Sunday, May 5, 2013


Devon, a friend of mine recently asked:
"I was wondering if you might have some time to talk to me about setting up my first audio/video studio inside my own home. 
I am looking to get into recording video for posting on the web, mostly informational or commentary type video - some on location video. I am also looking to podcast, probably with a group of 4 to 5 people at a time.
I've done some research on equipment and what not, but don't know what is really necessary/not necessary to have a good first setup that will last me a couple years and produce a respectable quality or video and audio that most would find acceptable without breaking my wallet. 
I also want the equipment to be mobile - as I plan to go out on the road and record in the field.
I want to spend less than $5,000. Prefer to spend less than $2,500.
I do not want to do a lot of "fixing in post" - I want things to be near broadcast ready when recorded - just a little editing and clipping to get it ready to go. 
I own a Mac, but have no editing software and I want stuff that isn't crazy hard to learn."
 Devon, you've come to the right place, asked all the right questions, and provided all the right information. :)

I'll start my response with something that's sure to seem counter-intuitive at first.

The camera doesn't matter.

Also, for what you are trying to do:

The Editing software is even less important than the camera.

So we'll get to those last and by the time we do I promise you'll understand.

In order to have a fully functional production quality studio you absolutely require the following (listed in order of importance):

  1. Quality Audio Gear
  2. Good Lighting
  3. Durable Tripod
  4. Camera
  5. Editing Software

Now we'll go over each of these items and I'll list my recommendations:

So far we are at: $0

1. Quality Audio Gear

Generally speaking many casual viewers will forgive bad lighting, grainy video, and sometimes even sub-par acting... provided you have rich crystal clear audio. It may surprise you how difficult it is to achieve with even professional high end cameras. Whatever camera you decide to film with you should always assume the on-board audio will be garbage and good for little more than backup or safety in a pinch.

Not to worry though. There is plenty of great dedicated audio equipment that will not break your bank.

For capturing voice you want the microphone as close to the source of the subject as you can get it. For shoots close to the camera I use Audio Technica 3550 clip on mics. Also called a lavalier. These go for about $20 on Amazon. They have very long cords, hide under clothing very well, and provide deep and rich audio.

The downside is they are wired, so your mobility and camera shooting angles will be more limited. They are also battery operated so don't forget to turn them off when you're done! A wireless setup will cost ALOT more, require more batteries, and can actually be more complicated to work with. If any of my readers have success stories with particular wireless lavs by all means share your success stories in the comments section! Don't forget to provide links if you can!

Also important to know is the 3550 is an omni-directional microphone. Meaning it picks up sound from EVERY direction. If you are standing near traffic or a loud water fountain this is not the kind of microphone you would want.

Another choice for audio (and sometimes a better choice for field recording) is a directional Boom Mic. Often called a "Shotgun Mic". These mics look like the barrel of a shotgun and capture sound coming from only the direction they are pointed at (uni-directional). A correctly aimed shotgun mics is perfect for picking up your voice while ignoring the fore mentioned traffic and water fountain. On the other hand a shotgun mic would not be very useful at capturing audio for a spread out group of 5 people.

If money were no object the ultimate shotgun mic setup would be the aptly named: Sennheiser MKH 8060 Ultimate Shotgun Microphone Kit. At $2,399.50 it includes an ultralight graphite boom pole  (your boom operator friends will thank you) and just about the best kind of wind screen you can get. I have never used this kit personally but it is on my own wishlist.

Rode makes a versatile kit made of heavier and less sturdy materials but at a much more affordable price point of $620.

The Rode kit does provide a mount for a DSLR camera so you technically don't need a second person to man a boom pole. The problem is depending on the camera, the noise of the camera itself may make capturing audio with the microphone further away be the better option.

If you want a cheap portable the Zoom h4n is the swiss army knife for field recording. This portable powerhouse has two built in condenser mics plus inputs for XLR (stage and studio mics!).

So I can hear you at this point exclaiming "great... what the hell do I get?".

My suggestion is, start with the 3550 for in studio use and the Zoom h4n for recording in the field.

