The ever persistent, low level noises of life

Today I broke down and purchased a Zoom H4N for many reasons.

  • I needed to record my acoustic guitar from time to time, and needed a decent way to do it.
  • I need to record small sounds for use in my songs. For example, I have this one song that has sounds of kids playing on the playground – it’s a sound I found online, thus who knows what kind of rights issues I’d have.
  • Sometimes, I need a really fast way to just ‘jot down’ a musical idea I have in my head. I can’t sing worth a damn, but I can hum.
  • Life is full of interesting sounds that, with a little tweaking, can become interesting timbres to be used in music.

I wanted something that could do good stereo and was also fairly accurate insofar as mikes went, and the H4N and it’s older sibling the H2 get great reviews. There are reports on minor noise levels, but from my understanding, you gotta be a real pro to catch them, and it’s well outside my ability (or budget) to really be able to do much about that anyway.

I got it home and played around with it and was instantly impressed. There’s actually more features inside than I’m ever going to use (I seriously doubt I’ll be mixing tracks on it), but it’s really well made and the sound is fantastic.

‘Cept this hum.

In the kitchen, it was high pitched. In the office, it was higher still. Outside was a low rumbling sound. Even in the farthest bedroom in the house with the door shut, it was a hiss.

For a bit, I was thinking the noise floor was higher than reported. I could adjust the sensitivity of the mikes down but then I was having to push the gain to hear things and thus was ending up simply compressing the noise. Noise gates made the recordings choppy. I started to think “Did I just waste a bunch of cash?”

Turns out, I didn’t at all.

In the kitchen, it was picking up my wife’s hairdryer halfway across the house. The office has 2 PC’s running and it heard the fans. The room had the AC running through the vent and outside, even though I’m a mile and a half away from it, the freeway emits a constant rumble. These are sounds I don’t hear because I hear them all the time, constantly. My brain has ‘tuned them out’ and now I suffer from ‘audiosis’ – I only notice the sounds when they’re gone.

The recorder has no such filter. It records exactly what it hears with an amazing fidelity. In fact, I was trying to get some cricket chirping tonight, and it kept picking up the mosquitoes buzzing by (100x as annoying when it’s amplified in your headphones, trust me). However, beyond the crickets was the sound of cars driving on the highway, or the AC units of the neighborhood whirring. We’re surrounded by constant noise that we just filter our mentally.

There are tools that will help remove those sounds, like RX 3 from iZotope, and that’s something I can think of when I’ve got a record label or something. Until then, I’ll just need to do my best by lowering the sensitivity of the mikes and choosing the quietest places to record.

Just an interesting observation.

UpdateHere’s an MP3 that illustrates the sound in my office when I record. The first speaking is straight out of the H4N, the second is using noise reduction. It does an okay job, however it sounds like there are ‘compression errors’ like you heard in old Real Audio clips.

posted by by Robb Allen @
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