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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.

One other note about recorders: There are many new ones coming on the market almost daily in many sizes and capabilities and from many different manufacturers. They all have similar capabilities, but some are better quality and built better than others. If you're in the market for new recorders, do your research and learn about features. Reading online reviews will also give you an idea of the build quality and actual usability of the units. My list is in no way conclusive. It's just a list of what I have acquired over the years to supplement my audio acquisition, and may give you an idea of some of the strengths and weaknesses you're likely to find in compact recorders in this class.

Using the Recorders in the DSLR Workflow

Now that I have you somewhat familiar with a few recorders let me explain how I use them in my GH2 workflow. Most of the time, I use the recorders standalone and do not plug them into one of the GH2s. The beauty of solid state recorders is that they are normally "set it and forget it." When I mention this to shooters inquiring about audio they always ask, "How do you monitor audio if it's not plugged into the camera and using headphones." My response: These recorders do a great job of controlling levels. You test it ahead of time, do a sound check, press the Record button, and go shoot. After that, don't worry about it.

"But what if something goes wrong?" they ask. My response: "If you're recording an event, you can't stop the event and go fix the problem, so does it really help to monitor it closely?" If you have a wireless mic plugged into a recorder and get interference or problems with the mic, can you really go fix the problem without compromising other aspects of the production as the event rolls on? Set it and forget it ... and have some redundancy built into your audio acquisition where possible. This makes it easier to not worry about it. I use whatever recorder best suits the sound I want to record.

Recording Directly to the Camera Via Wireless

For those times I want to record directly to the camera via wireless or other means, here is how I do it. I will do this if I am recording a corporate presentation or something where a quick-turnaround workflow would be beneficial.

I will take my wireless mic, or a direct line feed from a sound board if possible, and plug it into my Zoom H1. This means I can get a nice clean feed from the wireless or board feed directly into the Zoom in .wav format, and it also acts as a backup in the event that something goes wrong with the camera-recorded audio. It will slow down my workflow if I have to use the H1 audio, but it gives me a layer of redundancy. Once the wireless is hooked up to the H1, I can set my levels from the wireless receiver so the audio in the H1 has good levels and sounds great. I can use the manual level adjustments if needed on the H1 to get the sound dialed in just like I want it. I use the headphone jack on the H1 to monitor the levels and verify that the wireless is giving me a good feed.

I then take a 3.5mm-to-2.5mm cable and capture the signal from the headphone jack and send it to the Mic input on my GH2. (The GH2 has a smaller 2.5mm jack instead of the standard 1/8" jack so I had to purchase an adapter cable. Most other DSLRs will have the standard 1/8" jack, so a regular 1/8" male-to-male cable should work fine for Canon and Nikon DSLR shooters.)

Once the headphone jack is plugged into the camera Mic jack, I can then use a combination of volume control on the H1 and the audio level adjustment on the camera to get the sound right in the GH2. The GH2 has a small range of audio gain settings but, between the volume control on the H1 and the Gain control on the GH2, you can get it dialed in to the right level. Unfortunately, to monitor or check your in-cam audio, you need to play it back in camera or in a computer, as there is no headphone jack on the GH2. If your DSLR has a headphone jack, then this small part of the process will be easier. It may take a few minutes of experimenting to get it dialed in, but once you get the Gain control and the volume level of the recorder set, just leave them at those settings whenever you shoot.

Once I have these settings properly adjusted, I just plug it all in, do a quick check with the headphones on the H1, and then plug into the camera and go shoot. Don't forget to press the Record button on the H1 (or whatever standalone audio recorder you're using), or all you will get is pass-through to the camera and no redundant recording. (Don't ask why I know this).

You can experiment with how to hook all this up to the camera. A few rubber bands and/or velcro help it all hold together for me. You could invest in a cage system or rig for mounting accessories, but if I'm using a wireless, it's always in a static tripod setup, so I will either mount the wireless receiver on the tripod and run the cable to the H1, or mount the wireless on the shoe mount and the H1 on top of that.

I have also tried to keep my setup as lean and cost-efficient as possible so I restrict the accessories I purchase to only those I really need. Figure 2 (below) shows my GH2 with the mic and H1 all hooked up.

Panasonic GH2 Audio Setup
My GH2 with the Zoom H1 mounted to the hot shoe.

Note: Test your recorders ahead of time if you are going to take a feed from the headphone jack to the Mic jack of you camera. I have found that my Edirol R09, while it's a great recorder for other applications, does not send a usable signal to my camera. No matter how I adjust the volume on the R09, the signal to the camera comes in too hot. I discovered this via some testing. The Zoom units and the Yamaha work perfectly.