Audio for DSLR video
The technological evolution of DSLR cameras, long used for pro and semi-pro still photography, into capable video cameras has created a demand for audio products that complement this compact and (relatively) affordable mode of shooting video. Despite excellent image quality, most DSLR cameras have poor, or at least limited, audio capabilities. Professional-level video cameras tend to have XLR microphone inputs with manual level control and at least rudimentary metering capabilities, but DSLRs at best have only a minijack for a mic input, and clunky, menu-based level adjustments.
As a result, it’s become common for DSLR-based videographers to record their audio separately, on a flash-memory audio recorder that offers better connectivity, sound quality, metering and monitoring. The Zoom H4n has been a popular choice, because of its XLR mic inputs, decent sound quality, relatively small size, and affordable price. It’s quite common to see these recorders either mounted on top of a DSLR via a hot shoe adapter, or simply carried along with the camera, capturing audio from attached lavalier or shotgun microphones, or occasionally, the Zoom’s own built-in mics.
For many years, recording sound on a separate device required cumbersome (and expensive) linking of the camera and the audio recorder via time code. Without time code, it was difficult to keep the audio and image in synch. With advances in digital video editing technology this problem is less of a concern. Audio recorded “wild,” without any synchronization to the images, can be brought into the video project, and in most cases, realigned with good results. Best method: record some basic “scratch” audio onto the video file, which can then be used as a reference to align the better-quality audio recorded separately. Software plug-ins for most professional video editing systems can do this. It can even be done by hand, by meticulously nudging the audio file into place. Audio and video recorded separately without synchronization can drift apart over time, but you can compensate for that by time-stretching or squeezing, or by making cuts in the audio and re-synching as needed.
Enter the Tascam DR-60D
A wide variety of recorders accommodate the method of recording audio on a device separate from the camera, depending on the requirements of the production. The Tascam DR-60D audio recorder has been designed specially for use with a DSLR, or a semi-pro video camera with less-than-ideal audio inputs. It has several structural advantages over other field recorders when used in this fashion, and some well-thought-out ways of connecting the two devices. Most obvious is the overall design of the box: like most portable audio recorders, there’s a tripod socket on the bottom, allowing it to be mounted securely on a standard photo tripod. But the DR-60D includes hardware on its top that allows a camera to be mounted directly onto it, making for a very efficient and compact set-up on a single tripod. The recorder also provides audio outputs that supply a variable-level audio signal to the camera, and it can even generate slate tones to help synch the audio and video when editing.
But wait – Transom.org isn’t really a video production website, why do we care about this stuff? We’re reviewing DR-60D for three major reasons:
- Audio producers are frequently adding visual components to their productions, and anything that makes that easier is a plus.
- The DR-60D is a pretty great stand-alone audio recorder, with a few very desirable features — even if one ignores the video-centric aspects of its design.
- Perhaps most important, the audio quality is great.
Also, although the audio outputs are clearly designed to interface with a camera, that “camera-out” feed (or the line-out) could alternatively be used to send a signal to a back-up audio recorder. When making a critical recording, it’s often desirable to concurrently make a back-up recording. Why? In case something were to go wrong with the primary recording, or the memory card were to fail or get lost.
The Camera Mount
Mounting a small audio recorder on top of the DR-60D in place of the camera, and feeding audio to it from the camera-out, would be a streamlined way to make a back-up recording in those circumstances when extra caution is required. The top-mounted tripod screw even makes it easy to attach that second recorder, or a wireless mic receiver, or a shotgun mic.
The camera mount on top of the recorder adds a little extra size and weight. If you’re confident that you’ll never use it, that structure can be removed, making the box a little more streamlined. The tripod mount on the bottom is pretty universal among small recorders. If you don’t need to move around, it can be very handy; mounting on a tripod can keep the recorder in a good position for watching meters, and free-up one of your hands.
Shoulder Strap for Hands-Free Operation
One of the most appealing aspects of the DR-60D is that it has side rails that allow it to be hung from a strap. Having to hold a recorder in your hand is a major downside of the otherwise appealing streamlining and miniaturization of new recorders. Cumbersome old recorders at least could be hung over a shoulder, or stashed in a bag, while still allowing access to important controls. Tascam, oddly, does not include a strap, nor sell one as an accessory, but a standard camera strap can work.
