DSLR Documentary Film-Making On a Budget 2 – Upgrading Audio

I recently covered shooting a documentary on a DSLR on a budget. Obviously there are massive compromises to be made; the biggest of them being sound. Recording sound directly onto your camera is unusable if you want your film to sound good, but my solution of a zoom H2 on a monopod and hacked condenser mic shock mount, while workable, is awkward and heavy.

Upgrading your sound setup is expensive, but if you’re looking to add to the budget setup, or get a head start when first investing in gear, there are some quality options that will cost in the region of €500. I suggested a zoom H1 previously, so this is €400 more expensive, but your ears will thank you.

First, you still have the issue of sound being recorded off-camera. Now, however, you can really take advantage of that. To do so, a recording device with XLR inputs is an instant upgrade from the minijack input available on cheaper recorders.

The Zoom H4N is what you’ll likely see recommended by many DSLR shooters, and it’s a quality product. It’s also €100 more expensive than a Tascam DR-40, for more or less the same product. Both have two XLR inputs and 48v phantom power, essential for the best sound.

The DR-40 has an extra trick up its sleeve that’s great for difficult sound situations. It can record a second track at a higher or lower volume than the main track, providing a backup in case the original is too low or high.

The onboard mics aren’t bad either, and you can record on the tascam’s own mics and via its XLR inputs at the same time. If you want to be particularly creative, a short minijack to minijack cable can run from the Tascam’s output into your camera, giving you hugely improved on-mic audio, though it’s still not as good as what the recorder offers, and I would recommend you avoid using it if at all possible.

There are a few accessories between the recorder and microphone which you can’t do without; a boom pole, XLR cable and a shock mount.

For the cable, XLRs can be picked up quite cheaply, look for a balanced cable – this will help keep electrical noise away from your recording. 3 metres is long enough, but 4 or 5 is no harm so you can wrap the cable tightly around the boom pole.

A boom pole is expensive for what is little more than a telescopic stick, but Rode do a nice budget model that comes in around €50. It’s 2 metres long and for documentaries it’s unlikely you’ll need much more than that. The 3 metre model is well over €100.

Topping that boom pole is a pistol grip style shock mount. There’s no avoiding the cost here, you need one, pay for it. Rode’s version is cheaper than the likes of Rycote, and I can find no discernible difference in quality between the two.

The microphone is the key component, although every other piece is important, it’s hard to overstate that. The mic may be the most expensive, but without the boom pole, shock mount and so on, it won’t give you the sound you want.

The recommended model is an Audio-Technica AT875R, a short shotgun mic. It compares well to the Sennheiser ME66 and K6 combo, which is more than twice as expensive, and the only loss is that you must rely on phantom power, which sucks batteries dry quite quickly.

Other than that it’s hard to find fault with the AT mic. I haven’t tested a Rode NTG 1 or 2, which are often recommended, but they’re less ‘hot’ than the AT, so you have a lower ceiling in terms of gain with the Rode models.

The Sennheiser is a bit more sensitive than the AT, but sounds similar in practical terms, and I can’t imagine a situation where, if you own a boom pole, you’d need to be all that far from your subject. You won’t get quality sound with a mic mounted on top of the camera anyway.

Depending on your needs you may also want a furry wind cover, dead cat, wind muff or whatever you choose to call the fuzzy blob that goes on top of your camera. The AT does not quite work with Rode’s dead cat, which is a pity, but if you grab a couple of elastic bands you can tighten its hold on the mic.

The problem, without the bands, is that the cover can move and create sound, loud scratching sound. An alternative is making your own from faux fur, but it’s probably worth investing in a custom sized cover. A few companies make them, rycote are the standard.

You’ll also need a pair of headphones. Sennheiser’s HD201 model, their budget cans, around €25, are great. Cheap, cheerful and surprisingly good sound quality, then also don’t over-emphasis bass, which makes them as close to monitor headphones as you’ll get on a small budget.

So, to repap.

Audio-Technica AT875R

Rode Micro Boom Pole

Rode PG-2 Shock Mount

Sennheiser HD201 Headphones

Balanced XLR cable

Tascam DR-40

All of that comes to between €500 and €600, but you can’t put a price on good sound. Well, you can, I just did, but you get the point. It’s a worthwhile investment, the improvement over the basic H1 or H2 setup is tremendous.

If you are considering an upgrade to your filmmaking setup, a sound upgrade will be far more noticeable than a new lens or anything similar. People will forgive the occasional poor shot, but bad sound is not something you can get away with.

2 Responses to “DSLR Documentary Film-Making On a Budget 2 – Upgrading Audio”
  1. this is really helpful. may I ask, if you know, would the shock mount in this package fit onto the rode pole you recommend here? ALSO, is this package worth it, or do you think it’s better to buy separately?



    • James says:

      Saw this about the mount on B&H:

      It is not boompole ready. You need a 5/8″-27 M to 3/8″-16 F adapter because the mount has a standard mic stand 5/8″-27 threading whereas most boompoles sport a standard 3/8″-16 thread stud.

      The adapter is cheap, so it’s probably not a big issue. You should be able to get a better deal buying separately, the XLR cable with that package probably isn’t great, and I’d recommend a rycote or micover wind cover if you’ll be working outdoors. Micover are good value.

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