Back in 2015 when the F8 was released, Zoom began to be known for something other than their prosumer or documentary tools. Prior to this, for better or for worse, the infamous H4n was the face of the company for pro sound mixers (despite their array of other products). While not at all a bad device for what it did, it was so often one of the go-to choices for video teams looking for ways to cut corners with audio. The F8 was the first offering from Zoom to specifically target a real location sound team. To me though, it ended up feeling more like a proof of concept. So close to the mark, but falling just short of greatness. The F8n on the other hand, feels like the full realization of what Zoom was trying to achieve with the F8. And I feel that it really comes through.
I want to add that I don’t believe the F8 to be a poor device. It’s quite the contrary. There were just a few aspects that kept me from wanting to take it out on a project. Clearly aimed (mostly) at indie narrative work, the F8 was the closest thing to a 788T “killer” on the market. With the F8n, I believe that it has largely achieved that title. The F8 has been out for years, and so rather than break down everything about the F8n entirely, I will primarily be focussing on showing how it has exceeded its predecessor to become a device that can crush any indie narrative film shoot (and more).
The Physical Design And Layout
If you looked at the F8n and thought that it was an F8, its understandable as they are pretty much physically identical. Aside from the all metal chassis, it has 8 XLR/TRS – Mic/Line inputs, 8 gain knobs, Timecode in and out BNC ports, dual SD card recording at 24bit and up to 192khz, 2 main TA3 outputs, 2 sub outputs on a single 3.5mm jack, either AA, hirose, or 2.1mm dc jack for power, and Zoom’s proprietary 10-pin connector for their mic accessories.
I’ll go ahead and say here that the lack of physical design change from the F8 to the F8n doesn’t bother me. Particularly because this device, like the aforementioned Sound Devices 788T, is a recorder first and a mixer second. So while some may clammer for larger trim knobs, I wouldn’t give it a knock for not obliging. (I’ll address a wish list for add-ons later, plus many industrious individuals with 3D printers have already developed attachments).
The Internal Features
Here is where the real changes were made, and, in some cases, they were sorely needed.
First off, I want to mention the inputs. On the F8, for reasons beyond me, a source was determined to be mic or line based on the type of connector used. If an XLR was plugged in, then it was always mic level. If it was TRS, then it was always line. Not being able to toggle between mic and line in the device almost felt like a deal breaker in itself on the F8. On the F8n, that is no longer the case. So rejoice and use whichever connector that you wish for whatever level that you desire.
Next, the headphone amp. On the F8, the headphone amp was not so great. While we don’t always need the best of the best for monitoring, this was kind of running too far in the other direction. The F8n’s headphone amp has been improved to the point where the user will no longer be thinking about how it sounds at all. As it should be.
While the timecode generator on the F8 was solid, it had issues holding the clock once it was powered off. The F8n fixes this issue by making sure to stay accurate to within .2ppm. When I took it out on shoots and left it powered off for an hour during lunch, it was perfectly in sync when I returned. It will go a good deal longer than that, but theres just a bit of first hand experience.
Zoom has finally added Automix, and it’s a welcomed addition. I tested it both in a conference room setup, as well as in a live event that I ran through it (more on that below). Have to say that it performed pretty well. I could hear it gracefully pulling unused channels in and out, as well as reacting pretty quickly to new people piping up into the conversation.
The last big thing that I want to call out are the new “Look Ahead Limiters”. It’s really challenging to try and create a rock solid limiter. In fact its often seen as one of the deciding factors in whether or not a device is up to snuff or not. Sound Devices seems to approach their limiters with analog sorcery. Zaxcom approaches their “Neverclip” digital limiters by running two versions of the same audio, with one padded so that it can seamlessly switch between when the signal could peak. The best of the best all have their own methods of tackling this, and here is Zoom’s answer. By adding only a 1ms delay, the F8n can anticipate peaks before they enter the signal path for recording. Just for comparison, a Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid wireless set will incur about a 3ms delay, so this 1ms isn’t going to be perceptible. I took these limiters out for several test drives and the difference between the old limiters on the F8 is massive. Not that anyone wants to go out on a job and smash into their limiters constantly, but I feel pretty confident that with the Look Ahead Limiters, I could get away with it pretty well.
