Microphones are a very important part of our everyday lives- not just as video producers, but in everything we do. From cell phones to public address systems, microphones are so ubiquitous that we hardly even notice them, unless we're recording.
There are many different types of microphones, but we are going to review the ones that we use in the business of video production.
The most common type of microphone is the handheld mic. They are an industry staple and come in many flavors. They are extremely useful for interviewing, journalism, weddings and even to set on a desk for a talking head video (although that would make them stand-mounted instead of handheld, but it's still the same microphone). Whether it is interviewing athletes at a sporting event or guests at a wedding, or the unglamorous job of recording voiceovers, the handheld microphone is always on the scene.
You can score many inexpensive handhelds with 1/4" connections in the $40.00 to $80.00 range by such prestigious manufacturers as Sennheiser, Shure, Numark, Cad, Peavey and Samson. Just remember two things. First, there is a huge difference between a $70.00 Shure mic and a $700 Shure mic. Second, make sure you get a stereo mic, unless you're looking for a mono mic. And you'll need a 1/4" to 1/8" or XLR adapter.
Stepping up to XLR mics is a huge leap, in both quality and price. However, if your production is worth something to you, then you should be using quality products. XLR is a superior product compared to mics using 6.5 mm ("") jacks. Many of the companies listed above also carry these higher-quality mics, along with several other brands including AKG, DPA and Sanken.
Another growth area has been wireless. Although the invention of wireless mics was 50 years ago, they really didn't become prevalent until recently. One of the most unique (for the moment) is the Flashmic by HHB. It is a high quality mic that can record up to 18 hours on its 1GB card, although you'll probably have to change the pair of AA batteries after 8 hours of recording. Although this mic costs more than $1,000, it is starting to become popular and therefore, more companies will begin to compete with it.
Wireless mics didn't take off for the first thirty years of their existence because of the problems with channel interference from radios and other devices (including airplanes and air traffic control). Earlier systems also had problems with limited range, short battery life and dead spots. Through technological advances, from better batteries to expansion of the airwaves due to the Digital Revolution, these problems hardly exist anymore and the age of wireless microphones is here. Some of the companies manufacturing wireless mics are Sony, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Electro-Voice, Shure, Nady, Sennheiser, Lectrosonics, Samson, Sanken, DPA and Audio-Technica.
Lavaliers are probably the most common type of wireless microphones and give the performer the most freedom of movement. Since the transmitter is safely attached to the on-screen performers, they have the freedom to use their hands for something other than holding a microphone. Multiple actors can be miked and transmit on different channels so that their signals can remain separate. Lavaliers are expensive by their nature and there are no cheapies that actually work very well. Even more than in other groupings, you are going to get what you pay for.
When shopping for lavs, the number of frequencies available to you will be one of the determining factors. For instance, look at two excellent lavalier systems made by Azden Corporation: the 105 series (which costs about $400 for the receiver and transmitter combination) and the 305 series (which sells for about $150 more per set). Each is relatively the same high quality and they are even similarly sized, but the Azden 305 series offers users 188 frequencies, whereas the 105 only offers 92 frequencies. Now, if you're not planning to record more than a couple of people at a time, the Azden 105 would be a perfect fit, but if you plan to work with larger groups, you may want to spend the extra $150 for the 305 series (plus extra transmitters).
Some boundary mics are also wireless. High quality wireless boundary mics (also called PZM for Pressure Zone Microphone, their original name when patented) can run more than $1,000, whereas cheap tabletop models, such as the Sony ECM-F8, can go for $15.00 with a high-end wired unit, such as DPA's BLM4060, costing around $800. Boundary mics are usually flat on one side in order to mount to a wall or table, although there are cylindrical models available. Boundary mics are omnidirectional and are useful in ways that no other type of microphone can be.
