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An Easy DSLR Audio Setup for a Crew of One

07.27.11 @ 4:00PM Tags : , , , , ,

This is a guest post by Alexander Fox, founder of CrewOfOne.

Trying to sort out the best way to handle audio on a microbudget DSLR shoot can be a real challenge. Ideally, you’d hire a professional audio operator with a high-end field mixer who would adjust microphone levels on the fly, and record all the audio to a hard drive. Unfortunately, for every one of those shoots I get, I have ten one-man-band shoots. If you’re in a similar situation, you may be interested in the DSLR audio system I’ve developed:

1) I run the audio source (a shotgun mic and/or a wireless mic receiver) directly into a digital audio recorder, and set the record levels in the recorder to give me a decent signal/noise ratio (leave yourself a lot of headroom). Since you’ll be using the same mic and recorder for the whole shoot, do a test before you leave to determine the proper settings. At the beginning of each interview, start the recorder, and don’t stop it until you’ve finished the interview, even if you start and stop the DSLR several times. By the way, I use a Zoom H4N, but there are a lot of audio recorders on the market, so it’s not the only game in town. Just be aware that the Zoom is one of very few that allows for XLR inputs.


2) Use a headphone splitter (“doubler”) to give you two headphone jacks out of the recorder. You can get this at Kmart for three dollars. Be sure you’re getting something that says “share your music player with another listener” or something to that effect. You do NOT want to get something that splits the audio signal into left/right, you just want something that turns one jack into two. Here are a couple examples.

In case the photo above is confusing, here’s a simplified diagram. If you’re using a shotgun mic, just plug it directly into the audio recorder.

3) Use one of the headphone jacks for your headphones, so that you can monitor the audio.

4) Run a cord from the other headphone jack into your DSLR. Since you need to stay light and move fast, don’t worry about using a Juicedlink or field mixer … This recording will be strictly a backup, in case something happens to the recorder (e.g. a battery dies in the middle of an interview and you lose the file you were recording). Just set the DSLR level manually (when you do your initial level settings test) to a setting that corresponds to the level you’re sending from the recorder. Keep in mind that the headphone volume on the recorder will determine the signal level being sent to the DSLR.

5) When you get ready to edit, use the Pluraleyes plugin to sync up the DSLR footage with the files from your recorder. If you took my advice and let the recorder roll for each interview, you’ll wind up with easy-to-edit sequences based on each audio file. Because the audio going to the DSLR was the same as the audio on the recorder, Pluraleyes should be able to sync up the files with 100% accuracy.

Oh, one more tip … Instead of messing with lav clips, which will undoubtedly get lost, use “moleskin” (available in the foot-care section of any pharmacy) to stick the lav onto the chest of inside the clothing of each interview subject:

By the way, if I may be allowed a shameless plug, this information (some of which is also contained in the audio chapter of The DSLR Cinematography Guide on this site) -– along with much, much more – is covered in greater detail in my eBook, “Make Movies Without Money,” available right here.


Alexander Fox graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1999. He is a commercial director and cinematographer, and the founder of CrewOfOne (where this post originally appeared). He tweets at @CrewOfOne.

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  • Aside from the feed going back in to the DSLR, this is pretty much how I run things. You have to notice, though, that the Zoom H4N has Hi-Z inputs – made for mics only. Not for recording line-out (!).

    On several occasions I tried to record venue sound from a mixing board, and this is only possible if you meet an audio engineer that knows how to fix such hot feeds so that you can record them without distortion. Zoom should make this into a switchable option from the menu (source mic or line) or give us a break-out box that will translate line out to Hi-Z input levels.

    • If anyone knows of an option to solve this issue, please let me know.

      • @Richard – turning volume down past “00″ will turn into “0.1″ through “0.5″. I believe those decimal settings are to be used for line inputs, at least thats how I’ve always run my line inputs from an external audio board. But I have run into a few issues receiving still to hot of a feed before….which like you’ve stated is fixed via an experienced soundboard operator.

        • If you have a little experience with basic electronics, this issue can be solved with a resister. I’m far too lazy to do the math, but if you put a 47K (or 470k?) resistor between the male end of your cable and the recorder’s mic input, that should cut down the volume enough to get a better signal.

