We get hands‑on with Zoom’s new dedicated podcast recorder.
Podcasting is now a very big business, and the market for podcast production tools has really heated up in recent years. As well as the various audio interfaces, USB mics and apps that have been targeted at podcasters, there have now been several standalone devices which aim to put almost everything a podcast producer needs in a neat and convenient package. I recently reviewed Rode’s revamped RodeCaster Pro II (SOS August 2022), for example, and a couple of months earlier looked at Tascam’s Mixcast 4. While such devices can, if desired, be used for other recording and production purposes — those mentioned double up as standalone multitrack recorders and USB audio interfaces — they also offer a number of broadcast‑style features, including multiple headphone outs, connectivity for phone and VOIP calls, and sample pads, for live DJ‑style triggering of sound effects and, potentially, adverts. They also attempt to present a less‑daunting interface than a typical recording console, for example by using presets to manage things like mic preamp gain and phantom power.
Japanese audio electronics boffins Zoom have long had a foothold in this market with their R and LiveTrak L ranges, which combine multi‑channel mixers with audio interfacing and standalone recording capability. Their LiveTrak L‑8, for example, which I reviewed back in SOS January 2021, gained an enthusiastic following amongst podcast producers. But none were devices designed specifically and solely with the podcast market in mind. So while the LiveTrak L‑8 did offer useful podcasting features, and seasoned recording types won’t have had any issues using it (I loved it!), many amateur podcasters would, I imagine, have found some features superfluous or potentially complicated, while others might have found the number of headphone outputs lacking, or wished for more obvious visual clues to help them run multi‑user sessions.
For such users, Zoom have since created a couple of dedicated podcast production stations: the PodTrak P8 reviewed here, and a smaller sibling, the P4. The PodTrak P8 has plenty in common with the LiveTrak L‑8 (which remains available), but there are plenty of differences too. It’s a similar sort of size (large enough that the control layout feels suitably spacious; small enough to be easily portable). It has six mic preamps, and can run off the supplied mains AC to 5V DC PSU or USB power (whether that be from a computer’s USB port, a wall‑wart or an external USB power pack). But it can also be powered by four AA batteries, if you prefer, for up to 1.5 or 2 hours (Zoom’s published specs are inconsistent on this point, and I didn’t fancy burning my last set of batteries to discover which figure was correct!). There are more headphone outputs: six to the L‑8’s four, matching the number of mic input channels, and each has its own level knob. So you’re able to record six people in conversation in the same room, with each having their own mic and able to set their headphone levels to taste.
The P8 has nine sound pads (each with four virtual banks) compared with the L‑8’s six, and this time they’re treated to their own, dedicated stereo mixer channel. One limitation of the L‑8 is that its sound pads share a stereo channel with line, phone and USB‑C inputs. Instead, on the P8, mic channel 6 doubles up as the USB channel. The P8 is compatible with Mac, Windows, iOS or Android devices, and the USB‑C port allows you to include phone calls or an audio feed to/from VOIP or video‑conference apps (such as Zoom — no relation!) in your podcasts; to use the P8 as a 2‑in/2‑out audio interface; or for file transfer. An adjacent TRRS mini‑jack socket provides a two‑way connection for a smartphone or similar, or, with power supplied by a smaller socket next to it, Zoom’s separately available BTA‑2 Bluetooth adaptor. This TRRS (or potentially Bluetooth) input has its own stereo channel and level fader. As on most such devices, there’s a ‘mix‑minus’ feature to prevent feedback/echoes on any USB‑connected device.
The main stereo outputs are on quarter‑inch TRS jacks this time, and the headphones on mini‑jacks, and the output level is set using a knob in the bottom right‑hand ‘master’ section. Here, you’ll also find a knob for the USB stereo output level, as well as four transport buttons. A large record button, whose big red dot and protective surround (to prevent accidental presses) make its function unmistakable, is joined by a button each for stop, play/pause, and to add markers while recording (helpful to flag up issues that need attention in post production).
The casing is a slightly metallic mid‑grey colour and the various features hosted on its top panel are helpfully colour‑coded, with each channel’s physical control set having its own colour. So, for example, the fader cap, phantom‑power switch, headphone socket and headphone level knob of channel one are all picked out in red, while those for channel two are orange, channel three yellow... and so forth. This scheme extends to the controls on the large touchscreen, which itself is perhaps the biggest departure from the L‑8. The only hardware controls I’ve not yet covered are each channel’s mute and On Air buttons, which are brightly backlit when their function is engaged. The former’s purpose is obvious, but the latter’s may be less so: when On Air is engaged, that channel’s audio is routed to the main stereo mix bus; when not active, the channel can still be heard on all the headphone outs but not the main mix, and will not be recorded either.
