Recording audio for filmed acoustic music performances

I’m looking to film some acoustic music performances in outdoor settings with my DSLR, and I’m curious if this group has any recommendations on how to capture high quality audio in this type of scenario. Any thoughts?

Hi Tyson,

I have a lot of experience with this particular challenge - and it’s something I have a passion for — so, this isn’t a short “buy this and you’ll be happy” post. Sound is its own department and so while I’ll give you a cheaper choice - just like with photography, you get better results when you know what you’re doing than if you have your camera set on Auto, right? And an L-series lens will be sharper than a kit lens, right? So, same with sound - knowing how to capture the sound is paramount, using high quality equipment is tantamount to high quality photographic gear.

Audio can be simplified, but can also be a very complex world - and when you dive in, you’ll see that the prices for pro level audio gear rival what photographers are willing to pay for their camera and lenses! And rightly so - we can put up with a less-than-stellar visual in a video, but if the sound is awful, it’s an untenable experience. Sound is required for us to know what is going on in a narrative film/tv show. And it’s absolutely the most important thing in a musical performance. Frequently at concerts you’ll find me standing directly in front of the sound board - because that’s where the best sound is - that’s where they are mixing the room to! Usually the view up front is best, but the sound is the worst there! (comparatively)

There are less-expensive ways to get good, clean audio so let’s look at those here, too. But, like all things: you get what you pay for.

First, there are a few things to look at and consider before we dive into specific equipment.

  1. Are you okay to see the microphone in your video?
    If so, that gives some flexibility to what you can use. If not, then a shotgun mic out-of-frame is the best option. Second to that would be if the instruments have pick-ups and can be lined in directly to a mixer.

  2. How many instruments and what types? This will be important because if it is ensemble, then the techniques are different.
    One scenario is a duet - you could conceivably have a microphone on each instrument, line those to a mixer/recorder and that will work well.

  3. Another is a trio - again, 3 mics, lined to a mixer. Or, once you get into a trio, you can start to look at using either a stereo microphone like a Sennheiser stereo mic - or record in what is called “mid-side” with a cardioid mic and a bi-directional mic, but that is likely out of the scope of what you’d want to do. But it would be a great method if you were working with a group larger than 3 people and didn’t have a multi-channel mixing board.

  4. Are you using just one DSLR or are you using more than one camera? Sync is the main issue here, and you can likely use Clap-sync to make that happen. Timecode devices would make the editing a lot faster, but Premiere and other editing programs have made sync easier with various sync methods built in.

Basic signal chain theory: Instrument > Microphone > Mixer/Preamp > Analog-to-Digital Conversion > Recording

The most expensive thing should come at the front of this train. If you put a $20,000 microphone on a $300 guitar, it will still sound like a $300 guitar. So using the very best instrument possible is the first step. The next, the very best microphone. However, if you bother to spend a lot on a microphone you don’t want the Mixer/Preamps to color or wreck that sound, so get a good mixer along with the mic investment. From there, there is a conversion of the analog wave to a digital sample and then it records - those two steps will be dependent upon the quality of everything before it.

Microphones

Jay Rose, author of Producing Great Sound for Film and Video notes at the start of his book: “90% of all sound problems are because the microphone is not close enough to the sound source.”

Let’s tackle the single performer or duet scenario (two mics if there are two performers):

At the lowest end is to get a RodeVideoMicPro and a long 1/8” cable and get that mic as close to the instruments as is comfortable. About a foot away or so. Hover your ear around the instrument where the sound comes out and find the sweet spot while they play. That’s where you’ll aim the mic. That mic will plug into your camera and sync the sound for you - but, again, there will be a hiss from lousy camera preamps.

(Mic, stand, F-M 3.5mm/1/8” cable) Easiest set-up, cheapest option, hissy sound - depending on your camera’s preamp sound.

The next level up is to get a better microphone for instruments and run that mic into an external recorder:

The Audio HC microphone works nicely for this. Linked below. They have a tight pick-up “polar pattern” and so it will omit ambient sounds of their environment pretty well and hear just the instrument.

