Buying Mics & Hacking Audio for Your DSLR Video Setup

Zoom H4n on D7000HDSLR video is a great way to get high quality footage on a micro budget; and a great way to keep that budget micro is to be picky about what accessories are right for your setup.  I recently received an email question focused on this and–in particular–if I had to choose between the Rode Stereo Videomic or the Zoom H4n, which would I use?  So here’s a little background on my thinking…

1. Cost. They cost roughly the same amount, and I use both on a regular basis, so the question is a tough one.
2. The Rode. I recently did a blog post about the Rode Mic a few months ago. You should read it, but to summarize; I love the thing for its straight forward simplicity.  It allows me to just shoot and not worry about sound, but…
3. The Zoom. …When I DO need to worry about the sound (such as an interview or a scene in a narrative film) I bust out the Zoom H4n. It captures better files that the straight camera – remember it’s sole function is audio.

So, while my preference is to have both, if forced to chose one, I would buy the H4n. Here’s why: with a little hack, spending a little more cash and buying one extra cable plus a hot shoe adapter you can turn the Zoom H4n into a badass on-camera mic. Here’s how:

First, get a hot shoe adapter like this one and mount your H4n on top of your camera.

Second, plug this line-out splitter into the headphone jack of the H4n and plug the male end of it into the mic input on your camera.  Now your camera will record what the H4n’s microphones are picking up and your H4n will record a high quality, AGC (automatic gain control) free backup file.

Third, you can even monitor what the H4n is recording with 1/8” headphone jack on the fancy new cable you bought.

Lastly, an important tip. Make sure the H4n is recording!  It’s easy to forget to start your audio recorder when the director just yells “Roll camera!”.

This is a little more of piecemeal one-man-band kinda setup than using just a microphone like the Rode, so make sure you’re familiar enough with your equipment to make it work properly without slowing down the production while you make adjustments.  You’ll probably be in the role of be being audio guy and camera guy, so make sure to practice to get good at both.

Here’s an enlarged image of the thumbnail above, highlighting the cabling. Keep in mind that these cables were purchased at RadioShack a while back just to test out my original hack job/experiment. If you buy the cables I linked to above from B&H, your setup will look much slicker than this first attempt pictured here.

Zoom H4n on D7000

Here’s a picture of my setup with cables purchased at RadioShack. If you buy the cables I linked to above, your setup will look much slicker than mine.

47 Responses to Buying Mics & Hacking Audio for Your DSLR Video Setup

  1. Jacob Vorpahl January 24, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I picked up the H4n recently and did a test video on my 5 month old son. I ran a line out from the headphone jack into my D7000 and for some reason I couldn’t get it to take the audio from the H4n. But when I compared the audio between the two, it was a large gap in quality. The H4n is nice, just need to figure out what is going on.

    If you were doing street interviews, using this as one-man-band kind of deal, do you think it would pick up too much camera noise being mounted on camera if you were having to recompose a little during live shooting?

    • Will January 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      You need to make sure you have the -25dB of attenuation on that line because the zoom outputs an ‘headphone/line’ level signal and the camera is looking for ‘microphone’ level signal. There as some tutorials around on how to make these (just a few resistors I think) or you can buy them ready made like in the link.
      As I understand ‘microphone level’ is the lowest and requires a pre-amp to bring it up to ‘line level’ which is quieter again than headphone level (which obviously needs to be varied depending the the headphones impedance and ability to block noise as well as the track volume).
      There is also a difference between unbalanced connection like these and balanced xlr type connections, definitely a separate topic but it may be worth knowing they are a little different.

  2. Johnny J. Jones (@Johnny_J_Jones) January 24, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    So are you saying your H4n audio is running into the camera (being recorded on the MOV file) while the audio from the camera is also being recording onto the H4n? I was a bit confused. I have a Zoom H4n, but currently record the audio separately and sync in post. Can you clarify for simpleton like myself?

    • Jacob Vorpahl January 24, 2012 at 10:51 am #

      No, I have the H4n recording, and I have a line going from the headphone out to the D7000’s audio in. But for some reason the D7000 still uses it’s own audio when I open the MOV fil, not the H4n’s line feed.

      I can sync in post but I’m about to work on a big project that would make my life a lot easier if the D7000 just took the H4n’s feed like it’s supposed to once you plug in a cable.

    • Claude Lee Sadik January 24, 2012 at 11:02 am #

      If you press record on the h4n, yes it does record one audio file on the h4n while sending the h4n output signal to the dslr audio input. Useful if you want to sync in post as the audio recorded with the h4n matches the one in your video file (although the h4n has better audio quality)

      My question: The h4n can record stereo. with the splitter do you still send stereo in both ends or is it splitting the right and left? Also I read somewhere that plugging the headphones output to a microphone input is not good? Something about amplified sound..?