If you find you need a shotgun mic later, go with the Rode and bonus... it can hook directly into the Zoom no camera required. Perfect for audio only podcasts.

Don't forget to buy yourself a SOLID set of monitoring headphones. Good headphones are NOT earbuds. In the field there is all kinds of things you want these things to block out. When recording you want to hear only what the microphone hears. When editing you want to catch every tummy rumble in the audio track.

I got myself the Audio Technica ATH-M50 years ago. At $120 they are not cheap, but I still use mine both in the field and when I'm editing. In fact we used them quite a bit on the set of Super Knocked Up. They have proven to be a great investment.

So far we are at: $440

2. Good Lighting

Don't be one of those folks that goes all in on the most expensive camera they can afford only to later wonder why their videos don't look much better than what others are shooting on their iPhones.

I was one of those people, and I know better now.

The truth is a cheap camera can provide respectable image quality in the right lighting. A great camera can provide absolutely craptastic image quality in the wrong lighting.

Another point worth mentioning is camera technology radically changed when cameras moved from Standard Definition (SD) to High Definition (HD). The sort version is whether you have an $200 iPhone or a $10,000 RED Scarlet, these HD cameras hate fake light. They hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it. Sunlight on the other hand, they love!

Add to the problem the fact that most indoor environments have crap light that doesn't mix well with the sunlight that's usually pouring in from the windows. Outdoors your camera will mostly do fine. Indoors, it will go ape.

Do yourself a favor. Take indoor lighting seriously. For commentary/interview style video you can probably get by with a 3 point lighting setup. A really good starter kit is the Linco Flora system. It's all florescent, kicks out ALOT of light (you'll probably use them at half power), mixes with sunlight beautifully, uses less power than a tungsten kit, and runs cooler so you won't be sweating under them.

If you're saying "Chriss, $1,300! For lights!? Seriously!?" Watch my review of the Linco Flora system here. The first half is an unboxing of the kit in crappy house lighting recorded on my Canon HFS 10 using the microphone built into the camera.

The second half is shot with the same exact camera using only two Linco's at half power with the sun behind me as a backlight. For the second half I also used my Audio Technica 3550 lav to capture the audio. You tell me which half looks and sounds better.

There are bigger names in lighting. Arri and Kino are two of the Cadillac brands. There are cheaper brands like Britek. Trust me, I obsessed over what to get for over a year. Two years and several shoots later, I still have no regrets about getting the Linco system. You'll be able to use this kit long after your first Camera and Editing suite has been upgraded.

So far we are at: $1,740

3. Durable Tripod

You are probably wondering why I listed the Tripod as more important than the camera... Well let me ask you this. Who's going to be holding the camera while you are jibber-jabberin in front of it?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Actually, I'm not making fun of you right now. I'm making fun of myself 7 years ago. My first tripod was a 20 dollar deal I bought at Best Buy as an afterthought. It was probably just about the worst tripod money could buy. The motions it could perform were limited and it made all kinds of noises and jammed constantly while panning.

If you really want to see and hear an example of what a crappy tripod can do to you work, check out one of the first videos I ever posted to facebook. It's called Family Time and the tripod butchers it.

In fact it was so bad for video that my Director of Photography for Nice Muffins said that if he ever caught me filming with it again he would light it on fire and beat me with it.

We filmed Nice Muffins using his Cullmann 3335 and I bought one of my own shortly after for $115. I've been using it ever since. It's a rock solid tripod that's unfortunately been discontinued. If you can find one on ebay grab it without hesitation.

The key difference between my old tripod and the Cullmann is that the Cullmann has a "fluid head". This basically means it's more expensive but the pans are liquid smooth and totally silent.

If the camera is just going to sit there. None of that matters. But if you are going to be running around in the "field" trying to capture live action stuff "as it happens". The best thing you could do is run around with it attached to the tripod, get where you need to be and plant that sucker down (on only one leg if you have to) and get the shot. In the link I provided above all the shots are handheld with tripod assist. The residual shakiness you see is because I'm an idiot and I had in camera stabilization turned off because I'd done some stationary shots earlier.

