DSLR Cinema, Cinema Raw, and Cinematic Journalism

by Kurt Lancaster

How to overcome audio weaknesses of DSLRs by Wes Pope

There are three major weaknesses to recording audio directly into any Canon or Nikon DSLR camera: there is no way to see levels while recording, you cannot listen on headphones, and there is no good pre-amp or phantom power (to power a microphone) built into the camera. It is my guess that all of these issues will be addressed in some way by the manufacturers in the near future, but in the mean-time, here is my solution:

 

I use an external audio recorder such as the Zoom H4n or the Tascam DR-100. I then use a step-down cord (from Sescom), to run a signal out of the recorder into the camera’s mic jack. This solution allows me to put the best possible audio into the camera and also creates an external audio recording in case anything goes wrong, like a cord connection coming loose. Otherwise, without visible recording levels or headphone jacks, there is no way to know for sure if you are getting anything in the camera. I find that more than 90% of the time the audio I send into the camera works fine and I can avoid having to sync the external audio recordings.

 

Let’s talk about the Sescom step-down cords for a moment. In general, line level is an amplified signal and mic-level is an un-amplified signal, meaning much less power is running through the line. If we run a line-level into the mic jack on the camera, the sound level will be way too hot to record. Headphone level is not quite as hot as true line level, but still too hot to run into mic level. Therefore, Sescom makes cords appropriate to the individual device. The Zoom H4n does not have a line-out jack, so we are trying to take a signal from the headphone line down to the camera and also use a splitter so that we can still listen on headphones. They make this cord that is set to the right level and has a built-in splitter for headphones (note that -25dB is the amount that headphone level gets stepped down to get to mic level):

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/750963-REG/Sescom_LN2MIC_ZMH4_MON_3_5mm_Line_to_Mic.html

 

In the case of my Tascam DR-100 (and many other recorders), there is a line-out jack in addition to a headphone jack. In that case, Sescom makes this cord (not splitter necessary and -35dB is the amount the signal gets stepped down):
http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/746643-REG/Sescom_LN2MIC_TASDR100_LN2MIC_TASDR100_Line_Out_to.html

 

In the case of using a Zoom H4n and a shotgun mic, running audio into a Canon 5D Mark II, 60D, Rebel T3i (600D)—where you have manual control of audio—and using the Sescom patch cord (providing a -25dB step down), follow these steps:

 

1) Set an input level to achieve a proper level where your peaks are maxing between -12 dB and -6 dB (and never hitting 0 dB).

 

2) Set the headphone level quite high, between 90-100, then don’t ever adjust it! If you have this level set too low, you can actually end up adding hiss to your in-camera recording. (When using a recorder such as the Tascam that has a line-out jack, you skip this step).

 

3) Use the audio preview levels inside the camera to adjust the levels to exactly match what you are seeing on the recorder. Once this relationship is set, as long as you don’t adjust you headphone out level or the level inside the camera—then the level you are seeing on your external recorder should be approximately accurate. In other DSLRs that do not have a manual level setting you can skip this step (I would recommend running your own tests in the case of the Nikons that have High, Medium, and Low pre-sets).

 

Then when you work with a wireless lav mic, there are two additional places to set a correct audio level:

 

1) Mic sensitivity level on the transmitter.

 

2) AF Out on the receiver.

 

One final tip: when I work in this way, I leave the recorder recording all day long and only stop and start the camera. Audio files are relatively small and I want to keep it simple when it comes time to catch a shot and not accidentally forget to start my recorded.

 

I mount the recorder above the camera using an inexpensive bracket from Custom Brackets (approx. $40). There are dozens of manufactures who make more expensive rigs for DSLRs. I tend to shoot as much as possible on a tripod, so I find my simple bracket works well in most cases. It also gives me a place to mount my shotgun since it frees the hotshoe as a place to mount my wireless receiver.

