Get low-noise audio with a DSLR and a wireless microphone

The more I do video production with my Nikon D4 DSLR, the more I have come to like how it handles in-camera audio with an external mic attached. One of the big issues with the first generation video-enabled cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and the Nikon D3s was they had limited audio capabilities. Many producers felt the need to record separate audio into a recorder like a Zoom H4n and then sync it later in post. What a pain. It’s one of the reasons I put off switching from a traditional video camera to a DSLR.

Sennheiser G2 Wireless MicWith my Nikon D3s, I went the route of trying to use a JuicedLink audio interface to manage my audio. The unit bolted on to the base of my camera, which made it feel bulky. It had great features like dual XLR audio inputs, levels monitoring and a headphone jack, but the truth is, on that piece of equipment, I could never dial in a clean audio signal.

A big part of the problem was the way the D3s handled audio with only three levels settings—high, medium and low. The last time I used the camera with the JuicedLink, I had such a high noise floor (a low background hiss) in my interview audio that I just left it on the shelf after that. Soon after, I upgraded to the Nikon D4 and have found I could generate low-noise audio, especially with a wireless mic, all without all the add-on accessories.

I like using a DSLR to shoot formal interviews. The shallow depth-of-field makes the subject look great. I use my trusted Sennheiser G2 wireless mic for my audio. Be advised,  out of the box the gain on these mics are set really high. The first time used it,  I had such distorted audio that it ruined the video story I produced for the newspaper. I quickly learned how to turn down the levels and make them work with my Sony Z1u video camera.

When I first used a wireless mic with My Nikon D4 (plugged directly into the camera’s mic jack,) I found the same high noise floor that my JuicedLink produced. After fooling around with the settings I came to this conclusion: I had to turn the levels on the mic back up and turn the camera audio levels way down. With the right balance (the mic sending the clean signal, which I assume overpowers the camera’s weak pre-amps), I now  get quality audio without a lot noise-floor hiss.

Is my camera audio as good as recording separately to a Zoom H4n? I’d say depends on what you are doing with the video. If its going to be broadcast on TV, or destined for the big screen, then maybe not. But, if you are producing for the Web like I am, I’d say it’s more than good enough.

You can hear an example of what my wireless Nikon D4 audio sounds like in the interview and voiceover audio in this video I produced for a speech therapy clinic:

Here are my settings:

On my Nikon D4 (the same as on the Nikon D800,) I set the camera on manual and dialed the camera audio down to number 4 level.

On the Sennheiser receiver pack (the one that connects to the camera) hit the “Set” button then toggle the left selection button until you get to “AF Out.” Hit “Set” again and toggle the left arrow until you see -12 Db. Hit “Set” again.

Next on the transmitter pack (the one connected to the lav mic) hit “Set” then toggle to “Sensit” and hit “Set” again. Toggle until you get -06 Db. Hit “Set” again.

Now do a test. Watch your in-camera levels. If they are too low, bump up your audio level to “5,” but no more. If they are still too low go back into the mic pack and set the AF Out level to -6 Db.

Just remember that there is no phantom power with DSLRs. You need battery power from the mic for it to work properly. I sometimes put my big Sennheiser ME-60 shotgun mic on top of camera and it works like a charm with very low noise. Just make sure you have a fresh battery in mic and that it is turned on. If you don’t, you won’t record any audio.

One of the great things about the new generation DSLR’s is that they have headphone jacks to monitor your audio. Use it, or you’ll regret it later (trust me on this one.)

Audio Recorder/Preamp Shootout

Robert Rozak, President of JuicedLink, compares and demonstrates the different preamps and digital recording devices for their low noise capabilities . The key information he stresses is that a preamps connected to a DSLR camera are just as good if not better that recording audio separately with say an Zoom H4n. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Part 1: DSLR camera accessories-JuicedLink DT454 preamplifier

As I transition to shooting video stories with my DSLR camera, I have tried to mitigate the shortcomings of doing so. Truth is, a traditional video camera is so much easier to use. When I compare video shot with my Sony XDCAM EX1 with that of my Nikon D3s, the look is stunningly dissimilar. The EX1 is no slouch in image quality, it’s just that saturated, cinematic look you get from the massive full-frame Nikon sensor is so visually appealing.