          Years ago, I hacked together an adapter with a pot between two adapters, and it works well enough for me.

          • resistor, yes, would work because you essentially make a voltage divider or a pad switch.
            Your resistance needs to match the mic-level/higher impedance input of the H4N, so it depends what the line level output on the board is and how much headroom you want above that.

            A simple (and IMHO sometimes [much] better-sounding) alternative would be to use transformers.
            I’m not at all sure about this, but if I’m not mistaken one may use a transformer-based DI box to change the impedance… The inverse of the way you would usually use it. Instead of plugging in a high impedance instrument signal to line level so that no microphone preamplifier or other active electronics are needed. This method also minimizes any ground loops or hum. The downside is I’d expect to pay >$130 for the pair of transformered direct boxes. I’d kind of like to try making my own with some Jensen, AMI, Carnhill, Sowter or whatever kind of transformers… Not sure of the sonic differences among them all still. Anybody?

            A third option would be to use some sort of unbalanced RCA adaptor to connect to the tape/record outs of the board, which might have an extra attenuator. Too bad it would be unbalanced.

            And of course the fourth: if the H4N has a setting within its menu to record line level sources.

  • Nice writeup. I’m just getting started, so I’m using an H1, which has been great. I’ve got a cheapie lav. and a VMP on the way. I usually let the camera capture it’s own audio, I’ve had my recorder and my mics mess up, and unless the environment is crazy, my GH2 does a decent job, especially with stereo, I’ve got two channels to attempt to clean up in post.

    This has worked well for me so far, though I’ve only used my camera audio once… it REALLY saved me from having to shoot an interview all over again. It was hard to cleanup as we were close to the highway, but I reduced the background noise by about 70% and it worked out ok.

    • Luke, what lav do you have and do you like it? I was thinking of getting an H1 and doing something similar.

      • I got whatever cheapie lav. CheesyCam recommends. It was only $15-20 on Amazon. I’ve had surprisingly good luck with it, especially when compared to the stereo mic of the H1 or the GH2. I’d love the Rode wired lav. or a wireless G3 system, but this cheapy works well for now, especially with a little audio cleanup.

  • This looks like an amazing product. I just went to their website and it looks like it isn’t compatible yet with FCPX(and they wrote that implying that it will be), otherwise I would have bought a license. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Abersouth, if you’re referring to Plural Eyes, FCPX can sync audio tracks w/out the need for PE. Just google “sycning audio in FCPX”

  • This is almost the same as how I roll. I use a Rode Videomic for the in-camera (ambient, backup) audio. Good tip on the audio splitter. I’m going to try that.

  • Okay what am I missing here? How is running a line in to your DSLR from the line out of the digital recorder a “back-up” audio source if the battery dies in the digital recorder? If your digital recorder dies you now have absolutely no audio, not even ambient from the DSLR mic.

    This method would definitely be a backup if, like you mention, you somehow lost the digital recorder card or it was damaged, but if the DAR loses power, it won’t magically still push the signal through the line out to your DSLR. Did I misunderstand you?

    • Jeff: if the battery of the H4N dies and the H4N goes off, the file it was recording at that moment will be lost. Had to find out the hard way unfortunately. So when you record it in camera as well, you’ll still have the audio the H4N lost.

      • Stefan : there won’t be any in-cam audio if you hook it up to an external audio recorder that dies.
        The right way to do it, is to record backup audio in-camera through an external mic (such as a VideoMic), and not straight from your audiorecorder.

        • @Stefan, you are exactly right. Having an (almost) exact duplicate of my H4N audio recorded on my 5D has saved my ass on several occasions. Once, when the battery died at the end of an interview (as you pointed out, although I lost the file on the H4N, I had it on my camera), and another time when I was very distracted and forgot to press record on the Zoom.

          @Seenematic, using a Videomic on a DSLR will give you a nice reference track, but under any circumstance in which you’re using better (or better-placed) mics running into an audio recorder, that on-camera track is going to suffer by comparison to what would have been captured by your recorder.

          Also, since this setup calls for you to listen to the audio recorder with headphones, you’re hearing exactly what the camera hears. If the battery dies, you’ll hear it right away.