 

As for solving the pre-amp issue, the Tascam is a tiny bit cleaner than the Zoom (based on reviews at transom.org—I haven’t been able to discern a difference). However, neither is great. My next solution is to look into a pre-amp upgrade to the Tascam from Oade Brothers. Powered mics are another solution (such as the Rode NTG-2—but this is not necessarily the cleanest possible audio).

 


Wes Pope is a Lecturer at Northern Arizona University, where he teaches in the Photojournalism & Documentary Studies program. Formerly, Wes was a photo and video journalist for 15 years and recently earned an MA in Documentary Film and History from Syracuse University. This post is excerpted from Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling by Kurt Lancaster (Routledge, 2012).

 

 

Category: Articles
  • Dan McComb says:

    Great tips, thank you. One thing I would like to add from my experience using Zoom H4N: if you’re going to let it roll, make sure you’ve got plenty of battery. If your batteries die during a take, the Zoom will save a file – but it will contain no data. Ever since this happened to me two hours into a shoot, I’ve taken to re-rolling between takes. That way, if the batteries die, you only lose the last take, rather than the entire shoot.

    October 11, 2011 at 10:04 pm
  • Joe Rosenberger says:

    Hi, Dan,
    I might add (in our own interests) that yet another way to go is to employ our Energy Transformation Systems PA911 audio camera balun. It enables you to employ a high-end microphone like a Sennheiser with the 5D 7D Canon series, simply by using our inexpensive and lightweight transformer balun. Just plug it into the camera’s 3.5mm mini plug and plug the mike into its XLR connector, and you’re set to go with terrific audio. I should mention that it’s neither a passive device nor a simple connector, but contains miniature transformer circuitry. Note Kurt Lancaster mentioned it in his recent blog about videoing the Occupy Wall Street group in New York.
    Best, Joe Rosenberger, VP Marketing & Sales, Energy Transformation Systems, Inc.

    October 20, 2011 at 9:40 pm
  • Bill Pryor says:

    This is very similar to what I do. When I was using the Zoom H4N the sound I was getting from the 5DII was OK but there was a big difference in quality between camera audio and Zoom audio, and I always used the Zoom.

    But earlier this year the Headphone jack on the Zoom died, and the electronics guru couldn’t get the right parts to fix it, and that made the Zoom worthless. I was happy with the quality of the Zoom but not happy with not having gain knobs and not happy with having to press the record button twice to record. So I spent double the money and got the Marantz PMD661. It’s a little wider than the Zoom, just a bit longer, and definitely heavier. It has a 1/4″-20 socket on the bottom, so I can mount it on my rig as I did the Zoom

    Unlike the Zoom it has a real line output, left and right channels. I use the same pad cable as mentioned i the above article. No need for a Y splitter since there’s also a TRS headphone jack. The sound quality from the Marantz is, as expected, better than the Zoom, as it should be for the money. However, one thing I did not expect was that now my camera’s sound quality is significantly better as well. Now I use the camera sound in my work and use the recorder’s sound for backup.

    I use a Zacuto DSLR Baseplate rig, with a 4″ rod sticking out the side. On the end of that rod I have a little block that goes around the rod and has an articulated 1/4″-20 spud, and that’s where I mount the Marantz when I don’t have a soundman. With a soundman, he wears the recorder with its neckstrap. Under those situations, usually dolly or jib shots, I just get reference audio to the camera and use the recorder as the only source.

    The only reason I can see as to why this is happening is probably due to the line output versus the headphone output of the Zoom. To me that makes it worth the money.

    It still makes me nervous to record sound to the camera since there’s no way to monitor it, so I am always careful to make sure I’m recording to the Marantz as well. So far, though, there has not been a problem.

    November 24, 2011 at 1:59 am
  • Paul Abrahams says:

    Want to improve the quality? Get rid of the Zoom. The Zoom H4n and other zooms do not have a good signal to noise ratio and their distortion is well known. They are ok for Talk but not for anything music related. Having XLR inputs kind of makes a this a mute point and going for good mics will improve it a little but they still have a noisey floor and cheap AD’s. Better off spending money on a better recorder.

