I organized a conference panel on DSLRs Tips & Tricks at this year’s Online News Association conference held in Washington, DC on Oct. 30.
Panelists included Danfung Dennis (http://www.danfungdennis.com/), whose documentary on the war in Afghanistan puts you right into the action with his 5D Mark II. Rii Schroer, crafting short news pieces for The Telegraph and The Times in London, works magic with her 5D. Travis Fox, formerly of The Washington Post and currently shooting a variety of projects, including material for PBS Frontline, discussed his use of the 7D and how he developed his DSLR to work like a video camera. This post will focus on his audio set-up.
(Photo by Mark Mann. From http://blog.travisfox.com/)
As you can see, he wants to utilize an external monitor, so it operates like an LCD swivel on a regular video camera. In addition, notice his M-Audio MicroTrack II for about $150, half the price of the Zoom H4n.
Notice how Fox uses an XLR to 1/4″ TRS input of the MicroTrack (it doesn’t have XLR inputs), and then uses the RCA audio outputs to the stereo minijack input of his Canon 7D. This creates the same source recording of the on-camera reference audio that he feels is needed for PluralEyes, while providing him high quality broadcast quality audio by recording directly to the MicroTrack. Furthermore, he uses a 1/4″ TRS male to 1/8″ male mini jack for his wireless lav receiver.
Travis Fox on the advantages of using an external audio recorder
“I record audio separately on an M-Audio MicroTrack recorder. The last documentary I did was a one hour documentary and we did a hundred hours of footage. I would sync it every night. … One of the disadvantages of [Canon DSLRs] is that you have to start and stop the camera every twelve minutes. When we’re doing an hour, two, three, four hour long interview stopping your subject every twelve minutes can be problematic. So it’s another advantage for using an external recording device, because it can run constantly for hours and hours and hours on end — so you have clean audio uninterrupted. And for the second you have to stop and start the camera, you can cover that with a cutaway or any other shot in postproduction, but you never have to stop the natural flow of an interview.”
Why Fox likes the M-Audio MicroTrack II
“It has an headphone out, as well as a line out. The line out goes into the camera so the camera records exactly the same audio source. The other recorders don’t have the two outputs, I believe. And if your camera isn’t recording the exact same source, then PluralEyes will not work effectively. If you’re using an on-camera mic and … recording to an audio recorder, it’s a disaster. It’s a waste of your time. Don’t do it. You have to record exactly the same source. If you’re using wireless mics, it has to be exactly the same source. And that’s why I chose the MicroTrack recorder. With PluralEyes, when I’m doing it, I’m getting between 95 and 100 percent accuracy [when syncing].”
PluralEyes is the audio sync software put out by Singular Software for around $150. I’ve encountered similar problems as Fox when when I used PluralEyes to sync a short documentary and a short fiction piece I shot on a Canon 5D Mark II with the Rode Video Mic and a Tascam DR-100 — hooked up to a Rode NTG-2 XLR shotgun mic. My success rate was not even ten percent.
Although it appears that other people may not have run into the same problem as Fox and me. In a recent email, Bruce Sharpe of Singular Software told me, “While [the direct source recording used by Fox] would certainly provide ideal data, I can assure you that many, many people use PluralEyes successfully every day without having to do that. We’d be very interested in analyzing any recordings where the sync failed and that was thought to be the reason.”
I would be interested in getting your experiences on using PluralEyes. Does separate sources work for you? If so, what percentage are you finding syncing up? I’m planning to purchase a MicroTrack II and test out Fox’s setup and see if I get a better success rate.
XLR adapters don’t meet high end professional standards
By the way, Fox doesn’t use the DSLR XLR adapters, since audio engineers at Frontline says such adapters don’t meet their high quality broadcast standards. “It’s not even close to meeting their specs, according to them — these are their professional standards people,” Fox said during the ONA panel discussion.
If you’re doing run-and-gun shooting and need good audio and want a clean way to make sure PluralEyes is working for you, check out Fox’s advice.
If you’re doing web-based projects, Beachtek and JuicedLink XLR adapters will do the trick, but if you need to meet professional broadcast standards — or if you’re doing a cinema project needing high end audio — then use an external digital audio recorder.
If you want the MicroTrack II setup, be sure to get the following cables:
3.5mm right angle mini jack to RCA
1/4″ TRS male to XLR female
If you’re using a wireless lav receive, also get a 1/4″ TRS male to 1/8″ mini jack male.
Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of “DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011.” He teaches digital filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.