(Some of these microphones listed require what’s called Phantom power - which is basically 48v of charge being sent from the device back up the cable to power the actual microphone. This is a setting on a mixer you engage to send that power, thus, not something you can use on a DSLR directly. Phantom power will be requiring more from your mixer’s batteries.)

Up from there is to get a microphone that has a larger coverage area. The Ear Trumpet Labs mics are popular in the acoustic music community.

The Edwina is meant for a singular performer to stand and play into, but some cases I’ve seen duets and trios standing around it like a single mic and it still sounds great. The Delphina has a broader pick-up pattern and is meant more for duet/trio/ensemble. The two mics look identical.

Edwina

Delphina

If you run this mic into a mixer like the DR-60 below, it will give great coverage for a small duet/trio performance. Be sure to get the wind-sock!

The Sennheiser 416S is also a stellar choice and likely a great choice if you needed to boom the mic overhead so it’s not seen in the video. You’d also want a Blimp, a DeadCat (Wombat), and a Boom pole and holder to get this on a stand overhead and as close to your scene as possible. This mic can also be used from below “scooping” and that’s often how it’s used in the videos of artists at Tiny Desk. In this video of power-trio Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan - the Sennheiser is picking up their voices in stereo. A couple stereo hot spot mics are down lower.

Another choice is the Cascade Microphones “FatHead” - this is a bi-directional microphone so it would be best used with performers on either side of the mic. Be sure to get it with the Lundhal transformer. (Better preamp)

Or, if in a trio or ensemble scenario, you can use this mic with an Audix cardioid in “Mid-Side” recording for a stereo capture. You just need a mixer that can do that. The Sound Devices ones listed below have that ability. The FatHead is a ribbon mic, which is known for a warmer tone - so you would never run Phantom power to this mic as that would destroy it. But they are reasonably priced for what they can do.

Preamps in DSLRs are notoriously hissy and this hiss will be present in your recordings - it will all depend on what ‘level of quality’ is acceptable. But, if you need quality without spending a ton, then the bare-bones would be to have an external sound recorder and an external mic on a stand that you can get in close on the instruments.

If you plan to record a larger group - like classical music - you could either go with microphones on each instrument (requiring more channels on your mixer/recorder) – or you could use a couple mics placed in an XY or stereo pattern and placed at a distance from your performers. This isn’t as ideal in outdoor situations because there is no reverberance from the space to work with like you’d have on a stage. Close-miking would be better outdoors in my opinion.

External Sound Recorders

For a mixer/recorder, Tascam DR-60 works well. It’s preamps are pretty good, better than a DSLR’s, and you can run two XLR-cabled mics into this device. It also gives you ‘attenuated’ safety tracks in case the gain was set too high and they start playing loudly, the attenuated tracks will save you. From this device, you can run a 3.5mm (1/8” stereo) cable back to your camera for a ’scratch track’ to help with sync.
(Mic, stand, XLR cable, Mixer, 3.5mm cable.) More complicated set-up, less hissy, safety tracks, scratch track, better control over levels

The Zoom H6 or F6 are both devices that give lots of flexibility, have super quiet preamps and it’s like having a miniaturized recording studio in the device. They do a ton. Downside of Zoom? They aren’t the most reliable over the years and their customer service leaves a lot to be desired. But, I’ve had a Zoom F8 for a while and it’s still humming along fine. Carry plenty of AAs for these devices - you can usually get about 2 hours of reliable run-time with a phantom microphone plugged in. (of course there are other options out there for powering these devices on-location)

The next step up from having a quality microphone is to have a better quality mixer/recorder. Sound Devices and Zaxcom both sit at the top of the heap in terms of highest quality/most reliable equipment on the market. The vast majority of television and movies you see are employing their devices as the workhorse in recording all the dialogue and other sounds. Just have a critical listen to the complexity of sound in shows like Grey’s Anatomy or Schitt’s Creek, considered really high-level sound work due to the multiple sources and varying loudness levels and action happening.
The Mix-Pre series is specific to the musician world (though I’ve seen these used on video sets, too).

