In Part Two of his review of the Panasonic AC160, Noah Kadner discusses the camera’s audio recording options and post workflow. In case you missed Part One, you can read it here.
As I mentioned in part one of this review, the Panasonic AC160 gives you uncompressed PCM audio, in addition to the AC130‘s Dolby Digital AC3 audio. I’m a huge fan of uncompressed audio. AC3 sounds fine in-camera and in raw footage, but a decent ear can start to hear the compression artifacts as soon as you try to do major filtering and/or mixing. It’s just one of those things that separates ‘pro’ from ‘prosumer,’ and if you’re working with footage for potential broadcast you’ll want to cross that ‘t’ with uncompressed audio.
With the AC160, you have automatic audio level control (which I recommend never using) and also really great manual audio level controls. This is where Panasonic’s having made so many camcorders over the years really pays off in the little details. For example, the mic audio power switches are recessed just enough so that you really can’t accidentally switch them off (thereby ruining your audio) unintentionally. And this would be an easy thing to do, as the switches are located right on the top handle that you’re constantly grabbing to pick the camera up.
You get two audio inputs, which can utilize the onboard mics or any desired combination of outboard mic or line-level audio inputs via a of pair XLR jacks. I heartily recommend either recording double-system sound outboard with a digital audio recorder or running a mixer and boom/lav mics directly into the camera. The onboard pre-amps are solid if not the greatest in the world; but you’ll definitely never want to rely on the onboard microphones at all.
I almost wish camcorder manufacturers would remove onboard mics completely to force shooters into recording better sound. All you get from the onboard mics are the close-up sounds of the camera itself and the operator. The really important audio action is much closer to whatever you’re filming. So get in there close with a wired or wireless lav/boom and get good audio routing to your camera. Your audience will not only appreciate this quality, they will expect it.
Working with the AC160’s footage in post-production is very straightforward. It’s well supported in most modern NLEs, as the AVCHD format has been around for a couple of years now and is pretty much the de-facto consumer/prosumer HD codec. It looks great in post-production, very filmic if you want it to look that way, and it holds up pretty well to extensive compositing, filters and color grading.
And, even if you’ve dialed in a more than a slight amount of gain, you’ll discover the AC160 exhibits a very non-electronic, film-like grain structure at higher levels that no one will really scoff at. Although, I always recommend using gain as judiciously as possible regardless of how well it works; better to light shots that really need it whenever you can.
I ingested footage from the AC160 into Final Cut Pro 7 and X as well as Adobe Premiere and had no problems at all in any of them. Each of these NLEs take a slightly different approach to dealing with AVCHD. Final Cut Pro transcodes AVCHD into ProRes during ingest, while Adobe lets you edit AVCHD natively on a timeline.
Now, a lot of folks are champions of native AVCHD editing because you can literally drag footage directly from a card onto a timeline and start editing. But I’ve found that unless you have very high-end hardware, the trade-off is reduced performance and a consequently lower quality editing experience. So if you have a less-than-top-end computer (and that’s a lot of us), you may find that spending a bit of extra time doing the transcode to ProRes upfront in FCP results in a much more enjoyable editing experience down the road. And by more enjoyable I mean less dropped frames as you edit, less rendering required for filters/transitions and faster outputs of sequences as you complete an edit. ProRes is just a great format and totally optimized for efficient and high-speed editing. (And forgive me for assuming you’re editing on a Mac, but I’m sure there’s an equivalent Windows workflow out there as well).
I truly love the AVHCD format and the SDHC media, as they hit a real sweet spot of price and performance. In practiced hands (i.e. do spend some time with the manual), the AC160 is capable of producing imagery that’s nothing short of state-of-the-art in prosumer HD video. Considering its reasonable price of around $4,200 ready to shoot out of the box, this camera should knock ‘em dead in the ENG, documentary and event videography worlds.
The AC160 might even make some new friends out of indie filmmaker types who’ve been on the DSLR/interchangeable lens train for the past few years and found it too expensive, complex and/or difficult to deal with. This camera is a solid, old school workhorse that won’t let you down and is a real pleasure to use. I give a very enthusiastic thumbs up to the Panasonic AC160 camcorder.
Noah Kadner is a contributing writer for American Cinematographer magazine and wrote RED: The Ultimate Guide to Using the Revolutionary Camera for Peachpit Press. He also produces and hosts Call Box, a digital series of training courses aimed at indie filmmakers. Call Box offers The AC130/AC160 Guide, for owners wanting to get the most out of their cameras.