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Tutorial: Mastering Dual-System Audio for DSLR Production

DSLRs produce cinematic-looking video that exceeds the capabilities of most video cameras, but they lack the professional audio connections and controls that come standard on traditional pro camcorders. Which means anyone shooting pro video with DSLRs needs to develop workarounds. Here are some tips on getting great audio on a budget with a DSLR production workflow.

I've had the opportunity in the past few years to do some shooting at videography conventions and at the last few I was asked to use a DSLR for the footage since DSLRs are quickly becoming the cameras of choice for many event videographers and filmmakers. As I would roam the convention hallways looking for b-roll and people to interview, there were 2 questions that seemed to be prevalent from many shooters not completely familiar with the DSLR style of shooting:

1. How do you get around the 12-minute record limit (or, with the Nikons, the 19-minute limit)?
2. How do you handle audio with no XLRs, no way to monitor the audio, and no way to adjust levels on the fly?

In 2011, after a few years of experimenting with DSLRs and using them in select shooting situations, I decided to sell off all my tape-based Canon XH A1 cameras, and settled on a slightly different version of the DSLR-style camera. I went with the Micro 4/3 Panasonic Lumix GH2. In the US version, the answer to Question 1 above was solved, as the GH2 has a continuous recording time limited only by your available battery power or the size of the memory card. That was a welcome change from the Canon T2i and 7D I owned previously.

For audio, the workflow remained the same as if I had chosen a Canon or Nikon DSLR, which meant that I needed to devise a dual-system audio recording strategy that was less obvious or intuitive than capturing professional-quality audio had been with the XH A1s and other traditional video camcorders. My goal in this article is to define how I work with audio with the GH2's limited in-camera audio capabilities. It's worth noting that a few firmware releases have come out for many DSLRs that help out a little with some of the audio issues, but none allow the level of audio control we used to have with camcorders that came standard with XLR inputs.

My Audio Arsenal

My audio arsenal is actually a hodgepodge of different solid state recorders and a single UHF wireless mic (which is still legal ... at least for another year or two). Many DSLR shooters may have a more standardized workflow with solid state audio recorders that are larger and more expensive, with devices like the Edirol R44 and similar form factor products from other manufacturers. These units are amazing and have impressive capabilities, but they come with a price tag that is steeper than some videographers and streaming producers can justify in their businesses. My assorted recorders combined cost about what a single R44 costs, but having a range of recorders gives me a little more flexibility at the cost of a slight inconvenience.

The biggest inconvenience is each different recorder has its own unique menu system for setup. Some are more graceful and navigable than others. A few of these recorders are now out of production, but the manufacturers have replaced them with similar units at similar price points. Most of the time the updated version has improved functionality (but not always). Figure 1 (below) shows the different recorders I own.

Digital Audio Recorders
Figure 1. My assembled recording stock

RecorderProsCons

 

Samson Zoom H1

• Small enough to use on top of my camera like a small shotgun mic with a hot-shoe adapter.
• Records in mp3 or wav format.
• Runs for a long time on a single AA battery. 
• Has 1/8" mic/line jack for external connections.
• Great ambient mic when needed
• Small enough to fit in a pocket with a lav mic attached (circular part at top might be noticable in a coat pocket)
• Has manual and auto gain and level controls 

• Menu functions aren’t naturally intuitive.
• You may have to figure out simple things like how to delete/format the card as it isn’t done in a natural way.
• Uses Micro SD cards, which can get lost easily if removed for ingest. 


Yamaha Pocketrak CX

• My favorite recorder in my arsenal.
• Thin and small enough to fit easily and unobtrusively in a coat pocket.
• Has some of the best Auto Gain circuitry available in an economical recorder; I set the AGC to On and Mic Gain to HI, and recordings don’t.
• Includes an Eneloope battery that runs it for 8+ hours.
• Has a 1/8" Mic/Line input.
• Menus are user-friendly and easy to navigate.
• Records ambient audio well when needed.
• Records mp3 or wav files.

• Also uses Micro SD cards for storage (see above concern).
Edirol R09

• Great recorder for recording sound feeds off a sound board.
• Best quality pre-amp and limiter built in on this list
• Records ambient audio well when needed but I use it mainly for a board feed or line feed.
• Has 1/8" Mic/Line input
• Uses 2 AA batteries and normal SD card for storage
• Has a simple menu structure that is easy to navigate and learn.
• Records mp3 or wav files.

• A little bigger than many wireless transmitter packs so it may not fit nicely in a coat pocket.
• Does not have a way to mount on a belt if a pocket is not available.
• The AA batteries are only good for about 2-4 hours so depending on the use you may need to swap them out in a full day of shooting/recording.
• Access door to the SD card and battery compartment is quirky and you have to be careful or it could break easily.


Samson Zoom H2

• My favorite mic for recording ambient sound.
• For recording a concert or instrument it is hard to beat for the money.
• Has the ability to record with the front mics, the rear mics, or all 4 channels for surround.
• Will record 2 stereo files if using all 4 mics.
• Records mp3 or wav files (including 24-bit wav files).

• Not a good unit to use for external mics or line feeds.
• Preamps are in the wrong place in the circuitry and if the signal is strong the internal limiters can't react quick enough.
• Feed it a signal that’s too strong and you have completely unusable audio.
• I use it only as an ambient mic for instrument or concert recording.
• Uses 2 AA batteries that last less than 2 hours.
• Is about the same size as the Edirol R09 so it may be a little big to fit in a pocket if using a lav mic.


iRiver

•  mp3 player/recorder that happens to have a Mic input.
• Preamps are bad, no limiters. 
• Ok for voice recording only. I wouldn't use them for music.
• Included mostly for nostalgic reasons.

• A new firmware upgrade (that is hard to find) is needed to make them recognizable as storage by Vista/Win7 computers.
• Firmware confines the audio recording via the Mic jack to 96Kbps mp3 format.
• Battery life is only a few hours on a single AA.
• Strictly used as a last resort and only for a person speaking.
• Have been out of production for many years.