Steam Powered (Zoom H4n vs Sony PCM-10)

Field recordings from Bitton Railway Station (a comparison between the Sony PCM-10 and the Zoom H4n)

A few weeks ago, as part of a filming trip with work I went to Bitton Railway Station just outside of Bristol. Whilst there I thought it would be a good opportunity to throw my audio recorders about and hopefully capture some nice recordings of steam engines. It would also give me a nice opportunity to make comparisons between my Zoom H4n and Sony PCM-10 recorders – not only on sound quality* but on ease of use.

Taken from the cycle-path just outside the station.

We were filming there as part of an Ri Channel filming project involving engineers (find out more here), we were interested in using old steam engines at Bitton to illustrate the problem of dynamic loading in material fatigue. A common problem with old steam engines is that they imposed an uneven / cyclic loading pattern, which was bad news for old railway bridges – often leading to their collapse and horrendous train accidents (see Dee bridge disaster).

I absolutely love the complex sounds of machinery and especially the rare sound of an old steam engine – so whilst in between hoping around madly with cameras, changing lenses or getting lost in clouds of steam I placed my recorders mostly at random and very much hoped for the best. I’ll go through the results below:

*A caveat – the recorders weren’t placed in identical locations and the recordings aren’t all made simultaneously – so the comparisons are in no way definitive.

Sony PCM-10

I was really pleased by the quality of these recordings – theres a lot of detail in them and I found that this recorder relative to the Zoom H4n was much easier to manage, in terms of setting it down somewhere and getting it into record quickly. Due to its generous battery life and size I could very easily leave it powered on and bung it in my trouser pocket – this allowed me to get it out very quickly and stick it on record at a moments notice – something that wasn’t as easy to do with the Zoom.

Another, very simple note – in this instance I much preferred the Sony’s analog gain dial, which is a physical wheel (rather than the Zoom’s buttons) – it’s not only easier to make minute adjustments but also easier to set without necessarily having to monitor the output (for example just by looking or feeling for the position of the dial)- the Zoom has a digital interface, with values from 1-100, although it’s more precise, it’s a little more fiddly to make quick adjustments and is at a greater risk of creating handling noise if adjusting during a recording.

Recordings are in stereo using the inbuilt mics, light eq added in post, removing some low end and a subtle limiter placed on it.

Train Departs Station 1 (01:31)

Recorded at the end of the station platform, with the train about a meter or so away. You can hear a few voices in the background and the controllers whistle just before it departs – I especially love the sound of the train whistle from a distance with its light reverb, it has a very haunting quality to it. The train was probably a couple of meters from the recorder.

Train Departs Station  2 (02:40)

This was both the best and the worst recording of the day, recorded from ‘the other side of the tracks’ – in other words from the ground across from the station with the train a couple of meters away, departing from center to left of the recorder. There’s some nice detail in this as the train moves into the distance, particularly its whistle and the rattly carriages, but the beginning is pretty useless as it peaks and distorts!

Setting the levels was total guess work as I had to just leave the recorder running whilst we filmed – so in this case I wasn’t so lucky! Bugger.

Here’s the same thing happening, but from the camera input  (Panasonic AF101) via a Rode NTG2 shotgun mic (mono):

Zoom H4n

I’ve always loved my Zoom, but I must admit on this occasion it was a lot more hassle to manage. It’s a lot bulkier, meaning it’s a bit of a faff to carry around and keep about your person, especially when you’ve got a lot of other gear. It also seemed to take a lot longer to power and set up (esp having to put the wind shield on each time) – the Sony seemed to manage fairly well without a windshield (but there wasn’t much wind). However the recordings were pretty nice – sometimes they sounded a bit ‘muddier’ than the Sony but this could be due to the recorders physical placement, it was often a bit further away from the action than the Sony.

Note – these recordings (I think) were taken at different times to the Sony recordings. Recordings in stereo with built in mics – light eq added in post to reduce low-end and a subtle limiter.

Train Departs Station 1 (01:22)

Recorded from the station platform, a little further back than the Sony – train moves across to the right, I particularly like the sound of the carriages as they move across the center and again the train’s whistle in the distance is lovely.

Train Enters Station (00:50)

A lot noiser this one – this captures the train entering the station from the other end, passing from left to right – the recorder was pretty low on the station floor and a couple of meters from the platform edge, it picks up a lot of voices and excited children!

Train Departs Station 2 (01:10)

Still at the other end of the platform, this time the train departs moving from right to left – you can clearly hear the controllers whistle before the train departs and voices from people standing about the platform. Again the recorder was a couple of meters from the platform edge.

Final thoughts…

Okay so this isn’t a definitive comparison review, but personally I found the Sony PCM-10 to be the more useful recorder in this circumstance. It’s far more portable – I tend to keep the Sony on me all of the time now and only bring the Zoom when I know I’m going to be recording something. If I was concentrating specifically on capturing audio, then the situation might well be different, but in this instance, when I wanted to quickly make decent recordings without much thought, the Sony was ideal. Monitoring audio without headphones was also a lot clearer with the Sony as it has little green and red (for when audio peaks) indicator lights mounted above the screen below the mics – this is great for quickly knowing when your record levels are set too high – even from a distance I could see this.

I think the pre-amps in the Sony are also much quieter than the Zoom’s which often leads to recordings with much less noise and hiss. This is especially useful when capturing the more subtle, quieter details of a soundscape.

Ultimately the portability and battery life of the Sony means that I can just leave it powered on and bung it in a bag or pocket and because of this it’s the recorder I tend to reach for more often.

If you have any thoughts, questions or experience with these recorders I would be interested to hear about them in the comments below. Additionally all these recordings are available under a Creative Commons licence – attribution, non-commercial, share-alike and I’d be happy to send them to anyone who wants them.  Hopefully I’ll get round to adding them to the Freesound Archive.

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