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The Shure VP83F Lenshopper has a headphone output and its own built-in recorder that captures audio at 48kHz/24bit to a micro SD card

Out of the Shadows

Audio has always been a secondary consideration behind video for DSLR manufacturers. But is it possible to produce pro-quality audio recordings using a camera? Jerry Ibbotson finds out.

PITY POOR sound. Too often treated like the ugly stepchild of production. While it’s now easier than ever to shoot stunningly good video, with a breath-taking range of hardware, audio still lags behind. Here’s one example: I recently saw some short documentaries made by local film school students. While these were well shot, perfectly framed and beautifully lit, the audio on some of them was nothing short of shocking. And the common denominator was that the crews were using DSLRs to shoot on. There’s no question that the

development of DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras has been a shot in the arm for video making. Their great optics and image processing, coupled with their relatively low cost, have brought broadcast- (or cinema-) quality film- making to the masses. But look at the body of a modern, video-equipped DSLR. See that tiny pin-hole just above the lens mount? That’s the inbuilt microphone. Behind a hole in the body. Okay, so you can open a flap to reveal a mini-jack input for an external mic but where’s the preamp and the AD convertor? Tucked away inside, in whatever space is left after the designers have finished sorting everything else.

24 April 2014

Hence the students whose films I watched had struggled to get decent sound. They’d either used camera- mounted mics that were too far away from the subject or… well I’m not entirely sure what but it sounded bad. “The problem, in pretty much all instances, is that a camera’s mic preamp is very poor quality,” says John McCombie, a location sound recordist and owner of Pinknoise Systems. This Gloucestershire-based retailer specialises in audio for video and sells a dizzying range of gear aimed at DSLR users. He evangelises about the subject. “There is always a disparity for

customers, as the images are amazing but the audio is less so, particularly when they sit in the edit and have to start to ‘sort’ the issues out with the sound that’s been recorded. “If the camera is enabled with manual audio record settings the more you wind up the record level, the more the noise floor is exposed and of course you hear the hiss.”

COPING WITH COMPROMISE A lot of these issues stem from the inherent compromises thrown up by hardware that was originally designed for stills photography, with video being a bonus. “DSLR is a messy proposition. It

“The problem, in pretty much all instances, is that a camera’s mic preamp is very poor quality”

John McCombie

always has been. You get great quality images and great affordability but the audio suffers. At the end of the day it’s a stills camera with video capability and not a pro video camera with viewfinders and proper audio inputs with phantom power.” Talking to John sent me on a

virtual shopping trip (my favourite kind, as it costs me nothing). Without going to the expense and complexity of a full-on location recording kit, I wanted to find a range of gear that would raise the bar in DSLR sound. The first is something I own

myself: a RØDE VideoMic. This is a compact condenser mic with an integrated shock mount or Lyre, designed by Rycote. It’s an all-in-one unit that sits on the camera’s hotshoe and makes the crucial leap from using the built-in microphone. It carries its own battery power-supply and has a

super-cardioid pattern to make it relatively directional. There’s an 80Hz high pass filter and a two stage pad (-10dB and -20dB). In use it does make a marked difference compared to the camera’s own microphone/hole in the case but frankly, that’s hardly difficult. But if you want to start with something simple and are on the move, it’s a good option. Another interesting take on the hotshoe mic is the Shure VP83F Lenshopper. This is a small shotgun microphone with a shock mount that sends a feed down to the camera. But it has a major trick up its sleeve. Well, a couple actually. Firstly, it has a headphone output. And more importantly, it has its own built-in recorder that captures audio at 48kHz/24bit to a micro SD card. It has manual record level, an LCD menu screen, and a range of user controls that are accessed via a small joystick. This means users can bypass the camera’s dodgy audio circuitry for a main recording and leave it just to capture a synch track.

But if the subject matter (acting

talent, interviewee or presenter) is more than a few feet away, they’re not going to sound that great with any kind of camera-mounted microphone. This is the trap that many new filmmakers fall into:

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