We’re almost a decade past the entrance of DSLR cameras into the professional video and cinema production space. The video-capable Nikon D90 hit the market in August 2008, quickly followed by the game-changing Canon EOS 5D Mark II a month later.
While the images produced by large-sensor cameras were a revelation, audio was always an afterthought. DSLRs were never conceived as video cameras; they were and still are mostly still cameras that happen to shoot video. Many original video-capable models didn’t have audio inputs, headphone output or audio metering. For video professionals and indie filmmakers, none of the popular DSLRs or mirrorless cameras seemed capable of recording truly professional-level, high-quality sound.
Nine Years Of Audio Evolution
Fast-forward to today, and DSLRs are well established in production and have been quickly followed by mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic GH and Sony a7 model lineups and the new a9. Video features and capability have increased considerably from the days of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. 4K resolutions are now common, and lens choices have exploded for the DSLR and mirrorless markets.
But what about audio capability? After all, audio is often more important to the success of your project than video. What is the audio state of the art of DSLR and mirrorless cameras in 2017? The good news is that manufacturers have given more consideration to audio in the latest crop of popular mirrorless and DSLR cameras in comparison to the first- and second-generation cameras. Most cameras now have built-in microphone inputs, dedicated headphone outputs and on-screen audio metering. The bad news is that the basic sound quality is still, from a professional audio engineering standpoint, abysmal. Low-cost cameras don’t have high enough quality audio for professional use for a variety of reasons.
The camera manufacturers never considered building pro-level audio into DSLR or mirrorless cameras because it has never been a market driver in the race to dominate sales. This means that their customers (all of us) have never made high-quality audio a priority when we make camera-buying decisions. If we had, there would be $3,000 mirrorless cameras with high-quality microphone preamps, pro-level A/D and D/A converters and high-quality headphone monitoring circuitry. Customers tend to obsess more about video resolution, bit depth and convenience features more than audio quality. If you buy one of these cameras and shoot indie films with a dedicated sound mixer, you record audio elsewhere, typically on a Sound Devices, Zoom, Tascam or Zaxcom recorder. For the rest of us, though, who attempt to record audio in-camera or in a way that a solo shooter can deal with, our audio choices until the past few years have been limited.
When it comes to discussing high-quality audio and DSLR/mirrorless cameras, there are two terms that you must understand to record high-quality audio for your video projects.
In-Camera Audio. This term is self-explanatory. You’re plugging a microphone or multiple microphones through an outboard audio mixer into your DSLR or mirrorless camera. The advantage of in-camera audio is that it’s easier and simpler to use, and there’s nothing extra to manage, record or sync. The disadvantage is that the audio recording capability of all DSLR and mirrorless cameras is subpar. You’re trading quality for convenience with this approach. Depending how the material will be used and where it will be aired/streamed, this lower-quality audio may suffice for your minimal-quality needs.
Dual-System Sound. This term requires a bit more explanation. With dual-system sound, the camera still records audio, either through input from a mixer or microphone or just through the camera’s internal microphone. Sound is also recorded at the same time on an outboard audio recorder. The in-camera audio is ingested into the editor along with the video. The editor then also ingests the audio recorded via the external recorder and matches them up in the video timeline. Once the two audio sources (hence the moniker “dual-system sound”) are synced in the timeline, the in-camera audio is muted or discarded, and the higher-quality sound is utilized. Even the lowest-cost outboard recorders like the Zoom H4n have sound quality that far surpasses the internal audio from DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
The disadvantage is that this approach requires a separate recording device, extra batteries, storage media and someone to start/stop and monitor the external audio recorder. It also requires extra time and money to import and sync the audio. But this method always results in superior audio quality, all other factors being equal.
What Is A DSLR/Mirrorless Shooter To Do?
There are many ways to improve your audio. We don’t have the room here to discuss microphones, boom poles and microphone technique, but we can cover how you can best record a high-quality audio signal from proper microphones and audio mixer output to your mirrorless or DSLR camera.
Sony XLR-K1M Audio Interface. If you shoot with a Sony a7 series or the new a9, one of the best investments you can make for your camera is to add a professional-quality audio interface. Sony offers the XLR-K1M audio interface designed specifically for your Sony camera. The interface offers two locking, balanced XLR audio inputs, control of recording level adjustment, attenuation and wind noise reduction to match microphone characteristics and creative intentions. MIC/Line input switching for each channel is also provided to greatly simplify both shooting and editing. The XLR-K1M sells for $798.
