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Audio Global Viewpoint – March 2018

A Decade of Audio Refinement for DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras  

It has been ten years since the first video-capable DSLR cameras hit the market. Not only did the new generation of smaller video cameras turn the video production on its head, but it propelled a decade of innovation of high-quality audio for these small cameras.

It is hard to believe what has happened since Nikon introduced its D90 in the summer of 2008 and Canon quickly followed with its EOS 5D Mark II. These cameras, with their large sensors and low cost, literally transformed the making of video. Today, some models are so good they challenge on many fronts the most expensive video cameras in the world.

When camera manufacturers brought video to these small cameras, audio was not on their minds. They first focused on allowing 35mm-sized still cameras make video — period. Most earlier models didn’t have microphone inputs, headphone outputs or any way to measure audio levels. It was automatic gain only with lousy quality built-in camera microphones.

Today, much has changed. Users stepped up to the plate and designed audio fixes. Outboard interfaces were designed. Sync software was developed for double-system sound. And today a new generation of ultra high-quality mixer-recorders have debuted. At the same time, the new technology has driven the costs down. It is truly a golden age of personal video and audio.

Zoom's H6 recorder can capture double-system audio.

Zoom's H6 recorder can capture double-system audio.

Camera manufacturers are now giving more consideration to audio — greatly improving their camera designs for sound. Most good quality cameras now have mic inputs, headphone outputs and audio metering built into the software. Sony and Panasonic offer professional audio adapters that allow pro-level XLR mics to be connected to their cameras. This does not mean the sound quality of most cameras has dramatically improved. It has not. It’s just now more convenient. But the audio is better and good enough for many non-critical uses.

For documentaries and independent films, it is still rare that the audio is not recorded using double-system sound. This is where companies like Sound Devices, Zoom, Tascam and Zaxcom come in. All make a variety of excellent portable mixer/recorders to capture the sound for video. The recorder’s audio is typically substituted for the camera’s original sound in post production.

Here are some of the things that have changed and not changed in the past decade:

— In-camera audio has gotten better, but is still not great. One can plug a microphone or mixer into a DSLR or mirrorless camera and get sound good enough for YouTube-style videos or other non-critical applications. But if the end result is a documentary, broadcast or feature film production, go double-system with a dedicated sound operator. The risk is too great otherwise.

— Double-system sound is still best for critical audio. In this case, the camera records audio as usual, either with the camera’s internal mic or through the input from a mixer. Audio is also recorded simultaneously with an outboard audio recorder.

In post, the in-camera audio is transferred to the editing application with the video. The editor also transfers the audio recorded on the external recorder to the editing app. Then the two sound tracks are matched on the video timeline.

With a touch of a single button, PluralEyes 4.1 analyzes the audio from cameras and audio devices and syncs them up, in seconds. No clapboards or timecode are needed.

With a touch of a single button, PluralEyes 4.1 analyzes the audio from cameras and audio devices and syncs them up, in seconds. No clapboards or timecode are needed.

An even simpler way to achieve this is by using Red Giant’s PluralEyes 4.1 ($299), dedicated software that automatically matches the outboard audio to the camera audio. PluralEyes analyzes the footage and automatically uses the best possible options. Hit the sync button and PluralEyes does the rest. If drift is detected, the software automatically fixes it, and gives users the option to toggle between the drift corrected sync and the original audio without correction applied.

— Outboard audio mixer/recorders have recently gotten much smaller and offer dramatically better audio quality. For example, Sound Devices MixPre 3, 6 and 10T are compact devices, run on batteries and offer some of the highest quality mic preamps ever made in such a small package. All weigh under two pounds, as does Zoom’s F8 and F4, both of which set new records for low price.

Small format video has been in a constant state of change since the mid-1970s, when the first portable video cameras appeared on the scene. This will continue, thanks to miniaturization, computerization and improving technology.

DSLR audio will eventually become as good as the video. For now, however, it requires more gear, accessories and hassle on the location when recording. But the results are superior audio. Until manufacturers match the audio and video quality on these cameras, this will remain the best method available.

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