Though often overlooked, audio makes up the other half of video. Improve your sound by finding the mike that's right for you.
One, two, three, one, two, three. Test, test, test. Is this thing on? Unfortunately for many video productions, the answer is no. One of the hallmarks of amateur video, besides poor lighting and shaky shots, is poor audio. All too often, video hobbyists rely on the on-camera mike far too much. The on-camera microphone is convenient and it's a no-brainer to use in spontaneous situations. But most often, your camcorder is simply too far away from your subject to record high-quality sound. If you're looking for one element that will immediately and dramatically increase the quality of your video productions, consider investing in an external microphone. Not only will your external mike enable you to get your microphone closer to your subject, but it will also faithfully capture that elusive sound you're after. After all, your video is made up of two equally important components: image and sound. So if you've only been paying attention to the video half of the equation, you've got it just half right. Now it's time to start paying attention to the other half.
When you go shopping for a microphone, ask yourself what type of applications you're planning to use it for. Are you doing voiceovers? Will you be using it for interviews, a talk show, a documentary, drama, plays, recitals or weddings? Depending on your type of production, you'll want to choose a specific type of microphone. Then you'll need to ask yourself how much you're willing to spend.
When you're shopping for microphones, there are a number of aspects that you should consider: type, pickup pattern and frequency response being among the most critical. The type refers to the physical characteristics of the microphone. The pickup pattern describes the pattern and directions from which the mike captures sound. The frequency response measures the range of sound in Hz (Hertz) that the mike is capable of picking up.
A handheld microphone is (can you guess?) meant to be held in your hand or to be placed in a mike stand. These are durable, all-purpose mikes that work well in a number of situations. A handheld mike is ideal to record musicians or vocalists, speakers and to conduct interviews. If you tape one to the end of a broomstick, it can also double as a boom mike. If you can afford only one microphone in your equipment inventory, the versatile handheld would probably be the most practical type in which to invest. Because this is an all-purpose mike, the pickup pattern is usually omnidirectional. This means that the mike will tend to pick up sounds equally from 360 degrees.
Lavaliere comes from a French term for a pendant that's worn around the neck. Not surprisingly, lavaliere, lav or lapel mikes are small, unobtrusive mikes that clip on the talent's shirt or collar. They're ideal for talk show settings or instructional videos. They free up the talent and they're small enough so they're barely noticeable on screen. Like handheld mikes, lavs usually have an omnidirectional pickup pattern to capture nice, even sound.
A shotgun mike is typically long and most commonly uses a highly directional pickup pattern. This pattern is narrow and tends to block out peripheral noise. It's perfect for isolating specific sources of sound like dialogue, especially when shot outdoors and for capturing sound effects like a bubbling brook or the warble of a songbird. A shotgun mike can easily attach to your camcorder or to a boom.
A PZM (pressure zone microphone) or boundary microphone is usually a flat mike that sits inconspicuously on a table or floor. Although the pickup pattern may vary, a PZM is perfect for capturing sounds coming from various sources. Unlike a directional pickup, which is exclusive, a PZM is inclusive, aiming to gather sounds from all directions. Most often a boundary mike is used to record meetings where many people are speaking and at events like a recital or play.
Check out the accompanying buyer's guide to get an overview comparison of the variety of microphones that exist on the market. If you're looking to upgrade your production value, consider investing in an external microphone. Company literature and specifications only give part of the picture. If it's possible, the best thing to do is to actually try a couple out to see which one you like. An external microphone is the key to recording good audio. It is one piece of equipment that will give you immediate results that you can hear.