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The DSLR Audio Guide

 
Audio

The Achilles heel of amateur filmmakers. You just don’t get it. Or maybe you just can’t hear it. For whatever reason, you just haven’t nailed down the audio like you have nailed down the video. You are not alone. Pretty much everyone has shitty audio. In fact many “professionals” I see on YouTube and Vimeo have awful audio. Audio is a tough game, and hopefully this page will shed some light on how one can improve his or her audio situation. This guide may seem overcomplicated, so let me cut to the chase: using any digital recorder close to your subject will provide an improvement over in camera DSLR audio.

Why DSLR Audio Sucks

There are several problems with DSLR audio:

  • Mic is Fixed to Camera: When you mic is fixed to the camera you are unable to isolate sounds. Because your microphone is always far away from your subject, you will get unfocused sound. The recording will be more atmospheric. The sound sources will be distant, and you will rely on your in camera preamp to boost the levels. It is difficult to edit these types of recordings in post, because all the sounds you get are kind of mushed together. This is fine if you are going for some sort of ambient track (like background chatter/noise at a coffee shop or something). If you want control over you audio, you need to be able to freely move the microphone about the environment.
  • Auto Gain Control: This is an annoying little feature found on most DSLRs. Basically the camera will automatically adjust the volume of your recordings. This is not a standard practice amongst recording professionals and should be turned off or disabled. This issue is not a big deal because it is easy to solve.
  • Awful Preamps: If you have a weak signal, you will rely on your preamps because they take a quiet sound and make it louder. High quality microphones rely on preamps, so you will definitely want to buy a good preamp. The main priority of a DSLR is to shoot good stills. A more distant priority is to shoot good video. An even more distant priority is to record good audio. Wait… what am I saying? Recording good audio is not a DSLR priority at all! Anyway, the preamps on cameras are low quality and very noisy.
  • Poor Microphone Quality: The microphones on DSLRs are not too awful. I am pretty impressed with the one on my 60D. But, “not awful” is less than ideal. The mics on DSLRs have low sensitivity and just don’t sound as good as dedicated condensers.
  • Nonadjustable Polar Pattern: Most DSLRs use an omnidirectional polar pattern. This means that the microphone is designed to pick up sound from a wider angle. This pattern is not as focused or directional as cardioid or hyper cardioid polar patterns. So the audio you get is more ambient than isolated.
  • Mono Recording: Not a big deal because if you could record two channels of audio on a DSLR, you would end up with double the fail.

How To Get Better DSLR Audio

ZoomH1

The best way to improve your sound is to address all the issues I outline above.

Get your microphone off of  the camera! Unless you are trying to record ambient sounds, you should get the microphone off of your DSLR. By getting the microphone off of your camera, you can maintain the integrity of your framing while capturing audio close to the source. Imagine I wanted to record a man talking on a phone from afar in a slightly noise environment. I stand 30 feet away, and record the phone conversation with my $1,000 shotgun mic that is attached to my camera 30 feet away. Do you know what this will sound like? Crap. Now imagine I use a $150 shotgun mic that is placed 4 feet from his mouth, the audio will sound 10x better. The key is getting as close to your signal as you can.

There are very few scenarios where leaving a mic on the camera is a legitimate excuse, even when you are working by yourself. The best solution to the DSLR audio problem is to buy a microphone AND a preamp AND a recorder. Most recorders have their own preamps, so you can get away with just a microphone and a recorder. In fact, most recorders have build in mics. So if you are really low on money you can try recording all your audio using a 3rd party recorder with the built in microphones!

The popular weapon of choice for DSLR filmmakers is the Zoom H4n recorder. It is a recorder that also has preamps. This means you can just plug your microphone into the H4n and record anything you want. The problem is the preamps are not very good, the battery life is not very good, and the internal microphones of the recorder are not very good. Basically the Zoom H4n does a lot of things not very well. Anyway, more about recorders later.

Choosing a Good Set of Microphones for Video

This is the part where it is difficult to recommend something because everyone has different needs. Ask yourself what type of sound you are trying to record. Are you working indoors? Outdoors? Are you trying to get an isolated sound? Or are you trying to get an ambient sound? The only blanket statement I can make is: get condenser microphones. When buying microphones you have two flavors; dynamic and condenser. Dynamic mics are rugged microphones designed for performances, condenser mics are finer instruments designed for capturing accurate audio.