    If you want good quality via XLR and quality mics/booms and be portable, go for the Fostex FR 2LE field recorder. Want to spend less? The Sony PCM-M10 has a far better technical pedigree than Zoom, less distortion, even if it does not provide XLR’s. Use pluraleyes to sync with the on camera sound.

    I wouldn’t even bother to use the on camera sound unless for emergency. Use a Rode/mke 400 or a stereo mic straight into the camera to get a decent sound, set the camera to manual input, adjust to taste then use it as a back up and to sync. Thats what I’d do. The Marantz is good too but the Zooms don’t perform well under lab conditions and using all those odd step down cords, nah I wouldn’t do it.

    Keep it simple.

    November 25, 2011 at 8:49 am
    • Paul Abrahams says:

      I just wanted to put what I said a slightly different way..

      If you’re shooting journo/interviews. The H1 and a lav mic with the person being interviewed has the H1 hidden or put the H1 on a boom pole then sync with the on camera sound that works well. For a step up in quality don’t waste money trying to get the zoom or the on camera sound better with mics, go for the better recorder and mics. Just my 2 cents worth. I’ve also heard the Rode VM or MKE 400 into the camera works well too. On some canon dsrl’s you can change the AGC to manual eg: 60D. If you want to see some lab tests on the Zoom I can send some links.

      November 25, 2011 at 9:00 am
  • steve_d says:

    Ive always found that the more connections in a line or in this case from sound to recorder, leads to more issues.

    What is wrong with using a standard Rode Video Mic (which uses a 9V battery to power itself) on your DSLR?

    They give exceptional audio quality and using the levels on something like a 60D or 5D2 you can pre set the record levels to just before the peaking happens. You will get clean sound for 99% of your video, with the exception of large crashes or explosions. but then that audio would be pretty much unusable anyhow.

    External audio is always a better option if you can record it, but its not the be all and end all. For example if you are recording a music video its wise to get a direct feed from the desk, on camera audio for sync. That way you have a clean PA audio channel and a good audio feed to sync the two together.

    I always find it confusing that these old journalism and broadcast guys love DSLRs but tend to take the bulkiest approach to their equipment.
    Its about smaller and lighter, not pretty much as much bulk and weight as you would have had with your old equipment.

    December 1, 2011 at 3:22 am
  • James - United By Photography says:

    Love the article and comments about audio I shoot with a sennheiser wireless to a 60d and am able to monitor levels via the line output via a mini jack splitter to my headphones and set audio levels manually.

    December 8, 2011 at 6:13 pm
  • Patrick Baldwin says:

    I have tried this trick from the article with a zoom H4n into a D7000 and appear to get no sound at all into the the camera. Has anybody done this and made it work. I have tried undamped cables and a -25db cable to no avail.

    December 14, 2011 at 8:48 am
  • Laurel says:

    Its possible to use this cable with ZOOM H1 too?

    December 20, 2011 at 10:10 pm
    • Kurt Lancaster says:

      I don’t see why not. I haven’t tried it, but the principle is the same.

      December 22, 2011 at 4:58 pm
  • Jim Karnik says:

    As both a photographer/filmmaker specializing in nature programming, having one system that can do both high quality stills and HD video would be ideal. And we’re getting close.

    I’ve been producing web films with the Canon 7D for some time and would like to share with you my experiences dealing with some of the benefits and limitations of shooting with a DSLR.

    On the first few projects I shot with the 7D I used a Zoom H4n digital audio recorder to capture audio. But I found this very awkward to work with as a one man crew. So after some research I decided to try the BeachTek DXA-SLR.

    This BeachTek has AGC disable which is critical with this camera and many other DSLRs out there. Even if I could control the audio levels in the camera I would still use a mixer like this.

    Here is a link to a short video about my setup: http://vimeo.com/34930286

    March 9, 2012 at 1:39 am
  • Stephanie says:

    Hi Kurt, question – would you perhaps have a link to this bracket you’re using?

    April 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm

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