Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Shelly Brisbin

Zoom PodTrak P4 review: Podcasting and the other Zoom

PodTrak P4

I recently said goodbye to an old friend – a 12-channel analog audio mixer I’ve used to produce podcasts since around 2007. It was always overkill, even when I recorded shows around my kitchen table with three or four guests. This mixer was better suited to making and recording music, but I loved the flexibility it offered. I decided to replace it with something that could both connect directly to a modern computer and give me some podcast-specific features that didn’t require quite as much fiddling and cabling as the mixer did. I chose the Zoom PodTrak P4, a four-port audio interface and recorder that’s marketed specifically to podcasters. I’ve used it for about a month.

Three Roads

I plan to do three specific kinds of audio work with the P4. First, I wanted to record a podcast from my home “pod closet” with remote guests, all connected by conferencing software. The second kind of recording I do a lot is for my job as a radio reporter. I call interview subjects via the phone or FaceTime Audio and record their voices for later cutting into reported stories. Lastly, I planned to record podcasts or radio interviews in-person with guests, whether I’m doing it at home or at a conference. To varying degrees, the mixer allowed me to do all of these things, but the P4 does them effortlessly, and I don’t need a gig bag full of cables, or a cheat sheet for the various settings I used to optimize everything..

Remote Guest Podcasts

For the panel shows I do on Parallel and Lions, Towers & Shields, my guests and I use Zoom or any other conferencing tool that can be run on a computer. I ask each guest to record their side of the conversation. To record my end, I plug a mic into one of the P4’s XLR inputs. I connect the recorder to my MacBook Pro via USB-c. Now, the P4 is acting as an audio interface, sending my voice to my panelists, and bringing theirs into the recorder, which serves as the MacBook’s output. But I can also be recording to an SD card in the P4, so there’s always a backup, and the occasional problem of sending the wrong input channel to the audio software on the computer (happened to me a few weeks ago) is solved.

I recently hosted an episode of the Game Show, over on The Incomparable. It’s a standard panel show, so we connected on Zoom and each recorded our tracks. But since the P4 includes a four-button sound pad, I decided to experiment with bells and buzzers. Silly, I know, but it worked in the context of the show. First, I copied audio files for the bell and buzzer I wanted to use to the root level of an SD card. Then I mapped those files to the recorder’s sound pad feature and adjusted a few settings for each button, like whether the sound should loop, or require that I hold down a button to keep it playing. The P4 comes with a few of its own sound effects, like a sad trombone, applause and a rimshot. I decided to add a rimshot to my sound pad. I was not disappointed. Let’s just say we recorded this game on Father’s Day, and dad jokes were very much in season. The sound pad’s audio is mixed with whatever else is leaving the P4, including the microphones. You set each channel’s level separately with a physical knob, so it’s easy to tweak things in real time.

P4, Phone Home

I record a lot of phone and FaceTime audio interviews as part of my work as a radio reporter. Using a technique called mix-minus, I can record both sides of the convo, but keep the person I’m talking to from hearing themselves when I send the full output down the line. Mixers with multiple audio buses, like my old Yamaha, are great for creating a mix-minus, and so is software like Audio Hijack. I’ve even tricked my Zoom H6 field recorder into doing a mix-minus, but the process requires a bit of setup before I can make a simple phone call.

With mix-minus built into the P4, I can record a phone call with just my phone and the recorder – no computer required. There’s a TRRS input for the phone, and a switch to enable mix minus on that channel. All I do is plug the phone and a mic into the P4 and make the call from my iPhone. It’s really slick, and its appeal has to do with being able to instantly jump on and record a call from my desk – not the “pod closet” at the other end of the house – or on the road, assuming I have a mic I can plug in. There are cheaper ways to make this work, using a nest of cables, so it might not make sense to buy a P4 if all you want to do is record phone calls, but it’s invaluable for me.

Field Trip

Here’s the scenario I haven’t tried yet: it’s the last night of an assistive technology conference and my colleagues and I from the Blind Bargains podcast want to record a wrap-up episode in a hotel room. I’ve brought mics for everyone, and we’re gathered around a table. In the past, I’ve used the Zoom H6 for this, and it’s great. But it’s a little bulkier than the P4, so I’ll only choose it if I have more than four people to record. (The “6” in Zoom’s H6 is achieved with an $89 attachment that adds a pair of XLR ports, so I can mic up to six people.)

With the P4, each person can use his or her own pair of headphones, because each channel has a headphone port, complete with volume controls for each. This is a huge deal in a product at this price point.

It’s also possible I could use the P4 as an actual field recorder, carrying it on reporting trips instead of the heavier H6. I’d want to get a better feel for the unit’s battery life before I tried it.

More Great Features

The P4 provides phantom power for microphones that need it, and there’s a low-cut and a limiter available for each input. All of that matches up with what you’ll find on Zoom’s field units, like the H6. The P4 packs a surprising amount of gain. When using a standard audio interface, or mixer, it’s often hard to get the gain required to drive dynamic microphones like my Heil PR-40, or the popular Shure SM7B. The P4 takes a little getting used to on that score. I’ve inadvertently recorded clipped audio because I couldn’t believe that I could keep the input level so low and still get the output I wanted. And you need to watch the levels rather than completely trusting your ears and the headphones you’ve plugged into the P4.

But is it Good?

The P4 is versatile and physically durable. It’s lightweight and its menuing system is simpler than what you’ll find in many field recorders. There’s an eight-port version called the PodTrak P8, which not only has more ports, but better components and some additional features. It’s also far less portable. The P4 is definitely a budget unit, but it’s a really good value, too. My biggest beefs are the size and readability of the small display screen, and the odd fact that a light below each mic level button indicates not that the mic is in use, but that it’s muted. I’d also like greater visual contrast between the control knobs and buttons, and their labels.

[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She's the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]

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