I can’t help thinking that there’s a more ideal strap out there, one that takes advantage of the wide rails, but a regular camera strap is sufficient. There are also protective bags made for this recorder that take advantage of the DR-60D’s design; the meters and most important controls on one side of the device face up when it’s hung from a strap (or nestled in a bag). This design makes it one of the most practical small recorders around, one of the few that frees you from holding the recorder in your hand. The only significant downside is that the headphone volume control is located on the side, not on the top with the rest of the knobs and buttons. That said, I often set the headphone level once and forget it, so in practical use, this need not be a major headache.
Audio Inputs and Record Modes
The inputs are all on the left side, and include two XLR/quarter-inch “combo” jacks that can accept line or mic-level signals. There’s also a stereo mini input, designed for microphones that use mini connectors. With the input gain turned down (and the gain setting set to “low” in the input menu) a line-level signal can be fed through this jack. There are separate input gain controls for XLR inputs 1 and 2, and one for the mini input, designated as 3-4. The XLR jacks can provide phantom power. Each input is controlled by a hardware switch on the front of the recorder, allowing phantom to be sent on one or both, or neither, of the XLR connections. The mini input jack can provide “Plug-In Power” to electret microphones that require it.
Menu settings allow recording in mono mode from any one of the inputs alone, or in Stereo Mode from inputs 1 and 2, or from the stereo mini-jack: inputs 3-4.
There’s also a 4-Channel mode that records from inputs 1 and 2 and the stereo 3-4 inputs at the same time. When recording from all of the inputs simultaneously, they can be mixed to a stereo sound file (with level and pan controls available in a menu setting). An alternative is to create two sound files: a stereo file with inputs 1-2, and a separate stereo file with inputs 3-4. Those two sound files can easily be synched up in an audio editor, because they will have identical start times. There’s a good-sounding limiter, which can be set to operate on each channel independently, or in a linked-stereo mode which will adjust both channels symmetrically.
Dual-Mono and Dual-Stereo modes make two copies of your recording, with one copy at a lower level, to guard against unexpected loud peaks. There are helpful LED indicator lights on the main face of the DR60D that clearly show when you’re in Dual or 4-Channel mode.
Inputs 1 and 2, or 3 and 4, can be set to M-S (Mid-Side) stereo mode, if one is using using mics in that configuration. Stereo recordings can be made with one front-facing directional mic and one side-facing figure-8 mic: the mixture of those two signals allows for a flexible stereo image.) There are three options:
- M-S Off, when not using a mid-side microphone array.
- REC, which will decode the M-S array to standard Left-Right stereo and record that stereo file.
- MONITOR, which will record the mid and side microphones to their own channels, for use later, but decodes the M-S matrix in the headphones only, allowing for a more accurate monitoring of levels and mic placement.
This is a very flexible recording scenario:
- You could connect a lavalier mic and a shotgun mic to the XLR inputs, and add a stereo mic that uses a mini jack for room ambiance.
- You could connect the output of a wireless receiver to the mini input, while using the XLR jacks for wired mics.
- You could connect the line inputs from a mixer to the XLR or quarter-inch inputs, and a stereo mic could be connected to the mini jack, to record both direct and room sound.
- You could use a Mid-Side stereo mic array on one set of inputs, while a more conventional X-Y stereo mic array could be recorded to the other set of inputs.
There are hardware switches for setting the input sensitivity for each of the XLR inputs between line and microphone level, and those same switches control phantom power for each channel. There’s a further input sensitivity setting: low, medium or high that is controlled in a menu setting. This model is more reliant on menu controls than the DR-100mkII. However, the menus are very logically organized, and easy to navigate with the help of the large selection knob: twist it to scroll, push it in to select an option. Pressing down on that knob can also add a mark to a sound file while recording.
