If you’re a musician or music teacher, we’re willing to bet that at least one of these situations sounds familiar:
You need to record a vocalist, and you ask them to sing to get a microphone check. At first, it’s very soft, so you set your recorder’s audio level to five or six on the gain knob. Then, they get to the chorus and the levels are spiked, so you need to turn it down. You’re forced to constantly adjust levels in order to accommodate changes in volume.
You need to set up an audio recorder close to your ensemble, but you don’t have cables that reach the area where you’re setting the levels. You have no choice but to hit “record” and pray that you got the right levels for the recording.
The Zoom F3 field recorder puts these problems in the past.
Why the Zoom F3?
With Zoom’s brand-new F3 Field Recorder (Pepper #11391530), capturing professional-level audio for any ensemble is as simple as taking a microphone, plugging it in, and pressing “record.”
The reason it’s so easy to get amazing results with this device is that it features two premium microphone preamps combined with new encoding technology called 32-bit float. Without delving too far into technicalities, bit rate determines the audio quality of a given digital recording: a higher bit rate means that an audio file contains more information, is less compressed, and is of higher quality. Most professional equipment uses 24-bit recording. The F3’s eight additional bits give you more data to work with, allowing you to secure “safe” recordings that won’t clip or distort (if they are too loud) or bring in too much room noise or hiss (if they are too soft).
Unboxing the Zoom F3
The environmentally friendly packaging for this field recorder is printed in recycled cardboard and is very minimal compared to previous Zoom packages. All that you’ll receive is the recorder itself, a pair of AA batteries, and an instruction manual. We have the impression that Zoom is trying to emphasize the minimalist nature of this device.
On one side, we have two full-size XLR ports. On the other, we have a dedicated 1/8” line out, a separate headphone jack, and the headphone volume buttons. Additional connections include a USB-C port (which serves to power the device, use it for data, or as an audio interface connected to a computer) and a microSD card slot. Note that this recorder takes microSD cards up to 512 GB, which are not included with the device. Finally, we have a connection for an optional Bluetooth dongle (also sold separately) and the power button.
Looking at the top, we have the Play/Pause, Stop, and Menu buttons on one side and the Hold/Record rocker on the other. Our only criticism of the device is that some users, our tech reviewer included, may prefer a dedicated Record button to press as opposed to the rocker.
Turning on the recorder brings up a screen with two audio channels. On the top left, you can see the amount of recording time available. On the bottom, there are numbers showing an amplification level, which can be set using buttons below the screen. When the screen is on, it will show you which hard buttons to press in order to access different options. In the menu, you can select or turn off phantom power for microphones, and you’ll see a small lightning bolt which indicates your power settings.
The process of setting sound levels is the most unique thing about this recorder. There are no gain or trim knobs, and there is no decibel reader to show the volume of your input from the microphone. Instead, you’ll see a WAV form on the screen, and you will be able to set the amplification to higher or lower settings before you start recording. This will affect what you hear in the headphones, but not what is being recorded.
If you are used to setting audio levels and continuously checking and double-checking them while recording, the F3 will be a significant improvement, since none of these steps are necessary. Instead, this device captures data-rich recordings that you can turn up or down while preserving audio quality.
It’s also important to note that you can use the F3 as a 32-bit float “mixer” or USB interface. Although it is still sending an audio analog from the line out, there is a limiter option that helps to avoid clipping audio. As of the most recent firmware update, you cannot simultaneously record to a card and use it as a USB interface, but you can record while sending the line-out signal to another device.
In the Field
To record the outdoor portion of the rehearsal, including sectionals, we kept things easy and convenient by using a small clamp to hook the Zoom F3 to a lightweight light stand. A microphone stand would also work well for this setup. We used a stereo microphone bar and Samson CO2 microphones, setting the microphones in an ORTF stereo pattern. Indoors, we used the same setup, placing our microphones at center court. Without any volume controls to set, we had no need to check on the microphones for the duration of the rehearsal (other than monitoring battery life).
In the interest of demonstrating the full benefit of the Zoom F3 and 32-bit float recording, we will take you through the process of editing the audio from United Percussion. Our tech reviewer used Final Cut Pro, but the Zoom F3 is compatible with any audio editing software, including Audacity® and other free options.
At the rehearsal, we used two recorders: the Zoom H6 (which is a very good recorder but does not have a 32-bit float) and the Zoom F3. We intentionally set the levels much too high on the Zoom H6. Meanwhile, on the Zoom F3, we did not set levels at all. On the recording from the H6, the audio is completely clipped, and when we attempt to bring the audio down, all of the clipping comes with it.
The 32-bit float recording from the F3 is much easier to work with. Initially, there is clipping in the audio, but when we bring it down, the WAV form comes down naturally. Eventually, we can remove the clipping entirely. This is just a small taste of the F3’s editing capability: you could go much further in sweetening the audio.
We found the Zoom F3 Field Recorder to be extremely capable and versatile. It has many potential applications, from recording ensembles to broadcasting, sampling, mixing, and interfacing with a computer.
Most importantly, this device offers peace of mind. When a music teacher or videographer records an ensemble, a simple mistake—like forgetting to set audio levels—can derail a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve a show that may not happen again. Using the F3 guarantees high-quality audio without clipping or other distortions in sound.
We hope that you found this review helpful! We would like to thank United Percussion for being part of our review. If you have questions or have ideas for groups or products that you would like us to feature in the future, please leave a comment below. Follow us on social media and watch our blog for more new content!