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Today's cameras shoot great video, but outboard gear is required to get top-quality audio results.

by Jon Chappell

H4N-5D-DSLR-APPLICATION.jpg

A DSLR with an attached portalbe recorder, in this case, a Zoom H4n. (Click images to enlage.)

 

From the visual side of things, shooting video for music events has never been easier. You can get excellent quality video (well, more than good enough for YouTube purposes) from inexpensive vidcams like the Flip, Alesis, and Zoom models, or you can use a more upscale solution such as a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) or handheld videocamera—ones made expressly for shooting video. Any of these sources will produce crisp and colorful videos.

 

The problems come when you start to consider the audio.

 

Let’s take videocameras to start. You’d think that by plunking down a four to five hundred bucks you’d have a camera that could shoot good audio along with that crisp video. But you’d be wrong. Almost all vidcams under about $600 rely on a small onboard mic and don’t include a mic in jack. This presents two problems: 1) The onboard mic is often substandard and limited by a single pickup pattern (usually omni); 2) The mic can’t be separated from the camera. So imagine standing back far enough to get three talking people in the frame. The mic moves back along with the visual. If the ambient noise is high, you won’t be able to hear them, much less get a good signal. If only you could hook up a mic (either by wire or wirelessly) to the input, but cameras don’t include this feature. They used to, but not anymore.

 

On the other hand, the good thing about the Alesis and Zoom cameras is that they’re made for musicians, and so include a stereo mic in jack, as well as having very good onboard mics. The problem with these units is that, though they shoot in HD format, their optics and features are quite limited. For example, they don’t include the ability to zoom the lens (which is different from digital zoom, and inferior to a true optical zoom). With the Zoom and Alesis, the video suffers even when you can get pro-quality audio.

 

So how do you get high-quality audio out of a video camera or DSLR? There are three strategies that all use outboard gear, but will guarantee your video’s audio will be CD-quality or better. Which method you choose depends on your style of working and the extra steps you're willing to go through. Let’s take a look at the three approaches, in order of simplicity.

 

SOLUTION #1: USE A PORTABLE AUDIO RECORDER

There is a plethora of good portable recorders, made by such companies as Yamaha, Sony, Roland, Olympus, Zoom, TASCAM, and others. TASCAM even makes a model, the DR-60D, specifically for using with a DLSR. By recording your audio onto one of these, either by using their onboard mics (which are far superior to your camera’s built-in mic) or plug-ins that you provide, you’ll be getting just about the best audio possible. That includes the ability to record in a variety of formats, from low-bitrate mp3s to CD-  quality (44.1kHz/16-bit) and beyond (96kHz/24-bit). A popular recorder for the video crowd is the Zoom H4n because it has XLR inputs. That means you can use pro-level dynamic or condensers—the same ones you’d use on stage or in the studio in your normal one, ones that you already own—without adapters. The H4n and its ilk include the standard 1/4" threaded collar on the back or bottom for attaching to tripods and the posts of many camera holders.

 

By recording onto a separate recorder, you are assured much better fidelity, a better user interface, and more features than the camera can provide. The downside is that you have your audio and video on different media, and so must sync the audio files to the video “in post” (that is, at a later time, in front of a computer, using software). That’s an extra step, and prevents you from, say, uploading your video to YouTube immediately upon concluding your recording.

 

Syncing in post, however, is not such a big deal if you plan on editing the video anyway (including minor tweaks, like trimming the front and back ends and maybe adding a beginning title and an ending copyright). In fact there is software built expressly for this purpose. But it’s easy enough to do manually, simply by eyeballing the two tracks of audio (your recorder’s and your camera’s) and lining up the waveforms visually. Since the recorder is often only inches from the camera mic, there are no phase or delay issues to deal with. In this case, you use the camera’s audio for synching purposes, but it’s not heard in the final output. (You would simply mute the camera’s audio track when you go to render or output the final video.)

H4n.jpg

The Zoom H4n is a popular choice for an external recorder because it includes XLR inputs.

 

SOLUTION #2: USE A LINE MIXER

If you don’t want to use an external recorder, but you still want some control over the sound going into the camera, then employing small mixer is the way to go. Mixers built for recording audio onto video are essentially no different than mixers in the audio world except that they’re built small enough to be mounted on camera rigs. But all the controls and I/O will be familiar to any audio person. Juicedbox makes several models, and is a popular choice for video recordists. Look at the photo below, and you’ll see XLR inputs for your mics, a stereo 1/8" output to feed to the camera’s input, and a headphone jack for monitoring the sound. There are also trim pots and phantom power circuitry for control over the signal that enters the camera.

 

 

juicedLink.jpg

 

The JuicedLink is a mixer that includes XLR inputs, phantom power, trim controls, and a heaphone output for controlling and monitoring audio that goes into the camera. It also disables the Automatic Gain Control in some DSLR cameras--a very handy feature.

 

A mixer gives you more control than just hitting the camera with nothing in between, but less control than a dedicated recorder has. Still, the advantage here is that the audio is now attached to the video file—no  synching in post necessary. The metering isn’t as good on a mixer, but as long as you’re not distorting the input and you keep an eye on the camera’s audio meters, you’ll be fine.

 

SOLUTION #1 Vs. SOLUTION #2 SMACKDOWN: A CHART

There are other advantages to using Solution #1 or Solution #2 not related to audio quality. Here's a chart that shows some of the logistical advantages of recorders and mixers. The advantages are shown in blue; the disadvantages in red.

 

 

AUDIO MIXER

AUDIO RECORDER

Inputs

Multiple ins

Stereo inputs only

Phantom Power

Active (pwrd) mixers only

Most audio recorders

Monitoring

Monitors input only

Monitors actual recording

VU/LED Meters

Only some mixers

Better VU/LED meters

Sync To Video

Yes

Requires synching in post

Audio Formats

Limited by camera (1 or 2)

Many options

Record Length

Limited by camera: ~12 mins.

Capacity of card (up to 4 hrs.)

 

 

SOLUTION #3: RECORD IN PARALLEL

If you're not sure whether to record externally (though a portable digital recorder) or internally (through a mixer), why not combine the two for a parallel approach? This gives you both immediately usable audio on the video track, plus a separately recorded file that is certainly superior to the on-camera audio. If the on-camera video distorts (as it can) or otherwise fails, you always have a backup. And you can use the recorder's track for critical listening situations.

 

There are actually two ways to employ the parallel approach. The simplest way is to use just the external recoder. Record separately onto this as you normally would, but instead of monitoring the output of the recorder through the headphone jack, use this jack to feed your camera's mic input. (Some recorders have a line out, which is a better match for this purpose.) Then you would monitor from the camera's output jack. This has the advantage of being able to monitor what's on the camera (not just what's on the recorder), your ultimate destination.

 

The second way is to employ a mixer and an enternal recoder. The mixer output feeds the camera (as is normal), and the monitor out feeds the recorder (not your headphones). You don't really need the mixer for the recorder in this setup, but the extra control can't hurt. This scenario might occur if you already have an outboard recorder anyway (because you're an audio person), but want a mixer for those times when you want better audio for the camera, but still want to have the audio and video synched. Again, having synched audio does save time in post. But if you don't mind carrying around and hooking up two pieces of gear, Solution #3 will give you maximum control and great post-production audio--the best of both worlds.

 

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Jon Chappell\\_HCBio\\_101x101.jpg

 

Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).

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