires.
Former Electronic Musician senior editor Geary Yelton lives in Asheville, NC, once home to famous writers like Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry.
Strengths Four balanced XLR/TRS inputs. Swappable mic capsules. Phantom power. Variable playback speed. Pitch transposition.
Limitations AC power supply is optional. Battery indicator has only three segments. Can’t independently select jacks for phantom power.
$499 MSRP, $399 street