Ever since the first NEX-5 came out, I've been trumpeting its strong points. With the notable exception of the amazing new Sony RX1, the NEX-5 series is the smallest camera with an APS-C or bigger sensor. In other words, it's the smallest camera that you can really get professional level shots out of. The two big features that I've wanted ever since Sony came out with this camera are in-camera charging so that I don't have to carry around a separate charger, and an audio-in port.
The built in microphone is acceptable, but if there's any amount of wind or background noise, audio quality degrades very quickly. Despite the incredible optical quality of the camera, the audio quality when recording videos has been its Achilles' heel, making many videos unusable. All that Sony would need to do to fix this is put a tiny little microphone jack on the camera. The new NEX-6 and the NEX-7 both have microphone jacks, but getting that jack isn't worth the (admittedly small) increase in camera size.
In a desperate attempt to improve sound quality, I bought Sony's own solution, a microphone that clips to the top of the camera. While it's better than the built-in mic, the microphone was still vulnerable to camera noise as well as background noise. Plus, sometimes you just want to wear a little clip-on lav mic and not worry about outside sounds.
I searched online for some solution, but although there was speculation that it might be possible to hack something together, no one had actually done it. One night, as I drifted off to sleep, my mind circled back around to the microphone issue. I had been recording a video every day for a couple months, and I really wished that I could just plug a microphone in. There had to be a solution. I decided that since the add-on Sony mic wasn't that great anyway, I'd take it apart the next day and see what I could figure out.
Now, it may be worth pausing here to mention that I am not great with electronics. I have the cheapest soldering iron available, and I barely know how to use it. In fact, my method of soldering is so bad that I suspect I'm the only one who does it this way. Other than a childhood penchant for taking things apart (and usually not bothering to put them back together), I have no real experience with this sort of stuff. I mention all this, because I imagine that the following paragraphs are going to a) make me sound like I know what I'm doing and b) possibly scare you away from trying this. The reality is that I'm a complete amateur who's just dedicated and reckless enough to make stuff like this happen, and that the process is actually pretty easy.
So the next morning I woke up and began prying away at the microphone. It was actually pretty fun finding all the hidden screws and detentes holding the thing together. Cut down to its bare components, the Sony ECM-SST1 has a very strange design. It has two very cheap looking microphones, but they're suspended by rubber bands as you'd expect a high-end microphone to be constructed. One faces straight forward and the other faces directly perpendicular to the side. I can't quite wrap my head around how Sony gets good stereo separation from a design like this, but it does. Upon seeing the setup, I actually put the mic back together to test the stereo functionality. My guess is that the front mic is responsible for picking up all the sound and that the sideways mic is responsible for positioning. I mention this not because it's at all relevant to the procedure I'm going to outline, but rather because I figure it may give more experienced people some ideas on how to improve my method.
I found a pinout diagram online of the proprietary (why does everything have to be proprietary, Sony?) connector, which clearly labeled the microphone channels. Of interest is that there are actually THREE channels, plus a ground. Left, right, and center. Also of interest, the microphone doesn't use the center channel. So it's there for some accessory that hasn't yet revealed itself, I guess. I cut the left, right, and microphone ground, and wired them up to a microphone.
It recorded sound, but it was extremely noisy and hard to hear. Far worse than the internal mic. I tried reversing the channels, using just left or just right as mono channels, grounding the ground to other stuff, but nothing would make it sound anywhere approaching decent. Always noisy. This was pretty frustrating, because I was sure that it would work. I was impelled to give up, but the dream of audio-in for the NEX was just too real. There had to be some way to do it.
I clumsily soldered the tiny wires that I had cut back together, insulated them with heat shrink tubing, and stared at the blasted contraption. I cut all of the wires going to the two front microphones and decided to test what would happen if I hooked the front one up to an audio jack. I should mention here that the suspense was excruciating, because for every test I'd have to solder everything together, record a video, and then transfer it to the computer to listen and make sure the audio quality was good. But in this case it paid off-- I was rewarded with crystal clear audio! The first words ever uttered into an NEX-5N via a 3rd party microphone were "Oh god, this had better work."