These are great mics for recording room sounds. If you are a fan of ice hockey or indoor lacrosse, you may have seen them located along the top of the glass at 20' intervals. That's because they pick up the sounds of the players crashing along the boards and amplifies it, electrifying the crowd! On the other end of the excitement spectrum is the conference table. Boundary mics can usually be found here as well, but (obviously) for different reasons.
Tabletop boundary mics are designed to pick up most of the people at the conference, but they're not as good if you are trying to record one specific participant, in which case you would want to use a handheld mic on a tabletop stand. If you are recording events, such as sporting events, plays, concerts, or even political events, you would want to mount boundary mics along the walls to capture the sounds of the crowd.
Just a few years ago, High Def was the wave of the future in video. And now, surround sound is the wave of the future in audio. Surround sound microphones look crazy and their pricing isn't much saner. Their funky shape also makes for expensive windshields and windscreens, which often cost more than a good set of lavaliers! Most units that are presently available mount on a dedicated stand, a desk or directly onto the camera's hot shoe.
Surround sound is measured by designations such as 5.1, 6.0, 7.1, 9.1 and the newest, 10.2. These descriptions denote the number of full and partial channels through which the sound plays. Those that include a ".1" indicate the presence of the LFE (Low Frequency Effects) channel.
The Holophone Portomic 5.1 is one of the less expensive versions and goes for $600, as do a couple of Shure models. The price for some of the higher quality Sanken, Holophone and DPA models is up to about $5,000. A very interesting device called the Tetramic came out last year from Core Sound. The tiny 5.1 surround sound recorder is only slightly larger than a pen, weighs just three ounces and costs just under $1,000.
USB mics connect directly to your computer via the ubiquitous USB cables. They are good for recording voice-overs directly to your editing program without having to haul out the camcorder. The Snowball by Blue is a highly regarded USB microphone that you can purchase for under $100. Since its invention, other manufacturers have joined Blue in designing USB mics and this is one of the areas where you can expect to see a lot of growth. There are also many converter cables available that can convert from an XLR mic to a USB connection at the computer.
Until the cost of surround sound comes down, most music will continue to be recorded in stereo. Headworn microphones are mostly used by gamers and people working in call centers, but are also an important part of the entertainment industry. Musicals and plays from Broadway to community theaters use the devices to make it possible for everyone to hear the players. Singers who do a lot of dancing and moving in their acts use wireless headworn mics - admit it; (depending on your age) you just envisioned either Madonna or Brittney on stage. When integrated with headphones, these are also very handy for live broadcast directors and their crews.
For those of you who require headworn microphones and are working on a budget, you'll be happy to hear that you can get very inexpensive mics from Telex in the $40 range. Shure and Audio-Technica make excellent headphones with integrated mics that sell for about $350. If you really want top-of-the-line headworn mics, Countryman makes many varieties in their E6 series for around $600 that are certain to make even a weak singer sound as good as possible.
The rest of the band is going to need different types of microphones than the singer, which is why you need instrument mics. This could get a little trickier and a lot more expensive. Although mics can go for as little as $50 for an Audio-Technica MB-2K series mic, you will need quite a few of them to mic a stage or studio... and don't forget the stands and cables. You'll also need a preamp which can cost you anywhere from $50 to $1,000 or more. You can find a good selection of high quality preamps in the $200 -$300 range. Other manufacturers whose products you'll want to check out in this category are AMT, Sure, DPA, Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic.
If you are looking for the best sound possible, you will want to use several different types of mics because a guitar, a bass and an accordion all have different pitches and frequencies, meaning that some mics will be better for one instrument, but less flattering for another, especially if you're using an accordion.
Finding the Mic that's Right for You
There are so many manufacturers of microphones and so many types of mics that no matter what your needs or your budget, you are bound to find something for you. Determine your needs, then look at the Guide and scroll down the column. Note all the companies that make the mic you need and start shopping. It's that easy!
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Microphone Buyer's Guide
John McCabe runs a small production company that is as dedicated to giving hands-on experience to students as it is to creating video.