On the home screen, a multi‑channel meter shows the post‑fader level of each channel, the bars helpfully adhering to the channel colour scheme. Beneath each meter is an icon button (capacitor mic, dynamic mic, phone or sound pad), which you press to bring up another screen in which you can tweak settings for that channel. For the master stereo bus (which, by the way, doesn’t have its own physical fader) there’s a stereo level meter, and beneath this an On Air button which accesses settings for live streaming/broadcast; more on that side of things later. Other settings (eg. power settings, SD card, date and time) are accessed using buttons at the top of the screen, where a counter also indicates either how many hours/minutes/seconds of recording time are available on the SD card, or how many have already elapsed. A different mic icon in the top left takes you to any recordings already on the SD card, whether made by the P8 or not.
The P8’s A‑D/D‑A converters are 16‑bit 44.1kHz which might, I realise, seem somewhat old‑fashioned to seasoned music recordists, but I reckon they’re perfectly adequate for this application. For one thing, the mic preamps themselves are low‑noise and clean‑sounding. And for another, close‑miked spoken word isn’t the most dynamic sound you’ll ever have to capture. It does, though, mean that if you wish the device to serve in other applications, including music, there are almost certainly better choices out there — not least the 24‑bit LiveTrak L‑8. While we’re on the subject of word length (or ‘bit depth’, as it’s often described), the P8 is capable of reading and playing back any 16‑ or 24‑bit files already on the SD card, though while it can detect and display 32‑bit files (such as you might record on Zoom’s F3, reviewed last month) these can’t be played back.
On powering on, you’re greeted with a short multi‑colour lightshow on the sound pads (which triggered in me a sudden craving for wine gums!) before they all settle on the default white. Then, on the generously proportioned (4.3‑inch) colour LCD touchscreen, you’re prompted to set the date/time and desired language (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish or Japanese), and a helpful setup wizard presents some On Air options: you can switch on ‘noise reduction’, which is a noise gate that effectively auto‑mutes (in the main mix) mic tracks on which no signal is detected, and you can choose whether or not to capture all the individual tracks as separate files, which are always pre‑fader but you can specify whether processing should be included. Those processing options are fairly minimal but well judged, which is as it should be for a device aimed at this market.
To access the processing/settings screen, you click on a channel icon at the bottom of the main mixer screen — the features presented on the next screen depend on the track type (mic, USB, phone or sound pads). For the mics, you can set the input gain using a long horizontal slider. It’s accompanied by a virtual LED meter, marked with regions to indicate Low, Good or Over levels — it’s all really beginner‑friendly. There are a limiter and a low‑cut filter too, the parameters for which are fixed (not a problem, though it might have been nice to have a couple of different filter frequency options; one to remove rumble, and another to counter proximity‑effect bass boost. Next comes the Tone section, an EQ which takes the form of a single slider, with the neutral setting in the middle, and which you slide right for more treble or left of centre for more bass; it can also be switched off. For a third section, Comp/De‑ess, the slider is neutral at the far‑left position, and as you slide it to the right increasing amounts of compression and de‑essing (both simultaneously; you cannot switch only one on/off) are applied.
Recording literally couldn’t be simpler: hit that big record button, start talking, and when you’re done press stop.
Studio stalwarts might think this a meagre amount of control over the sound but it’s deliberate and, as I say, in my opinion well judged. The idea isn’t to create a polished studio production, but to allow quick and easy control over a live‑streamed podcast, and creating an acceptable sound takes mere seconds. You can record the multitracks without the processing, giving you all the post‑production control you need in your DAW. You can store current settings to the SD card too, so setup for regular podcasts (same guests, same mics...) can be even quicker, even if the device is used by multiple people on different projects. Something that would speed things up that bit further would be a way to switch channels from within the channel settings screen.
For the other (non‑mic) channels, the options are more limited. For the USB you have separate cut‑or‑boost sliders for the Treble and Bass, as well as being able to switch on/off mix‑minus (it’s off by default). For the phone TRRS socket, you have the same but without the mix‑minus option. The sound pads’ page is more complex — I’ve explored these in more detail in the separate box — and the On Air page is where you can engage the noise gates and choose whether/how to do multitrack recording, as discussed earlier.
Once you’ve set things up as desired, recording literally couldn’t be simpler: hit that big record button, start talking, and when you’re done press stop. While you’re recording you’ll see a red circle at the top of the screen and a red LED by the record button. You can press the mute/On Air buttons as required, to prevent people hearing your mic, or to provide a ‘back channel’ that doesn’t make it on air. You can if you wish press the marker button to leave aides memoire for post production purposes, and can pause/resume a recording whenever you want, rather than stopping and starting afresh.