Mix Pre 3 - 3-channels (3 inputs). MixPre-6 and MixPre-10 - all depending on how many inputs you need. What’s so great about these? They are noiseless - absolutely dead quiet. No self-noise and no hiss. The sound you get is what is coming out of the mic and so you’d be wise to put a quality mic on these devices. If you put a high quality mic in front of one these, you won’t be disappointed. From there, it’s on the performer to have a nice instrument and good technique!

Wind

If you are doing this outside, your main concern will be the wind. If you go with a shotgun out-of-frame, then you’ll need a Blimp, and a fuzzy Dead Cat/Wombat over the blimp, and a boom pole to hold all that.

If you use any of the others, you are usually relegated to a simple wind-foamie, which is good in light wind, but anything heavier and the low rumble of wind will be your nemesis. The Ear Trumpets sell a little knit wind sock, which is a good thing to get if you go that route. The Cascade would be a poor choice in the wind as it is a sensitive ribbon mic. No matter what - try to do this on a windless day unless you want the sound of wind in there.

Wrap-Up
The least expensive set-up is the Rode Video Mic, but there will be hiss and it’s a little clunky to make happen.

The next up is an Audix mic on a mic stand near the instrument and running that into a Tascam or Zoom recorder. You could poke around on Curtis Judd or Deity’s YouTubes (linked below) for other mic options, too. I know the Oktava series are also great for instrument pic up and are reasonably priced.

From here, upgrading the microphones and mixer is the best option - but this comes with a larger price-tag. The Zoom and MixPres are among the best options right now for location sound recording. But, I would spend more on a microphone than on a mixer - again, signal chain. The higher end Zooms and Sound Devices (and Zaxcoms) are likely way more than you’d need.

Low End: Expect to pay $100-$400
Mid-Range: Expect to pay $500-$1500
Mid-High: Expect to pay $1000-2000
HighEnd: Mic - ~$1200+, Mixer/Recorder - $1000-4000+
Pro: Multiple mics for different reasons, high end Mixer/recorder, Timecode, battery distribution, etc. Gets up there to the $10-20K investment range!

In this video, I have an Audix HC on my guitar. The banjo has some other off-brand condenser mic on it. I’m singing into a Shure SM58 (classic stage mic) - and the bass has an Ear Trumpet Delphina on it. You can hear the mix through headphones or good speakers. This was on a windless day. I’m running all this into my soundbag (linked below in the resources) - This was filmed for Facebook live on an iPhone, so it’s lousy video quality, but good audio.

Below are some additional learning resources and gear links.
If you are new to this world, the best places to focus your learning would be: 1. Understanding microphone pick-up “polar patterns” 2. Setting Gain/Trim 3. Microphone placement for various instruments 4. Wind protection 5. Syncing with multiple cameras (if applicable)

Resources

The Deity Microphones YouTube channel is one of the best. Of course, they are biased towards their specific microphones and devices, but their tutorials are great.

Curtis Judd’s channel is extremely comprehensive - much more suited to ‘audio for video’ than music-specific, but I’ve learned a lot from this dude over the years. He has tons of great gear reviews and his Learn Light & Sound training is great if you want to learn how to operate a Zoom F-series device.

My article on RMSP’s blog:

What’s in MY soundbag?

Books
Jay Rose’s Producing Great Sound for Film and Video
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/producing-great-sound-for-film-and-video-jay-rose/1124309450?ean=9780415722070

Ric Viers’s Location Sound Bible.
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-location-sound-bible-ric-viers/1110904638?ean=9781615931200

Gear Links

2 Likes

@mclainphoto Jeff,

This is…amazing! Thank you for sharing your wealth of expertise. This is just what I needed and then some. I really appreciate the great info and the time it took to get it all down.

I think to start I’ll be at the low to mid-range. My goal is to keep it simple in an effort to capture the raw, intimate feel of an up-close acoustic performance. It will likely be just me filming and recording. But I would love to expand things down the road to capture top-notch sound like in your video (great performance, btw!).

I’ll dive into some of the details and let you know if any other questions arise.

Thanks again!