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Six Ways I'm Using the H4 Zoom Recorder to Do Technical-Writing Related Things

Mar 12, 2008 • general

If you asked me 6 months ago how much I used my Zoom H4 digital recorder, it wasn't much. I initially got it to record live interviews at conferences, and donations from my podcast listeners paid for the device. (Thanks, once again, guys.) But this past month, I've carried the Zoom with me everywhere I go. I use it almost every day at work. I can't imagine getting by without it.

If you're a serious technical communicator, you probably need a high-end digital recording device like this. Seriously. It will change your career by allowing you to deliver more powerful content. It allows you to add the audio dimension to your deliverables, which will take you into new territory and expand your technical writing world.

Zoom H4 Samson Digital Recorder, $299

Here are the six main situations in which I'm using the Zoom H4:

1. Video Tutorials

I always use the Zoom H4 to record video tutorials. My last help project had about 75 topics and 22 short video tutorials (by short, I mean 2-4 minutes). I think audio visual tutorials -- done with real voice, not text captions -- are one of the most powerful deliverables we can offer as technical communicators, almost more powerful than written manuals. Users absolutely love to see and hear how to do a task.

Ever since I abandoned the text-caption method with Captivate, and started using off-the-cuff voice instead (using Camtasia), the video tutorials have been a lot easier and more natural to create. (Even though they're off-the-cuff, I hit the pause and resume button many times while recording to gather my thoughts for the next few sentences. And sometimes I redo the recording 3-4 times before getting it right.)

I also decided to ditch the pan and zoom feature that I so loved because the post-production editing (setting the pan and zoom points) was taking too long. I wanted to create these videos quickly -- about 3-4 tutorials in one morning. I now leave the screen size at 800 x 600 -- this rarely requires me to incorporate pan and zooms.

Audio connects with users ten times more powerfully than captions. Bad audio can make you sound amateur, like you have a lisp or nasal congestion. Good audio, with a relaxed, eloquent voice (still working on that) can be like oasis in a desert for starving, frustrated users. The voice also makes your help human again -- an extremely important element that is often missed without audio.

The Zoom H4 acts as an audio interface to your computer and delivers crisp, clear audio -- better than most other portable recorders. The only challenge is finding a quiet place to record. (I usually end up reserving a conference room somewhere.)

2. SME Demos

When I need a SME to provide a demo of an app I need to document, it's reassuring to record the entire session. With a cheap recorder, I'd have to strain my ears trying to interpret what the SME says. With the Zoom H4, I connect it to my laptop and record with Camtasia Studio, and the Zoom H4 picks up the SME's voice clearly. I set the Zoom H4 on a mini tripod near where the SME sits, and it works beautifully. It just does a lot better job at capturing audio than other mics (plus, the Zoom H4 acts as an audio interface for your computer, so you can set it as your mic for Camtasia recordings). I described my recording process here.

If you use a cheap Olympus recorder, it can sound like sizzling bacon, and it will trap the audio in its own proprietary, super-compressed format (which you have to then export into WAV somehow). The Zoom H4 allows me to record directly in WAV or MP3 format.

3. Presentations

If I'm giving a presentation somewhere, either a software demo or a chapter presentation, or am listening to someone else present, the Zoom H4 does a great job capturing the audio clearly. I recently even bought a lapel mic and phantom adapter so I could clip a mic onto myself and record my presentation on blogging and podcasting, among others.

I've also used the Zoom H4 to capture audio when others present. One time, I put the Zoom H4 on a side table and it captured the presenter and audience comments fairly well. You can easily prop the mic onto a tripod at the front of the room near the presenter, and capture the audio decently.

The only drawback is that it is bulky and doesn't come with a belt clip, so it is a little awkward attaching it to a presenter other than yourself.

4. Podcasts

Because the Zoom H4 works as an audio interface for your computer, you can use it to record podcasts too. Start up Skype and select the Zoom H4 as an audio interface, and instead of a staticky headset, you've got a professional sounding mic.

I realize many technical communicators don't record podcasts, but when I asked for STC candidates to share their stories last year, some of them seemed to use their laptops' built-in mics, which are on par with Fisher-Price mics or Ham radio connections to China.

Perhaps if more technical communicators did have audio equipment, they would record more podcasts.

5. Live Interviews

Because it's so portable, the Zoom H4 really excels at live interviews. Last year at the STC conference I interviewed 20 different people (for example, listen to Jack Molisani here).

Despite a lot of background audio and other extraneous noise, the Zoom H4 focused on the interviewee's voice and captured it clearly. It allowed me to plug in an external standard mic (I used a Shure SM58) into the device. I've recently decided that the Zoom's built-in mics are more powerful than external mics. (I still sometimes use the Gigavox Levelator to enhance the audio.)

6. Jing Support Casts

Jing is a quick video capture tool that works well for providing support to confused users or to demo bugs for developers (I wrote about this here.) It's nice to have a quick mic available to record these.

I find myself using Jing almost every day, particularly to show bugs to others. Seeing is 100 times more convincing than a convoluted description. Additionally, Jing already compresses the audio more than I like, making it sound a bit staticky. Without a good mic to record sound clearly, the Jing audio compression may degrade too much.

Final Thoughts

The price of the Zoom H4 ($299) is definitely a drawback. And you'll spend another $100 in essential peripherals -- a carrying case, a mini tripod, a 2 GB SD card, and possibly a lapel mic, phantom adapter, and standard mic. But man, this device is definitely worth it. A lot of you have purchased iPods for Christmas or your birthday. This isn't that much more, and it will boost your career.

As an added bonus, it also looks like a taser, so you can have fun pointing it at people and pretending to press a button.

I never would have discovered this high-end recording device had I not gotten into podcasting. It's interesting how skills in one field have carried over into another.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.