Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K – Pt 10

No surprises that there’s now a Part 10 to this ongoing story as I keep modifying and improving things with my camera rig. That’s most likely never going to end, but I’m close to having things sorted out as best I can. Anyone that’s been reading this blog and the stories about the BMPCC4K, will know that I’ve not been overly happy with the audio of the BMPCC4K. This especially relates to the 3.5mm audio input where, without several additional bits of gear, the audio recording levels of the camera have been virtually non-existent. So to fix this I’ve been using an Olympus LS-14 audio recorder, coupled with a Cayin C5 preamplifier, to boost the signal strength to something respectable. It works, but requires a bunch of cabling, battery management as well as remembering to turn on multiple devices. But all of that has come to an end, as I’ve found a much better solution in the most unexpected of places.

Olympus LS-14 and Cayin C5

Olympus LS-14 and Cayin C5

So what led to this discovery? A bit of serendipity actually. I’ve been using my mobile phone as a recording device when using my Rode Lav+ microphone, but I’ve been really dissatisfied with this solution, as a mobile phone isn’t the ideal tool for this sort of task. A mobile phone requires opening an app, fiddling with start/stop recording taps and constantly having to turn the screen back on to start/stop recording. When I did my last video (the one showing the Easyrig), I used the LS-14 and Lav mic attached to the camera to record my voice and it was then that I decided that I needed another audio recorder to make the task of recording with a Lav mic somewhat easier. So I went to eBay looking for cheap audio recorders and came across one that had a microphone input and headphone output, just what I was after and only $27, so worth giving it a try. I wasn’t expecting any great quality, certainly nothing like what the LS-14 delivers, but if it provided somewhat decent voice recording, then I’d be mostly happy.

Cheap eBay Audio Recorder (source: eBay)

Cheap eBay Audio Recorder (source: eBay)

The audio recorder duly arrived and when I tested it out, I was surprised at the output level in my headphones while recording and the quality didn’t sound all that bad either. So I thought I’d try it out in place of  the LS-14, as the cheap recorder was significantly smaller than the LS-14 and had its own internal battery and micro-USB charging (better than the AAs for the LS-14). The other thing about the cheap audio recorder was that it had a hard on/off switch, unlike the LS-14, which had a soft on/off switch. By hard I mean it was like a light switch, when turned off, it was off. The LS-14, on the other hand, has a soft on/off switch which means that it’s never really off and always draws some power. It draws so much power that within five days the batteries are always fully drained. This is why I never keep any batteries in the LS-14, which created another unnecessary thing to remember when I went out (though I also used USB charging – another right royal pain at startup). Surprisingly, the cheap recorder worked fine and gave a much higher audio level than the LS-14. Then I thought, why not try it directly with the camera and see what happens if I bypass the Cayin preamplifier altogether? All that came to mind when I tried it was, ‘Holy Crap’.

Cheap eBay Audio Recorder (source: eBay)

Cheap eBay Audio Recorder (source: eBay)

Cheap eBay Audio Recorder (source: eBay)

Cheap eBay Audio Recorder (source: eBay)

Not only does this cheap audio recorder work with the microphones and camera directly, the audio levels are way higher than I could get with the LS-14 coupled to the Cayin C5. I now have a minuscule recorder that does what previously required a moderately expensive audio recorder (original cost around $280) and a pre-amplifier (around $100). I say moderately expensive, as some of the audio gear professional cinematographers use are eye-wateringly expensive, easily 5-10x the cost of the former gear (like everything associated with cine gear). I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing (on the audio level meter) and hearing (in my headphones), and all that I could now think of was that I needed to do some improved audio tests to see whether this really was a better solution and whether the audio quality was up to par compared to the LS-14 and Cayin. I could certainly afford to lose some quality with the sort of video I was doing, as long as it was still reasonably clear and without any major distortion.

DaVinci Resolve Fairlight Audio Levels

DaVinci Resolve Fairlight Audio Levels

To do the audio test, I decided to combine a video with the test and so went out to Mossvale Park to not only record the audio, but do it in a situation that more closely resembled the style of video that I would be doing with my rig. In the test, I moved away from my camera setup and, using a normal speaking voice at around two metre intervals (two paces), repeated ‘Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was white as snow’ while I walked back towards the camera from where I’d started. With ambient noise aplenty and without the benefit of a hallway providing an audio tunnel, it would mean that the microphones would have a greater challenge picking up my voice. But that was good, as that’s precisely what I wanted to know. I also wanted to know the quality of the audio pickup, as there was no point using this recorder if the sound quality was abysmal. Having recently covered the Mirboo North Italian Festa and getting good audio with the previous setup, I didn’t want to go backwards just for the sake of convenience. However, the audio test proved to be much better than I anticipated, I’ll leave it for the video to explain.

As you can see and hear, the cheap audio recorder works superbly with the Saramonic and Rode mics combined, and it works just as well solo with the Saramonic or Rode. While I recorded this video at Mossvale Park, I honestly didn’t hear all the surrounding wildlife like the crickets chirping and the birds singing until I listened to the recording at home. I heard the trucks in the background, but the camera recorded these at a much higher level than what they sounded at the time to my ears. That you could hear my voice almost from the start, and very likely would have heard it were it not for the ambient sounds, is truly amazing. I have to say that I’m completely gobsmacked at the audio levels and the quality of the audio that this cheap recorder provides. What I now need to consider is whether I would require the Cayin to reduce the audio levels of the recorder so that sounds aren’t clipped, though the recorder does appear to also handle this aspect reasonably well. Am I happy? Very much so, especially if this audio recorder proves to be reliable and reasonably long lasting.

Footnote: Despite lots of advice on forums and YouTube videos to buy expensive audio recorders, microphones and preamplifiers, a simple and cheap audio recorder (used with inexpensive microphones) blows all of these recommendations out of the water. Now I’m not disputing for one minute that these expensive options aren’t inherently of better audio quality, more reliable and likely much longer lasting, but they are also considerably more expensive and often much larger. For example, the frequently recommended, ‘inexpensive and small’, Sound Devices MixPre3 audio recorder, is larger than my V-lock battery, only 100 g lighter, and costs nearly $1000. Sometimes it just pays to keep looking and trying alternatives, and perhaps questioning the status quo.