A must-have for podcasters!
The Zoom PodTrak P4 is an all-in-one podcast recording solution. I used the word "solution" because it is hard to describe in one word, and it solves a number of common podcasting problems. Plus you can use it for several things other than just podcasting.
So what is it?
The PodTrack is many things. But mainly it is a mobile recording interface. That means that you can plug microphones (standard 3-pin (XLR) ones, not USB mics!) into it and record.
Unlike many of Zoom's other handheld recorders - like the Zoom H4N, which has a microphone built into it - you need to have separate microphones to plug INTO the PodTrack. And yes, I said "microphones (plural)." I'll get to that in just a bit :-). Then you can record right onto the PodTrak (with an SD card) without having to plug it into a computer, as you would with most interface units.
[Note: I'll be talking about the word "Zoom" to mean 2 different things in this post. One is the company that makes the PodTrak. And the other is the Zoom online meeting/conference app. The 2 companies are NOT the same.]
The deets on the PodTrack
OK, so it's an interface. What makes it special? I mentioned that it is totally mobile. You do not need a computer or a mobile device (phone, tablet, etc.) to record ONTO. Just plug a mic in and record onto the SD card. But what makes it specifically good for podcasting?
Several things about the PodTrak are awesome. I'll try to keep to four.
4 microphone Inputs
The Podtrak P4 has 4 microphone inputs (XLR/3-pin type). And each of those inputs has its own mic preamplifier and converter, and phantom power switch (for condenser mics). And of course, each input has its own independent input level control.
For a device this small and this affordable ($199), that's pretty amazing. You'd have to pay between $250 and $500 for a standard recording interface with 4 mic inputs. And it wouldn't do half of what the PodTrak does at just $199.
I know purists will say that the quality of the preamps and converters would have to be lower to keep it at this price point. And though technically that is correct, I think most people would not hear much difference. But you can judge for yourself. There are lots of audio samples below.
Dial-in or Zoom meeting guests for your podcast
2 of the 4 inputs can be switched to record either a dial-in phone call guest (input #3), or through an online meeting app like Zoom, Skype, etc (input #4). Both of these inputs are set up to do something that only a year or so ago was quite difficult. It's called "mix-minus."
In the earlier days of podcasting, people used a standard mixer to capture all the sound. If someone called into the show, though, that audio could not just be connected to the mixer. This is because the caller's voice would get combined with the host's audio and get fed back to the caller as a delayed echo.
But the PodTrack makes this easy by including mix-minus functionality to both the phone and conferencing software inputs. You don't even have to think about it.
Note: Using channel 3 and 4 for remote interviews leaves you with only channel 1 and 2 for microphones. So you can do 4 microphones for host + 4 in-person guests. Or you could have 3 mics with one remote guest, or 2 mics with 2 remote guests.
Customizable sound pads
There are 4 buttons that can trigger any audio you want. The unit comes with 11 preset sounds that you can map to any of the 4 pad buttons. These are things like applause, laughter, jingles, rim shots, etc. But you can put absolutely any audio onto these buttons. So if you have, say, a previous interview recorded, you can have that loaded onto a pad button and just play it while doing your show.
I put all the preset sounds in one audio file, which you can hear below:
4 headphone outputs with independent volume control
If you have 3 guests all in the same space with the host, all 4 of them can have their own headphones. And each of them will have their own volume controls. This is very cool.
The PodTrak P4 is not much bigger than a TV remote. You can put it in a backpack or computer bag or even a purse. Plus, it records onto an SD card. So you don't need a computer or mobile phone to record on. It can operate for hours on just 2 AA batteries.
Unlike some of the Zoom hand-held recorders that have microphones built in, for the PodTrack, you WILL need to supply the microphone(s).
Built-in limiter to keep from clipping and distorting
A limiter prevents audio input from overloading the recorder. It lets the audio get just up to maximum allowable (a bit before hitting 0dB), and then doesn't allow the input level to get any louder. So it won't ever overload and distort.