          • Ahh, so it’s not a backup as in just keep recording, it’s a workaround for an issue with the Zoom. Wonder if there’s any similarly priced/featured recorders that don’t have that file loss issue…

          • This happened to me on a shoot and unfortunately didn’t have a back-up. I ended up switching to the Tascam DR-100 after a friend suggested it. It was a dual battery system with a built in rechargeable battery as well as two AA. You still have to keep an eye on your battery levels but as long as you use the backup batteries solely as a back up I’ve never had this issue again.

          • Check out the Zoom H2n. If the battery dies (and they last much longer now than the original H2′s), everything up to that point is auto-saved. The new one looks nicer than my old H2, too! Dammit!

  • As far as I know, analog audio splitter halves the audio levels and therefore makes the signal to noise ratio higher…

    • @x, That definitely makes sense, but since you’re splitting the output of the audio recorder, not the input, that s/n ration deterioration will only affect the backup track. And that backup track (should you have to use it) is still going to sound dramatically better than a reference track recorded with an on-camera mic.

  • What I do is use a lavalier mic connected to a phone (you could probably use a recorder) so the interviewee sound is always separate and the battery on the phone tends to pack a punch. The in-camera sound is for synching and my own questions’ sound. Worked so far.

  • Lostfootage on 07.28.11 @ 9:34AM

    Separate recorders are a hassle especially in post even with plural eyes. You just need to use a DSLR that supports Magic Lantern so you can monitor though the camera using something like the Fiio E5. You can disable AGC if you want keeping both channels, and you can use AGC limiting or manual levels.

    It’s really a waste of time to do it any other way. Just because you hear what gets to the mixer doesn’t mean it makes it to the camera.

  • Please look up a cable by sescom from b & h the model name is LN2mic-h4n-mon (I believe).

    Connect line out to cam mic in through the padded cable.

    Do not use cheap audio splitters.

    I use a more complex setup into a Sound devices MixPre but this works very well if u use the right gear.

  • Jeff Beaumont on 07.28.11 @ 5:26PM

    Seriously do NOT use a splitter with headphones and the DSLR. Reference audio is all you should be recording to the camera.
    The audio quality of all the DSLR’s I’ve tested is pretty terrible, even with the AGC turned off. Double system recording is a pain but it is NOT s waste of time as one person suggests. It is currently the ONLY way to get great audio consistently.
    I second the recommendation of the Tascam DR100. It has several features that make it a better choice than a Zoom. (physical volume knob, backup battery, solid construction).
    The Fostex FR2-LE does have the ability to save the file when the battery dies, but that is one of the few advantages it has. (that and teh ability to add a 3rd party, 8hr battery). But it is more expensive and bulky and I don’t recommend it for most people. Even though i own one.
    Finally, You can use a pair of pads to connect a line level stereo signal into a portable recorder.
    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/275822-REG/PSC_FPSC0010D_ALMP_Line_to_Mic.html

    • Lostfootage on 07.28.11 @ 9:15PM

      Well it completely depends on what you shoot I guess, when I do a commercial I want to use separate audio for the best results. However I mostly shoot reality shows involving heavy travel, so trying to run through an airport with separate audio is impossible, even in a car driving down the road.

      I run my wireless LAVs into a splitter than into the DSLR (T2i, T3i, 60D, 5DMII) Then using Magic Lantern I use limited AGC to capture each subject and range of ambiance. I run back out of the camera into the Fiio E5 (20 hours on a full charge) and I can monitor loud and clear with levels on screen. It produces great audio so for run & gun and ease of use there is no comparison for a one man shoot.

  • taping a lav mike to a hot girl’s chest is really nice, but you will get a lot better audio if you use a boom mike on a c-stand… You don’t have to tell the hot chick, though ;)

  • the XLR input on the H4N is far more noisy than the 3.5mm mic input, I usually use the 3.5mm one.

