The popularity of action cameras is steadily increasing, as are the number of action videos on the web. However, a very important part of the video-making process is being neglected by both manufacturers and consumers alike.
You may have heard the expression that “audio is half of the film”. An expression I didn’t think that much about when I started making adventure films, but one I soon learned the importance of. Your eyes wont hurt from bad footage, but your ears will hurt from bad audio!
Watch the Waterproof Audio for Action Videos series here
Over the last couple of years I’ve gained experience in audio recording during making my sea kayak films, but the methods presented in this article are applicable in any situation where you want crisp monologue despite the hostile environment. “Plug and play” waterproof audio solutions don’t exist, but in this article I’ll show you three different setups that I’ve come up with.
The three setups all require that you record the audio separately and sync it with the lesser-quality audio recorded on your action cam. Read more about sync here. The setups are:
1.Recorder in a condom
2.Smartphone and lavalier
There are few products that are entirely waterproof, so read the manufacturer’s guidelines carefully, keep your gear in order and be prepared to take some risks!
1.Recorder in a condom
A rather cheap and versatile option is to seal a normal audio recorder in a condom. I use the popular Zoom-H1 Stereo Recorder, but this trick applies to any audio recorder that’ll fit in a condom (although I wouldn’t recommend a Dictaphone, since the audio quality is often too poor).
The thin yet tough membrane of the condom allows most of the audio waves through, and the device can still be operated as usual. Although this article mainly focuses on monologue, this recorder also works really well for recording ambient sounds.
- Clean the condom of any lubricants with a paper towel
- Roll the condom on and tie a knot.
- Apply the windscreen and you are ready to clap!
- When outdoors always use a fur/windscreen to avoid wind noise. In my experience the Redhead Windscreen is the best option for the Zoom H1 recorder.
- Keep the windscreen dry and bring a spare.
- A wise thing is to tie a lanyard to the recorder
Guide to Zoom-H1 Settings:
Move all switches on the back of the recorder to the left. It’ll look like this:
AUTO LEVEL – OFF
REC FORMAT– WAV
In the menu, kHz is set to 48 and Bitrate is set to 24.
You’ll have to adjust the input level depending on the situation, but here’s a guideline: The input level is set to 40 when placed 0,5 meter/ 2 feet in front of the talent and level on 30 when in a chest pocket. If recording outdoor ambience, set the level to 50-60. Use headphones to check the audio before recording.
- 10 hrs recording time on an AA battery
- Surprisingly durable
- Fast setup
- Plastic cabinet picks up noise
- Can’t monitor audio with headphones when condom is on
- Condom blocks the highest frequencies
- Condom can rip open
- More prone to pick up wind noise
2. Waterproof lavalier microphone
This setup gives you a lot better audio quality but will cost you almost the same as your action cam. It’s a combination of the VT500 Water from Voice Technologies; a waterproof lavalier (lapel) mic that can withstand temporary submersion, and the Zoom-H1 recorder, kept dry in a Drybag from AquaPac, which can also take a short plunge.
- The Aquapac has a special watertight opening that allows cables to run through, for use with waterproof earphones to monitor the audio
- The input level in the Zoom-H1 should be set at 30-40
- The microphone can be positioned with a clip about 20-30cm beneath the talent’s mouth. In some cases I have used PVC tape to secure the mic to the PFD
- In my experience it’s best to keep everything ready in a watertight box and as soon as you’ve finished recording, return everything to the box; this way you’ll keep the fur dry and the cables protected from any mishap
- Always use a fur/windscreen on the mic and bear in mind that the audio recording will be useless if the fur gets wet. So always bring some spares. I use the ones from Rycote when working with lavalier mics and then tie an elastic band around the bottom of the fur to avoid losing it should I go overboard!
- Good audio quality
- Durable microphone picks up less wind noise
- Takes time to set up
3. Smartphone with Lavalier Microphone
This set up is not entirely waterproof, but will give you good audio results at a fairly cheap price.
The combination is similar to the example above, but your smartphone is used as the recorder and kept safe in a smaller AquaPac. The microphone is a Røde Smart Lav+
This lavalier is designed for smartphones and gives you really decent sound at a very reasonable price. Also, the fur that fits this lavalier is a lot more affordable. Røde gives you three windscreens for the same price as one from Rycote. The fur not only protects the audio from any wind noise but also the mic from the first splashes of water.
- Download the Røde Rec APP and set sample rate to 48000 Hz. When back home export the recordings as a .wav file. Alternatively use the standard memo app on your smartphone
- Invest in a package of Røde Mnifur Lav
- Set phone on flight mode
- Position the microphone 20-30cm beneath the talent’s mouth
- If you want to monitor your audio while recording then you can invest in a Røde SC6 adapter that allows you to plug in headphones while recording
- I did try to tie on a small piece of condom to the Røde microphone to make it at least water resistant, but it messed up the audio.
- Warning: If using this setup in the water then I would strongly advise to bring an extra means of communication in case your smartphone should run out of battery or accidentally be dropped.
- Good entry-level mic
- Picks up little wind noise
- Monitor audio
- Cheap accessories
- Not a waterproof mic
- Drains smartphone battery
- Touchscreen can be difficult to operate if wet
Want to learn more about the different types of microphone and their purposes? Click here
How to synchronise your audio recording to video? Click here
I hope that this article has been inspiring and hopefully answered some of your questions. It is a lot of hassle to record audio out in the field, and you constantly make mistakes, but you also learn something new every time. The real pay-off comes when you present your rugged adventure video without the audience ever noticing the audio.
Thanks, this helps a lot. In the World Surf League competitions the presenters sometimes sit out in the water on their boards with a handheld mic. I’m guessing this is wired straight to the cameraman, who is probably on a jetski right beside them. I plan to shoot a series of interviews out in the surf, so am looking for a solution, but it’ll need to be completely waterproof and fairly robust. I think your Option 2 will work well. Someone will surely invent a waterproof audio kit soon? Seems like a huge business opportunity.
Yes, that waterproof solution aught to come soon something that could link to GoPro over wifi. Think the challenge is to make a product that the average consumer will appreciate, the challenge here, is that people must accept that as soon as the mic gets wet the audio becomes distorted. I always bring several wind hoods for my lavalier, so when one fur gets wet i can replace it an continue. But if the actual mic gets swamped ill have to make sure no droplets are left on the mic-filter.
Thanks for your comment. Thor
I am a diver and sometimes you can hear some interesting sounds under water.
To make that cheap I guess I might get a cheap audio recorder in form of an USB stick and drop that into a condom.
I guess that’s the best thing I might come up with.
Then I’ll drop this into a net bag and bind that to my air tank or somewhere else.
At least away from the air bubbles.
Please let me know how your recordings turn out?
Thanks for this post. Exactly what I was looking for. So much useful info!
Can you tell me the difference between using waterproof microphones and hydrophones? Won’t the audio quality instantly be better for hydrophones because it is built to pickup sound that travels through water instead of air.