Shure Tries Upgrading On-Camera Audio Recording for DSLRs, with Mixed Results

With the popularity of shooting video with DSLRs over the last few years, a number of audio products have been introduced to make up for the DSLRs' typically lackluster audio controls and performance. There are a number of small monaural and stereo mics available that will go right onto the camera's accessory shoe, and if your DSLR has a mic jack, you can plug them in. The problem is most DSLRs offer no way to listen to what you are recording or to easily adjust input level on the fly. Remember, VU meters can only tell you about the level of the sound, not the quality.

Most people doing production with DSLRs record audio to an external device, syncing sound and picture later in post.  I have used the Tascam DR-40 for this, plugging in a number of XLR mics and recording two tracks of PCM audio. The VP83 attempts to combine a small shotgun mic with a small digital recorder in a compact package.  

Taking the VP83F out of the box, you will notice it’s not that small — it is a lot bulkier and heavier than the short shotgun mic that I have on my Sony HVR-S270 ENG rig. Part of the reason for this is the additional space taken up by the on-board recorder and the two AA batteries. It also has a built-in shock mount that minimizes any extraneous sound from handling the camera. Depending on the option, you may also get a Rycote Windjammer for suppressing wind noise.

To get started, you need to open the front access door underneath the mic element. Inside you will find the microSD card slot and, below that, another door for the batteries. On the left side, toward the front of the mic mount, is a 1/8-inch jack with a red ring around it. That is the mic out that you plug into a camera. On the right side of the mount, toward the back, is another 1/8-inch jack, for headphones. You don't want to mix them up because there are separate controls for the mic sensitivity and headphone volume. The back is where the action is. There is a tiny LCD on top, and below it is the power button on the left, record button on the right, and a small joystick for adjusting settings and menu items on the mic.  Make sure you are careful inserting and ejecting the microSD card. The first thing to keep in mind is the card must be inserted upside down. The cards are about the size of a pinky fingernail, and the spring in the card slot can launch it.

The VP83F slides into the camera's accessory shoe. From there you have many options on how to use it. If your camera has a mic input, I highly recommend connecting the mic directly to it, even if you are recording on the mic. If you have a camera like the Canon 6D (see my recent review) that can record uncompressed PCM audio, you may not need the recorder, but it will be a good back-up. If your camera has a headphone jack, I recommend using it instead of the one on the mic itself. If not, you will appreciate that the mic actually has one.

The first time you use a card for recording, you must go into the menu and format it. Getting to the menu is done by flicking the joystick to the right. The menu allows you access to a number of different settings.

While using the mic, you use the joystick to toggle between input level, pick-up pattern and headphone level. In the heat of shooting, this can be a bit confusing. One wrong twitch of your finger and you can be adjusting the headphones instead of the mic level, which could be disastrous. It happened to me once, when I tried pluggin the VP83F into an unattended B-roll camera. I set the level and tried to monitor it once in a while, but I couldn't get it dialed in quick enough and the audio was unusable. Later I tried it on some home video of a school play, and was able to get the audio sounding OK.

The best and most telling real-world test was a media training session with a major network's spokesperson. I had the camera on a tripod about five feet from the spokesperson. I used two mics — my Sennheiser G2 wireless lav on the talent and the Shure VP83F on top of the camera, pointed directly at the talent. Four feet to the left of the camera was the media trainer and PR person. We recorded about 40 minutes of mock interviews and instructions from the trainer. When I got home, I popped the footage and audio into Premiere Pro to sync and review on my mid-level M-Audio speakers. I can't say I was surprised by the results. The Sennheiser G2 lav picked up the talent great, and even did a good job picking up the trainer, but at a much lower volume. The VP83F did a very accurate job of recording the sounds in the room. It picked up everyone at the same level, even though it was pointed at the talent, and the other people were five to six feet off camera. The voices were all very clear, but so were the air-conditioner and a low buzz from one of the lights. Could I use noise reduction and EQ to remove some of the airiness of the audio recording? Yes, but I and many others would rather use the lav and get it right, without needing serious post work.

If, for some reason, the lav mic's audio got screwed up, I'd gladly use the audio recorded on the VP83F, tweaking it until I got unwanted sounds removed. That said, would you spend $349 on a mic you hope you will never have to use?  If I were to mount my 20-year-old Sony ECM-672 on the camera and not the VP83F, you'd have a lot of trouble telling it from the lav.  It is far more directional.

So where does that leave the Shure VP83F?  The idea of a mic with a built-in recorder isn't new. About five years ago, Zaxcom made a wireless mic with a built-in recorder on the lav unit's transmitter. The theory was, if there was a loss of signal to the receiver, the chip in the transmitter would have a backup recording. Practically, does it make sense to have a recorder in a short shotgun mic? In my experience, not too much.  If you really want good audio, you will be using a lav or hand-held mic like the Shure SM58 with talent.  If you are doing a fictional scene, you generally have a full shotgun on a mic boom over the talent.  For me, the short shotgun is either used to record audience reaction sound or just as an emergency back-up mic in case one of the others fail. In most productions, the on camera short shotgun audio goes completely unused. I don't know anyone who doesn't shoot with the on-camera short shotgun mic on board, just like we almost all have cars with airbags.  We are all glad to have them, we just don't want to use them.  Will the VP83F replace a lav, handheld or long shotgun? No, it wouldn't.

In conclusion, the VP83F is a mic to consider if you shoot video on DSLRs that don't have an audio input. The mic's pick-up pattern is wide. That's good for music but not so good for more common things like interviews, or acted scenes. While I do like the idea of the built-in recorder, the $349 price tag is pretty hefty considering the alternatives. You can get an Azden SGM-P II Shotgun Mic and the excellent Tascam DR-40 recorder for the same price, or the Tascam DR-07 Mk 2, which can actually fit on a DSLR, for $100 less.  I think my Shure SM58 is owned by every camera person, AV company, and TV production company, but I don't see the same adoption for the VP83F. It's an interesting concept with limited uses for those who want the highest quality audio, and has a hefty price tag verses the many alternatives.  It’s better than the built-in DSLR mic, but still just OK at best.