DSLR Audio Setup for a Crew of One

Trying to sort out the best way to handle audio on a microbudget DSLR shoot can be a real challenge. Ideally, you’d hire a professional audio operator with a high-end field mixer who would adjust microphone levels on the fly, and record all the audio to a hard drive. Unfortunately, for every one of those shoots I get, I have ten one-man-band shoots. If you’re in a similar situation, you may be interested in the DSLR audio system I’ve developed.

1) I run the audio source (a shotgun mic and/or a wireless mic receiver) directly into a digital audio recorder, and set the record levels in the recorder to give me a decent signal/noise ratio (leave yourself a lot of headroom. Since you’ll be using the same mic and recorder for the whole shoot, do a test before you leave to determine the proper settings. At the beginning of each interview, start the recorder, and don’t stop it until you’ve finished the interview, even if you start and stop the DSLR several times. By the way, I use a Zoom H4N, but there are a lot of audio recorders on the market, so it’s not the only game in town. Just be aware that the Zoom is one of very few that allows for XLR inputs.

2) Use a headphone splitter (“doubler”) to give you two headphone jacks out of the recorder. You can get this at Kmart for three dollars. Be sure you’re getting something that says “share your music player with another listener” or something to that effect. You do NOT want to get something that splits the audio signal into left/right, you just want something that turns one jack into two.

3) Use one of the headphone jacks for your headphones, so that you can monitor the audio.

4) Run a cord from the other headphone jack into your DSLR. Since you need to stay light and move fast, don’t worry about using a Juicedlink or field mixer … This recording will be strictly a backup, in case something happens to the recorder (e.g. a battery dies in the middle of an interview and you lose the file you were recording). Just set the DSLR level manually (when you do your initial level settings test) to a setting that corresponds to the level you’re sending from the recorder. Keep in mind that the headphone volume on the recorder will determine the signal level being sent to the DSLR.

5) When you get ready to edit, use the Pluraleyes plugin to sync up the DSLR footage with the files from your recorder. If you took my advice and let the recorder roll for each interview, you’ll wind up with easy-to-edit sequences based on each audio file. Because the audio going to the DSLR was the same as the audio on the recorder, Pluraleyes should be able to sync up the files with 100% accuracy.

Oh, one more tip … Instead of messing with lav clips, which will undoubtedly get lost, use “moleskin” (available in the foot-care section of any pharmacy) to stick the lav onto the chest (inside the clothing) of each interview subject.

12 Replies to “DSLR Audio Setup for a Crew of One”

  1. Hi Alex,

    What does running the cord from the DSLR to the zoom do?
    Does it feed the audio recorded from the zoom right into the DSLR?
    If your using plural eyes, wouldn’t it sync the audio anyway?

    1. Yes, the audio from the Zoom is passed through to the DSLR. This gives you a very clean backup (cleaner than you would get with the camera mic), which can be useful if something happens to the Zoom. For example, I had a Zoom battery die in the middle of an interview once and had to use the backup track from the camera. Nobody noticed the difference, even though the audio wasn’t quite as clean as it would have been from the Zoom.

      If you DON’T have any problems, and you use Pluraleyes, it will work better because the two audio waveforms will be so similar that it will have an easier time matching them up. However, you are right, the Pluaraleyes issue is not that big of a deal. The “clean backup” is the primary reason I suggest this approach.

        1. Great question. If the Zoom battery dies, it will NOT continue to send a signal to the DSLR. However, your DSLR will have a backup of the audio you were in the process of recording, while the Zoom will simply lose it. Thus, if you’re 7 minutes into a clip, you’ll still have the 7 minutes of audio on the DSLR, but not the Zoom.

          This is another reason why it’s critical to monitor your audio with headphones whenever possible. Stopping a shoot to change a battery is not a big deal, but continuing to roll without noticing that you have no audio IS a big deal.

  2. Dear CrewofOne,

    Did you know there’s a balun made by ETS (www.etslan.com) called a PA-911. It converts a true balanced line mic to the unbalanced 1/8″ miniplug for 5D and 7D cameras. Allows you to record audio directly into the camera. You can disable the AGC of the camera and get even better sound quality.

    1. @Steve, I have a handful of adapters like that myself, and they are very useful. I was an early adopter of Magic Lantern (this is me here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS77CiN2WXo ), and while it IS possible to record good audio on a DSLR, the fact that I can’t use headphones to hear what I’m recording makes it too stressful for me! Using a Juicedlink adapter with headphones out just doesn’t cut it. That’s why I use dual-system sound whenever possible (or, more recently, I use my Pansonic AF100 for audio-critical jobs).

      1. You certainly can monitor audio on the DSLR. There should be a supplied mini USB to RCA breakout cable w/ the DSLR. Using the red and white, you just need to attached a RCA female to 3.5mm stereo female adapter (looks like a triangle wedge) which you can pick up for under $2, and use to plug in headphones. This will allow you to monitor audio, via Magic Lantern.

  3. Hi. The lineout splitter trick doesn’t seem to work on a D7000 Nikon and H4n. It doesn’t overide the cameras mic. Plugging a videomic into the Nikons socket does work so it isn’t my socket thats faulty. Any ideas would be most welcome because its a great tip if I can get it to work.
    Regards. Patrick.

  4. I am planning to shoot n instrumental lesson type of video . I have an H4n Zoom and Wireless Lavalier Mic. and I was planning to record inmy canon DSLR. Because the instrument sound level is way higher than the person speaking. What would be the best set up for the best audio and also the back up in canon. Please email ASAP. As this a short notice shoot. Thank You

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