Great Audio Starts With Mics

The author shoots video at Great Falls National Park in Maryland using a Shure VP83F shotgun mic with a built-in audio recorder.

In general terms, the tools for making quality production audio have not changed over the years. There are still microphones in many shapes, sizes and capabilities, and there probably will be for years. What has changed is the size, shape and performance of these tools, which in turn changes how we use them to collect good sound.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”

Although that might have been true for the visual style of his movies, people who make videos for PEG channels find that great sound is the key to good video. After all, if the sound died for an in-studio talk show, there would be no way to understand what the people were discussing.

The bottom line is that good sound is what separates the amateurs from the pros, and getting good sound means using the right microphone when you shoot the program. Let’s take a look at the current state of microphones.

SOUND QUALITY

Just as a camera’s lens and image sensor shape the image picked up by the camera, a microphone is the important device that determines the quality of the sound recorded with the video. Mics used for video fall into three categories: lavaliers that are pinned on a tie or shirt; handheld models that are used for performance and interviews; and shotgun mics that let you record clear sound at some distance from the sound source. All three have roles to play at PEG channels, but let’s focus on lavalier and shotgun mics.

Many of the popular names in quality audio products make lavalier mics suitable for PEG channel operations such as Shure, Audio-Technica, DPA Microphones, Sony, Sennheiser, Countryman and Tram. There are many other brands and products available, especially if you’re willing to take a chance on some little-known brands.

Røde Videomic shotgun mic with a Rycote Lyre mount

You can spend over a wide range to get a lavalier mic, starting at as little as $25 and climbing to $500 or more. There are many noteworthy differences from the low-cost to high-cost models, but the important thing to remember is that any working lavalier mic will give you far better sound than what you will get relying on a camera’s built-in microphone.

Most professional video crews have a sound kit that includes a lav mic connected to a wireless mic system, which allows the mic to be on the talent without worrying about a cord getting tangled. The wireless mic receiver is docked to the camera and its output is fed into the camera’s audio input. In this way, the sound is recorded in the camera synchronously with the video, making for a simple editing experience.

This synchronous recording is worth noting, because there is another way to record audio using a lavalier, and it’s significantly less expensive than using a wireless mic setup. This other way is to use a pocket recorder with the lav mic plugged into it. Once the shoot is over, the recorded audio needs to be synced with the video during the editing stage. This is not hard to do in most editing systems, but it is more complicated than working with audio that’s recorded synchronously with the video.

Before getting off the subject of lavalier mics and these two operational techniques, let’s take a quick look at the plusses and minuses of each.

With a wireless setup, the synchronous recording of the audio is the big benefit. On the downside, wireless mics add complexity and points of failure, since the path now includes a transmitter and a receiver. Quality wireless mic systems are also expensive.

Using the synchronization-in-editing technique, you need only a recorder that will work with the lav you have. And the recorder could be as simple as the smartphone you already have in your pocket. The Shure Motiv MXL is an inexpensive lavalier mic that plugs into any Android or iPhone for recording, and that’s just one example. If you don’t want to use a smartphone as a recorder, a decent-quality audio recorder from Tascam, Zoom, Roland or Sony starts at around $100 or so, much less than the cost of a wireless mic system.

SHOTGUNS

Another tool in the shooter’s audio kit is a shotgun microphone, which can be mounted on a camera and still pick up clear audio from a distance. Shotgun mics used to be long and somewhat ungainly, but they’ve shrunk over the past few years to the point where working with them is often easier than using a wireless lavalier setup.

A perfectly respectable shotgun mic can be bought for $125 or so, although going up in price adds desirable features, such as a smaller size and even an internal recorder. As with lavaliers, there are a variety of vendors for shotgun mics, including Shure, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Røde.

In many cases, a shotgun mic can work much like a wireless lavalier, only without the wireless components. Since the shotgun mic is mounted on the camera, the mic plugs into the camera and its sound is recorded synchronously with the video. That makes for easier editing.

It’s even possible to record the shotgun mic in one channel on the camera and have the camera’s mic available to record on the camera’s other audio channel. I’ve personally done that with interviews I shot, using the camera mic to record my questions and the shotgun mic to record the answers. It can be an effective technique for a one-person crew.

Sennheiser has a popular shotgun mic system that has a base into which various mic capsules can be screwed. The mic capsules have different directional characteristics, and work at a variety of distances.

Many of the popular names in quality audio products make lavalier mics suitable for PEG channel operations, including Audio-Technica.

Shure, Sennheiser and Røde have short shotgun mics designed to mount on smaller cameras, such as the DSLR cameras now popular for shooting video. In my experience, these shorter mics don’t have quite as good a “reach” as a full-length shotgun mic, but the short mics have their advantages.

For one thing, long mics can easily get into a wide shot if you are not careful. For another, the smaller mics don’t attract as much attention from the public, so you can often sneak in under the radar at events. Using a full-size shotgun, you are quickly identified as a professional shooter.

One thing to remember about shotgun mics is that they specialize in picking up sound directly in front of the mic. Any sound off to the sides of the mic will be significantly muted, which is exactly what you want when you point your camera at someone speaking.

There are some situations where you may want an audio person using a shotgun mic to record sound, while you can aim the camera to follow the presentation given by the talent. If you have a camera-mounted shotgun mic, it will always point where the camera points—pointing at something away from the presenter will cause a major drop in audio quality. With an audio person and a separate recorder, the mic is always pointed at the person speaking.

This brings up the fact that some of the newer versions of the short shotgun mics have built-in recorders. You can use these on-camera mics like any other shotgun, but they’re also good choices if you have an audio person who can always keep the mic pointed in the right direction. In addition to giving you backup audio recording capability, these recording mics also work great to place on a podium to get clear sound from a presenter.

One final point about shotgun mics—especially when held by an audio person—is that you have to be careful about handling noise. There are ways to eliminate this, but covering them in detail is outside the scope of this article.

PEG and government-run cable channels generally don’t have large budgets or staffs. You need to buy wisely and work carefully, and the good news is that decent microphones that can make a big difference in sound quality don’t cost an arm and a leg. Sure, you can find wonderfully made professional equipment for lots more money, but much of the process of getting good sound is about technique and not necessarily about price. 

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