You are here

One Microphone Every Videographer Should Own

There are many types of microphones out there: shotguns, lavaliers, hand-held stick mics, even parabolics. Some are specialty tools that are only used occasionally, others travel to every shoot but rarely leave the camera bag. Some microphones, however, are the go-to, grab-it-every-time, couldn’t-live-without-it kind of tool that everyone who makes media ought to own. 

In order to make great video you need to record great audio. Audio is an incredibly powerful part of your productions. It has the power to make or break a program. No matter how great your footage looks, it will be thought of as a poor production if you have weak, hissy, hollow audio.

The flip side is also true. Imperfect video will be remembered as better than it really is if the soundtrack is stellar. I don’t know why this is true, but it is. Because of this, one of the best ways to improve the perceived quality of your edits is to improve your audio. That means choosing and using the right microphone. If you can afford a whole host of them, fill your gear bag to the brim and use whichever mic makes the most sense on the set. But what if you could only have one? You can think about this as a “desert island” game, or as a practical purchasing plan, but think about it nonetheless. Which mic makes the best all-around, multi-purpose utility tool for producers? Here’s a quick overview of your options along with my ratings and recommendations:

Last Place: Your Camcorder’s Built-in Mic

Pros: The microphone that is built into your camcorder is always present, it cannot be lost or left behind, it doesn’t require extra batteries, and the element itself is generally of a pretty good quality.

Cons: The secret to recording good audio with any type of microphone is getting the mic as close to the subject as possible, usually within a couple inches of the sound source you want to record. Because the built-in mic is stuck on your camera, you can’t get it close enough to record good sound and still frame a usable shot. The on-board mic also has the terrible tendency to pick up operator noise. So every move you make or button you push is amplified and embedded into your soundtrack.

Summary: While the microphones that are built into camcorders are generally pretty high quality mics, they are not very good as production tools. Use the audio captured from this microphone only for ambient sounds (never for dialogue) or as a reference track.

Third Place: The Hand-Held “Stick” Mic

Pros: Handheld microphones are excellent tools that record audio very well. Their cardioid pickup pattern rejects most ambient environmental noise and captures clean clear vocals when held close to the mouth. For these reasons they are a favorite choice of news reporters working in the field, narrators in vocal booths and singers on stage. 

Cons: The biggest bummer about hand-held mics is that they are completely conspicuous. Because they are so big and must be held in the hand or mounted on a stand, they are the microphones that are most likely to be seen on screen. They are also subject to the thumping of wind noise, so a windsock is a good idea. Almost all hand-held mics are wired, so they require a length of microphone cable to tether them to your camera.

Summary: While seeing the mic is acceptable for reporters and singers, you don’t want to conduct an interview, shoot a promo or direct a drama where the main subject is holding a stick mic. It’s just not done. For this reason alone, the hand-held microphone is not the best choice as an all around utility mic.

First Runner Up: The Shotgun

Pros: Shotgun microphones are very versatile tools. Because of their long, narrow pickup pattern they can record quality dialogue at a distance while suppressing unwanted sound from the sides. This allows them to record excellent audio even when positioned several feet away from the subject. Their highly directional pickup pattern lets you record usable sound even with your shotgun microphone mounted on a camera shoe. Shotgun mics are arguably at their best when they are mounted on boom poles that are held over the subject’s head just outside the frame. This allows all the benefits of proximity, while still concealing the microphone from view.

Cons: The highly directional aspect of a shotgun microphone requires that it be aimed fairly accurately at the subject you want to record, so you need to monitor your audio carefully. An inattentive boom operator can easily let the mike drift or turn in a way that causes the talent’s voice to fall out of the mike’s sweet spot. The mic needs to move with the subject to maintain the best possible signal. Did I mention you will need a long XLR cable, a boom pole and someone you really trust to hold the pole?

Summary: Shotgun mics are outstanding tools for production, but they are cumbersome and require an extra set of qualified hands to operate. While they can be mounted to a hotshoe to function as sort of a “super” camera-mounted mic, they are not an ideal “only” microphone if you could have just one.

The Winner: The Lavalier

Pros: Lav microphones record good quality sound, are inconspicuous, can be clipped to an actor or hidden on a set, suppress unwanted ambient noise and can be cabled or wireless. They are small enough to tuck into even the smallest of camera bags, and require no additional operator.

Cons: Because lavs are small, they make use of a small pickup element. As a result, the overall quality of the audio captured from a lavalier does not have the same richness or dynamic range as that of a shotgun or handheld mic. Even so, lavalieres are more than adequate for recording the human voice, and are the standard for miking on-screen talent.

Summary: Lavalier mics are excellent multi-purpose microphones. They record good audio, can easily be hidden from the view of the camera, and are available in both wired and wireless varieties.

Which mic is the best choice if you could only have one? The answer is, it depends. Each mic type has its own strengths and weaknesses and the value they have is determined completely by your individual needs. The choice is yours. Evaluate these pros and cons, and choose the mic that’s best for the type of videos you produce.

Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award winning writer and producer.

Chuck
Peters
September 13th, 2013

Comments

KWASHIRAI CHIGODORA's picture

I use a cheap stuff wireless lav bought off ebay from china... it works alright but somehow it seems to have too much of a boom and gives me booming audio if you know what i mean. I also switch to wired for interviews and they come out great. the lav's advantage is when my talent is wearing it i can get her impromptu conversations from a distance without her subjects knowing they are being filmed or while they are comfortable with the camera's distance...but of course the other person's speech will not be as loudly heard in the lav on my talent.

Martin Johnson's picture

Chuck,

Great overview of what mics to use when shooting video. Provided the budget allows, having a sound recordist on a shoot is the best option. I've recently done a series of videos where an on-camera presenter interviews clients and residents. We used a radio mic lavlier (hidden) on the presenter and the sound guy boomed the interviewees. 

Agree re the camera mic being the 'worst' option, but amazing how many people use them.

Tim Trott's picture

I came to video from the audio world, with many years in radio, television and recording studios.

 

I most often use a collection of Azden wireless mics. I have one hand-held that I use as a desk mic on certain situations. I have one two channel Azden on one set of frequencies and a couple of others on another set of frequencies.

 

I have a diversity (two antenna) receiver on each of the frequency pairs and I use single channel receivers for additional cameras to allow syncing in post. I learned by accident that the Azden WMT lavalier mics are actually phantom powered, and decided to see if they would also worked as wired phantom powered mics connected to the phantom power in my camera and mixers, and was pleased to find that they do. I found it out when I connected one to a Shure mixer and it didn't work until I turned on the phantom power.

 

I had another brand but settled on the Azdens..

 

I own a shotgun mic (also Azden) and a boom pole with shock mount, but they have been used only in rare situations.

 

For live music, for example. I connect old style (dynamic) mics to the Azden transmitters. When I say "old style" I mean mics like the classic EV 635 and AKG D-125. Two diversity receivers feed my main camcorder and single channel receivers feed additional camcorders for sync.

 

I use the camcorder's built in mic in natural settings - waterfalls, whitewater rafting, old trains, trade show exhibit floor, and other situations where the 5.1 sound adds to the video experience.

 

Tim Trott Productions - Video Does It Better (sm)

Mdifilm's picture

I have a few mics, a sennheiser mke600 shotgun that is reasonable and great, a good shure wireless mic. I am currently looking for wireless mic that uses batteries for location on on field shoot without the need of power outlet, is there any good ones within less than $200 range?

Tim Trott's picture

Easy answer: Azden WMTs on Ebay. That's where all mine came from: 2 diversity receivers (different frequency sets), 3 single antenna receivers, 4 transmitters, 5 lavalier mics, one hand held transmitter mic for interviews.

Tim Trott Productions - Video Does It Better (sm)

Michael Antico's picture

I currently have a couple of audio technica wired lav mics. The sound quality is okay I guess. But I want to get something better and perhaps wireless to work with my Canon xf300. I work in house and my environment is filled with loud air conditioning units and loud slot machines that put off an electrical hum even in an idle state. So I need a good mic to record interviews and demos in this loud environment. Any suggestions?

mikeproctor's picture

Almost every assessment of this subject I have read has said that the Shotgun is not only preferable to the Lav, but that Lavs should be avoided if you can get a Shotgun close to the source. Lavs have to be hooked to something and that something often makes noise. Of course we all know that for those long shots, Wireless Lavs are the ace in the hole. The unidirectional quality of the Shotgun makes it my chioce whenever I can use it.

Tim Trott's picture

It depends on the situation but the condenser wireless lav has been the answer for most of the situations I am in. For example we did a series of horse trainer videos and I had enough to deal with keeping up with the subject without having to keep a shotgun aimed. Because of the pickup pattern of a shot gun mic it does not have the dynamic range of a condenser mic. As for noise, I use Adobe's NR tools to judiciously filter out hum and fans.  Condenser mics have less problem with picking up hum becase the sound is amplified at the source and not after traveling down a long wire that becomes a hum antenna. Dynamic mics, by their design, are more prone to RMF interferance but they can offer advantages in certain situations. There are times when I connect old-style dynamics to my Azden transmitters.  I had a Nady WLT but it didn't work out for me. I have not tried any of the higher-end wireless mics (Sure, Sennheiser) so my experience with wireless is somewhat limited.

If you use a shotgun close to the source what is the point of using a shotgun? That is not what it is designed for and you are introducing the effects of the narrow pickup pattern for no useful purpose. At close range a good dynamic or condenser mic with the right pattern would have better frequency response and dynamic range.

 

My views come from working in radio and recording studios before getting into video production so I may have a different perspective than some.

Tim Trott Productions - Video Does It Better (sm)