Flexible Headphone Monitoring
A dedicated button allows a range of headphone monitoring options. When in mono or stereo mode, one can listen to a mix of the main inputs, or to the “camera-in,” an auxiliary stereo mini input on the left side of the recorder that can be connected to the audio out from a video camera or DSLR. Listening to the camera-in allows you to monitor the feed you are sending to the camera, without needing to unplug and move your headphones to the headphone jack of the camera. The signal from “camera-in” does not get recorded, it only routes to the headphones, making it simpler to confirm that a good signal is being fed to the camera. When recording in Dual-Mono or 4-Channel mode, the Monitor select allows monitoring of each individual input or of a mix of all of them. This is really handy for verifying that each input is working, or for concentrating on one input. For instance, if one is operating a boom mic and wants to focus on that input while ignoring a lavalier mic plugged into the other XLR jack, or a stereo ambience mic plugged into line 3-4.
There’s also an easy to-use internal mixer, that allows setting level and stereo pan values for each of the inputs.
Caution: No Internal Mics!
One important note: unlike most small field recorders, the DR-60D does NOT have any built-in microphones. This may be of no consequence if you always use an external mic, or mics. But if you do find yourself using the built-ins on your current recorder for ambience recording, or quick run-and-gun set-ups, their absence may be a deal-breaker. I suppose that Tascam decided the main purpose of this device is to allow the use of professional-level microphones with cameras that have inferior recording capabilities — built-in mics would be of little value. I think that may have been a mistake: a pair of mics mounted on the back corners of the recorder, might have been very handy for recording musical performances, or other events with a lot of ambience.
For audio-only recording, one of the main appeals is that one can attach a strap and sling this recorder over your shoulder, or around your neck, and in those positions, built-in mics are of no use.
Choosing External Mics
The good news is that this recorder sounds pretty great with almost any external mic. Many small affordable recorders do not have good enough microphone preamps to cleanly boost the signal from low-output microphones. Popular reporter mics, such as the EV RE-50, or the Beyer M-58 are especially troublesome. Dynamic microphones like those need a lot of gain from the mic preamps. If they’re noisy, you’ll hear it when using those kinds of mics. Fortunately the DR-60D preamps are relatively clean, and can be used successfully with dynamic mics like the RE-50.
However, Tascam seems to have had higher-output mics in mind when designing this recorder: although the sound quality is good, you’ll have to crank the input gains up all the way, even at the high-gain menu setting, and you may still find your recordings a little on the quiet side when using a dynamic mic. Even many condenser mics seem to work best at the High Gain setting when used for a typical conversation-level interview. That’s generally not a big problem: the preamps are clean enough that raising the level of the recorder as you edit or mix does not result in much extra noise, but you may hear the noise floor of the recorder if your subject was very quiet. So, dynamic mics are useable, but the DR-60D is still a little better match with higher-output condenser mics.
Low-frequency rumble can be a problem in many recording circumstances: vibration noise from boom poles, handling noise, or even just the sound of distant traffic can interfere with making clean recordings.
Those problems can be treated by engaging a low-cut filter on the microphone (if the mic has one) or by turning one on in the recorder, or by applying EQ when mixing. Each approach has its advantages:
- Structural vibrations, such as those transmitted by a boom pole, are often strong enough that one needs to use the microphone’s low-cut filter to avoid distortion that cannot be removed with EQ.
- Less-severe rumble can be controlled by using a low-cut filter on the recorder, which prevents too-much bass from overwhelming the mic preamps, and possibly engaging the limiter, causing jittery level variations.
- Using EQ when mixing gives the most control, and might help avoid thinning the sound out by using overly aggressive filters on the mic or recorder.
The DR60D has a very flexible low-cut filter that applies low-frequency reduction at user-selectable frequencies. For each input channel, you can choose for the low-cut to be off, or to roll-off frequencies below 40hz, 80hz, or 120hz. The 80hz setting strikes a good balance, eliminating problematic rumble without thinning-out voices too severely.
The sound quality is comparable with Tascam’s DR-100mkII, which is to say, very good, and better than most other small recorders in this price range. It’s significantly better than the DR-40, while including a few of the DR-40′s recording tricks such as Dual-Mono or Dual-Stereo modes.
