There’s no such thing as a universal microphone. Your best choice will necessarily vary according to each specific situation. Building a personal microphone toolbox for the situations you commonly encounter is essential to recording high-quality audio.
As a location sound operator who's spent time trying out, evaluating and choosing microphones to purchase for recording sound in the field, I can tell you that the process was a little more frustrating and confusing than I expected. Internet hype, operator opinions and personal brand preference really got in the way of finding truly useful information. I found myself focusing way too much on specs, price and awesomeness and not application, versatility and durability. When I came out the other end, it surprised me just how much against popular opinion my final choices were.
What became very clear after years of experimenting and use is that when it comes to mics for location sound recording, you get what you pay for! Not only in sound quality, but also versatility and durability. The more I used certain mics, the more limiting they became. I also learned which mics could stand up to the rigours of field recording. I found a noticeable difference between the entry level mics and the mid priced mics. I learned that high-end mics are more fragile, and required a location audio operator with more experience to use them to their full potential. There are a lot of mics out there and by no means are they made equal.
Mic Value And Versatility
If you're like most sound ops, you're looking for the perfect field recording mic. A mic that can be used in a variety of situations on a variety of locations with an affordable price tag — I did. I didn't have the budget or the desire to carry a full arsenal of shotgun mics and lavaliers. The type of shooting I do (primarily documentaries) requires me to be efficient, compact and versatile! For me, that meant trying to find that one do-it-all mic. Sadly, there's no such thing. To be able to deliver quality tracks on a consistent basis in today's video production world, you're gonna want to carry a combination of cardioid mics, shotgun mics and lavaliers.
Building a personal microphone toolbox for the situations you commonly encounter is essential to recording high-quality audio.
If I had to do it all over again and choose what mic(s) to invest in when starting out, I wouldn't even look at entry level mics. I'd jump right into mid priced cardioids and shotguns ($500 - $800) and only high-end lavaliers ($200 - $400). At these levels, the quality in sound is very high, and there’s a noticeable increase in versatility and durability. Mid-priced cardioid and shotgun mics are the best bang-for-your-buck where high-end lavaliers will make applying and recording with lavaliers easier and sonically palatable.
As you advance in booming and lavalier techniques, you'll find that the quality of mics I've suggested won't limit your ability to record high quality tracks. As you learn and progress, these mics will become more versatile, they’ll be your go-to mics — they’re a good investment.
Mics I Like, Use And Recommend
Indoor Microphones (hyper cardioids and cardioids):
Mid priced: Sennheiser ME64,
High-end: Neumann KM150, DPA 4017B,
Haven’t used but others rave - Schoeps MK41
Outdoor Microphones (Shotguns):
Mid priced: Shure VP89 series, Sennheiser ME series.
Haven’t used but others like - Audio-Technica series, Rode NTG series
High-end: Sennheiser MKH series, Neumann KMR series.
Haven’t used but others rave - Sanken series
High-end: Sanken COS11D, Tram TR50, Countryman B6
Video Camera-mounted Microphones:
Mid priced: Sennheiser ME64, Rode NTG-3, Sennheiser MKE600
DSLR camera-mounted Microphones:
Mid Prices: Rode VideoMic Pro, Shure VP83, Sennheiser MKE400
High-end: Shure VP83F
The Location Audio Operator's Job
The main focus and job of most if not all location sound operators is voice recording. This can be anything from a quick sound bite, a sit down interview, unscripted run-and-gun to scripted scenes and sequences. You can be indoors and outdoors, in quiet locations and noisy ones, as well as a variety of framings from extreme close ups to big wide shots — there are numerous combinations. The good news about this laundry list of variables is that your mic choice will be dictated by the location and the framing — making it easier to choose the right mic for the job.
Shooting indoors can be more challenging than you’d expect. Since most video productions don't have the luxury of shooting on a soundstage, shooting in living rooms, kitchens, offices, warehouses, rooms with unwanted ambience and reverb (reflections) narrows your mic choice. Hypercardioid pattern mics, lavaliers and in a pinch, short shotguns are the types of mics you'll want to use. Framing in indoor locations will range from extreme close ups (ECU) to medium shots, as well as the odd establishing wide shot.
