The Microphone of Choice

From handheld to boom, wired to wireless, and battery operated to phantom powered, there’s a plethora of mics available, how do you know which mic is the right mic for you?

Videomaker readers know the best way to capture professional audio is with an external microphone. Committing to that knowledge is the easy part – applying it for a purchase is a bit more complicated. What type of mic should you use? How much should you spend? What about wireless? And what do all those numbers mean on the spec sheet? These are all good questions and we’ll do our best to answer them in this month’s installment of Sound Advice.

Forward Thinking

Microphone selection is subjective and most recording engineers have pet mics for specific applications. Live sound people rely on their preferred microphones while video and film folks may use a completely different set of tools. But a mic’s a mic, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Each microphone has a unique set of characteristics that define its sound. Audio geeks may describe a certain mic as having “air”, “bite” or “presence”. You might hear that a microphone sounds distant, in-your-face, round or brittle. While these are colorful descriptive terms, it’s impossible to define the sound of a given microphone with words – you must listen. That brings up another problem; everyone hears things a little differently. What you hear as aggressive may sound harsh to me, and so on.

Specification sheets can help you visualize the sound of a mic through frequency response and directional plots. The numbers can tell you how noisy the mic is or how much acoustic input it can take before distortion, but the real test is with your ears. Case in point: the venerable Shure SM-81. For years, this microphone has been the darling of recording and sound engineers. It has low noise, ruler-flat frequency response and a textbook directional pattern. Perfectly suited to instrument and vocal recording, the SM-81 is truly a reference standard. Then, a few years back, RODE introduced the NT-5; a similar condenser microphone targeted for the same use. On paper, the NT-5 is hardly a textbook example, with its bumpy response curve and lack of features. But holy cow, the sound! The point is simple: all the reviews, facts and figures can’t tell the whole story of any microphone. The only way to really evaluate a mic is in person.

Options Abound

To complicate matters, sound quality isn’t the only criteria for microphone selection. Mic types fall into several general categories. Most common is the handheld variety with its generic ball and handle construction. These are great for news-type productions, podiums, live sound and other stand-mounted applications. Shotgun mics are most common in video and film production. Their long reach and extreme directionality help isolate voices and minimize background noise. Lapel or lavaliere microphones are the perfect choice for sit-down interviews, news sets and anytime you need to hide a mic on a moving target. Boundary mics lay flat on a table, desk or floor. With their broad pickup area these are great for covering boardroom meetings, choirs and dramatic presentations. Finally, there are large-diaphragm condenser mics used for critical applications like voice-overs, effects and Foley recording. Ideally, you’d own one or more from each category for maximum flexibility. Reality dictates that most shooters will have fewer options.

If you’re new to microphones, how do you know the good from the bad? Let’s start with your budget. Generally speaking, professional quality mics usually cost more than $100. There are exceptions – especially today with eBay and the abundance of nice Chinese imports. It never hurts to compare prices. At the top end of the scale, let your wallet be your guide. You can easily drop several thousand dollars on high-end studio mics, but I’m guessing you won’t. A quick look through a musician’s catalog will show industry standard handheld mics around the $100 mark. There are many excellent shotguns in the $150-$300 range. Lapel and boundary mics are a little different. Consumer versions range from $25-$100. These mics sound fine and are completely functional for occasional use, if you don’t mind using a few adapters. Professional versions start around $250 and go up, based on brand, features and connectivity.

What About Wireless?

Every video producer needs a wireless system from time to time. We don’t have the space to address all the options, but the Sound Advice column in the April 2007 issue of Videomaker has a complete article on the subject. (If you type “wireless” in the Google search on our web site, you’ll find an enormous assortment of articles on wireless mics and how they work.) In short, virtually any type of microphone can be wireless, with the possible exception of studio condensers. Going wireless opens a whole new world of production options. Minus a cable connected to your talent, you’re free to shoot in difficult situations. Video subjects can be a hundred feet away, or more. Mountains, cars, sports and reality content are all easier to shoot with wireless mics. The downside? First, wireless is more expensive, starting at about $350 for a solid video-type system. The sweet spot for quality, features and flexibility seems to be the $500-$700 range. I know that sounds like a lot of cash, but a good wireless system will serve you for many years. Wireless also brings its own set of unique issues. Interference from other transmitters can mess with your clean signal. Batteries are a necessary evil and always seem to die at the most inconvenient times. Wireless systems – especially lapel mics – have small accessories like belt and tie clips, windscreens and adapters that are difficult to track. Regardless, it’s a fair trade if you need the flexibility that wireless offers.

Run The Numbers

It would be easy to make a list of favorite mics and just tell you to go out and buy them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee they will work for your production style or budget. You’ll have to do some research on your own. Read the reviews and ask other producers what they use. Compare price to sound quality and durability. The final decision should be based on your specific needs and your vibe with the microphones you’ve chosen. Find something you can live with for a long time. A good microphone is a good microphone, regardless of whether you’re shooting with a consumer camcorder or one of the new HD cameras.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

Side Bar: Pick One

This article has focused on a selection of microphones for maximum flexibility. But what if you can only afford one good mike? Everything depends on your shooting and content style, but there is one choice that covers a broad range of projects. Shotgun microphones offer quality sound recording indoors and out. They minimize background noise, cover one or more people and can double as a handheld mic if needed. You can even use them for sound effects and voice recording. If you can only carry one microphone, find a good shotgun.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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