This is fantastic! Just make sure the input level is loud ENOUGH by testing and watching the meters on the face of the device. And you don't have to ever worry about something being too loud. I wish more recording interface units had this function.
The limiter does have its issues though, which I'll mention in the "Not so good" section further down in this post.
Use it as an interface to record onto a computer or mobile device
Can be used as a 2-input/2-output interface to record on a computer OR an Android or iOS mobile device (Apple Lightning to USB camera adapter required for iOS). This can be useful if you don't already have a recording interface.
When doing this, channels 1 and 2 become "inputs" for your recording software. I did a test using Reaper. Channels 3 and 4 are output channels. So the playback from the computer comes through channel 4 on the P4.
I wanted to test doing a quick multitrack recording to see if latency would be a problem (when the track being recorded ends up lagging behind the previously recorded track). At first, the P4 ended up recording my first Reaper track AS WELL AS what I was trying to record on track 2 in Reaper. Obviously you don't want this, as each track needs to have only one source on it.
But it was MY mistake! Somehow, the "Mix-Minus" option had been turned off. When I turned it back on, it worked perfectly, not feeding what I was hearing on channel 4 of the P4 BACK into Reaper.
I should also mention that there was no noticeable latency! This surprised me since the P4 does not use ASIO. I tested using both "WaveOut" and "DirectSound" and they both worked perfectly well. You do NOT need a specific driver for the PodTrack P4. Windows 10 recognized it right away. So it worked perfectly as plug-and-play. According to Zoom, the PodTrak "supports class compliant mode, installation of a dedicated driver is not necessary."
Has plenty of gain
It has 70dB of gain (input level). This is massive! There is a kind of broadcast microphone popular among podcasters and DJs called "large diaphragm dynamic mic." The 2 most common are the Shure SM7 and Electro-Voice RE20. But these mics require a LOT of input gain. Most recording interface units don't have enough. You usually have to buy an extra piece of gear called a CloudLifter, just to boost the signal for these mics.
But with 70dB of input gain on the P4, you have more than enough oomph to power these mics. This is great news for me, since I have an RE20 and don't have a cloudlifter yet. So I can't use it very often. Now I can.
Use it for live streaming
I tested the PodTrak out on a FB Live live stream video. It worked fabulously! But you will need 2 extra things if you are using an iOS device for this.
A 3.5mm male-to-male "TRRS" (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve) cable. Sometimes called a "4-pole" connector, the tips on these cables have 3 black rings on them. They look like this:
An Apple Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter. Since the latest models of iPhone and iPad do not have a headphone jack any longer, this allows you to plug a cable into the lightning jack. It looks like this:
What things could be better?
There ARE some things that could be better with the PodTrak P4. Here is my list of those things:
Can be very noisy, especially if using the limiter function.
You can hear examples of this in the audio samples below. Though the limiter function removes the worry that you'll end up with distorted, clipped audio, it has a major downside.
Since you can turn up the input gain as high as you want, that means cranking up the noise from the mic/interface as well. There is a way to avoid this, which I'll talk about below (after the super noisy audio sample).
Can’t use USB mics
A lot of people currently use USB microphones to record podcasts. These mics can offer good quality at a much lower price than a standard microphone plugged into a recording interface. that makes them quite popular.
The problem is that the 4 microphone inputs on the P4 are the XLR type - the standard 3-pin connection. Since USB mics connect with a USB cable, you would clearly not be able to plug them into the PodTrak P4.
So if you currently use a USB mic, you'll need to change over to a standard microphone to use the P4. The good news is that if you have the P4, you won't ALSO have to purchase a recording interface to use your standard mic.
LCD display is hard to read when the light goes out
The LCD window is where you see what's happening while you record, such as level meters and recording timer. But it is also where you need to look to do everything with the menu, changing settings, etc. So it's pretty important to be able to see the information in this window.
The problem is that in order to save on battery power, the light in the window goes out after a few seconds. And though the meters and other information is still displaying, it is basically impossible to see at that point.
