Recording audio with your video DSLR, Part I

February 12, 2010

Photo Tips, Video

I hope you got a chance to read Ricks excellent article on how important sound is when shooting video. Well 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 continously 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 backgound 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 backgound would be very soft and hardly noticable. 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 seperate 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. Discussions on these are out of the scope of this article, but if there is enough interest I would be happy to write up a follow up.

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 sound 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 coming soon.

Stay tuned….

Part II of the article has been posted, you can find it here.


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This post was written by:

- who has written 314 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Juan is a wildlife photographer who currently lives in Maine. Juan lives and breathes photography and travels around the country making images, teaching and leading photo workshops. Juan's favorite destination is Yellowstone in winter. You can follow Juan on twitter at http://twitter.com/jpons

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

  1. Bryan Rowland Says:

    What brace are you using to mount the H4N to the tripod/camera?

    Reply

  2. Ollie Says:

    Many thanks for the article, very useful. Can I ask how you are attaching the Zoom to the camera – it looks like a nice piece of kit.

    Reply

  3. paul Says:

    You’d think that canon would at least push a firmware update to allow you to enable or disable automatic gain control via a custom function…. ( I hope they still do).

    Reply

  4. Juan Pons Says:

    Paul,

    We can only hope that Canon does release new firmware that will allow for manual gain, BUT I highly doubt we will. If they did this would further eat into their video camera business.

    -J

    Reply

  5. Chris Says:

    Thanks for the article. Hope to learn more from you! :)

    Reply

  6. Juan Pons Says:

    As far as to how I am mounting my H4n, it’s pretty simple, I actually put that together from some bits I had lying around.

    First I am mounting this to the Really Right Stuff L-Bracket for the 7D. I am using the smallest RRS Quick-Release clamp, the B2-MAS, which I am then pairing with the smallest Gitzo ballhead, the G0077. I tried using a Giottos MH1004 Mini Ball Head, but found it to be just a tad too short.

    That’s all. The only thing I wish I could do to improve it is have a stop at the bottom to prevent it from slipping down in case I forget to tighten the quick release tight enough.

    -J

    Reply

  7. Matt Says:

    Juan,

    Thanks for the great article. This is extremely helpful since I’ve been looking for this very solution. I’m getting ready to shoot a lot of interviews with my 7D and needed excellent audio.

    My question for you: which piece are you using to connect the H4n to the L-plate?

    Thanks in advance.

    Matt

    Reply

  8. Ted Says:

    Magic Lantern!!!!
    Get it and get control of the AGC so you can turn it off and record 16bit 48K audio in camera with the video files and quit all that syncing in post. Boot into the Magic Lantern firmware update and use a Juiced Link box to get balanced XLR inputs and feed from that into the cameras mic input.
    Life is much simpler.

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      Ted,

      I’ve used Magic Lantern with my 5D2, but there is no version for the 7D nor the 1DIV, as of yet. So this is not an option. Yes, there is the issue of syncing the audio, but I can tell you that this is VERY easy to do. In FCP I can sync the audio and video in less than 60 seconds, and if you use software like Pleural Eyes, it can be even easier to do.

      I have found using an external recorder to be a MUCH more versatile solution for my needs, yes there is the added headache of dealing with more files, but with a little planning it’s actually pretty easy to do.

      Take care,

      -J

      Reply

      • Rod Says:

        First off – thanks for the info.

        True about the easy syncing in FCP – but that doesn’t help you if you’re a PC user. By the time you’ve adding it the price of the FCP software (and the Mac!) and the costs involved in purchasing the H4n ($300) and the sync software @ $150, it makes more sense (especially for PC users with a 5D2 on a budget) to go with the Magic Lantern software to record directly. (and add a Beachtek or Juiced Link solution to further improve sound).

        I’m using the above solution with a Rode Videomic into the camera directly with ML FW and the sound is great, really clean…and I have heard examples of this set-up with a beachtek or Juiced Link box and it has been, to my ears, just as good as the H4n – Although I’m sure that people who are looking for the best quality sound possible will recommend recording externally as the only solution. But if you’re a PC user on a budget and have a 5D2 then the ML firmware is great.

        I wonder if any official AGC solution will appear with the much anticipated 5D2 FW update due soon? (I doubt it, i’m also holding out for 720 @24 & 60fps but I doubt that’ll come either!)

        Reply

        • Juan Pons Says:

          Rod,

          Great points, BUT, you should be able to align the sound pretty easily in ANY decent video editing system, be it Mac or PC… No need to buy a Mac and FCP. BTW, I do not use any special nor dedicated software for syncing my sound and video, just a clap of my hands when shooting and a little bit of fiddling in my video editor… Takes me about 60 seconds to sync them up, it’s that easy.

          Talking about being on a budget, the 7D is about $1,000 less than a 5D2, and there is no Magic Lantern for it….