Hypercardioid pattern microphones that work best indoors are physically short so they can be used in rooms with low ceilings (Neumann KM150, Schoeps MK41, DPA 4017B). Their wide pickup pattern gives more coverage when booming from above since the sometimes low ceilings or tall talent have you booming closer to the talent's head than you'd like. A good indoor hypercardioid should have a maximum reach of 18 to 24-inches.
The hypercardioid is commonly used indoors for ECUs, CUs (close up) and medium framed shots. The establishing or wide shot is often covered with a lavalier mic or planting a colette mic (cardioid pattern) when possible.
Lavaliers are also great for recording dialogue indoors. Since they’re a close proximity microphone, they do a great job of knocking down a room's reverb and getting rid of unwanted ambience that can occur when shooting in houses and offices. When used with a wireless system and applied properly, lavaliers can be used for any size framing in any size room.
A short shotgun can also be used indoors. Now I know this is a no-no for many operators out there and I've read and heard enough about it, but I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. To find out for myself, I used a Shure VP89S short shotgun indoors in several locations where there was enough room to boom from overhead — I had no sound problems. I even had the opportunity to compare it head to head with a Neumann KM150, an excellent indoor hypercardioid mic — the short shotgun sounded fine. So for me, a short shotgun is a viable option indoors when there's enough room to boom from above.
Choosing a mic for recording dialogue outdoors becomes mostly about the microphone's ability to reject distracting unwanted ambience. Shotgun microphones are great for traditional dialogue type shoots (drama, interviews) but the "go anywhere" lavalier/ wireless system combination is an absolute must for non-traditional shoots like extreme sports and reality TV.
Shotgun microphones are great for recording dialogue outdoors. They are designed to reject ambience from the sides and rear, and can record quality dialogue quite far away — I’ve had success at 10-feet when conditions were right. Shotguns come in a variety of lengths and most manufacturers will put out a series that would consist of a short, a medium and a long shotgun for sound continuity from CU to wide shot. I'll state the obvious — a long shotgun can reach further than a short shotgun. Shotguns use the principle of sound cancellation of the near field ambience to reach further. The longer the microphone's interference tube the more cancellation ports, and the more cancellation ports the tighter the pickup pattern. The tighter the pattern the further the reach. So for a CU framed shot, you'd use a short shotgun and as the shot gets bigger and the frame pushes you further from talent you’d choose a shotgun mic with a tighter pattern and more reach. A word of warning to those of you who think "I'll just purchase a long shotgun and I'll have all framings covered,” you’d be wrong. The tight pickup pattern of a long shotgun requires you to be very accurate when booming to produce quality recordings. For non-scripted shooting, even interviews, your booming skills will need to be beyond amazing to have any kind of consistency!
Now more expensive shotgun mics do sound better, but if you don't know how to use them, they can, in many situations, cause all kinds of grief. Higher-end mics are more sensitive, less versatile, require higher operator skills and need a fatter pocketbook. A less expensive utility-type mic, like a Shure VP89S or Rode NTG3, will be more forgiving and produce good quality sound in a wider variety of situations in the hands of a less experienced sound operator. Your choice whether to go high-end or mid priced comes down to your knowledge and ability as a location sound operator, and that choice can be the difference between usable quality tracks and an unintelligible mess.
Lavaliers are also great when shooting outdoors. They're perfect for big wide shots where you can't reach the dialogue with a shotgun mic. For unscripted fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and extreme action shots where there’s no chance of getting a shotgun into position to record voice, the lavalier often becomes your only option.