      • Will January 24, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

        It should just split the stereo signal into two stereo outputs (I think), and yes you should not plug headphone output directly into a microphone input without a ‘pad’ or ‘attenuator’. I posed a reply on that above but the splitter in the B&H link has it built in.

  3. Mark French January 24, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    This is why I’m pretty excited about the new Rode Video Mic with built in recorder.
    It’s the video mic, with MicroSD for recording full audio and headphone output. MMMM! I want!

    Chase, you should call them and have them send you one. Then you can tell us about it and whether it is truly as wonderful as it seems.

    • Will January 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

      Very slick! While it’s based on the VideoMic concept it looks like the internals are actually the NTG3 + a recorder so it’ll probably be $$$.

  4. Gary January 24, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    What do you do about wind noise with the H4n?

    • Cody Min January 24, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      yeah, i’m also quite curious. i’m gonna guess it’s mainly for indoor interview stuff, but maybe not.

      • Tyler Green January 24, 2012 at 11:38 am #

        I use a It doesn’t ‘eliminate wind noise’ but it is pretty good.

    • Erik Hecht January 24, 2012 at 11:37 am #

      Redhead windscreens work great:

    • Roelof January 24, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

      I’m using the H4n noise cap + a “dead cat” from , works nice.

  5. David January 24, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    From above: “Lastly, an important tip. Make sure the H4n is recording! It’s easy to forget to start your audio recorder when the director just yells ‘Roll camera!’.”

    Even better, try to make sure that the director calls “Roll sound” before he/she calls “Roll camera,” if you have that level of communication with the director, which I hope you do. Much better for everyone to have that consistent cue.

    • David January 24, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      You can ignore the first two words of my previous post (“From above:”). Not sure why I left them in there. I’m referencing something in the article, not the comments.

  6. nitsan January 24, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Ideally you should be getting your microphone much closer to your subject, but when you can’t on camera works alright. In theory a shotgun mic should work better from the camera’s distance than the H4n… Haven’t compared the two though.

  7. Brian Garfield January 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I’m confused, when would you ever have a Director, but not a Sound guy? Part of the problem with this entire setup is that you’re creating another Camera Mic and recording it, while you’re still not getting good sound by mic’ing the talent in some way. This is a setup for when audio doesn’t even matter, if it does, get yourself a Sound Guy or at least real audio equipment.

    • Erik Hecht January 24, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

      I’ve been on a ton of shoots where there was a director and no sound guy, or there was a videographer pulling double duty as camera/sound guy. I don’t recommend it, but it happens sometimes when the budget is low or the crew needs to be lean. If you’ll re-read the first sentence of this post, you’ll be see that it’s about saving money.

      Also, this setup doesn’t stop one from using additional microphones with the Zoom H4n. It has XLR inputs.

      • Brian Garfield January 24, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

        A ton of shoots that aren’t sound critical, yes. And that’s not a “Director”, that’s some sort of Producer.

        Bottom line is this, if you’re not putting a mic on somebody, you might as well just use the camera mic, that will save your budget a LOT of money.

        If you want better audio, buy a good wireless or shotgun and feed it straight into the camera (ones that don’t have auto gain).

        If you want to go a step further, THEN feed that mic into the H4n or the like and sync sound in edit.

        All I’m saying is that the above is adding stuff to the camera for no reason (unless you’re using a model with only auto gain).

  8. Brandan January 24, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Zoom H4N Cradle is a good product for doing quick setups and being able to switch out the batteries. There are imperfect paint cradles for a lot less money as well.

  9. Will January 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    There’s also the Zoom H1 as a lower cost solution for on camera recording or plugging in the Rode VideMic (or a lapel mic).
    -Smaller (plug in a lapel mic an put the record in the talent’s pocket)

    -Wind & handling noise
    -Lots of plastic (but makes it lighter)
    -Only one microphone input
    -No xlr inputs or phantom power for mics that need it

    It’s funny, what Eric wrote is pretty much the exact same path I chose, recorder first then mics later. The external recorder improves quality, bypasses AGC (very important on a 7D) and adds a lot of flexibility to the system, plus has a mic so you can start recording straight away. After the H1 I picked up a lapel mic then a second hand VideoMic on ebay and soon a booming set-up for the video mic because you NEED to get close to get good audio, whatever you are recording with.

    • Eric January 25, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

      I reasoned through it the same way you did and came up with the H1n. I find it picks up a lot of handling noise though, even with a DIY shockmount. Have you found a way to minimize handling noise on-camera?

  10. dimitri January 24, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    Hi there,
    another solution is the JUICEDLINK DT454 you will have everything you need, plus two sound source monitor and mix directly!
    It’s a little bit ( :) ) more expensive, but sooooo good!

  11. Flannol January 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Thanks for the post chase! been really considering the Rode for a while now – my d7000 mic just won’t cut it for things like (loud) live music… that XY mic setup is quite neat, aswell!