Panasonic DMW-XLR1 Audio Interface. For Panasonic GH5 users, Panasonic offers the DMW-XLR1 audio interface. Much like the Sony unit, the Panasonic offers dual XLR audio inputs, individual audio level adjustment, and low cut controls to reduce wind noise and rumble. DC power for the interface is supplied by the GH5 via a hot-shoe connector on the GH5 body. The DMW-XLR1 sells for $397.99.
For owners of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras other than the Sony and Panasonic, there are a variety of audio interfaces/microphone preamps on the market available from companies like Beachtek, juicedLink and several others, ranging in cost from a couple hundred dollars up to around $1,000. Remember, with these sorts of solutions, you’re still relying on the suboptimal-quality audio circuitry and sketchy microphone preamps that almost all lower-cost cameras utilize.
Dual-System Sound Solutions
Tascam DR-701D Handheld Recorder. The DR-701D is a four-XLR input + L-R stereo mix recorder for single-shooter video production. A time-code generator is included for location reference, which can be jam-synced from an SMPTE generator, camera or smart slate via the unit’s BNC time-code input. The HDMI in and out allows a DSLR camera to start recording on both devices, and a video clock prevents drift between sound and picture. Four mic inputs can be individually recorded and mixed to a stereo track, for a total of six-track recording. Tripod mounts on the top and bottom of the unit allow it to mount under a camera and attach to a follow-focus cage, or it can be used stand-alone.
Simply pressing the camera recording start button sends a trigger to the DR-701D to start audio recording. Unlike other systems that force you to press record on both devices, the HDMI start system prevents missed takes, syncs the two recording starts together, and makes single-operator shoots much easier. The Tascam DR-701D sells for $499.
Sound Devices MixPre-3 and MixPre-6 Audio Recorders. Introduced at NAB 2017, Sound Devices’ new audio recorders are similar to the Tascam DR-701D, but the units have some features that the Tascam doesn’t have. The Sound Devices MixPre recorders have a USB streaming audio interface, allowing audio integration for YouTube, Facebook Live and other social media web streaming and live podcasting. Sound Devices products are an industry standard for medium to high-end audio recorder mixers for television, features and documentaries.
Sound Devices developed new Kashmir analog microphone preamps for these recorders. These high-performance, ultra-low-noise, discrete, Class-A mic preamps were handcrafted by Sound Devices. They feature a -130 dBV noise floor, analog limiters and new 32-bit A-to-D converters to ensure the highest-quality audio recordings that far surpass those of other recorders using simple off-the-shelf IC-based mic preamps.
The MixPre-3 features three full-sized balanced XLR mic/line audio inputs, while the MixPre-6 features four balanced XLR/TRS combo jacks to connect microphones or line-level devices. Both have a 3.5mm auxiliary input that can be used for plug-in power mics, 2-channel line-in audio, camera return or time code. Sound Devices also equipped the new recorders with built-in Bluetooth Smart technology that lets iOS devices allow connection, control and metering via the new, free Wingman app. The new recorders also offer Basic operating mode for beginners or Advanced mode for experienced users. The MixPre-3 is available for $649, and the MixPre-6 is available for $899.
There are many other solutions for dual-system sound recording, but the Tascam and Sound Devices solutions are among the newest and most innovative on the market.
Syncing Dual System Audio In Post
Once you’ve completed shooting, in addition to your video footage, you’ll have to incorporate the matching audio files you recorded on your audio recorder. Importing the audio into your editing application is simple.
Adobe Premiere Pro CC. In Premiere Pro, place the video clip with its corresponding audio on your timeline, then place the clip with the desirable audio underneath. Shift-click to highlight both clips, right-click on both clips, and in the pull down, click on “synchronize.” It’s that simple.
Final Cut Pro X. In FCP, it’s pretty much the same. Highlight your desired audio clip and desired video clip, go to “Clip” at the top menu, and click on “Synchronize Clip.” FCP will marry the two elements together, mitigating any audio drift issues.
These are the two most popular editing applications on the market, and both have audio sync capability built in, negating the need to buy any third-party software. If you edit on editing software without this audio-syncing capability, software like Red Giant’s PluralEyes may be worth a look.
Just remember, your audio is the most important part of your project, and shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera is inherently a compromise in your audio quality. With some care and effort, though, you can create audio that will complement the quality of your images and story, and, ultimately give your project the quality needed to succeed.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com