On-Camera Audio Recording: Monitoring in the Field

When you're recording and using a microphone to capture high-quality audio, monitoring that audio is a must. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to set up monitoring and what to use to listen to your audio. First, let's talk about how to set up for monitoring.

How to Set Up for Monitoring

If you're using a camera with XLR inputs, it's almost a certainty that you're going to have a headphone output. What you're going to do is plug your headphones into the headphone output. It's pretty easy.

For those of you using a smaller camera system, headphone monitoring can be an issue because not all cameras that have a microphone input also have a headphone output. A good example of this is the Canon 7D. This camera has a microphone input, so I can get great audio into the camera, but there's no way to monitor that audio from the camera without some external devices.

Analog Outputs

The first option is to see if your camera has any sort of analog output. The Canon 7D does. It has what is called an A/V out, or an audio/video out. It's a standard definition on a composite cable with a left and right analog out. I can take that standard analog output and attach it to a very inexpensive headphone amp (Fil0 A1, US$28), and now I have headphone monitoring. You can find other headphone amps that run on batteries on the market between$20 and \$30, making it a reasonable solution.

If that doesn't work, e.g. if your camera is of a current generation and doesn't have an analog output, you might able to use the HDMI output as a workaround. HDMI will often send audio with the video and live audio that's coming into the camera.

If that does work for you, you have a camera with an HDMI output that will send the audio live as it's coming into the camera out over the HDMI cable. You can hook that up to a monitor and hopefully either get headphones out from the monitor or at least an analog out to which you can attach a headphone amp.

HDMI Monitors

That can be as simple as hooking it up to a computer monitor with HDMI inputs because many computer monitors have a headphone output so that you can listen back easily. But I'm guessing as a solo producer you don't want to be toting around a 22-inch monitor—you want something more portable and maybe battery-operated.

You have options there. You can use a 6–8-inch LCD monitor with HDMI inputs and, most importantly, a headphone output. Using an HDMI monitor is a great solution because not only can you get your headphone output, but you also get a larger monitor to see what's going on in your frame.

No HDMI or Analog Output?

If you don't have either an HDMI or analog output, can you still monitor the audio? Maybe. There's one last thing you can turn to, which is monitoring the microphone before it goes into the camera.

This is not a great option because you're not really hearing the whole picture—you're not hearing the audio after it hits the microphone preamp. So you're not going to hear any additional noise. You're not hearing any potential clipping, but you may be able to tell that your audio is clipping with the meters, if your camera has meters. This is not the best way to record. You really want to hear your audio after it hits the microphone preamps in the camera.

Using External Audio Recorders and Preamps

If nothing is working for you, the next best thing is using something like an external microphone recorder as a microphone preamp, then running your microphone into the external recorder and back out into your camera. That way, you can monitor your audio from the external recorder.

Or you can get a microphone preamp—a lot of those come with headphone outs, so you can monitor the audio after it hits the microphone preamp or the external recorder. Once again, this isn't the best or easiest way, but if you have your levels adjusted properly, you can make it work.

Using the Canon 7D alone, if I set the gain really low, on the first one or two notches, and I feed that with a nice, juicy audio signal, I can trust that the camera isn't going to do anything too bad to the audio.

Now you have monitoring sorted out. XLR cameras are super easy with a built-in headphone output. For smaller cameras that don't have headphone outputs, you have three or four different solutions you can try to get headphone monitoring.

Here are a few options I think work really well. The first is a set of over-the-ear style headphones. Even quite basic headphones can work if they are closed back and create a pretty good seal around the ear.

The thing about monitoring in a live environment where there's other noise is that in order to hear what's happening in the headphones, you need a little bit of passive noise reduction, where you're just blocking the sound without any electronic wizardry. This helps so you can focus on what's happening to your audio recording.

Open-back headphones are not great for monitoring. They don't only do a poor job of blocking out ambient outside noise, but the sound also bleeds out of the back of the headphones, which can be bad because of sound bleed going back into your microphone.

The third option is to get a small set of earbuds with a standard headphone plug. These aren't meant for your phone—they are just a basic TRS input. I prefer using ones with either a silicone or rubber seal, so when you place them in your ear, you create an isolated audio environment to monitor your recording. What's great about this option is that they are very affordable, and while they aren't the best sound, they can do a great job overall—just make sure yours have a tight seal.

Thanks for following along!