In a previous post, I talked about the challenges of shooting a video story with a DSLR camera. My first few attempts went better than I expected, but the audio and focusing challenges were a huge issue for me to overcome. At the end of last year, instead of requesting a new camera from our remaining capital budget, I outfitted my D3s with a bunch filmmaking accessories.

First up was getting an audio interface to deal with the audio limitations of the DSLR. Video with a DSLR has always played second fiddle to the primary function of shooting stills. Many shooting with DSLRs use a dual-system audio, which means they record the audio with a separate digital audio recorder. The new high-quality waveform is then linked to the video in post. I found this method to be cumbersome and fraught with many chances to screw up or miss key audio storytelling moments. Many of the interviews I do are spontaneous, where I walk up and get quick remarks or sound bites from a subject. I have seen amazing DSLR camera rigs where filmmakers mount Zoom H4n recorders to the camera. It all seems a bit much to me.

My solution is to use an audio interface called a JuicedLink DT454 4-Channel DSLR Camera Microphone Preamplifier. It allows me to connect, via XLR inputs, my pro mics—a Sennheiser Me66 and Sennheiser G2 wireless. I have full control of adjusting my mic levels for each channel. I can also monitor the recording levels through the headphone jack, which is head-scratchingly missing on most DSLRs. It is thankfully changing now with on-camera headphone jacks in both the new Nikon D800 and D4 as well as the just announced Canon 5D Mark III.

The JuicedLink is pretty light and doesn’t get much in the way of shooting stills when needed. There is no problem mounting a tripod or a Zacuto Gorilla plate to the unit.

The things I don’t like are that you need an Allen wrench to bolt it to the bottom of the camera. It’s not easy to remove the unit in a hurry when you just want to shoot stills.  Another, is the on/off switch is about a flimsy as the come. Build quality construction runs from excellent to cheap. In fact the whole unit kind of looks like it was made in an inventors garage. There are other units out there, including this just announced Beachtek DXA-SLR Pro. The JuicedLink works especially well with Canon cameras as the unit can be calibrated to each model. With the Nikon cameras, I have only three in-camera mic sensitivities to choose from. Low, Medium and High. Low (1) I found it works best to prevent audio distortion. The unit comes with +48v phantom power, but I keep it switched off and just use battery power in my mics.  The JuicedLink uses a 9-volt battery and will drain much faster if it is in phantom power mode.

The bottom line, if you want to simplify gathering audio with a DSLR and be able to use your pro XLR mics then a JuiceLink or similar unit will give you that.

Part 2 coming soon: Getting stable DSLR video without a tripod.

Video at newspapers needs to improve

I was disappointed after this year’s NPPA Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest results were posted . In the News Video category, I won an honorable mention. Great! That’s until I realized  my video was the only award given in the category. What gives? This is the second year in a row I’ve placed in this News Video category. Last year I received a second place, but no third was given.  This troubles  me. Not because I didn’t place higher, but because the judges didn’t see a video that reached a high enough level of excellence to place.

During an online chat on the Poynter Institute’s website, I asked the judges:

“Why didn’t you award first through third in news video?”

The Response:

1:27 theresa: @Colin – this was a real struggle for us. Many were full of technical errors and ignored the basic principles of photojournalism. We saw lots of evidence of urgency, however we really couldn’t award anything that had technical or fundamental errors.

I stewed about this for a time. Then after helping judge the NPPA’s Monthly Multimedia Contest last week, I began to understand the BOP judge’s dilemma.

Bottom line: Video at newspapers needs to improve. Dramatically.

The problems I continually see:

Storytelling

Many still photographers have not transitioned their storytelling skills effectively to video. Editing a video story is different from editing still photos for a newspaper picture story. With video, you have to master the fundamentals of sequencing and audio before you can tell an effective story in video. Too many still photojournalists have dipped their toes in the video world with limited training and it shows.

Bland Videos

Many newspaper-produced video stories are boring. The best stories have surprises sprinkled throughout the timeline, which helps keep the viewer engaged. This is mature storytelling that most newspaper video producers have failed to master.

