Recording audio with your video DSLR, Part I

September 6th, 2010 by Juan Pons

In the short time I have been shooting video seriously I have very quickly learned that sound is often more important than the video itself.

To that end, I have talked to many folks about how to best record sound when shooting with a Video DSLR, and have experimented quite a bit as well. In this article I will share with you the system that I am now using and which I find is producing great results for me.

Let me first state that if you are serious about your videos, you should be serious about sound; and if you are serious about sound, you should NOT rely on the built-in sound recording capabilities of the current crop (as of Feb, 2010) of video DSLRs. This includes the Canon 5D Mark II, 7D & 1D Mark IV. Please note that I do not have first hand experience with the Nikons, but from what I have been told the situation is similar.

The reason you should not be relying on on the built-in recording capabilities of these video DSLRs, is because these cameras have what is called an Automatic Gain Control or AGC, feature. What this means is that the camera will dynamically and continuously adjust the sound recording level. What this means is that if you are recording in an environment where there is noise all around you, and you are using a lapel (or lavaliere) type microphone, the sound will vary wildly in your recording.

For an example of what I mean watch this video that I recorded in Dec, 2009.

Notice how the sound of the breaking waves in the background changes? Pretty annoying don’t you think? Well the way to get around this is to be able to control the audio recording sensitivity (or gain) and not have it fluctuate while you are recording.

To get good sound in any situation like the one in the video above, what you need to do is set the recording level, or gain, to a level where the voice would be clear, not too loud and not too soft. Wearing a lapel microphone, which is meant to pick up the voice of the speaker, the sound of the surf in the background would be very soft and hardly noticeable. This is both good and bad; good in that now you are able to hear the speaker clearly and at a consistent volume, but bad because sometimes it is nice to have some of the environmental background sounds to place the speaker.

This is easily remedied by recording a separate track, either at the same moment as you are recording the video or at another time. Then in your video editing software package you can mix the sound tracks while adjusting the volume independently.

This is not unlike what we photographers are doing when we shoot two images for later blending in photoshop; in one image we shoot for the highlights and the other for the shadows, we then mix to taste.

For an example of another video where I used this technique check out the video below.

Ok, so now let’s get to the gear. Obviously, if you can’t use the camera to record the audio you will need some sort of external recorder which provides you with much more control over gain levels and ideally provides you the capability to record multiple tracks. For the past few months I have been using a great portable recorder from a company called Zoom. The recorder I am using is the Zoom H4n. This recorder is incredibly versatile, it has a nice and big LCD with peak levels to help you set the right gain, it can record up to 4 channels simultaneously, and accepts just about every type of input you can throw at it. (Mini jack, 1/4″ jack, and XLR). Additionally it allows you to monitor the sound that is being recorded, important to make sure you confirm you are recording.

The H4n records on standard SD cards, and accepts AA batteries, therefore it fits easily with all your other photo accessories. The H4n runs about $300.

Next are the microphones. The Zoom H4n has a pair of GREAT microphones that will record in stereo. If you can get the unit within 5 feet or so of your subject you may be fine using the built in microphones. Also these built-in mics are great for recording environmental sounds, like the sound of the water rushing by on the gloves review video above.

However if you can’t get the Zoom in that close, you may have to resort to other kinds of Microphones, like shotgun or parabolic microphones.

Let’s talk about lapel, or lavs (short for lavaliere), microphones, these are those tiny microphones that you see all the news anchors on TV wearing. They are small and are designed to pick up the voice of the wearer while filtering out most of the ambient noise.

Lavs come either wired or wireless. It goes without saying that the wireless mics are much easier to deal with as you don’t have to worry about tripping over cables. However, traditionally, good wireless mics have been VERY expensive, in the order of $2,000 – $3,000 per receiver or transmitter. Yes you could get cheaper ones, but they where usually not that great. You could get much better sound from an inexpensive wired mic (less than $50) than an inexpensive ($300-$800) wireless system.

However like most other things on this space this has changed, and dramatically. In the past few years Sennheiser has released a series of relatively inexpensive ($500 – $600) wireless microphones that not only have GREAT sound quality, but hav switchable frequencies (important in case you encounter interference), are durable, and use AA batteries.

Late in 2009 I acquired a Sennheiser EW100 G3 wireless lapel microphone system that is incredible versatile, and sounds great.

However if your budget can’t afford the wireless stuff, I have had great results with this Audio Technica ATR-3350 Lavalier wired lapel microphone. You can easily connect this mic to the Zoom and record away!

Another accessory that is a MUST for the Zoom is a quality Windscreen. A windscreen is usually a piece of foam or similar material that you place over the microphone to reduce the noise of wind. The Zoom comes with a cheap foam windscreen that I think is pretty much useless. I use and can recommend to you the windscreens from Redheads Windscreens, these are incredibly effective at cutting down wind noise, plus you can get them in all sorts of fun colors.

I can hear you thinking…. how do I make all this stuff work together and how do I merge and sync my audio with the video…

I will cover that and more on the second installment of this article in a few days.

Check out Juan Pons and Rick Sammon on the great website and podcast Digital Photo Experience.




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2 Responses to “Recording audio with your video DSLR, Part I”

  1. Sukhbir says:

    Interesting article! I can’t wait for the second installment. By the way, any idea where I can get my hands on the Zoom H4n in Malaysia?

  2. corey says:

    I noticed you’re shooting with the 7d. How do you like it? I’d rather stay away from a crop sensor, but it has other advantages over the 5d mkII.
    Loved the article, and totally agree about SQ being the difference maker. thanks.

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