Hit the red mic button on the home screen, and you can view the files on the top‑level folder of the SD card, including those you’ve just recorded. Select a file, and you can perform basic edits such as start/end time trim, split, and applying separate in/out fades, as well as adding music to the podcast and basic loudness normalisation. You can also export to MP3, and on the main file‑browser page are able to stitch multiple files together to create one podcast. Depending on the nature of your podcast project, this could well be enough to do what you need to get it ready for upload, but obviously you have more control over this stuff on a computer. From this browser screen you can also engage USB transfer mode, which inhibits other activity on the P8 while you use it as a USB card reader. The computer can see the full file structure, which is not visible from the P8 itself, and this includes a sub‑folder with any multitrack recordings you decided to capture.
In my tests, all the channels worked as expected, including the USB mix‑minus feature. I didn’t have access to a Bluetooth adaptor to test its performance, though have used them on other Zoom devices in the past without problem. The captured sound comes across as clean and crisp, in a good way, and I experienced no problem setting appropriate levels or refining the sound with the processing options. The mute and On Air button status is really easy to see, and it’s a really intuitive way to manage those ‘back channel’ conversations. Of course, you do have to make sure the person speaking is far enough away from other people’s mics, to avoid what they say spilling onto the recording. Not generally a problem with close‑up dynamic mics, but could be if six people had their own desktop capacitor model around the same table!
The On Air and mute buttons are, it has to be said, more clicky than I’d like. On the plus side, there’s good tactile feedback (you certainly know when you’ve pressed one), but the sound could be picked up in nearby mics and, of course, at least one person needs to be near enough the P8 to operate it. The sound pads are softer, slightly rubberised affairs which make barely a whisper, and the use of this style of button for all the other functions would have been an improvement in my view.
On balance, I reckon the PodTrak P8 scores very highly in terms of bang for buck. It’s a very focused product, of course, and this means it lacks some of the bells and whistles we’re used to in the traditional recording studio (eg. gain pots, panning, 24‑bit recording). But bar the mics, headphones and SD card, there’s everything you need here to capture a great‑sounding podcast involving multiple people, and the multitrack recording feature means you can transfer everything to a computer should you want to roll your sleeves up and finesse the result in a DAW.
Most importantly of all, it’s incredibly easy to use — in fact, I’d say that I’ve found it easier to operate than any recording device since the cassette‑tape‑based Portastudio I started out on back in the ’80s! And with the ability to power the P8 from batteries or any USB source, this is a genuinely portable device — you really can record anywhere, even ‘off grid’.
The nine sound pads are similar to those I’ve used on other devices, though unlike on the Rode and Tascam equivalents these are for sample triggering only — they can’t be used, for instance, to apply real‑time effects to the mic channels. There are four banks, with nine factory sounds assigned to Bank 1, and the other three, which you access with a swipe or pressing an on‑screen arrow, are left blank. You can populate them really easily with any mono/stereo WAV files you record to or pre‑load onto the SD card; 16‑ or 24‑bit 44.1kHz mono and stereo files are supported. You can name each bank with an on‑screen keyboard, and each pad can trigger the sounds in one of the several modes we’ve come to expect on such devices: one‑shot (press once and it plays the sound to the end); pause (press once to play, and then again to toggle pause/play); loop (pressing starts/stops again, but this time sample playback is looped); and hold (press‑and‑hold to play, release to stop). You can also set the level of the file.
The colour of the pad reflects the colour you assign to the file, which might not be a major issue but can be a touch frustrating since you can’t assign that colour from the smart pad setup screen — hopefully that can be revised in a future update. On a similar note, you cannot rename the individual pad — they’re always labelled Pad A, Pad B and so on, up to Pad I — and the settings screen displays the name of the audio file, which, again, can only be edited in another screen that’s not directly navigable from this one. Minor gripes in the grand scheme, but I think they’re worth mentioning. The sound pads also have a secondary function as buttons to press during startup, to load firmware updates.
- Sounds good.
- Easy to use.
- Keenly priced.
- Can run off batteries.
- On Air buttons are handy.
- Multitrack recording.
- Basic editing on board.
- Button clicks could be quieter.
- Bluetooth a cost option.
- Sound pads could do more.
This streamlined podcast production station is incredibly quick to set up and easy to use, and deserves to do well.
£369 including VAT.
Sound Service MSL +44 (0)207 118 0133.