Structure

A great video story is one that pulls you in from the opening sequence and never let’s go of your attention until it fades out at the end. Weak video jars you out of the moment, whether it’s from a technical issue like distorted audio, or from a narrative that fails to captivate the viewer. So many things can go wrong with a video story. Understanding these pitfalls is the first step to avoiding them.

Editing

You can have great raw video, but fail miserably in the edit. Pacing, narration, use of transitions, sequencing, layering and mixing audio all have to come together like an orchestra to make a  video story work. Fail at any one of these and your house of cards comes a tumblin’ down.

Journalism

Lots of newspaper-produced video is weak in basic journalism. Many videos I’ve watched only have one person as the subject. How many print news stories would get past an editor with only one source?

Narration

For the longest time I told myself that I didn’t want my videos to be like TV. I worked hard at telling a story by using only the subjects as my narrative spine. What you risk, doing it this way, is a story that rambles along and is not defined until long after the viewer has hit the back button. Get past the idea that narration is a bad thing. Good scripting moves a story along and serves as an objective voice for facts.

Collaboration

So you say you hate the sound of your voice and you don’t feel comfortable writing a script. Then get out into your newsroom and find a writer with a great voice and collaborate. I like to voice my own videos, but I also know my limitations. Some of my best work has been when I’ve worked with a reporter on a video story. I shoot and edit the story; he or she scripts and does the voiceover. We play to each other strengths. The final product, in the end, is better than if I tried to do it all myself.

Solutions?

When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

These are the just the basics of video news production. Yet many newspaper video producers are still unaware of these fundamentals.

If you can, my advise is enroll in a video production workshop like the Platypus, or the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop that is coming in May. Until you know what you are doing wrong you can’t improve your video storytelling.

Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2009

It’s been a challenging year on the multimedia front. Many newspapers retrenched by refocusing their limited resources back on traditional print products and away from online innovation. This is in sharp contrast to the rush to develop online products so prevalent in 2008. Disturbing as it’s been, this trend is not wholly unexpected. Business model disruptions are historically messy. As publishers resisted the unfathomable idea that the era of the printing press is fading, precious time was wasted in preparing for their inevitable digital future. For the employees of these publications, the stress has been excruciating. Mass newspaper layoffs have hit visual and online staffs hard this year. Word people still control the tempo of most newsrooms. Seeing Washington Post master video storyteller Travis Fox shown the door is an example of this shortsighted trend.

Newspaper-produced video, once seen for its potential as an online revenue generator, was scaled back at many publications in 2009. Layoffs in photo departments left too few visual journalists with the time to do effective volume video storytelling. Just when the training curve knowledge was kicking in, many talented video journalists/photojournalists were sliced away from newspaper payrolls.

Newsroom innovation (beyond talk of pay walls) slowed too. Fear and uncertainty ruled many  newsrooms in 2009. A brain drain has left the few remaining innovators reluctant to stick their necks out for fear of having them cut off.

Still, multimedia workshops like the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion, Platypus and Knight Digital Media Center’s Multimedia Training continue to fill up with reporters, photojournalists and online folk who, many on their own dime, continue seeking out digital storytelling training.

Social media kicked in big time in 2009. The rise of Facebook and Twitter allowed everyone, including newspapers, to propagate their online content in the social media universe. Many, including myself, found new viewers for multimedia projects by posting links to social media sites.

University journalism programs got the multimedia religion in 2009. Curriculums are finally being rewritten in ways that reflect the new digital future of journalism. Students, hopefully, will now graduate with a skill set that will better prepare them for a multitasking future. As I’ve said many times before: “There can no longer be  ‘just reporters’ or ‘just photojournalists.’ We all need to be multimedia, multi-platform savvy.”

Video technology took a big leap forward with the introduction of  DSLR cameras capable of shooting high–def video. A visual journalist needs only one camera now to shoot stills and video. Though the technology and its clunky editing workflows are still in its infancy, the era of large, bulky video cameras for newspaper visual journalists is coming to an end.

Video delivery at newspapers improved dramatically in 2009. Many publications added full-screen modes to their players and improved video compression for stutter free viewing. Still, video seems like an afterthought at many newspaper websites.