For film, there are a few sounds I can think of: dialogue, ambient/background, effects.

  • Dialogue Microphones: You will want shotgun microphones for outdoors, hypercardioids or supercardioids for interiors, and lavaliers for shots that are difficult to boom.
  • Ambient Microphones: You will want omnidirectional microphones and cardioids.
  • Sound Effects: You will want everything most likely. Good sound effects will require a pellet of microphones. You will likely want to have a pair of microphones that will allow you to record mid/side stereo.

Microphones are similar to camera lenses. Different mics are suited for different jobs. I realize that advising a beginner to buy a bunch of microphone is as silly as advising someone to buy a bunch of camera lenses. There is a lot that you can do with only one or two microphones, so allow me to discuss some relatively cheap options:

For starters, you should buy a recorder that has good internal microphones. If you buy a recorder with decent microphones, than you are killing several birds with one stone. Most digital recorders come with omni directional microphones. This means that the polar pattern is wide and well suited for recording ambient sounds. In fact, if you get an omni close enough to the source, it will provide a nice full sound. So you can easily use an omni microphone for voice work, or sound effects if you are recording in a relatively quiet environment.

Recommended Digital Audio Recorders for Filmmaking:

Here is a list of recorders I recommend. You can find this same list, and my in depth recorder discussions here.

1. Sony PCM D100 ($795):

This is an amazing digital recorder. Basically you are getting a beautifully constructed, easy to use digital recorder that can handle very hot signals, has amazing internal microphones, and has a silent preamp. I’m not sure you can find a better unit that is this portable.

2. Sony PCM D50 ($479):

This is probably the second or third best sounding digital recorder on the market. Only the $1,500 Sony PCM-D1 and Sony PCM D100 have better mics. The D50 has excellent mics, excellent preamps and is a total steal for under $500. If you want a run and gun unit, I don’t think you can do much better for the money.

3. Sony PCM M10 ($229):

This is like a miniature PCM D50. It has excellent preamps, and very good mics as well. This recorder has insane battery life and is very portable. A crowd favorite amongst audio people.

PCMM10

4. Tascam DR60D ($195):

If you want a recorder that was specifically designed for DSLR use, the DR60 is for you. I’m not sure you can find a recorder with more features for under $200. 4 Channel recording plus physical dials make this recorder a top seller.

TascamDR60

5. Zoom H6 ($399):

I hated the Zoom H4n. It basically sucked at everything. The preamps were average, the phantom power was weak, the battery life was poor, and the internal mics were mediocre. The H6 is a massive improvement. Basically, it does everything better, plus has the option of adapting special microphones for a low profile recording setup.

6. Tascam DR-100 mkII ($229):

A popular choice amongst people who need a cheap recorder that is packed with lots of features. The mics are not great and the preamps are not very good. Still the mics and preamps are better than those found on the popular Zoom H4n. If you care more about having lots a features than having quality features, I recommend this device.

7. Tascam DR-40 ($159-199):

Rivals Zoom H4n performance at a lower cost.

8. Zoom H1, Tascam DR07 mkII, Tascam DR05 ($99-149):

These recorders are used primarily for recording low quality sound. They have poor preamps, but when you pair them with lavaliers or with something like a Rode Videomic you get decent sound on a tiny budget (equal to or less than the price of a Zoom H4n).

Recording the signal onto a storage device (primary function of a digital recorder):

If all you want is to take an analog signal and convert it to digital, than any digital recorder will do. Just settle for a Zoom H1, Tascam DR07 or a DR05. If you have other needs you want your recorder to fulfill, then one of these cheaper models will likely not be sufficient and you will have to get a more expensive recorder.

Preamps:

All the recorder mentioned above have preamps. This means you will be able to boost the signal of your mic (whether it is internal or external). While the Sony recorders have excellent preamps, the cheaper recorders such as the Zoom H1, and Tascam DR05 are a bit lacking in preamp quality.