          I know that there are people out there who have had good luck with the Beachtech solution, but people who I trust have not had great results. And BTW, the BeachTech is $379, the JuicedLink $200 if you want XLR inputs. Not sure I personally would consider that a more affordable solution.

          Thanks for the feedback and take care,

          -J

          Reply

  9. Paulie Says:

    FINALLY! Somebody gets it!! I’m a long-time audio guy, and for the life of me I can’t figure out my you would want to stress the 5D2 or 7D with trying to record onboard audio. The electronics to record audio in these cameras is totally second-rate, no matter what firmware or JuicedLink gizmo you try. Signal to Noise Ratio and headroom in the cameras are pretty lame. Your BEST choice is to record audio separately, and the 24-bit H4N is superb for that. Don’t waste your time with onboard audio. With all due respect to the video industry, there has always been this mindset that audio is an afterthought, even though it’s 50% of the production!

    Go with the H4N and sync your audio and have a WAY better edge over the onboard guy. I did see a reply above about the cost of editing software if you want to sync separate audio… all I can say is that if you’re going to get into all this video stuff, it’s going to cost in MANY ways, Bubba! Be prepared to invest, ’cause you’ll be doing it! I’m in almost $10K already. =-)

    Reply

  10. Ted Says:

    Paulie,
    Check out this audio comparison with good detail comparing audio solutions and signal to noise ratio.
    http://vimeo.com/5903379
    The onboard sound you can get with Magic Lantern on your 5D is pretty darn good.
    And there is supposed to be a 7D solution from them in the works.
    And it is free. That is an affordable solution in anybody’s book.
    I have an H4n and confess I do use it when I don’t want to be tethered or if I am recording music that I really want the absolute best quality, but the difference for dialogue recording isn’t worth the couple of minutes it takes to sync up later.
    It’s really just a matter of being easier and faster for me in most cases to capture it onboard with the video.

    Reply

  11. Anton Says:

    When I saw the picture at the top, I thought that you were outputting the audio from the wireless and the h4n’s mic through the 1/8in. jack and into the 7D. Can you do that? If that was possible, the h4n would serve the same purpose as the beachtek and the Juicelink boxes.

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      Anton,

      Yes, I am piping the output of the H4n into the 7D. However the H4n does not have a way to defeat the ACG like the juicedlink does, so although you are controlling the output level the ACG on the camera is still messing up the sound.

      -J

      Reply

  12. J Deez Says:

    I don’t plan on recording any crazy professional video. Just some short clips for my business (all dialog, in an office). Videos I shoot on vacation will probably be clips with music over it. Would the Magic Lantern and Rode Videomic be my best but cheapest solution? It sounds like it would?

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      For the dialog in the office you may not even need Magic Lantern. If the sound is pretty even you will probably be fine with the camera as is.

      -J

      Reply

    • J Deez Says:

      Or maybe just a cheap $25 lapel one linked earlier is even better for that?

      Reply

      • Juan Pons Says:

        If it’s only one person yes the inexpensive lapel will work very well. But if you have more than one the videomic would be better. Also bear in mind that the lapel will only record on one channel, (Left I think) so you will then need to “pan” the sound so that it comes out both sides; this is usually very easy to do. The Videomic is stereo so you won’t have that problem.

        -J

        Reply

  13. Miles W. Says:

    Thank you Juan for this great article. I for one am a professional videographer, and can’t be bothered with Canons onboard audio. No matter how fast and easy it is. If you think it sucks syncing audio in post, try recording a bunch of crappy audio of an event that will never happen again! BTW I think it’s funny how people keep trying to sell you on the technically flawed Beachtek/Juicedlink workflow, and an update for Magic Lantern that hasn’t even come out yet! I am very happy with my dual system setup.

    Reply

  14. John Brookes Says:

    The only thing I am confused about, Juan, is you say you pipe the mike’s output (H4N output?) into the 7D. I thought the H4N is doing the recording?
    BTW, assuming the reach of the shotgun mike is x feet, is there an extension cord to remotely place it on a boom or in a fixed external location for static location shoots?
    Finally, why do you use the 7D and not the 5D? I am evaluating both currently.
    Thanks for great article.

    Reply

  15. Deadeast Says:

    Juan: I have a Zoom4Hn ( and a Canon 7D) and I am guessing you are piping the 4hN to the Canon audio in so you have a scratch track.

    My questions are: A: How are you mounting the Zoom 4hn to your camera? I just got a BushHawk gunstock mount and want to rig something to either it or the Camon 7D hotshoe. B: what kind of cable are you connecting the Zoom4HN to the canon with and C: did you finish the second part of the article? ( that might answer my other questions! )

    thanks, Roger.

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      Roger,

      I am in the process of finishing the followup article. Just been busier than I anticipated. That article should answer all your questions, so be on the lookout for it sometime this coming week.