No built-in microphone(s)
Many of the hand-held recorders made by this same company - Zoom (NOT the same as the online meeting software, BTW) - are entirely self-contained mobile recorders. You don't need to have separate microphones to plug in (though you CAN with several models). The microphone (usually two, actually, for stereo recording) is built right in.
This is NOT true with the P4. As I mentioned earlier, you do need separate microphones to plug into it in order to record.
Maximum of 44.1/16-bit recording
This isn't really a problem for most people. Some recording engineers will say it is important to record at 24 bits or more. But that is really only if you are doing lots of processing to lots of tracks as you might with a 24-track song with lots of effects and changing of the audio files. However, if you are doing serious music recording like that, you'll probably want a dedicated interface anyway. The P4 is primarily for podcast and other voiceover recording. So using it as an interface for that kind of recording is perfectly good audio quality at 44.1 kHz sample rate and 16-bit resolution.
Does not come with cables
You can plug the PodTrak into a computer or a mobile device. You can connect a phone (for iPhones, via 3.5mm TRRS cable and lightning jack adapter I mentioned earlier). And you can use an AC adapter instead of (or in addition to) AA batteries. But none of these connectors come with the PodTrak. So you have to buy them separately.
In order to have a remote guest calling in via Zoom or Skype, etc., or to connect to a computer to use the PodTrak as an interface, you will need a USB-A to USB-C cable.
The AC adapter is the Zoom AD-17. But you also need a USB-A to USB-C cable to attach it to the PodTrak. You will need to of those cables if you plan to connect the PodTrak to your computer while powering it with the AC adapter.
OK so how does it sound?
I did lots of audio tests in this review. I wanted to compare recordings from my standard recording interface (Focusrite Scarlett 2i2) with the PodTrak. I also wanted to test the difference in noise levels when using the limiter function and when not using it. Finally, I did a test podcasts doing a dial-in interview and a Zoom call interview, with my wife as that "guest" and me as host.
Below are all the audio samples.
First are recordings I made on my computer with my standard audio interface, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. All of these recordings will have a "noise only" sample, as well as me reading some text. BTW, I adjusted the levels of all these recordings to be the same. That way the volume won't be a factor when comparing. This is especially true of the noise.
Audio from Rode NT2-A large diaphragm condenser mic
First up is only the noise from the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 using my Rode NT2-A microphone. The average noise level is pretty good at an average of -62.57 LUFS.
Next is the Rode mic + Focusrite Scarlett again with me recording some text.
Now we move to the PodTrack P4. I plugged in the Rode mic and made sure the limiter was on. What most people would do when they know the limiter is there to keep the audio from getting so loud that it distorts, is turn it up fairly high to make sure it is loud enough. I chose level 8 on the input knob, which for the Rode is a LOT of gain. Listen to how unacceptably loud (average of -37.7 LUFS) the noise is in the next noise-only audio.
And here is the voice recording with the same situation (limiter on/input level 8) - PodTrak + Rode.
The lesson here is that even though there is a limiter, if you turn up the gain too high, you get a LOT of noise. It's a trade-off between the safety of not distorting (when the limiter is on), and having a ton of noise.
So I did another recording with the limiter off. And because there is no longer anything to prevent distorting if things get too loud, you need to be careful about levels. I turned the input knob on the PodTrak to level 5.
The audio below is the "noise-only" version of that recording. Note how much less noisy (average of -65.07) this is compared to the one above with the limiter on (but set to input level 8).
And here is the voice recording with the same situation (limiter turned OFF/input level 5) - PodTrak + Rode.
Audio samples from Electro-Voice RE20 Broadcast Dynamic mic
As I mentioned earlier, I can rarely use my excellent RE20 mic because it takes so much power to drive it. One of the great things about the PodTrak is that it has plenty of power for the RE20.
Because my Focusrite Scarlett doesn't really have enough "oomph" to power the RE20, I didn't bother doing any samples of that mic through the Focusrite.
So next up is the noise-only recording with the RE20 going into the PodTrak at level 9 on the input knob. Interestingly the noise is lower than the RODE, though still unacceptably loud, in my opinion. This is because of 2 things.