In 2009, newspaper video storyteller’s experience and understanding of the craft improved, but a troubling gap in understanding basic video fundamentals, weakens the majority of videos produced at newspapers. The art of good storytelling is missing in many videos I’ve watched this year. I continue to gather inspiration from a few in TV journalism that are allowed the time to tell a great story. Learning to script and voice narration should be a goal for most newspaper video storytellers in the coming year.

For 2010, I see a bumpy road ahead as publishers continue working to bring expenses and revenues back in line. While they’re doing that, some interesting changes will begin to disrupt their plans and the print industry big time. Tablet computers will be released this year by not only Apple, but by a half-dozen other big manufactures. Digital content, expressly made for these devices, will start putting pressure on print products late in 2010. It will take some time for these enhanced digital readers to gain traction, but when they do, my prediction is that it might be game over for many struggling print newspapers. Whether the content these publications produce survives in a digital form will be dictated by how much publishers invest in transitioning advertisers and subscribers to digital delivery.

Whatever happens, 2010 is going to be an interesting year. Hold on tight…

Merlin Video archive is way cool

As more newspapers buildout their multimedia departments, a lot of discussions are taking place about the best way to archive all the video and audio they’re producing. Cost is a huge consideration, as is the long-term viability of storage formats. In fifty years will you be able to read the data on an aging DVD?

At The Spokesman-Review, we have invested heavily ( these solutions aren’t cheap) in the archiving of our digital media. Last month, we installed Merlin Video, a database-driven archive system that meshes seamlessly with our Merlin Content Manager archive. Now when I do a search for media, I can filter for video, photos, audio and stories. But that is as a feature you’d expect from a full-featured archive. What is innovative about Merlin Video, is when you ingest a video, it uses voice recognition software to transcribe the dialogue in the soundtrack. This transcribed audio becomes searchable text. To search for a video, just type in keywords and you’ll get a selection of videos that have those spoken words in them. Merlin even shows you the time code of where these keywords are located in the video’s audio track.

From Merlin Video website:

  • Audio/video searching built on our Merlin Content Manager. That means, in one go, a user can define a search and find audio/video content along with related photos, graphics, scripts and other documents.
  • Merlin is a database-driven system flexible enough to become the cornerstone to most any audio/video workflow:
  • While developing a project, you can import most any format and search, manage and share your source video, photos, scripts and audio clips.
  • In production, Merlin Video can organize all your clips and other content and have it ready for access by your NLE workstation. Web, podcasts, SD and even HD resolutions can all be handled.
  • When the project is done, Merlin Video can manage and route your video to other systems or for posting on other websites.
  • Use Merlin to create a central company resource for users to store, find, manage and share finished video products, B-reel, photos and scripts.
  • Or use Merlin to create a premium public web site where users can find and replay previously aired content powered by our unique soundtrack search.
  • Merlin makes it easy to find the clip you need, easy to eliminate wrong ones and easy to avoid re-shooting things you already have.

This coming week, we are going to start using Merlin Video newsroom wide. Video producers will have a drop box placed on their computer’s desktop. After they export their edited video out of Final Cut Express or Pro, they can simply drag it into the drop box for archiving. That’s it. Merlin does the rest. We are the first to install this new video archive in the country. Having Merlin Video up and running means one less digital headache to have to deal with.

Here is a link to a video demo: Merlin Video

Canon HF-10 performs stellar during training

Last week’s two-day video storytelling workshop for six journalists from The Spokesman-Review newsroom went well.  On day one I pounded into them the fundamentals of shooting, sequencing and storytelling.  I then turned them lose to shoot the rest of the afternoon. This was a highly motivated group. All in the class wanted to learn how to shoot and edit video. There was no arm-twisting by their editors.

On day two, I demonstrated Final Cut Express and how to capture video from camera to computer.  Out of six journalists, three received the new flash drive based Canon HF-10 video camera. Two others had standard def. Sony SR-200 hard drive cameras and one photographer inherited my prized Sony HVR-Z1U.

