What kind of level do you think would be best for recording sounds outdoors? Do I want to aim to leave my preamps at unity and then level up in PT if necessary, or record everything as hot as possible at the time?

I'm going on a recording mission this weekend to a local forest quiet-zone to try and capture some wind and leaves in situ. I'm currently recording to an H1 and H2, whose preamps are decidedly not the best, so I'd rather not induce any more noise than I have to. Or will the inherent noise be there no matter what I do, so save the processing time and any potential quality degredation that the Gain and Normalize plugs might cause?

Thanka much.


Just found this article about the problem with unity gain. Not all of it applies (or is necessarily comprehensible to non-electronics people, myself included), but it's interesting.

  • what is "unity gain" for a mic & pre-amp .. ? I've never heard of this.
    – studio13
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 3:41
  • @studio13, it's the level where the preamps don't boost or attenuate the signal, it just passes straight through.
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 17:05

7 Answers 7


Not to be a naysayer but I wouldn't expect too much from your H1 or H2 for that type of recording. As you said, their preamps leave much to be desired and are really not suited for very quiet surroundings like the location you mentioned. You may want to consider using an external mic/mics and preamp, and using the H1/H2 soley as a recorder.

Regarding the rec levels, that will depend on the preamps you choose, but there's really no reason to push it too high since you'll only be introducing noise and hiss. I always recommend recording at the highest bit/sample rate available to you; this will give you more flexibility when mastering with noise reduction plugs, EQs, etc.

  • @Jay, that's what I figured, but as Ric Viers is so fond of saying: Do what you can with what ya got till you can get something better. Thanks!
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 17:35
  • fwiw I've gotten some very good stuff with the H4 and H4n, as well as the pcm d50. Stuff that I've used in films.
    – Rene
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 18:12
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    @Rene, you & me both. I'm a firm advocate of "the best recorder is the one you have with you" school of thought. But those types of pocket recorders do have their limitations, and quiet recording if one of them. Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 21:32
  • I've done forest recording with a Zoom H4, and they turned out fine. Of course, it's not as full as a better recorder or ext. mics would have been, but it does the trick well enough for low-budget production. Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 18:18

I have been recording with H1 for quite some time now... and I have found the quality of the recordings quite impressive if you record at 96/24. I usually check the audition levels first and then set the input level according to the output I get in my cans..generally, I keep them high so that I do not have to normalize or increase gain later on, as that will increase the noise/hiss too.

Regardless of outdoors or indoors, I make sure to find a sweet spot and direction where the in-built XY stereo-mics will be facing... I have observed this is one of the major factors how good your recordings will sound.

Experiment with different placements and levels, but always record on 96-kHz/24-bit. Do not feel that the recorder will not give good results just because it is cheap, quite often a good recording practice gives out the best results even with a cheap portable recorder.

If you are interested, you might want to check my recordings where I have used only Zoom H1 and no post-processing or gain adjustments. http://soundcloud.com/auralscope

Edit: Just linking this recording, as it is more relevant to your question.


  • @Rishi, Thanks. That's actually my plan. I just bought an 8 gig micro SD, so I can now do 4 hours at 24/96, Woot!
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 23:01

fwiw, part of what's noisy on those recorders are the mics themselves, not just the pres. Also the headphone amps aren't the cleanest ever, so its difficult to trust your ears wrt how much noise you have going on.

I'd personally tend to record at 24-bit and look for the sweet spot in the preamp. You don't have to cut hot generally (despite ric vier's comments on DS), but just find a place where you're not getting waay too much hiss.

Also, think about wind protection. if it gets gusty out there your regular fuzzy may not be enough.

Maybe try an experiment if you have enough time. Roll 5 minutes at what seems like an appropriate level, then jack that sucker up and roll 5 more minutes from the same location. Re-eval back in the studio later on.

  • @Rene, cool idea, will try... I bought a redhead each for my two little guys, so wind isn't anywhere near as much of an issue as it used to be.
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 20:18

What's the purpose of these recordings? Atmos? Stand-alone recordings that will be the focal point upon playback (lordy, that sounds pretentious when I say it outloud)? Source material for design?

Admittedly, my answer is the same for all of the above -- given your setup -- but it may help someone else with more experience answer.

My suggestion is to record at unity and adjust later in PT. PT's gain control has got to be better than the gain control on either unit.

  • @Dave, They're gonna be BGs for my radio drama, so it's not imperative that they be absolutely pristine (the piece itself will likely end up as an mp3, 320 for sure, but nevertheless). That said, it'd be nice to know that they'd stand up on their own two feet.
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 20:32

Recording at different levels is a good idea. It depends on what you want to record. How much background noise etc. You have an advantage of knowing what the material is going to be used for.


The only possible way to know for sure is to test.

I can tell you that when I've done experiments on my own equipment (that is different than what you have), I found that mic preamp noise scaled faster than the signal. In other words, at a certain point, there was a threshold where it was better to just not turn the preamp up past that point and boost the rest digitally.

Consider recording the same thing a few times first in a controlled environment. Record the same quiet source with different preamp settings. Take note of the settings for each clip. Bring them all into your DAW or sound editor. Boost the sound levels of the quieter clips (either by manually raising the levels or normalizing them), so that the source material has the same apparent volume in each clip. Now, which one sounds the best? Which one has the most noise?

Once you do this, you will have the answer to your question. Good luck!


Anybody know what unity would be for the H1 and H2? I've always just assumed that it was 50, but that could be horribly wrong.

  • I am not sure what you mean by unity.. but I assume you mean the default input level setting. For Zoom H1 it is 60.
    – Rishi Dani
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 12:49
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    @Rishi, Unity gain is the point where the signal passes from mic to recording (or playback) without being affected by the preamp. No boost, no attenuation, just exactly what the mics are picking up.
    – g.a.harry
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 17:00
  • 1
    @g.a.harry that's what I assumed.. thanks for putting it much better. I am very sure the unity gain for H1 is calibrated to i/p level 60 ... have observed this as a good level to get a healthy signal. I usually vary +/- 10 range...depending on the inherent loudness/quietness of the source. Don't rely on the metering (kind of find it flaky), trust your ears. But yes, trying out different levels and testing comparatively is the best way to go about it.
    – Rishi Dani
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 22:34

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