The Sweet Sounds of HD
Recording Great-Sounding Audio with the Canon EOS 5D MkII
Photos by Allan Weitz
The EOS 5D Mark II, one of the latest offerings from Canon, is the world's first dSLR camera to offer Full HD video recording capability. But what if you want to capture great sounding audio to accompany your great looking video? The 5D MkII records stunning video clips at a 1080p resolution with a frame rate of 30fps, but the audio is recorded with a tiny built-in mono microphone. Thankfully the camera also includes a stereo 3.5mm microphone input that will enable you to capture much better audio than that offered by the built-in mic. Shooting video on the MkII is very easy. Check out the full 5D MkII review from B&H's own Allan Weitz for an in-depth look at the camera itself, and additional details on shooting video. With the right external microphone, recording great sound is easy too.
Before we start adding microphones to the camera, let's take a look at the built-in offering. The onboard mic records monaural 16-bit/44.1kHz Linear PCM audio, or in laymen's terms, CD-quality mono sound. While the onboard mic performs as advertised, I found it to be serviceable at best. Consisting of just 3 tiny pinholes on the front of the camera body, the mic doesn't have the greatest pickup distance or quality. It is capable of picking up general ambience and voices, but it also picks up a fair amount of handling noise, which can mar an otherwise suitable recording. So, if you're recording video clips with the goal of having them heard as well, then an add-on mic is a must.
|The built-in microphone
So, how do we go about adding an external microphone to a dSLR, while still maintaining a high degree of practicality? We're in luck! The 5D MkII has a mounting shoe, typically used for attaching a flash unit. For our purposes, we'll be using the shoe to mount a mic instead.
When shooting video with the 5D MkII, there are a couple of caveats to go over. The camera isn't going to provide any power to the microphone, so we'll have to make sure power is supplied somehow. The camera also has no audio gain control or any method of monitoring audio levels while capturing. Basically, you plug in your mic and take your chances. You can play back your clips on the camera, and listen using the built-in speaker. Volume can be adjusted using the index wheel. Sorry, but there is no headphone jack on the camera.
There are many "all-in-one" microphones that were designed for use with a video camera that work really well with the Canon 5D MkII. I was able to get hands-on the Rode VideoMic, Stereo VideoMic, and the Sennheiser MKE 400. These mics are among the smallest, lightest, most easy to adapt to a camera out there. They're easy to use too. You can just throw them in your camera bag and use them when you need them.
The Rode VideoMic is a lightweight, mono, shotgun-style video microphone. It was designed primarily to pick-up the sound of people's speaking voices when standing in front of the camera (ideally, no more than 6 feet in front of the mic). It gets 100 hours of power from a single 9V battery, and has an integrated "shock mount" and a camera shoe adapter. The shock mount suspends the microphone with small rubber bands, which greatly reduces vibration sounds that can disturb the audio quality. It has a permanently attached coiled cable with a 3.5mm plug that will connect right directly into the 5D MkII. This is a large mic for what it does, and it felt like the built-in shock mount was a bit wobbly. However, in testing, it didn't pick up any camera handling noise. The polycarbonate construction seems rugged enough for day-to-day use and feels like it could withstand some minor bumps and bruises.
The inclusion of a switchable high-pass filter is a nice feature that helps reduce the effects of wind noise and other low-end annoyances. Listen to the demo links included at the end of the article to hear the difference in performance when recording traffic on 9th Ave. The filter helps to reduce the wind noise significantly, even though the mic had a foam windscreen attached for all tests. The VideoMic turned out to be a good contender, although it's the largest of the all-in-one microphones that were tested. It's a definite improvement over the MkII's onboard mic.
The MKE 400 was the other mono microphone that I tested, and is by far the smallest and lightest of all. As far as practicality is concerned, this is a great contender. The MKE 400 features a metal construction, has two sensitivity settings, and a high-pass filter. It runs on a single AAA battery, and features an integrated shock mount with a shoe and a coiled cable. The cable length on this mic is perfect. You could easily walk around all day with this microphone attached to the camera and still be able to shoot stills using the camera's optical viewfinder. Then, when it's time to shoot video, you're ready to rock and roll.
The mic has an attached foam windscreen to help reduce the effects of wind noise, and the additional sensitivity and filter controls were just as useful as on the other mics. The shock mount "stiffness" is in between that of the VideoMic and Stereo VideoMic. If your ultimate goal is portability and practicality, then this is the mic to go for. It's completely unobtrusive, allowing you to shoot stills and video easily, and it's a big step up from the built-in mic. I feel that of the 2 mono video microphones tested, the Sennheiser offered better audio quality.