Come capture time, I was a little nervous. Other than some quick tests, I hadn’t really given the Canon HF-10’s a real field test. The moment of truth came when the three cameras were connected to the laptops through Final Cut’s new Log and Transfer feature.  Two of the three camera’s video clips showed up in the clip pane immediately. The third camera crashed Final Cut. A quick look at the computer found the reporter had a half-dozen other programs open at the same time. After a restart, all was well.

The workflow with the HF-10 is really simple. Just after Log and Transfer is opened, all the video clips on the camera’s flash drive show up quickly in a window. In order for Final Cut Express to be able to read and edit these files, it needs to transcode them from AVCHD into something it can read and edit. In this case, it is Apple’s Intermediate codec (Final Cut Pro 6 uses the better ProRes 422 codec.)

The transferred files are large, but with today’s massive hard drives and fast processors, it really isn’t a problem. With my old Log and Capture workflow, I would bring in all my video as one large clip, then break it up once it was in Final Cut. Instead, Log and Transfer allows you to scrub each video clip quickly, setting  in and out points of only what you need. After giving the clip a descriptive label, you drag it to the transfer window.  While that clip is converting, you start on the next. By the time you are ready to start editing, you will have reviewed everything you had shot and the clips will waiting for you already be labeled in the browser.

I think this is a much faster workflow then spending countless minutes scrubbing through unlabeled clips. Editing is faster because you don’t have a bunch of crap video to wade through. The three reporters who shot with the Canon HF-10s were all pleased with the camera and workflow. The HD video is stunning compared with standard def. and the camera handled low light amazingly well.

Part of their final assignment was to shoot an interview using their new Sennheiser G-2 wireless mic. All came back with stellar audio. Editing time was about four hours for about a minute and half of edited video. Not bad for the first time editing in Final Cut. Music reporter Som Jordan shot and edited this piece, which is now posted on The Spokesman-Review’s website. Business reporter, Parker Howell shot this video that was a companion to a story he wrote. Howell already had some experience with Final Cut so he cranked out this video quickly.

At the end of the day I gave a final critique of the finished projects. I was pleased by what I saw. Many used techniques that took me a year to finally grasp. I kept my feedback positive. One of the last projects I critiqued was by photojournalist Rajah Bose on Mutton Bustin’ at the county fair. You could tell a photographer shot this video. The visuals stood out from the rest of the stories.  I was really impressed, considering this was only the second video Bose had ever edited in Final Cut.

My plan is get together every so often and hold critique sessions of videos these new VJ’s produce. I will also do more advanced training in Final Cut during some brown bag sessions. They all will have a hill to climb. There is so much I was not able to teach in such a short amount of time–but will get there together.

On the other end of video experience spectrum in our newsroom, my co-worker Dan Pelle today shot edited this incredible visual story on ultralight trike aircraft. It has excellent sequencing and each clip is framed like it was shot with a still camera. This is definitely not the Spokesman-Review newsroom of a just few years ago.

A new crop of video journalists await

Right now my office looks like a camera store warehouse. Boxes of Canon HF-10 video cameras, Sennheiser wireless kits and shotgun mics will soon be deployed into The Spokesman-Review newsroom.  Next week, seven S-R journalists will attend a two-day in-house video workshop where I will teach the basics of shooting and editing video.

Each journalist has been assigned a MacBook Pro loaded with Final Cut Express software. Their newsroom roles are diverse–a breaking news mobile journalist, a music culture writer, two business reporters, a sports reporter, a photojournalist and our state legislative reporter.

Two days. That is the amount of time I have to share what has taken me four years to learn. The reality is that what I teach in this short workshop is only the framework of what these innovative journalists will need to learn. The heavy lifting will have to come from them as they learn to master the fundamentals over time.

One of the things I’ve discovered from other video workshops I’ve taught, is the less technical I get, the better students are able to grasp the fundamentals.  Spending a week watching Final Cut demos is not an effective way to teach video editing. The more hands-on training a student has, the faster they will learn.

After the workshop, my plan is to be a coach until each new video producer feels comfortable enough to fly solo. I will give constructive criticism and editing help on each video they produce. Truth is, most of these first productions will probably suck. I’m ok with that—and so should they. Video storytelling is tough, especially for word-oriented people. But with time and feedback they will get better, their editing will become faster and their storytelling confidence will grow.

