Frames Per Second: Demystifying DSLR Audio

April 19, 2012

By Greg Scoblete

© Dave Anderson

Dave Anderson at work in his "one-man mobile uplink unit" mode.

Want to puncture someone’s enthusiasm for HD-digital SLRs? Mention audio recording. While photographers will wax eloquent about the creative (and business) opportunities unleashed by high-definition video recording on a DSLR, they have a much bleaker assessment of the camera’s audio capabilities. “God awful,” is how photographer David Black puts it.

Manufacturers like Canon and Nikon have taken some remedial steps to make the audio slightly less God awful in their flagship HD-DSLRs. A firmware upgrade to the popular 5D Mark II, for instance, delivered the electronic noise control that photographers had been begging for. But several fundamental hardware limitations remain which make the internal microphone a virtual no-go zone when it comes to capturing professional-grade sound. Among the biggest complaints are a lack of real-time headphone audio monitoring and XLR inputs.

Complicating matters is that there’s no one solution to perfect audio recording. Instead, photographers have adopted different approaches and technologies, depending on their technical affinity, shooting style and, of course, budget.

Gear Up
The ultimate goal with any DSLR audio rig is to get it to the point where, like the camera, it becomes a natural extension of you, says photographer and filmmaker Jessica Dimmock. The photographers we spoke with have come to rely on three basic approaches.

The “down-and-dirty” method is to simply attach an external microphone to the camera. While not ideal, it’s a budget-friendly fix and can deliver some Internet-ready clips, says Dimmock, who has made videos for Médecins Sans Frontières and other clients. Black, who has shot music videos and commercials for Microsoft, has also gone this route on occasion using a Røde mic on the hot shoe of the Canon 5D Mark II. “It has some serious downsides,” he says, “but I test the highs and lows before I start and get some usable clips.”

A second option is to bypass the camera completely and use an external audio recorder. “We always recommend the use of an external recorder, such as an Edirol,” says Adrian Kelterborn, a producer at Magnum In Motion. An external recorder captures high-fidelity sound with the XLR inputs and audio monitoring capability lacking on DSLRs. However, since the audio is being recorded externally, it needs to be synced up after the fact with software like PluralEyes, which uses audio recorded by the camera to harmonize the sound and visuals.

The third option is to use a mixer/adapter, such as those made by BeachTek or juicedLink, which can collect audio from wired or wireless microphones and feed it back into the camera (eliminating the need for post-shot synchronization). “It saves time in the editing process, but there are challenges too,” notes Rick Gershon, a cinematographer and producer at MediaStorm. “You can monitor the sound going into the adapter, but there’s no way to monitor what’s going into the camera.” If a cable comes loose or the internal levels in the camera are off, the audio could be seriously affected without you knowing it, he adds.

Often, photographers will employ these approaches in combination. For instance John Lavall, who has directed documentary films and videos for editorial clients, relies on the Azden FMX-42 mixer with wireless lavalieres and a boom as a primary audio source with a Zoom H4n recorder as a backup.

Go Solo or Buddy Up?
Whatever method you embrace, recording professional-grade audio can be a logistical challenge—if not a chore—for photographers who prefer to keep the focus on the visuals. In those cases, it’s better to have someone else worry about it. “The best experience I had with sound was when I had an assistant doing it,” Dimmock recounts.

It’s difficult to do all the audio by yourself and still have a redundant set of audio files in case of emergency, Lavall adds. For this reason alone, he says, having a partner who can rig and monitor a second set of mics and recorders can be a useful insurance policy.

Sometimes, though, you’re on your own, as photographer Dave Anderson frequently finds himself when shooting videos for Oxford American and other clients. Shooting alone has its challenges, Anderson admits. To free up his hands to pull focus on the 5D, Anderson “had a very Rube Goldberg set-up built by a welder” to mount his BeachTek mixer to his camera. “I lived in a constant state of paranoia that I would tear it all out.” (Now that he’s switched to an Edirol external recorder, Anderson says he looks more like a “one-man mobile uplink unit.”)

However, flying solo does have its advantages. For one, it’s less expensive. It’s also useful creatively, Anderson says. “I like the dynamic of people looking right at me, right into the camera, not being distracted by an audio person.” Gershon agrees: “One reason I like the 5D Mark II is because, even after I’ve rigged it up, it’s still comparatively small and when I’m filming or doing interviews, I can be more of a fly on the wall.”

After all the technical problems are ironed out, issues of craft and composition come back to the fore. While the photographers we spoke to had different approaches to gear, the audio set-up followed a familiar pattern: wireless lavaliere mics on a subject with wireless boom microphones providing both a back-up to the interviewee and a source of ambient sound. Kelterborn notes that ambient sound is often overlooked by photographers, but it provides crucial context.

“At the end of an interview, we advise recording about three minutes of the space to capture that ambient sound,” he says. “It can fix some holes in the editing process and it also can help you capture sounds that are specific to your story.” Just don’t go overboard. “Too much audio recording can slow down the editing process,” Kelterborn adds. “You need to have a goal in mind for your sound before you start.”

Anderson discovered that his sound editor liked multiple sound sources to play with. “I used to think that a good, clean lavaliere recording of a subject was all you needed and that the other channels I was recording with the boom and the camera were just tossed by the wayside,” he says. “Turns out my editor likes to mix in the other channels to give it a more naturalistic sound. He even used the camera’s own mic audio a bit, which shocked me.”

At the end of the day, it comes back to remembering a truism about sound, Dimmock says. “As photographers we don’t always understand its importance, but viewers do. And they have a very low tolerance for bad sound.”

Below, watch videos by some of the photographers interviewed for this article:

“A Mother’s Devotion” by Jessica Dimmock Médecins Sans Frontières.

Windows Phone motion work by David Block.

“SoLost: At Home with William Gay” by Dave Anderson for Oxford American.

Highlander Charter School motion work by John Lavall and his team at Devlo Media.

“The King of Elmherst” by John Lavall and his team at Devlo Media.

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