Like the regular VideoMic, the Stereo VideoMic operates on a 9V battery, and has the integrated coiled cable and shoe mount. It offers a lot of extra features on top of that as well. The most obvious out of the gate is that it's a stereo microphone. This means that there are actually 2 mic capsules housed inside the body, allowing it to pick up a more natural spectrum of sound, resulting in a stereo image. As you listen to the audio samples, you'll be able to hear traffic go from one speaker to another. There's also a sample where you can hear a pedestrian with grocery bags approaching from the left, which is a great illustration of this mic's stereo capability.
The Stereo VideoMic has a very robust aluminum construction, and the integrated shock mount feels much more stable than the regular VideoMic, while still providing a nice cushion. The mic has a built-in windscreen, and also comes with a "Dead Kitten" (Rode's word, not mine) for extra wind protection, which is a nice value because it costs $25 on its own. The Dead Kitten will really protect your audio when you're working outdoors and the wind starts to blow. Like the regular VideoMic, a high-pass filter is included. In addition to that, there is a -10dB pad, which essentially lowers the volume of the microphone by 10 decibels. This is particularly handy, as the camera itself has no level controls. The pad allows you to have a bit of control over the volume of the mic, which could be needed when shooting in very loud environments.
I ran hands-on tests both with and without the Dead Kitten, and with all phases of the -10dB pad and the high-pass filter in their on and off modes. In all scenarios, the Stereo VideoMic delivered excellent results. I did find the Dead Kitten to be helpful in reducing wind noise, and the high-pass filter was helpful as well. There are lots of audio demos to sample for this mic because of all of its various settings.
At the end of the day, the Stereo VideoMic was the second largest of the all the mics I tested, but it was also my favorite. To be able to take advantage of the stereo capability of the 5D MkII is a wonderful feature. The metal construction and extra customization features are icing on the cake. If I had to pick an all-in-one microphone for my 5D MkII camera bag, this would be it.
Other Mic Options
There are some other similar microphones available that I wasn't able to test. The 3 microphones that we did test are all more recent designs that better suit the 5D MkII. Some of these other options out there include the Audio-Technica Pro-24CM and Azden ECZ-990.
Stepping It Up
For those of you who want to go all-out and use professional-level microphones, there are a number of level matching and powering issues that need to be resolved. Future installments of the B&H newsletter will cover this topic in great detail, so keep an eye on your inbox for more of our articles! Since HD video recording in dSLR cameras is such a recent advancement, custom designed level-matching accessories are not yet available. Beachtek, the maker of several XLR and microphone powering devices has announced the DXA-5D, an XLR unit designed specifically for the 5D MkII to be released soon.
If you have a professional microphone and you want to use it with your 5D MkII, then you can still use the level-matching equipment that's currently available. As previously mentioned, the 5D MkII features a mini-plug microphone input, so using a standard Beachtek box is an option. These are small, light-weight boxes that attach to the tripod mount at the bottom of the camera. The camera can still be attached to a tripod because the Beachtek has an additional tripod mount underneath it.
The Beachtek's job is to correct the signal flow from the output of the professional microphone to the mini-plug input on the camera. Professional audio equipment has different signal-level standards than other kinds of equipment, so in order to capture the high-level of quality professional microphones are capable of attaining, the impedance levels must be properly matched.
The Pearstone LMT100 allows you to connect professional mics to mini-plug inputs
There are a couple of factors that will determine if a professional microphone will work with the 5D MkII or not. Some microphones need power to operate. For professional equipment, this is known as "phantom power." If a mic requires phantom power and does not have an internal battery option, you will need the Beachtek DXA-6A. If a mic does have battery power, you can use a Beachtek DXA-2S. In cases where you don’t need the full features of a Beachtek box, you can use a Pearstone LMT100 to connect a battery-powered shotgun to the MkII. The LTM100 plugs into the 3-pin XLR jack on the microphone, optimizes the signal flow, and plugs into the 3.5mm input on the 5D MkII.
At the end of the day, the microphones I tested all produced better results than the MkII's built-in mic. For the time being, these all-in-one mics are your best bet. Not only are they small, compact, and lightweight; they're easy to use right out of the box, and they all produce high-quality results. The Sennheiser MKE 400 is the clear winner as far as size and weight are concerned. If you want to take advantage of the 5D MkII's stereo capabilities, then the Rode Stereo VideoMic is a great option that also offers terrific customization features, and was the most practical stereo option tested.
There are some affordable, practical, and downright useful options available today that will allow you to capture terrific audio to accompany your Full HD video from the Canon EOS 5D MkII. I hope that this article has been enjoyable and informative in helping you make a decision to expand on the MkII's fantastic capabilities.
Watch our video featuring the RODE NTG-3 and the CANON 5D MARK II