With the 3335 in retirement and most other tripods I've used since failing to measure up... I had to phone a friend on this one and what I got back was: The Manfrotto 055XDB. Now I have not personally used this tripod but it's got good reviews on Amazon. I do want to point out 2 things about the 055XDB:

  1. it lacks a bubble level, so field use might be more difficult unless you get a level to use with it.
  2. It doesn't have a spreader to stabilize the legs.
My best advice here is to go to a local camera shop and play with the tripods they have there. Feel how heavy and durable they are. Try them with the legs extended to various heights, see how easy they are to level. Trying panning up and down. Is it smooth and silent? If you find one you like but the price is ridiculous, write the model down and see if it's cheaper to order online.

Whatever you get, expect it to cost between $100 and $200.

So far we are at: $1,940

4. Camera

Finally we get to the camera. The thing I said didn't matter. You said you want to be able to record both in the studio and "in the field" at near broadcast quality. My best advice for that is:

The Canon Vixia HF G30. It's expensive because it's the Cadillac 2013 pro-sumer model. I could go on and on in gushy detail about this camera but let me make it simple. Great low light performance, great stabilization options, and lightning fast auto focus.

If you had told me you were planning to shoot short films, feature films, or VFX heavy material I'd be suggesting something totally different. Most likely a DSLR like a Canon T5i or a brand new Black Magic Pocket Cinema. But you said you want to shoot commentaries and do run and gun in the field.

I own 2 5D MKII'd and I'm buying a Pocket Cinema in July, but for run and gun I'm still gonna reach for my trusty old HF S10 (the great, great, great grandaddy of the G30) before anything else.

Why don't I grab the 5D MKII? Because it can't auto focus while it's filming. Because it can only film for 15 minutes before stopping. And lastly, because (depending on the lens) it can't stabilize without creating so much noise my mic can pick it up from 3 feet away. When I find out how well the Pocket Cinema works for run and gun, I'll let you know.

It seems everyone lately is using DSLRs. For short films and web series work, I'm hooked! But those are planned & staged shots, always. The lighting, the action, it's all fixed. If I need stability I use a dolly, crane, or tripod. For run and gun they are simply no go. Believe me, I've tried to make it work.

At this time (and this is in the process of changing) most DSLRs do not have decent auto focus while filming. The SONY A77, A99, and Canon T4i are notable exceptions. But the T4i's autofocus is slow and requires special lenses. I owned an A77 for a month with 2 primes and it's video output is not what I would consider consistently broadcast quality even for staged shots. There are simply too many compression issues. Which is a shame because from a usability and features perspective it was the best camera I had ever used at it's price point.

Now... my recommendation notwithstanding... You could always get all the other gear first and try a cheaper camera. Hell, try your iPhone on a tripod. With the right lighting and a good lav... You'd be surprised what you can do.

So far we are at: $3,840

5. Editing Software

You have a Mac and you want something dead simple...

Well you've got two options that fit that bill.

Buy yourself a copy of iMovie for $20. It honestly doesn't get any simpler (or cheaper). If you stay true to your word that you want light editing only this will fit the bill perfectly.

If, however, you are tempted to try things like green screen and simple vfx...

Buy yourself a copy of Final Cut X for $300.

To be honest. I myself don't like Final Cut X. I'm an Adobe guy (Premiere Pro and After Effects). That said those programs can't hold a candle to iMovie when it comes to simplicity and easy of use. Until very recently iMovie even had features that Premiere Pro didn't (namely image stabilization). I started on iMovie and when I outgrew it I moved on to Premiere.

iMovie, Premiere, Final Cut X they all do the same basic things. Final Cut X and Premiere have more advanced features for power users. If you start with iMovie and decide you need more, don't worry. Final Cut X will import your iMovie projects.

So far we are at: $3,860


Going with my recommendations would put you a bit over your low end budget but keep you a bit below your high end budget. I've done my best to be objective. Most of these items are things I currently own, things I plan to own soon, or things I have used while working with others.

I hope this information has been helpful and given you some things to think about.

Just remember the tools are only part of the project. What you do with them is just as important.

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