    Keep it up :)

  12. Mark Y January 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    I have an h4n and I find it much more useful than an upgraded on-cam mic. For example I can put the h4n on someone and plug a lapel mic into it. As the subject wanders around ( or maybe they’re 50′ from the camera) the sound level doesnt change.

    There are tons more options with a portable recorder.

  13. Mike Collister January 25, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    Thanks for the tips Chase.

  14. JW January 25, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    Thanks for the link to the cable, looks like a good thing to have in the bag. Having used both the Rode and the H4N, I think it’s horses for courses. The Rode is a surprisingly good shotgun mic for what it is and I’ve picked up some good interview sound when I’ve been doing the ol run and gun. The solution listed above looks like it would be good for capturing nat sound, but I think you would want something more directional if your gathering interviews.

    The good thing about the H4N is you can plug in a real shotgun mic or wireless unit to get close micing for interviews or dialog from your actors/subjects. You can also choose your audio file format, keep an eye on your levels and have the headphone out. What I typically do is use the Rode as my reference/back-up mic and use the H4N for my main audio. If you’re by yourself it’s a bit of a pain, but worthit. I do agree that if sound is important to you (and it should be), then get someone to run audio.

    One final note, I’ve noticed that when the batteries get low on the H4N, it can introduce some noise into the signal. My advice is to always have spare batteries and if you hear unwanted noise on your headphones, trust that it is what is being recorded and check your batteries.

    Can’t wait to see how the D4 works out, having a proper headphone jack is something you take for granted as a video shooter and noticeably missing from the current crop of DSLR’s. That Rode mic+recorder also looks pretty interesting.

  15. David Oleski January 25, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    I just picked up the H4N for my D7000, and you have to watch your headphone output levels going into the external mic input on the camera. Anything above 90 with an upfront spoken voice will max out and sound horrible. At the same time, make sure you send enough headphone level to the camera, or you’ll have too weak of a signal. And a simple thing to look for, if the record light is flashing, it’s not recording. One push arms it, the second push starts it. It only has to be armed to output a signal to your camera, but if you’re recording backup audio with the H4N, push the record button again.

  16. Warwick January 25, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I’d also highly recommend a good windsock for the H4n too – I bought one from Redhead Windscreens and for the past two days have been shooting out in blowing winds on assignment here in Michigan and it was amazing good. Zero wind noise.

  17. A Photog Who Blogs January 25, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    I use the Tascam DR100 which is very similar to H4N but has separate line out and headphone outs. I like to always monitor sound even when it doesn’t matter. I also prefer the Tascam bc all the controls are switches/dials. Only need to go into the menu to format. It hogs batteries though. Has built in lithium and takes 2AA and will switch from one to the other seamlessly.

    I also use a special cable that brings the line level down to mic level
    Sescom LN2MIC-TASDR100 3.5 Line to Mic 35dB Attenuation 9 Inch DSLR Cable for Tascam DR-100

    Thanks for the windscreen links in the comments. I need one as the fuzz that comes with the DR100 ain’t great.

  18. Steve Bucala January 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Hey Chase! I follow your blog constantly and myself am trying to get to the point to shoot full time. I actually work for the company that manufactures those Sescom cables and I have to honestly say, they work pretty awesome. I don’t do a ton of video stuff myself yet, but they are a pretty easy workaround in a cable. Neutrik or switchcraft connectors and belden cable. I hate that I feel like I’m promoting these right now being a fan but I saw the one link and figured I’d say something since they are pretty handy. I can have a few sent to you if you wanted to check them out too!

  19. Fabian Gonzales January 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    How do you attach the Zoom to the ballhead? I assume it doesn’t come with a tripod socket.

    • Warwick February 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      It does have a screw mount on the bottom.

  20. Pierre Graf- photographe mariage January 27, 2012 at 4:45 am #

    Ho well, too late cause i bought the Rode mic two weeks ago.
    I didn’t even test it yet, but il will.
    Thanks for the tip anyway.

  21. kees van leeuwen January 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    Thanks Eric!

  22. Armand Dijcks January 31, 2012 at 2:54 am #

    Thanks for sharing this Erik. I love working with the H4n, but from experience wouldn’t recommend mounting directly to the camera, since it will pick up every little noise from zooming, focusing or merely touching the camera. Plus it makes it awkward to balance the whole thing in your hands while shooting hand-held.

    For what it’s worth, I wrote a blog post a while ago showing a couple of different solutions, specifically geared to shooting noisy environments (but they work in any situation):

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  1. Required Reading 2.3.2012 | Luke Copping Photography - Blog - February 3, 2012

    […] • For all those photographers who are just starting to move into video, Chase Jarvis has posted a quick guide to audio and mics just for you| Buying Mics and Hacking Audio for Your DSLR Video Setup […]

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