***The Look Ahead Limiters and Automix have since been ported to the F8 via a firmware update. Zoom also claims to have fixed timecode and headphone amp issues on the F8. This brings the F8 closer, but in my opinion its still not enough to eclipse the other advancements made by the F8n***
The External Features
A much desired change between the connection with the FRC-8 linear fader board and the recorder is that it can now be bus powered by the usb port on the F8n! Yippee! Seriously, this is great because it helps streamline the workflow when powering your bag or cart. You can still use the hirose port on the FRC-8 or the AA slot, but I like using USB.
Operations with the bluetooth iOS control remain the same as they were previously. You can still control fader gain, trim gain, metadata, etc from a tablet. Which is more than one could say for the Wingman and Nomad touch controllers. (Don’t get mad. I still love Wingman and Nomad Touch for what they are).
The ability to use the F8n with ambisonics mics also remains a great feature due to the ability to channel link multiple inputs to one gain knob. With that being more and more a requested recording style, it’s a great leg up for Zoom to keep.
Experiences, Wishlist, And Issues
When I do a review of a piece of gear, I am usually most interested in examining its value in a real world context, rather than just parroting back the design specs. The manufacturer will do this anyway, so over the course of several months, I would look for specific situations in which to put the F8n through its paces. This included narrative projects, run & gun, and even a couple of live events.
Above you can see the F8n mounted below my Sound Devices 633 for comparison at a couple of the live events that I mixed and recorded. My feeling after use was that the experience was excellent. The workflow was smooth and the interface was great. The TA3 outputs had plenty of power to drive the speakers, and the FRC-8 allowed me to gracefully control the noise and to prevent feedback in the room.
I’ve also used this for narrative projects and its like butter. In fact I kind of love how compact this setup can be. It perfectly lives on my Orca OR-48 Orcart with the keyboard tray pulled out. So I can relocate very easily, while still feeling like I have a light cart setup.
After several projects, I have a lot of faith in the durability, reliability, and longevity of the F8n. I would flat out strongly recommend it for any of these uses.
That all being said, there are a few issues that, while problematic for some, don’t stop this from being a great recorder.
First, you cannot route the ISO tracks to be post-fader. Especially for a device which is a recorder first, and a mixer second, this is disappointing to me. Based on the needs and workflow for each project, sometimes I choose to not, or am asked not, to deliver the mix. They often don’t want it, and ask for only the ISO tracks because modern NLE’s are perfectly capable of handling multitrack polywav files. They don’t need to double up on the audio by keeping the stereo mix. So in these cases, being able to set the ISO tracks to post fade would give finer control over the levels. This issue alone keeps me from wanting to take it on a slew of jobs.
Another issue involves the FRC-8. The F8n has +24db of fader gain available, whereas the F8 has only +12db. Since the FRC-8 was designed to be used with the F8, it is only able to access +12db of fader gain on the F8n. Using the knobs on the F8n, the user is able to access the full +24db. While it probably isn’t that common that one would need to use all 24db of gain on the fader, its still an issue that needs to be addressed because it limits the functionality.
Aside from these, I personally have not discovered any other overt “issues.” Zoom has been made aware of the FRC-8 gain limit as well as the post fade ISO feature request, however at the time of this writing, neither have been addressed in a firmware update. My hopes are that they will be down the line since they are the only things keeping the F8n from being perfect in its class.
The only thing that I would really put on my wish list for the F8n would be an attachment to it which would add eight rotary faders for bag use so that the stock knobs could be kept as trim. Sort of like the CL-8 for the 788T. **hint hint*. Especially since they already have the FRC-8 linear fader board, similarly to the CL-9. Quite frankly that would turn the F8n into an all purpose narrative beast, and a pretty capable ENG device as well.
I would take, and have taken, the F8n into battle. It not only held up to expectations, it in many ways exceeded them. With a robust build quality, intuitive user interface, clean gain staging, great accessories, and shiny LED’s, I think that Zoom knocked it out of the park.
For a company that most pro audio users steered clear of in the past, they have certainly come a long way. Stigma is a tough thing to surmount. Because of the general climate of the industry as well as their past, it will take some time before Zoom can totally escape being thought of as prosumer. However to those who spend some real time with the F8n, I believe that the majority will see what a supreme effort that Zoom has given to delivering a product which professionals want and need at a shockingly low price, given its features.
The F8 was a novel effort, and they got a lot right with it. But in the end, it felt like a prototype or a proof of concept for what would become the excellent F8n; and excellent it is. I think that anyone wanting to build an indie kit would do very, very well with the F8n. Keep going Zoom, because there’s still room in the world for more options. Your presence in the higher end fields will only cause everyone else to innovate more. Kudos to a job well done, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
Jared Elkin is a professional sound mixer located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.