- The Rode is a condenser mic and so needs phantom power. That means you have to turn on the phantom power switch on the PodTrak.
- The RE20 is a dynamic microphone (see my post: Condenser vs Dynamic Microphone: What Is The Difference?). That means not only do you NOT have to turn on the phantom power on the PodTrak, but the mic is already much quieter, requiring a lot more power just to be heard at all.
So here is just the noise on a recording with the RE20 going into the PodTrak, with the limiter ON, and the input level set to 9.
THAT is still some pretty loud noise, at -52.31dB. But it isn't as loud as the Rode was when the limiter was on.
Here is the voiceover with the same setting as above:
Once again, I did a test with the limiter off and the input level lowered to just a bit above 7. The reduction in noise wasn't as dramatic here as it was with the Rode. The noise level dropped by only 1.43dB. Here is the noise-only sample:
And here is the voiceover recording with the same settings as above (no limiter, input level set to 7+):
Remote guest audio samples (phone-in and Zoom)
One of the most important podcasting benefits of the PodTrak is the ability to have 2 kinds of remote guests/co-hosts. Channel 3 can be switched to accept an incoming phone call. And channel 4 can be set to accept the audio from a Zoom (or Skype, or any online conference app) session. And yes, you can have both at the same time!
As I mentioned earlier, you still only have 4 inputs. For each remote guest, you give up one of the microphone inputs. So if you had 1 remote guest, you could only use 3 mic inputs. If you had 2 remote audio sources, then only 2 people can use microphones.
I tested both kinds of remote audio by having my wife, the lovely and talented Lisa Theriot, as a "guest."
Lisa's dial-in test audio
Here is the test with Lisa calling into a test show with her phone. I was upstairs on the PodTrak, using a microphone. And I plugged my phone into PodTrack via the phone input on the right side of the device using the TRRS cable I described earlier. To do this with an iPhone (newr models at least), you will need the Apple Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter also.
With my phone connected to the PodTrak, I moved the button on Channel 3 of the PodTrak to the phone icon, to tell it to use the phone input. All Lisa needed to do was call me.
I answered the phone, turned up the input level knob on channel 3, and suddenly the phone's audio was coming through the PodTrak! I adjusted the input knob until her volume was good, and we were all set.
Also, the device's mix-minus functions kicks in automatically (unless you turn it off in the settings), so the caller will not hear a delayed echo of themselves on their end.
Here is the audio from that call:
Connecting a computer for a Zoom (or Skype, etc.) call
The other way to broadcast/record a remote guest is on a Zoom, or Skype call (or any conferencing app).
For this you use channel 4 on the PodTrack. Slide the switch over to the USB icon on channel 4. Then connect your computer to PodTrak with a USB cable (you'll need the USB-A to USB-C cable for this).
Then start your Zoom meeting and turn the input level knob on channel 4 of the PodTrak. The audio from the zoom guest will now come though on channel 4 of the device just like the phone call came through on channel 3.
And once again, the mix-minus function kicks in to prevent the remote guest from hearing a delayed echo of their voice.
Lisa's Zoom call audio
Here is the audio from my Zoom call test with Lisa. I had her downstairs on her laptop with a USB mic (Samson Q2U) connected. This resulted in higher quality audio, as you should be able to tell from the audio below.
Here is the audio from that session:
The Zoom PodTrak P4 is absolutely perfect for you if you want to record a podcast with multiple guests, or with a remote guest using either a phone or connecting via Skype or Zoom (the OTHER "Zoom") on a computer.
For the affordable price of $199.00, you get 4 mic inputs, each with their own input gain control, and 4 independent headphone outputs. This is huge! Up until now, you would have had to use something a lot more expensive to get this much capability.
And of course, you can use it for a recording interface for ANY kind of recording, as well as for audio on live streams. I ended up buying one for myself because it's so awesome :-).
To find out more or to buy one for yourself, check it out on B&H by CLICKING HERE.