The DSLR Revolution: Audio

“Sound is arguably on par with video as the most important element to be able to manipulate and control during production and post production.

Too often filmmakers focus all of their attention on video footage and ignore the quality of their sound. Interestingly enough, audiences seem to be more annoyed by poor sound quality than by poor cinematography. “ Lights Online Film School

While DSLR cameras are capable of producing beautiful film-like images their weakness is in their lack of professional audio features. To start with, most have a tiny built-in omni-directional microphone. When you combine this with the lack of audio meters or headphone jacks on all but the most expensive models, getting good audio is going to require an additional investment in audio gear. The Canon (5D Mark III) and Nikon (D7100) have started adding headphone jacks to their high end DSLR’s, so I am hopeful that this feature will eventually become universal.

The simplest solution is to purchase one of the many little shoe mounted shotgun microphones. These will at least give you a more directional pickup pattern, reducing the sound you pick up from the sides and rear. My first purchase was a bust so make sure you get one that is designed for DSLR cameras like the RODE VideoMic Pro. It features a light so you can tell when it is on/off, a switch to boost the signal, and runs on a standard 9 volt battery. This is decent when you are running around by yourself but will not cut it if you are trying to record dialog in a noisy location.

As most of you know, the key to good audio is getting a professional quality microphone close to the sound source. If you are like me, you have a variety of professional mics but they all use XLR cables and many of them require Phantom power. I have been using Beachtek adapters for years so I went with the DXA-SLR Pro. I love the fact that is provides dual XLR inputs, VU meters, controls for fade and gain, phantom power, a headphone jack, and most importantly an AGC disable feature. Automatic Gain Control (AGC) is great when you don’t have time to focus on your audio levels but it can cause some serious problems and most filmmakers want to manually control their levels.

Most professionals using DSLR cameras are employing double-systems recording; recording their audio on both the camera and on a separate audio recorder. While this adds to the complexity of the production and post production process it is what students will face if they get into the industry. I got to visit the Center for Advanced Learning in Gresham, Oregon this week and really liked the way Barb Meyer has organized her double-system audio kits. Students can check out a small plastic box with an illustrated and laminated sheet that shows them all the gear included in the kit. We both use the Samson Zoom H4N audio recorder because it has built in stereo mics, dual XLR/quarter inch inputs, phantom power and records audio in a variety of formats onto a standard SD card. It has a 1/4-20 receptacle so you can get a shoe mount adapter, but we have created a simple duct tape holder that you can hook on the tripod or your belt. Sescom makes the DSLR-AGCY cable that disables the AGC on your camera, connects the H4N to your camera and provides a headphone jack. One of the advantages of using double-system sound recording is the fact that it doesn’t have to be tethered to the camera so the sound recorder can be stationed close to the action, with a boom pole and headphones. You could even hook your recorder up to the soundboard at an event, or place it close to the action. We often use it to record voice overs or interviews in the field so I recommend getting a windscreen as well.

Double-system sound offers excellent quality sound but it comes at a price during the production stage. All those audio clips will have to be organized, matched up with the video clips and then synchronized. That is why the XLR adapters like the Beachtek are so popular. However, software companies like Singular have come out with applications like PluralEyes that will help to automate this process. If you don’t want to purchase this I have a tutorial showing you how to sync separate audio and video clips with Adobe Premiere Pro. Just make sure that you record a clapboard or clap your hands before each shot. Check out this great double-system sound handout from the Center for Advanced Learning.

If you are willing to brave installing the Magic Lantern firmware on your Canon DSLR then you can upgrade the audio controls built into your camera. These include audio meters, manual volume control (disables the AGC), switching between internal and external inputs, and monitoring through the mini USB port.

This semester I have been asking my students to watch a weekly webinar on filmmaking techniques. Last week we focused on “Getting Better Audio” using the Cinevate Webinar series and some audio vocabulary. If this looks good then you are welcome to check out my other lessons at: http://dslrvideo.weebly.com/filmmaking.html. Let me know if you have a lesson, tip or shooting technique you are willing to share so I can add it to my web site and a future article.


 

DockeryJoe Dockery teaches digital media courses at Mount Si High School in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, just east of Seattle, Washington. He weaves service learning into all aspects of his curriculum to ensure his students receive an authentic learning experiences. Dockery also consults and trains nationwide as an Adobe Education Leader. He has taught courses for Washington State University, Seattle Pacific University, The Puget Sound Educational Service District, and a variety of other school districts.

Awards
The Washington State Golden Apple Award
Radio Shack National Technology Teacher of the Year Award
Educator of the Year Award from the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation ISTE’s “Best of the Best” 
ISTE “Making IT Happen”
Adobe Education Leader "Impact" Award
Pacific Northwest Key Club Advisor of the Year