DSLR audio guide

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.

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 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.

Read the rest in our April digital edition.