Good preamps cost money. A good preamp will be able to boost the signal captured by the microphone sufficiently. Not only that, but it will bust the signal without adding much noise making it a “quiet” preamp. A loud/crappy preamp will have a hissy background sound. Having poor preamps is devastating if you are trying to catch a faint isolated sound. If you are recording a rock concert, chances are just about any set of preamps will do a sufficient job. So if you have a recorder with good preamps, you probably don’t need to worry too much about your preamps. But maybe you want some ultra silent preamps that will last you a decade or two.  If you want an excellent preamp and are piss broke, get a Sound Devices Mp-1. If you can swing it and spend more, get an MM-1, MixPre-D, or a 302. Chances are, if you are interested in buying a Sound Devices 302 or even a 702 (you lucky son of a bitch!), you know what you are doing and don’t need to read this silly article. For the typical DSLR shooters, the Sound Devices MixPre-D and 302 would be overkill. If you only need to record one channel, and are not much of an audio person get a Sound Devices MM-1 (it allows you to monitor your signal via the unit, unlike the MP-1). If you need two channels, and want a better interface get a MixPre-D (and pay twice the price).

Power:

Condenser mics need to be powered, let’s call this power phantom power. Some recorder do not provide enough phantom power to power condenser mics. For example, the Sony PCM D100, Sony PCM D50 and Sony PCM M10, do not provide enough power for condenser microphones! This means you either need to buy an external power unit (prices range from about $35 to $200) such as a  Denecke PS-1A ($100 – $150) or you need to use condenser mics that have their own battery power (such as the popular Rode NTG2). Or… you can use dynamic mics (dynamic mics do not need phantom or battery power).

Microphones:

The most common mic used in feature films is the Sennheiser MKH-416. This mic is accessible for prosumers because it only runs at about $1,000. 416s use a supercardioid polar pattern which is not as directional as hypercardioid patterns. If you have $1,000 to spend on a mic, just buy an Sennheiser 416. There are more expensive mics out there, but none of them are considered to be film industry standard. The 416 is the standard.NTG2

Maybe you don’t need the standard. Even the used prices are fairly expensive. The question is; what is a decent mic for $xxx? First you need to decide whether or not you want to buy a shotgun mic as your first mic. I think you should, after all, if everything went as planned you should have a digital recorder that has a decent set of omnidirectional mics.

Popular Battery Powered Options:

  • Rode NTG-2
  • Rode VideoMic Pro
  • Audio Technica AT897
  • Sennheiser MKE 600

All the mics above have a low cut filter. A low cut filter is especially useful when recording voices outdoors. Wind often creates noise at low frequencies. And human voices often do not reach these low frequencies. By turning on a low cut filter inside the microphone you get a better recording in such circumstances. If you buy a microphone and use the low cut filter, make sure that the frequency that is cut does not go too far about ~130 or ~150Hz because you will be cutting into very useful frequencies. I’d personally stay clear of the Rode VideoMics, they are not very sensitive. The  Rode NTG-2 and Audio-Technica AT897 are nice balanced mics. If you want an extremely sensitive mic, get the Sennheiser ME66 with a K6 power unit. The Sennheiser MKE 600 is a new microphone that has received very good reviews.

VidMicPro

Phantom Power Only Options:

  • Sennheiser MKH-416
  • Rode NTG-3
  • Audio-Technica AT4053b
  • Oktava MK012
  • Rode NTG-1

You cannot go wrong with a Sennheiser MKH-416, so if you can afford it and feel like you need a good mic that will last you many years – get it. The Rode NTG-3 is an excellent alternative. If you are doing solo work, or non professional work (you won’t be mixing your audio with other people’s 416 audio), the NTG-3 is a great cheaper alternative to the MKH-416. Hell, you can easily do professional work with the NTG-3. The Audio-Technica AT4053b is another popular MKH-416 alternative. If you want an excellent mic, that is an absolute steal, that

will give you great indoor dialogue, get an Oktava MK012. In fact, you can have your Oktava MK012 modded by Michael Joly for a little over $100, and turn it into a completely professional grade microphone. We are talking $1,000 sound for about $300-$400. The Oktava would be a great supplement to a shotgun mic. The Rode NTG-1, is basically a Rode NTG02 without the battery power.

Microphone Wind Protection

You will want to protect your mics from wind, even indoors (if you will be moving them). For out doors a Rode Blimp or Rycote would be nice. These designs consist of a big capsule into which you place your microphone. You then slip a furry shield onto the outside. These systems will completely outperform the cheap little foam slip on that you can place directly on the shotgun mic. Those foam windscreens that may or may not come with your shotgun mic are suitable for indoor use but are not recommended for outdoor use.