The input gain meter is a little misleading: getting the levels peaking around where the little triangle hashmark is, presumably an ideal level, results in fairly low recordings. Consider hitting that meter a little harder than you might think looks right (but make sure you’re not clipping!). There is a numerical readout for your peak levels: keep an eye on that too.
In some cases, such as with a dynamic omni mic, even at the high gain setting in the menu, and the input gain knob all the way up, the resulting levels will be frustratingly low, with peaks at -12 dBfs or even lower. Thankfully, the noise floor is low enough that the recordings are useable even after boosting them up when mixing. But it certainly would be preferable if Tascam provided preamps with a bit more gain. After all, it’s not unusual to want to record with a dynamic omni. It can even be difficult to get good levels from a mic such as the Rode NTG2 when placed far enough away from the subject to stay out of frame on a video shoot — ostensibly the exact use that this recorder was designed to handle. Very high-output mics, such as the Sennheiser K6/ME66, and other condenser mics with similar sensitivity, work fine, but many other microphones will require turning the input gain up to maximum.
It’s great to have individual control over the input gain of each input, on well-positioned, and smooth-feeling knobs, but there has been criticism of the input gain circuitry design. The knobs control “digital pots,” which is to say that although they feel like smooth, continuous-controller knobs, they’re digital encoders that apply discrete input amplification values to the inputs. This can theoretically result in a jumpy “stairstep” effect when turning the input gain up or down, rather than the smooth, gradual changes possible with an analog input gain pot.
In practice, this effect is very subtle when recording most real-world sounds, and you’re unlikely to hear the audio levels jump up or down when adjusting the input gain knobs. That said, the effect might be heard when recording certain continuous tones or very subtle ambiences (it’s quite obvious when recording steady, continuous sounds, as demonstrated below.) In those circumstances, try to avoid making input gain adjustments at critical times. Gradual fade-up or fade-down moves are probably better left for the mixing process anyway.
The largest shortcoming of this machine is the relatively limited battery life – only 3-4 hours on 4 standard AA batteries. The battery compartment is accessible when mounted on a tripod, and changing batteries is quick and easy, even with a camera mounted on top. If you’re out recording in the field all day, you’ll likely have to change batteries at least once. It’s certainly worth investing in at least 8 high-quality rechargeable AA batteries, for quick changes. The DR60D can be powered via the mini USB jack, so it can be run off of standard AC current by using a transformer and cable like one might use to charge a mobile phone.
Similarly, there are external battery packs with mini USB cables that can be used to power this recorder. Tascam makes one, called the BP-6AA, and there are others, designed for recharging phones, that could work. It’s unfortunate that one might need to resort to these external powering solutions, but at least there are some options for extended recording in the field. It’s odd that Tascam did not choose to include an internal rechargeable battery, like it does on the DR-100mkII. You can switch from battery to USB power, or back to battery from the USB power while a recording is in progress, so it’s possible to hot-swap batteries while recording if you have a source of USB power.
A Few Final Notes
There’s no built-in speaker, so for quick auditioning of recordings, you’ll need to use headphones, or an external speaker.
The display screen is readable in most light conditions, and can be read in full light without the backlight on. There’s no specific button to turn on the backlight, but you can turn it on by pressing any button, or twisting the menu dial, although that can feel a little scary during critical recordings…
Tascam has been releasing a wide variety of portable audio field recorders, from tiny, inexpensive molds such as the DR-05, to the more professionally-oriented DR-100mkII.
We were impressed by the versatility of the budget-friendly DR-40, but the sound quality was disappointing in some circumstances.
The DR-100mkII offers impressive audio performance, but does not provide a 4-channel recording mode, or the dual-recording modes that automatically make a safety sound file at a lower input gain. And most small recorders require you to hold them in your hand, which is not always convenient.
The DR-60D provides extensive, flexible input options, and interfaces elegantly with video cameras. Perhaps most important, it can be hung on a strap, with convenient placement of meters and knobs. If one can get past the limitations of short battery life and lack of built-in microphones, the DR-60 has a lot to offer: a convenient design, and very good sound quality.