Over the past five years, DSLR cameras have become the preferred tool for quality video capture for a large portion of the AV market. Having the ability to create hi-def video with interchangeable lenses, whether for instant online publication or serious post-production, has allowed many pro, semi-pro, and enthusiastic amateur videographers to step up their game.
Only one thing is missing: sound quality.
Why Audio Matters in Video
There’s an old saying that all it takes to ruin a great video is bad audio. Unfortunately, camera companies are all about optics, and even the best DSLR cameras rely on tiny integrated microphones for sound. These suffer from a lack of directionality, high handling and wind noise, and a high noise floor. They are incapable of quality audio capture because they are essentially an afterthought. If you are shopping for a DSLR to shoot video, your best bet is to make sure you get one with an external audio input. This will open up your audio options considerably.
These mics not only capture great audio, but also they do so with maximum ease and versatility. All you do is slide the mic assembly into your camera’s hot shoe, plug the integrated cable into the audio input of your camera (or other recording device), and you’ll be capturing sound with the same high definition as your video.
The LensHopper comes in two versions: the VP83 (under $200), and the advanced VP83F, which adds digital flash recording via MicroSD card (under $300).
Here are a few tips for maximizing the effectiveness of your audio capture.
Tip #1 – Lower the Noise Floor
The first key to great sound is maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio (S:N). Because the VP83 has a significantly lower noise floor than your camera’s mic, you want to get your gain (amplification) from the VP83. This is done by using as little of the camera’s preamp as possible. Here’s how:
- Go to the camera’s settings menu and turn the audio preamp all the way down—just one or two clicks above Mute status.
- Set your gain on the VP83 (3-position switch) or VP83F (rotary gain control).
- If audio artifacts persist, return to the camera settings and make sure the Automatic Gain Control (AGC) is off. While AGC can be useful in certain situations, it often introduces unwanted artifacts.
Another way of improving signal-to-noise ratio is to make sure your microphone is aimed at the sound source, and is a close to that source as possible. The mini-shotgun mic rejects off-axis sound, making off-camera sounds significantly lower in volume.
Tip #2 – Do a Sound Check!
Before recording, you’ll want to do a quick sound check to make sure the audio is good. This is especially important when using cameras that don’t allow you to change the gain control once recording has begun.
To do a quick sound check, start recording while viewing the camera’s audio meter. Adjust the VP83’s gain setting so that the loudest sounds do not exceed -6 dB on the camera’s meter. If your gain is too high, as indicated in the “CLIP” visual you see here, the audio will be distorted. Too low and the sound will suffer from a poor S:N ratio. In most cases, the +20 dB (high gain) setting of the VP83 will work perfectly. When in doubt, be conservative to avoid clipping distortion at the input stage.
The VP83F has a wide-range gain control for greater precision. It provides 60 dB of gain in 1 dB increments. It also has a headphone jack so you can monitor audio directly and set your input level correctly.
Tip #3 – Know When to Use the Low-Cut Filter
The low-cut filter is designed to minimize the effects of environmental sounds like 60-cycle hum from appliances, buzzing from fluorescent lights, and airflow from HVAC systems. Our brains largely “tune out” these sound sources from our hearing perception, but a microphone picks up everything it hears.
That’s why, in general, you will want to use the VP83’s low-cut filter whenever you are shooting indoors. Outdoors, you’ll get better full range audio with the low-cut filter off. This can be very helpful when recording nature sounds. In a pinch, however, the low-cut filter will serve to reduce wind noise if you are caught outdoors without a Windjammer.
Tip #4 – Use a Rycote® Windjammer® When Shooting Outdoors
While the foam windscreen that comes with the LensHopper does a great job of preventing unwanted plosive sounds created by talking sources, outdoor shoots can be easily ruined by the wind unless additional protection is used. Shure has addressed this with the A83-FUR Windjammer accessory.
This synthetic fur wind filter slips directly over the foam windscreen and provides outstanding protection from strong wind gusts and even the sound of rain hitting your microphone. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make when shooting in unpredictable conditions outdoors.
Tip #5 – Sync Audio and Video Easily
After recording audio outside your camera, such as when using the VP83F, you’ll need an easy way to synchronize your picture and sound. This is typically done in the digital domain, using editing software to match audio waveforms with the video.
We’ve all seen old movie and TV footage where clapboard is used for this purpose. For a single-camera shoot, this can be accomplished by a simple on-camera hand clap. This makes it easy to nudge the audio into sync with the appropriate video frame of the hands coming together.
Tip #6 – Consider Magic Lantern Firmware
If you use a Canon DSLR camera, consider adding Magic Lantern firmware. While it was developed for video, this free, open source software adds some significant audio features that maximize the effectiveness of external audio tools like the VP83. It’s an independent program that launches from your camera’s SD card and adds metering and gain control to (usually older) models that lack those features.
Among other things, Magic Lantern allows you to adjust gain while recording, as well as simultaneously record using the camera’s built-in mic and the external audio jack. While this is not an endorsement, many videographers I know who use Canon also use Magic Lantern.
The LensHopper solves every major audio quality problem associated with your camera’s onboard mic. The microphone’s polar pattern (lobar/supercardioid) minimizes unwanted off-axis sound. An integrated Rycote® Lyre® shock mount provides superior shock isolation. The optional Rycote Windjammer minimizes the effects of the wind. A switchable low-cut filter eliminates buzz and rumble. And it’s all packaged in a robust, metal case for classic Shure ruggedness and reliability.
The VP83 is a huge upgrade from a pure audio point of view, but for truly great audio-for-video, consider the VP83F. It offers one-touch recording of 24-bit, 48 kHz WAV files on a microSD card (up to 32 GB, for 64 hours of recording!), a dedicated headphone output for real-time audio monitoring, precision gain control, and an LCD screen with intuitive joystick interface. Significantly, the VP83F also can be used independent of the camera, allowing you to do things like recording the band while shooting the dance floor.
Capturing awesome audio is one of the best ways to improve your video. So, if you’re looking for the best way to get the most out of your investment in a DSLR camera, consider upgrading its audio with the VP83F or VP83.