Giddy with success, I immediately set out to figure out the best way to use my contraption on a long term basis. All of my tests had been done with the guts of the microphone strung along across the top of the camera. Hardly a sustainable solution. My first inclination was to use the now defunct microphone enclosure, adding an audio port to the back. I actually went so far as to drill a hole in the back of it, when I spotted the NEX flash across my desk. Now, I'm not sure if I'm just such a bad photographer that I don't understand how to use the flash, or if this flash is so bad that makes every photo look worse, but I never use it. Maybe, I thought, I could make it into an enclosure for the microphone circuitry. This would allow me to have a much smaller unit and a flat surface on the top to mount a microphone-carrying cold shoe.
Next thing I knew, I was prying apart the flash and had discarded the innards of it, leaving a nice empty shell to play with. A bit of drilling and cajoling later, I had my unit all together. Nonfunctional flash in front, audio processing on the inside, and a nice 3.5mm audio jack on the side. Triumphantly I recorded a video explaining what I had done and swapped it over to my computer to hear how good it sounded. And it did sound good-- in the left channel. It turns out that in my haste to put the flash back together, I had pulled loose one of the extremely delicate wires attached to the connector. The next half hour of my life was spent trying to fix this, and, in the process, breaking most of the other wires and covering the whole hot mess in solder. In short, I completely ruined everything.
I did what any other reasonable person would do next, and I ordered another Sony microphone to gut for parts. It arrived today, and I'm happy to say that using its cable I was able to hook up my original board to make the first ever fully-functional 3.5mm microphone port for a Sony NEX-5. Here's proof:
If you'd like to do the same, here's how (video at the bottom):
1. First, take apart the microphone. I recorded a full video on how to do this below, so I won't get into the particulars here. The short version of it is that you uncover the hidden screws at the bottom to remove the connector, and then very carefully pry everything else apart. Be particularly careful with the cable that runs from the connector to the board, because it's damn near impossible to repair if you break it.
2. From the microphone, all you need is the cable I mentioned in step one, and the squarish logic board. There are five or so wires coming off of the board. If you're a better tinkerer than I am, I bet you can figure out how to use them all to get stereo sound. If you're not that clever, just pull off all of them except for the two closest to the edge, labeled M1 and MicGND. I pulled those off, too, and soldered directly to their pads, but this was pretty tricky and I wouldn't bet in favor of me duplicating the feat. Better to just leave the wires attached and use them.
3. Desolder the switch. To do that, just pinch the switch in a way that pulls it from the board, while applying the soldering iron to the opposite side. Hold it until your fingers burn, take a second to cool down, and try again. You'll make incremental progress, feeling the switch detaching from the board. Just a couple minutes of this will get it off. I blobbed a bunch of solder between the two contacts labeled 90. I'm not sure if it's necessary to do this or not, but it seemed like a solid idea.
4. So now you should have a cable, the square board, and just two leads coming off of it. Now look towards your flash with warring eyes and start taking it apart, too. Just remove the connector part as we did with the microphone, and then remove the plastic sticky panels on the side and hit those four black screws. Whatever you do, do not remove the silver screws that are holding the springs down. It's not necessary, and I'm not sure there's a more frustrating task than trying to put them back in. Pull out all the flash business, keeping only the plastic grey shell and the clear plastic lens. You can also get rid of the big vertical piece of plastic inside the flash and the smaller vertical piece behind the big thumbscrew. Pay special attention to the angle that the clear flash lens sits at-- it's not obvious once you take it apart.
5. Next you drill a 1/4" hole in the side of the flash for the audio jack to go through. You'll have to do a bit of positioning and measuring to find the right spot for it. Only once you've drilled that hole should you solder the leads of the audio jack to the leads coming off of your audio board.
6. I covered the whole board in masking tape just to make sure it didn't accidentally bump up against the audio jack contacts and short something.
7. There will probably be only one way that the board will fit in at this point, so go ahead and put it in. Hopefully you tested this before positioning your audio jack.
8. Now just close the whole thing up. The two front black screws won't have anything to bite into anymore, but put them in anyway. The adhesive plastic will hold them in place and together they'll prevent the top from becoming separated. Use the connector cladding pieces that you took from the microphone. The ones that came with the flash won't connect correctly without some modification.
And that's it! If it comes out anything like mine, it will be just a little bit janky looking, but will function like a champ. Here's a video of the procedure:
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