Recording sound for video

August 22, 2016
Microphone H4n_screen_meter

Nowadays, many people are using portable digital recorders like the Zoom H4n, Zoom H6, or Tascam DR40 to record the audio during video shoots with DSLR/mirrorless cameras. Now you need some real-world advice about using this equipment properly with external microphones, field mixers, and clapper slates. That's where this article comes in. Read on to find out how to get great sound on a DSLR shoot using a portable digital recorder.

DSLR and mirrorless cameras are capable of excellent stills and stunning video, but one area where they are lacking is their audio-recording capability. If you want your videos to sound great, you really need to use a separate portable digital recorder to capture audio when you shoot.

The practice of recording audio on a separate device is called "double-system" shooting. You need to be a bit more organized and methodical when working this way. Later in this article, we'll go over the key operational functions you must perform every time you record. First, we'll focus on different workflow options.

You may be thinking, "Wait a minute, I just have a portable digital recorder. Why do I need external microphones, a field mixer, and a clapper slate ?" A portable digital recorder is just one piece of the puzzle in a full-blown location audio kit. You need other equipment to do all of the things that the recorder itself cannot.

There are workarounds that enable you to record sound for video using less gear. We'll start with a bare-bones workflow and move our way up, so you can see how each additional piece of equipment helps you do a better job. I suggest that you read about all of these different workflows, because there are many tips mentioned throughout the article which can be applied to any situation.

Workflow #1: Using Only a Portable Digital Recorder

If you have a non-existent budget, or if you're working on a low-profile job where you can't bring much gear, you may only have the portable digital recorder itself to handle all of the audio work in a shoot.

The first step is to set the recorder to record 24-bit 48 kHz WAV files. These files sound great, will give you good headroom, and will play well with video files in post production. Anticipate that recording at 24-bit 48 kHz gives you about an hour of stereo recording per gigabyte. High-capacity SD cards are becoming more and more affordable, so consider picking up a few of those. It’s always a good idea keep a back-up card or two in your equipment bag.

Most portable digital recorders have decent-sounding built-in mics, but that doesn't mean they're going to deliver the best audio for your video productions. The reason that using the built-in mics on the recorder is so challenging is that you need to get them as close as possible to the sounds you want to record. The microphones should never be more than a few feet away from the sound source. So, if you have a person speaking in front of the camera, you're going to need to think of creative ways to get the recorder close to them. Often times the best solution is to frame the shot as a medium close-up, so either you or the on-camera subject can hold the recorder just out of the frame, thereby getting the microphones as close as possible.

Many people envision using a portable digital recorder mounted directly on top of their camera. Recorders like the Zoom H4n and the H1 have tripod threads built into them, so you can attach them to the shoe of your camera easily with an adapter like the Pearstone Male Accessory Shoe Adapter. Attaching the recorder to the top of your camera is an acceptable way to work when recording ambient environmental sounds, but it's definitely not the best way to go most of the time. Unless the camera itself is very close to the sound you're recording, the audio is going to sound distractingly distant.

You need to be mindful of the noises you make when the recorder is mounted on top of your camera. If you're not careful, the microphones will pick up the sound of your fingers fiddling with the controls on the camera, the operational noises of the camera, and footfall vibrations if you walk around. You can start to understand why it's often a better idea to use the recorder away from the camera.

If you're going to be shooting outdoors, it's absolutely necessary to use additional wind protection over the built-in microphones on the portable digital recorder. Many models come with a foam windscreen, but this usually isn't enough to protect your audio from distortion when used outdoors. There are a number of different manufacturers making custom softie windscreens for specific portable recorders, as well as generic windscreens that will fit a variety of recorders.

No matter what you do, the name of the game is always about getting the microphones close to the action. If your on-camera talent is going to hold the recorder as they speak, be sure to tell them not to move their fingers around or fidget, because the mics on the recorder will pick up those noises. In some situations it's better to mount your digital recorder off screen on a stand or on a Gorillapod. However, most of the time, the best way to go is to use an external microphone.

Workflow #2: Plugging an External Microphone into a Portable Digital Recorder

Using an external microphone can help you tackle two of the major problems you'd normally encounter when you use just the recorder on its own: it’s easier to get the microphone closer to the sound source and you don't have to worry about the noise you make when you handle and adjust the controls on the recorder.

There are many different kinds of external microphones that can be used to suit different situations. Shotgun microphones are commonly used to capture the audio in video and film productions, thanks to their highly directional pickup pattern. Wireless microphones can also be really useful when your on-camera subject needs the freedom to move around without being tethered by wires. Ideally, you would use both of these kinds of microphones, providing that your portable digital recorder has multiple microphone inputs.

The kind of mics you can use will vary, depending on what kind of microphone input your recorder has. Many portable digital recorders only have a single mini-plug external microphone input; while others have multiple 3-pin XLR microphone inputs (like the Marantz PMD661 MKII). Generally speaking, XLR inputs are for professional microphones and mini-plug inputs are compatible with consumer microphones. No matter which kind of shotgun mic you use, wind noise is still a major factor to consider if you plan on shooting outdoors. If you set foot outside with a shotgun mic, you'd better be equipped with a serious fuzzy windscreen!

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