So here's where you might be wondering, why not just use lavaliers all the time? They're great indoors and out, and in many instances better than shotguns in noisy locations. A decent wireless system and high-end lavalier cost about the same as a medium priced shotgun once you add in a suspension, wind suppression and boom pole. Well, there's two main reasons not to rely solely on a lavalier. Number one, shotguns sound better — they're more natural sounding. I use lavaliers only when I absolutely have to, when I can't reach with a boom pole — most location audio operators would agree. And second, if it gets windy or talent is wearing noisy clothing, the little lavalier can quickly be rendered useless. Lavaliers, like shotguns, can’t be used in every situation and that’s why you need to carry both.
Quiet And Noisy Locations
The volume of your location will also dictate which type of microphone will yield the best results. Obviously a quiet location is what we all want when shooting dialogue. The type and quality of microphone won't be as much of a factor compared to shooting in a noisy location. In most instances, even the wrong mic can produce pretty decent tracks in a quiet location. The skills, techniques and experience of the location sound operator won't be challenged. On the other hand, noisy locations are where your mic choice becomes more critical. Having a mic that can quell unwanted ambience in your kit can save your butt. Shotguns and lavaliers will be your choice in noisy locations and knowing how to properly use them to their full potential will greatly improve your chances of success.
Now this doesn't mean you need to spend a ton of cash and carry every mic available just in case an extremely noisy or unique situation presents itself. The type of shooting you find yourself working in a majority of the time should dictate the mics you have in your kit. When you find yourself wrestling unwanted ambience, this is where you start learning the limitations of your mics and honing your abilities as a location sound op. Now let me point out, for years I successfully recorded sound on hundreds of broadcast productions carrying a single hyper cardioid mic (Neumann KM150) and two wireless systems (Sennheiser G2) with two lavaliers (Tram TR50). I successfully recorded usable high quality dialogue in numerous noisy locations, but over the years as shooting styles changed, and the expectation from producers to record usable dialogue in even noisier locations, I had to expand my mic selection to stay gainfully employed.
Not everyone needs to carry a full arsenal of mics to record quality tracks. Depending on the type of work you do, your experience and how deep your pockets are, the mics you carry should be able to comfortably cover the majority of shots you expect to encounter. Yes it's good to be prepared and ready for anything but there is a point where it becomes overkill, expensive, even ridiculous.
Here's my "location audio mic progression" - the mics I'd recommend.
Beginner’s Essentials - The must have mics to even call yourself a location sound operator.
One mid priced wireless system (Sennheiser G3), one high-end lav (Tram TR50), one mid priced short shotgun (Shure VP89S), and one mid priced cardioid mic which doubles as an indoor mic and camera-mounted mic (Sennheiser ME64 with K6P power supply).
The Next Level - I know what I'm doing
Two mid priced wireless systems (same make as beginner), two high-end lavaliers (same make as beginner), one mid priced short shotgun (same make as beginner), one high-end indoor hyper cardioid (Neumann KM150), one mid priced cardioid to be used as a camera mounted mic (same make as beginner).
Full-On Pro - Fully decked out and billing accordingly
Two diversity wireless systems (Shure UR series), two front loaded lavs and two top loaded lavs (same make as beginner but add two Sanken COS-11Ds), full series of mid to high-end shotgun mics (Shure VP89 series), two high-end indoor hyper cardioid mics (Neumann KM150), and one mid priced cardioid to be used as a camera-mounted mic (same make as beginner).
Unique mics - For those specialized type shots
High humidity shotgun mic (Rode NTG3), water proof lavaliers (Countryman B6), colette and capsule for planting mics, DSLR designed camera-mounted mic (Shure VP83F).
The make and model of microphones you choose to use is a personal preference. We all hear very differently, so it’s important you like the sound of the mics you use. It’s hard to get excited about what you’re recording if you don’t think it sounds good. Believe me, I was surprised when I went against popular opinion and chose the Shure VP89 series shotguns and a Neumann KM150 hyper cardioid. Read as many articles and blogs as you can but trust your ears when it comes time to make that purchase, and happy recordings.
Since 1989, Dean Miles has been working as a professional location audio operator for major television networks, motion pictures, high-end documentaries, corporate and industrial video and everything in between.