Digital Recording for Analog Minds

If you’re like me, looking through layers of buried menus on digital devices for the one thing you need to do is enough to drive you batty. Yet, virtually every digital device in our lives today — from smartphones to cameras to simple audio recorders — comes with layer upon layer of menus in no certain order or place.

Since moving from an old CPM-based computer using cryptic Wordstar word processing in the mid-80s to the first 128K Macintosh, I have been very aware of this needless complexity created by uncreative engineers. From the first time I used a Mac, I realized that Steve Job’s genius was simplifying all that gobbledygook for the rest of us. Sadly, Steve Jobs is gone and Apple is back to its old pre-Jobs ways, as is most everyone else today.

Last week, a breath of fresh air came blowing in from a surprising place. Zoom, long-time maker of high quality, low cost audio recorders and other pro audio products, introduced a new generation of its lowest priced audio recorder, the H1n.

The first generation of this product was OK and sold well to videographers. The new version, however, reflects genius in creating simplicity for us analog minds who just want to record audio. It’s like the spirit of Steve Jobs was found hiding at Zoom.

So how did Zoom do it? By concentrating on the user interface, stupid! Something few companies do anymore. All the essential controls have an on-off button and there is very little visual clutter. One glance, and everything you need to know is apparent. Whoever designed this new recorder has insight into the analog mind. Let him loose to design more interfaces!

Yes, like what’s expected with any new model recorder today, the Zoom H1n's 90-degree X/Y microphones support up to 24-bit audio at sampling rates of 44.1, 48, or 96 kHz in WAV and various MP3 formats. And it’s inexpensive — $119.99. On that, I would have expected no less.

But the master’s work lies in the redesigned user experience. One-touch button controls make it incredibly simple to record. A monochromatic 1.25-inch LCD display is easy to read even in the brightest lighting conditions. A single button arms or disarms an advanced onboard limiter that offers distortion-free signal up to 120 dB SPL. Another button arms or disarms a low-cut filter that helps eliminate low frequency rumble. Another button does audio level control.

That’s it, one button, one control. Brilliant! That’s on the surface. Once the recording is over, there’s even a playback speed control that allows journalists to transcribe interviews and other types of recordings without altering pitch. There’s even a new tone generator that makes it easy to calibrate an H1n and the audio levels of a video camera.

As with most high quality recorders, the feature set is full, but not unnecessary. An ⅛-inch stereo mic/line input allows the use of an external microphone or other sound sources and it supplies 2.5 volts of plug-in power. The device powers eight ohm headphones via the ⅛-inch headphone output with a dedicated volume control. There’s even a built-in 500 mW mono speaker to listen to recordings.

The H1n's Micro USB port provides a digital output of the stereo mix and allows data to be sent to and from a computer. It also enables the H1n to be used as a USB microphone and a microSD card reader. The H1n uses microSD cards up to 32G and runs on alkaline batteries for up to 10 hours. Lithium or NiMH cells can also be used and has a total weight of only 2.11 ounces.

The Zoom H1n comes with free download licenses for Steinberg’s Cubase LE music production software and WaveLab LE audio editing software. If only that Steinberg software had been designed by the same person who designed the Zoom recorder!

Zoom proven something remarkably interesting. By paying attention to user interfaces, creative engineers — the ones who think like real people — can make a huge difference in the design of even the most basic products. Some of the largest names in manufacturing no longer have this skill. Zoom does! Bravo!

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