  • Has anyone tried this cable? If you stuck with the original set up described in the article this would seem to give better audio on the camera side for cameras like my 7D. The disadvantage would be having an iPod connected to the rig. Thanks

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/749723-REG/Sescom_DSLR_AGCY_DSLR_AGCY_AGC_Disable_Y_Splitter_Cable.html

  • well, that’s exactly the setup I used for this demo-video : (and I add an Iphone prompter as well)

    http://vimeo.com/26600785

  • Mickey Jones on 08.1.11 @ 2:44PM

    I use a Juicedlink 231 to pick up the signal from my Rode NTG 2 and then feed that into a Tascam DR 05 recorder. A bit more bulky than the H4N but it sounds better to me.

  • cant you show the girl with earphones in her ears at least????

  • The audio from my tascam dr40 is far noisier than rode video mic plugged in the 60d thereby making what is meant to be the reference audio better than the audio from the tascam with a rode NTG2 plugged into it. Please can someone tell me what I am doing wrong or have not done to get good audio out of the tascam. Also the audio captured by the video mic into the 60d is far louder and cleaner than what the NTG2 and tascam dr40 capture

  • Great insights Alexander. But, al least for me, would really help to see pics of how did you mounted the zoom recorder and the shot gun mic to the camera If that’s possible by the way). Because honestly I knew that the way to go now a days to record audio shooting with a DSLR is by zoom plugged to a wireless receiver and/or a shot gun mic. But I would love yo see how could you mount, let’s say the zoom and a shotgun mic, to the camera camera so you cloud shoot by yourself with no problems.

    Thanks.

  • This seems like a great set-up but you stated that it’s for interviews mainly. How about fiction films? What can you recommend for a set-up for fiction?

  • Pitabreader on 12.9.12 @ 12:46PM

    has anyone tried woowave?

  • Hey guys,wondering if anyone can help me. Posted to cheesy cam, but got no response. I’m looking to record audio from my two lav mics connected to my two Zoom H1s into my Panasonic GH2. Was thinking of purchasing the Azden Cam3-3Channel Mic Mixer and a Sescom LN2MIC-ZMGHN-MON adapter (with monitor capability)to connect the lav mics through the Zooms to my GH2 simultaneously. Will this work?

    lav(2x)—>ZoomH1(2x)—->Azden mixer—->Sescom cable—>GH2.

    I bought the two lav mics to connect to my two Zoom H1s to be hidden on the interviewees with no wires showing and to later sync in post. So I’m just trying to see if it’s to my benefit to eliminate the post syncing and just end up with a video that has the audio ready to go. Thanks.

  • I tried this out, the recording through the splitter to the video(dslr) what terrible. Too much noise and I could barely hear anything. Of course the external recording from the H4N sounded great, but I’m also still not really sure what this is for, theres no backup. I could use this video sound (or what I can make out of it) to match up my H4N recording, but that is all I could use it for.
    And of course the H4N records much better quality sound that the gh2, so thats why I would even bother using my external sound recorder. If a battery dies, thats it, finito, you are stuffed.

  • Hi,

    I’m not sure if i’m doing something wrong when I run a line from the zoom h4n into the dslr. When I record the video, it does not make a back up of the zoom h4n audio file onto the dslr. Does this only do it if the zoom h4n loses power? What is the purpose of making a line from external recorder to dslr?

  • Winout Blaauw on 07.24.13 @ 10:52AM

    Awesome writing. I’m looking to put something like this setup together myself. I’m wondering; you said it only works with microphone inputs and not line-out. I will use a shotgun RODE mic, and a sennheiser refer mic. Will the Sennheiser also work? (i’m not sure because it is a wireless transmitter and receiver and don’t know if the receiver has a line-out or mic out.

  • I am looking for some suggestion from you. I have bought the fowling’s reading net reviews:
    1. Zoom H4N recorder
    2. RODE video mic with boom pole
    3. Canon 6D camera.

    Q 1 : I would like to record my audio with a wireless device to my Zoom H4N. One device will be attached with the microphone and another device to the Zoom recorder & to the camera.
    Is there any device in your knowledge? Budget price?

    Q2 : I would also like to buy 2 monitors. One will be attached to the camera and another for director/clients view. Is there any device/monitor I can connect to the 2 monitors wirelessly or with wire (HD high resolution video, can check colour, frame, focus etc.). Need your valuable suggestion for any budget monitor and connection.

    Thanks and regards

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