You’ve made the exciting and laudable choice to pick up a high quality DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. Nice! You’re taking better photos more easily than ever, exploring creative modes, and (if you made your purchase with us) you’re enjoying all the Perfect Picture Pak has to offer… but something seems off about your video. It just doesn’t feel quite as professional as those photos have been looking.
The likely culprit? Less-than-impressive audio! Image quality is crucial, of course, but it’s only a part of the picture. To create a truly professional feeling video (ironically enough) audio quality can actually be more important. It’s a non-intuitive problem for the aspiring film-maker, especially because, unfortunately, it’s not one you can solve through settings and technique alone.
Let’s clear up any confusion about that right away: this is not a tutorial for getting great audio using only your DSLR or mirrorless camera. The built-in microphone—regardless of brand or model—is usable at best for recording a single voice at close range in an otherwise silent room. In conditions any more challenging, the limitations of built-in audio recording quickly become evident to any aspiring videographer. Even using the built-in mic to record a reference track for syncing is questionable in some environments.
Internal microphones are usually not great in DSLRs/ILCs for a few reasons (aside from the fact that they are still primarily visual-capture devices). For one, they usually have a cardioid pattern. This makes them great for general purpose capture of audio but not great for targeted, intentional audio. Secondly, they are typically condenser microphones, which are very sensitive—again, great to make sure you don’t miss audio when you’re filming casually, but not great for audiophiles, given the positioning right next to the rest of your camera (which will introduce a high pitched whine to the track in addition to any handling noise you might accidentally add). Plus, quality will vary massively depending on distance of the subject from the camera.
Fortunately, it is not only possible to take your audio recording capabilities to a significantly higher level but less expensive and more simple than you probably think!
Crucial elements of excellent audio
- Always record at the highest quality setting possible
- Use the right microphone(s) for the situation
- Use the right recording method for the situation
- Minimize the distance between your microphone(s) and audio sources
- Minimize sounds added by your equipment (e.g. preamp hiss, camera whine, cable rustling…)
- Set levels carefully to avoid clipping without getting too-thin audio (aim for -12 dB)
- Be proactive to make syncing multiple sources of audio as easy as possible—record an internal reference track, use a clapperboard, etc.
- Use headphones to monitor the quality of your recording
Mic tech basics
There’s a lot to understand, especially if you’re just starting out in the world of audio recording, so make sure you have a handle on the following before disappearing down any other rabbit holes.
Types of microphones
Types of microphone connections
Ways to record audio for DSLR/ILC video
A great place to start tuning your gear: open up the audio settings on your camera and disable all adjustments other than levels unless you understand the setting completely and are absolutely sure that it is helping your audio. That includes wind cuts, limiters, and so on. These settings are designed to provide better casual audio quality but will only make pro-level audio harder to achieve. There are better ways to achieve all of these effects, whether in post-production or by using a hardware solution.
The worst offender is Auto Gain Control, which is a sort of real-time compressor built into many cameras. Gain is automatically adjusted based on the level of noise detected, which sounds cool but in practice results in an irritating preamp hiss during quiet pauses, followed by excessively loud moments when sound returns and the camera has to lower the gain in response. Unfortunately, this “feature” is often not user-adjustable when recording in-camera—another reason to use dedicated peripherals.
Setting recording levels correctly is probably the easiest thing to mess up as well as the most important parameter over which you have control. If you are able, go into a pre-recording mode or make a test recording and watch your VU meter respond to the actual conditions you hope to record. (The VU or “volume unit” meter is represented by two lines that light up more with increased intensity of sound and is usually measured in terms of number of decibels below the maximum allowed by the recording device.) Any sound that goes over 0 on the VU meter will be clipped—a very unprofessional sounding effect!
As a rule of thumb, -12 dB is a good target for the bulk of your sound. At that level, your recording will have plenty of meat for your final mix, but there’s room for sudden loud noises. It’s understandable to worry that you won’t capture loud enough recordings, but remember this: it is fairly easy to amplify quiet audio in post-production, but it is impossible to rescue clipped audio.
Choosing the correct microphone and/or recording method can be tricky. There are plenty of products to choose from! If you would like specific guidance for your situation, feel free to leave a comment below, or call/visit a Mike’s Camera near you. We’ll be happy to advise you, and we love hearing about the creative projects happening in our communities!
Product highlight: the Røde Wireless GO II
Before closing this overview, I’d like to point out one of the newest and most exciting products in the DSLR/ILC audio market. The original Røde Wireless GO was already a pretty popular choice for independent filmmakers as a reasonably priced wireless lav-mic solution, but woah, buddy—this year’s version II is on a whole ‘nother level.
For under $300, you can record two (!) separate sources, either mixed together or discretely. Each transmitter can record up to 7 hours of lossless audio internally, either as a backup or as an on-the-go solution. The range in ideal conditions is almost three times that of version I (200m vs. 70m), so even in real-world usage you’re looking at an impressive distance. A respectable degree of fine-tuning control is accessible via clever use of the limited buttons on both the transmitters and the receiver, and full control is possible using Røde’s app. Robustly constructed (though not truly ruggedly), the clips on the back of each unit will fit into a camera shoe for quick mounting. To top it all off, while you’ll probably be using separate lav mics plugged into the transmitters’ 3.5mm TRS jacks, there are quite decent microphones built into each transmitter as well. The feature to price ratio on this kit is unbelievable, and I’d strongly recommend that anyone who is considering taking their filmmaking seriously also seriously consider this audio solution.