Mounting Your Microphone

You will also need to have a good shock mount so that your mic is not picking up movement noise. Even if you have your mic mounted on something stationary, it can pick up vibrations (foot steps, etc..). Lastly you will want your mic attached to something. Some people go with pistol grips, others go with boom poles, other go with a stationary tripod. Choice is yours. A pistol grip will allow you to easily point the mic – decent choice for the novice. Oh yeah, I forgot… you can attach your mic to your DSLR rig… *repeatedly bangs head against wall*.

Headphones for Monitoring

You also will want some headphones so that you can monitor your signal (if you do not monitor your audio, it is equivalent to not checking your exposure when you shoot video). In order to isolate the sound that you are recording you will want to buy closed back headphones. This type of design closes off your ear and prevents outside sound from entering your ears. It also prevents the sound coming from your headphones to bleed out (which is good because a sensitive mic could pick that up). You can also get semi open headphones which are just a cross between the two designs.ATH-M50

Closed back headphones are not ideal for mixing with because the sound is trapped inside the headphone enclosure. You are not getting a true representation of the sound when it is bouncing around. For this reason it is good to have a pair of open back headphones, or some studio monitors.

  • Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (Closed back, $120)
  • Beyerdynamic DT 880 (Semi open, $350)
  • Sennheiser HD 598 (Open back, $250)
  • Beyerdynamic DT 770 (Closed back, $220)
  • Sennheiser HD-280 (Closed back, $100)

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 are the most popular headphones for monitoring. They are considered to be the monitoring “standard” by some. Not bad for only $120!  Personally, I would get the ATH-M50 cans. If you want a semi open design, the Beyerdynamic DT 880 is one of the best headphones you can get in that category.

The Best Budget Headphones for Monitoring

Panasonic RP-HTF600-S. Period. Buy these for $35 and then once you can afford the Audio Technica ATH M50s buy the M50s. The Panasonic HTF600 are some of the best sounding headphones you will ever hear under $50. They don’t bleed much noise, are constructed well enough, and have a 10 foot cable.

Getting Good Audio From Your DSLR

Hopefully you learned something new. As you see, it takes a lot of gear (combined with good technique) to get good audio. So how do you get good audio from your DSLR? By leaving the DSLR out of the equation. Just use your DSLR’s audio track for syncing your audio that was recorded onto a separate recorder with the video from your DSLR. The good news is that the cheapest audio gear combined with good technique will outperform the audio you get on a DSLR.

  2 Responses to “The DSLR Audio Guide”

  1. What is the best splitter cord to use to attach the Sony PCM M10 audio out to a Canon 60D? I assume I need a step down cord with a earphone splitter. Any recommendations?

    • Sorry for writing such a long response, but I figured if anyone else stumbles on this page this comment might be useful:

      Hi, I don’t plug my PCM M10 into my 60D. I sync the audio either manually or with software called PluralEyes from Red Giant. However, if you want to connect the PCM M10 (or any other recorder with line out) to your 60D so your audio/video is synced, you will need a splitter so that you can monitor audio. If you don’t care about monitoring audio, all you need is a 3.5mm male to male cable that goes from line out to mic input on the 60d.

      As for which splitter? If you are not using line out, I think all you need is a a generic splitter like the Belkin F8V234 Speaker and Headphone Splitter (6″) or a Hosa Technology Stereo Mini (3.5mm) Male to 2 Stereo Mini (3.5mm) Female Y-Cable – 6″. You would simply plug the male end of the splitter into your PCM M10 headphone/line out. Then you will plug your headphones into one of the splitter holes, and a 3.5mm male to male cable (something like a Comprehensive Stereo Mini Male to Stereo Mini Male 3.5mm cable MPS-MPS-6ST ) into the other hole (connecting that to your 60D). You need to make sure that the Sony PCM is set to Headphones and not line out. Line out is a very strong signal and can damage your ears if it is going into your headphones. To do this: Menu > Detail Menu > Audio Out > Headphones. By default the Sony PCM M10 is set to headphones and not line out.

      If you want line out, you will need the step down cable. This will take the line level signal split it, and on one of the splits it will lower it by X amount dB. The most popular one I found on B&H is called Sescom LN2MIC-ZMH4-MON Line Out to Camera Mic In Headphone Tap Cable.

      If you don’t need headphone monitoring but want to feed the line in signal into the DSLR, maybe get the Sescom LN2MIC-TASDR100 Line Out to Camera Mic Level In Cable which is -35dB (the LN2MIC-ZMH4-MON is only -25dB). I wish I had experience using these step down cables, but from the B&H reviews people seem quite happy with them.

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