      -J

      P.S. If I do not address any one of your questions, please make sure to follow up with me on the comments of that post.

      Reply

      • Rich Steel Says:

        I don’t have any experience with the 7D as I have a 5D. My question is this:

        The 5D only has a MIC input. Is it the same on the 7D?

        If it is then aren’t you getting distortion when taking the LINE Level signal into the 7D MIC Level input? or is this switchable in the Camera Menu?

        Reply

        • Juan Pons Says:

          Yes the 7D and 5D have the same input, and no no distortion going on.

          -J

          Reply

          • Rich Steel Says:

            Thanks Juan,

            I’m no sound recordist but everything in me tells me this should NOT work? Line level signal to mic level signal. Strange, very strange but great that it works.

            I’m off to buy a cable. Where did you get that Lime Green one?

  16. Luc Says:

    Thanks Juan for this great article. I just bought the same rig as you describe here. Canon 7D with H4N, gitzo ball… everything!

    I need something like a viewfinder, for outdoor shooting. I’ve only found the Z-finder.
    Magic lantern would be a great help with zebra and peaking too. I’m note sure if there’s a way to install it on the 7D though.

    Is there an electric zoom for the lenses on the market?

    OK, I know what you think. ” Why do not buy a video camera instead” ???

    As a cameraman, I want to keep flexibility in handling of a camera and have the stunning image quality as DSLR.

    Thanks, Luc

    Reply

  17. Miguel Says:

    Hi my name is Miguel, I have a canons and just got a H4N mic recorder, I am still trying to connect it to the 7 D is it ideal to use a 1/4 jack from the xlr inputs of the H4N to the small input jack o the 7D? I am trying to avoid to have to sync audio in post, and get it right in!! Is this posible? Thanks for your help man, if you can reply to my email better since I found your forum on my phone, don’t know if I can math it again!!

    Miguel

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      You can’t go an input to an input. You need to go from an output to an input. The XLR on the H4N are inputs and so is the jack on the 7D.

      You will not be able to get it right in the camera 100% of the time as the 7D does not have manual gain controls. You could use something like the BeachTech unit, but from what I have heard from other people that really know what they are doing, that is marginal at best.

      -J

      Reply

  18. Dante Says:

    Dear Juan, very helpful tips and practical guidelines. Many thanks!!

    Reply

  19. Tom Says:

    Is there a huge difference in audio from the H4n mics connected to the camera’s mic input over the audio directly recorded to the H4n SD card. Another words you’re using the same mics on the H4n for both recordings, is there a difference in sound quality from the H4n card over the in camera card.

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      You cannot connect the cameras built in mic to the h4n. There is no audio output on the Canon HD-DSLRs. Besides the mic on the h4n is FAR superior than the one built in.

      Reply

  20. James Wood - United By Photography Says:

    I love shooting and monitoring with a wireless setup on my 60D, still hate the 12 min timeout always happens on the juicy bits. I wonder if Canon create a fix so it never happens on the juicy exciting or important parts of interviews or dialogue.

    Be a great Xmas or new year present if only.

    Reply

  21. Greg Cooper Says:

    Augmenting camera audio functionality and control over gain … MagicLantern all the way baby … unfortunate the only model that this has not yet been properly developed for is the 7D :(

    Reply

  22. Nick Says:

    Hi,
    I am a new DSLR videographer.

    I have a Canon T3i, a Zoom H2 and a Azden wireless lav kit.

    Is your lav mic audio recording to the camera or field recorder?

    Is your field recorder audio recording to itself or the camera? Or both at the same time?

    Thank you!
    Nick

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      Nick,

      The field recorder is recording to itself, but I also have the camera recording the sound so that I have a reference sound recording. Makes it easier to sync the audio later on.

      Take care,

      -J

      Reply

  23. Matous Says:

    Hi, I used H4n with RedHead windscreen and I found that they are really don’t well usable. They work worst than foam protector which you buy included with Zoom. I bought new one windscreen from K-tek and it is really different and better!
    Other perfekt trademark for windscreens is Rycote…

    Reply

    • Juan Pons Says:

      Hi,

      Your experience is the only one I’ve heard like this. I know dozens of people and I myself use the h4n very very frequently with the RedHead and it works perfectly.

      -J

      Reply


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] is the second part of my “Recording audio with your video DSLR” post from last month. Apologies for not being to get this out sooner, I’ve just been […]

  2. […] heard me say before, audio is of the outmost importance when shooting videos. If you look at my two part article on recording audio for video, my preferred way of recording audio is to record it separately on a […]

  3. […] found a great post on Recording audio with your video DSLR over on the Digital Photo Experience blog.  It’s about time somebody put this out.  Even […]

  4. […] found a great post on Recording audio with your video DSLR over on the Digital Photo Experience blog. It’s about time somebody put this out. Even before […]

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