These seven journalists were chosen because each has shown a willingness to adapt to change professionally. As our website grows in importance, their videos will help enhance Spokesman.com’s content in way words and pictures cannot do alone.

Great audio starts in the field

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times before–viewers will forgive you for bad video, but they’ll bolt if forced to listen to bad audio. Wind noise and distorted audio hurts the ears.  Have a video where the subject can’t be heard over distracting ambient nosie? I, like most people, just hit the back button on my browser. Here are some audio tips I’ve learned from my time behind a video camera:

  • I’ve watched too many videos and audio slideshows where wind noise has ruined an interview or mucked up the ambient sound. It is important to use a quality microphone with a windscreen to minimize this horrible sound. A couple of years ago, I climbed windy Mount St. Helens with my video camera. I bought one of those fuzzy windscreens that looks like a tribble (yes that is a Star Trek reference.) It worked brilliantly. For reporters stuck with a point and shoot cameras, good luck. Your audio is at risk every time the wind blows.
  • If you use a lapel or wireless mic on a subject, the rule of thumb is to place it at the second button on a dress shirt. Don’t place the mic inside the shirt or against skin, as that will add a rustling noise every time the subject moves. Listen closely with headphones for noisy clothing like ski jackets or jingly jewelry. You will beat your head against your keyboard trying to edit around these distractions.
  • Nothing screams amateur like a dangling mic cord on the outside of a subject’s clothing. Take the time and run it up inside the subject’s shirt or top. If it is a tee shirt, run the mic out the collar, and down a couple of inches. Pinch the shirt and clip the mic so that it is facing up. It doesn’t always look the best, but will give you better audio quality than if you just clipped it to the collar. Also, take charge of placing the mic. The subject usually has no clue of how to clip it correctly. Stringing it under their shirt, well, I’ll leave that to my subject.
  • If you are using a wireless mic, make sure to turn off all cell phones near the transmitter and receiver. Our company’s Palm Treos interfere with our Sennheiser G-2 wireless kits. This random interference will happen only when the subject says something profound.
  • When I shoot interviews with a wireless mic,  I record in two channels of audio ( I use a Sony Z1U with two XLR inputs.) One channel is the wireless mic and one channel is my on-camera shotgun microphone. That way if I get interference or distortion, I can use the other channel in a pinch. This has saved me countless times. This also works well for stories where you have one subject that you need to wire up. I have that channel always recording, even if I’m just shooting b-roll of something else. I can always drop that channel when I’m editing. Great things are said when the camera is not in the subjects face. Just remember to turn off the receiver if your subject heads to the restroom…
  • Get a curly cord extension for your on-camera shotgun mic. That way when you do a quick on tripod interview with someone, you won’t have to stick the camera so close to his or her face. A TV news shooter once told me that sound falls, so place that shotgun mic about a foot out and below the subject’s mouth. In other words, let the sound fall into the mic.
  • Always wear headphones to monitor your audio. Everybody that shoots video knows that, but not everyone does it. Nothing is worse then realizing you captured crappy audio and then having to spend way too much time trying to make lamb chops out of ground beef. Ok, I admit  it. I hate wearing headphones. Sometimes I get lazy, but one thing I don’t ever compromise on is wearing them during an interview. You can always fudge your b-roll audio by lowering levels, but rarely can you do this with your a-roll audio.
  • If you’re doing an interview with a subject outside, turn them away from noise like traffic. Shotgun mics tend to amplify the noise from behind the subject.
  • Nothing is worse than trying to edit a sequence with music playing in the background of several clips. The ambient music will jump around like a goldfish on a carpet. Which brings me to the first thing you should do when walking into a room you’re going to record in. Listen. Listen for hums, clock tics (my favorite), traffic noise, music etc. Try to minimize these distractions if you can.
  • Record a minute of room tone. You’d be surprised at how handy it comes in when you’re editing. Need a bit of breathing room between two clips of someone speaking? Room tone to the rescue. 

Got an audio gathering or editing tip. Share it here!