Getting your a microphone off of your camera or phone is one of the best ways to improve sound quality for video. The majority of cameras and some smartphones come equipped with microphone input jacks that accept 3.5mm mini plugs. As we discussed on recording into an iPhone/iPad without an interface, you’ll need an Apple 3.5mm Lightning Audio Adapter for newer iPhones/iPads along with a mic/headphone splitter.
Unfortunately, there’s no standard to which camera and smartphone manufacturers must strictly adhere, and the specifications provided with the camera rarely provide exact details about the microphone input. Most professional audio equipment doesn’t interface with consumer-grade video cameras without an assortment of cables, adapters, and electronics.
When it comes to professional audio equipment, few microphones come equipped with 3.5mm connectors. It’s far more common to see professional microphones with standard XLR jacks or USB connectors.
Mic Level vs. Line Level
Mic level and line level specify the level of the signal that the input was designed to work with. Mic level inputs use a far lower voltage (0.001 volt to 0.010 volt) than line level (roughly 1.000 volt). The vast majority of cameras and smartphones accept mic level signals. Try plugging a line level source into your camera or smartphone and you’ll end up with a distorted signal, even at the lowest gain settings. Clipped and distorted audio signals are damaged beyond repair, and cannot be corrected later.
Most mixers and audio recorders output at line level, although some mixers intended for video cameras also provide mic level outputs. If connecting a microphone from a mixer, be sure to use the mic level output. The Tascam DR-60DmkII is a portable audio recorder and mixer that has a dedicated output for mic level signals commonly found on DSLR and mirrorless cameras and camcorders. Even better, it has an attenuation knob to reduce the mic output level for compatibility with a wide variety of mic level inputs.
If connecting from a line level source without a mic level output, be sure to use an attenuator, like this specially designed cable from Sescom. Cable attenuators include simple electrical resistors that reduce to incoming signal level. This particular cable provides the exact -50dB attenuation necessary to connect line level sources to standard mic level inputs. This works well for mixers and portable recorders with line level outputs. If necessary, you can connect to this cable to an RCA output by using a common RCA to 3.5mm adapter.
If connecting directly from a dynamic microphone, you can use an XLR to 3.5mm cable plugged directly into the camera or smartphone input. Note that this will only work with dynamic microphones, not with condenser microphones. 3.5mm mini jacks do not supply the necessary +48V phantom power needed to power condenser mics.
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Connectors
As explained Shure’s Audio Systems Guide for Video and Film Production, pg. 25,
“A balanced connection requires a cable with two wires (one for the ‘hot’ signal and one for the ‘return’) enclosed by a shield of metal foil, braid, or mesh. The shield intercepts the random electrical signals that bombard the cable from various sources and drains them to ground. Together, the wires and the shield keep the audio signal free of interference.”
Camera and smartphone input jacks are almost exclusively unbalanced inputs. Most professional audio devices output balanced line level outputs from XLR and 1/4” phono jacks. Unbalanced mic level inputs require transformers to convert the balanced signals to the unbalanced input of the camera or smartphone. Using the incorrect cables can result in unwanted noise and distortion.
Microphones and Audio Interfaces for Smartphones and Tablets
Smartphones and tablets include the option to use USB microphones and audio interfaces for professional audio recording. Using audio sources with USB connectors provides more flexibility than the common 3.5mm plug found on most cameras.
Most USB microphones are plug and play devices, meaning they can work with modern smartphones using simple USB cables or USB adapters. The best microphones for recordings are the ones that allow you to get the microphone off camera, so avoid selecting microphones where the body of the mic plugs directly into the recording device.
The Apogee HypeMiC works on Android phones with USB type C ports, iPhone/iPads with lightning ports, and also for computers with USB type-C and type-A ports. The Boya Lavalier Microphone shown below works for iPhones/iPads with lightning ports only.
Many USB interfaces on the market are plug and play devices requiring no additional drivers for installation. As such, they can be used on devices like iPhones and iPads with a simple Apple Lighting to USB Camera adapter. Although the name “camera adapter” might imply otherwise, it works for plug-and-play USB microphones, mixers, and audio interfaces with USB type-A outputs.
Devices like the Zoom U-22 comes equipped with an XLR and 1/4-inch combo jack with available +48V phantom power, as well as a 3.5mm input for line level signals. The larger Zoom U-24 offers the same with an additional XLR and 1/4-inch combo jack along with RCA input jacks for line level recording. The Zoom H5 not only acts as a standalone recorder, but can also work as an audio recording interface for iPhones & iPads, providing a more versatile mobile recording solution.
If recording to a camera or smartphone with a 3.5mm input jack alongside professional audio equipment, use the correct devices to avoid distortion from irreparably destroying your audio from line level signals.
- Use mic level mixer outputs whenever possible, like the ones found on the Tascam DR-60D mkII.
- If connecting from a line level source without a mic level output only, be sure to use an attenuator, like this specially designed cable from Sescom. You can can connect to this cable from an RCA connector if necessary by using a common RCA to 3.5mm adapter.
- iPhones/iPads with lightning ports require an Apple 3.5mm Lightning Audio Adapter and an inexpensive mic/headphone splitter to accept 3.5mm inputs. For more details, see this post.
- If recording audio to an smartphone, try using a microphone specifically designed for it, like the Apogee MiC Plus or the Boya Lavalier with iOS interface.
- If using multiple XLR microphones, try using dedicated recording interface like a Zoom U-22 or Zoom U-24. You’ll need an Apple Lighting to USB Camera adapter to adapt their USB type-A outputs to Apple’s lighting ports.
We hope this helps you find the right equipment for recording professional audio into your camera or smartphone. If you found this helpful or have any questions, leave us a comment below.