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The Right Tool for the Job

The Right Tool for the Job

Using an off-board mic is a big step for many video producers but just using any old mic is not good enough. For the best sound, use the best mic for the situation.

Several years ago, a friend asked me to take a look at his wedding video to see if there was anything I could "do" to it. They were married on a beach in Hawaii and the video was beautiful with the sunset in the background and waves lapping at their feet. Only one problem; you couldn't hear a thing. Oh, there were sounds of the ocean, seagulls and an occasional mumble from the minister or the happy couple, but that was it, and there was nothing I could do. Simply using an external microphone would have helped, but that's only part of the equation. Selecting the right mic for the job and putting it in the right place are equally crucial. Don't let this audio crime happen to you.

Coming Up Next!

With the explosion of cable news channels, it's easy to get a sample of one of the simplest audio techniques: the handheld microphone. Whether you're shooting a talking head or an interview, the handheld mic is probably the quickest and easiest way to get audio into your camera. While you could just plug in a mic and start talking, there are several other items to consider before your shoot. First, there's pattern choice -- omni or cardioid? Many news agencies still use omni-directional microphones like the ElectroVoice 635 and RE50. With their non-directional pickup pattern, omnis are great at picking up everything. Unfortunately, they also pickup, well, everything. This includes traffic noise, planes flying overhead, people shouting and virtually every other sound in range of the on-camera talent. In recent years, directional microphones -- either cardiods or hypercardioids -- have become popular for this job. By rejecting sound from the sides and back of the mic, this pickup pattern is better suited for noisy environments or any time you want to better isolate the speaker's voice.

Using a handheld microphone is easy -- just point the business end at your mouth and speak. Distance from the mic isn't critical, but it should be close enough to sound good without obscuring the talent's face. The same is true of interview subjects. In quiet environments, you may even be able to hold the microphone low enough to keep it out of the shot. And don't forget; if you're outside, you'll probably want to use a windscreen. If you're shooting an interview, make sure the interviewer holds the mic at all times. If interview subjects are allowed to hold the microphone, they tend to let it slip further and further away from their mouths as the shoot progresses. This means trouble in post and works against that time you saved by using this simplified setup.

Clip It On

In a more formal sit-down interview situation, a lapel microphone is perfectly suited to the job. Whether wired or wireless, lapel mics are small and unobtrusive. Even if they end up in the shot, their miniscule size will go virtually unnoticed. This microphone technique requires a bit more finesse and setup time, but the results are worth the effort. Setup is pretty simple -- just clip the mic to a shirt or jacket -- but there are other considerations here too. Although most lapel microphones are omni-directional in pattern, there are several directional models as well. If you're using a cardioid lapel mic, make sure the top is pointed at the talent's mouth, not their belly button. There are also cabling issues to consider. Since the talent will be wearing the mic, you'll be working directly in their personal space and touching their clothing. This makes some people skittish and the smart videographer must learn to address this delicately. Lapel microphone cables are often hidden behind the shirt or jacket, so I usually hand the mic element to the talent, tell them where I'd like it and let them route the cable. This limits my role to attaching the mic clip and windscreen, and doing the final placement. It also tells the talent you respect them and may even settle a nervous interviewee.

While you can easily use wired lapel mics in interviews, there are times when wireless is the only way to go. Our earlier wedding scenario is a perfect example of a wireless-only situation. If you just have one wireless, consider asking the minister to wear it. They'll be close to the bride and groom for vows and you'll get great audio for most of ceremony. If you have two mics, put one on both participants. The groom is easy -- just clip it on his jacket and tuck the transmitter in a pocket. The bride is more complicated. Load the transmitter with fresh batteries, tape off all the power and mute switches, and hand it to the bride before she dresses. A black microphone will stand out on most bridal gowns, so offer placement alternatives and a supply of gaffer's tape. Where to put the transmitter? Well, you're on your own here. I've seen many options, most of which should stay out of print. Be creative, but if you can't do it, don't panic. Give the second pack to the minister and tweak the audio in post.

Thespians All

You'd think a wireless microphone would be perfect for dramatic performances like plays and skits. Unfortunately, you'll run into several problems with this idea. First, do you have a mic for every actor? Didn't think so. Second, you may run into duplicated wireless frequencies at the venue. To eliminate these problems, consider using boundary microphones (also known as Pressure Zone Microphones, or PZMs). Boundary mics are placed on a floor, wall or table and turn the entire surface into a pickup device. The larger the surface, the broader the pickup pattern. Boundary microphones are usually not directional, so two or three placed across the front of a stage should pick up everything, from dialog to dancing to music. This microphone technique sounds much different than the other methods we've discussed in this article. The sound is generally more open, natural and airy. You'll also notice that distance from the mic is less critical. Attend a rehearsal, find the sweet spots, and you'll make a very nice recording indeed.

There are no perfect microphones or mic techniques. Each type of microphone has its own strengths and weaknesses. Your job is to understand the differences and choose the right tool for each shoot. We've given you a place to start, so get out there and record some great audio.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson has miked almost everything, including the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.

Sidebar: Hidden Mic Secrets

I worked on a movie recently where the three main characters all wore wireless mics. Obviously, we had to hide them and it took some ingenuity. The main actor wore a polo shirt through most of the shoot, so we taped his mic at the bottom of the buttons on the shirt. Another actor wore a pocket t-shirt and, through a small hole we hid his mic behind the pocket. The main actress was a bit more challenging. She received her mic before each shoot and, in the dressing room, taped the element to her underclothes. Hiding the belt packs was always an issue, but all three had a mic within a foot of their mouth for the entire shoot.

Sidebar: The Boom Option

There are times when a handheld or lapel mic isn't the right decision. Under these circumstances, a shotgun microphone on a boom pole might do the trick. Shotguns are highly directional and great for minimizing ambient noise during the shoot. Mounted on a boom pole -- sometimes called a fishpole -- a shotgun mic is a mobile, invisible way to capture audio from one person or a small group. You'll need a helper with a pair of headphones in most instances, but you can also mount a shotgun mic on a lighting boom and position it just out of frame for static scenes.

Tags:  April 2006
Sat, 04/01/2006 - 12:00am