Mics for All Occasions

All mics are NOT created equal; you have do your research to find which mic best suits your needs. Let’s take a look at a few needs to mic people, places and things.

Yesterday, I stopped at a local music store to pick up some supplies for my son. Inside, I was treated to a conversation between the hotshot manager and a microphone shopper. Over the next ten minutes, the manager bombarded this poor customer with every microphone myth and piece of misinformation he could muster. Having spent over 25 years in professional recording and sound, I found it hard to keep my mouth shut, but I managed to remain professional and adult through the ordeal. It made me realize how little people understand about microphone choice and application. So this month, we’ll investigate mic selection and how to maximize mics in your productions.

Mics for People

There’s no getting around it – there will be people in your videos from time to time, and people tend to talk. That means you’ll need to mic them. The trick is getting the best sound while still serving the needs of the production. Interviews and other controlled shoots have a couple of options. First is the trusty lapel microphone. Clipped on or under clothing, this workhorse gathers consistent sound by keeping the mic a constant distance from the talent’s mouth. There are a few caveats, though. Lapel mics tend to be omni-directional, picking up sound equally from all directions. This makes it difficult to isolate voices from loud background noise. Also, if you’re hiding a lapel mic in clothing, you may pick up rubbing sounds. Try to keep the mic as stationary as possible, using gaffer’s tape or other creative fastener. (We’ve recently found some lightweight medical tape that works pretty well, too.) Failing that, try other locations to minimize the noise.

Another popular choice is the shotgun microphone. These beauties are highly directional and perfect for picking a voice out of a crowd or isolating it from other noises. Usually, you attach shotgun mics to a boom pole or microphone stand, although you can hold them too. Due to their increased sensitivity, shotguns can pick up quite a bit of mechanical noise, so you usually want to install them in a shock-absorbing mount. In use, you typically suspend a shotgun directly over and just in front of the subject. Be careful to keep the mic out of your shot framing. More than one movie has made it to screen with telltale mic hardware in the shot. If the overhead option doesn’t work for your project, try a lower position, with the mic pointing up at the talent. The sound is almost as good, and the lower position offers some flexibility in certain situations. If you’re shooting outdoors, don’t forget to use a serious windscreen. Rycote, Windtech and others offer complete solutions for anything from a breeze to a hurricane.

Mics for Places

Eventually, you’ll need to record something like a band, orchestra or choir

concert. This requires a different discipline and occasionally some political skill. Although you could use the stereo mic on your camera, the best way to get a solid recording in these situations is with a stereo pair of external microphones closer to the action. The July 2000 issue of Videomaker has a more detailed article on stereo miking, but we’ve got room here to cover the basics. Start with a pair of identical microphones and a tall mic or light stand. Using a T-bar or some creative clamping hardware (or even two stands), mount the microphones so that the business ends overlap in a 90-degree pattern. With the microphones on top of the stand, position the setup at least 10 feet over the stage area and a few feet away from the stage, pointed toward the musicians. A closer location will produce a tighter recording, while a more distant location will add some more room ambiance. Alternatively, several manufacturers make single-point stereo microphones that are much easier to set up and offer a smaller visual signature. They are perhaps a little too expensive for the casual user, but they’re worth investigating if you do this type of shoot regularly. Whatever the mic choice, you’ll need some long mic cables running back to the camera. Depending on your gear, you can blend the microphones with a mixer first or just plug them in directly. Due to the location and quality of the mics, your recording will have clarity and depth most amateur shooters could only dream of.

Now for the politics. Some may view your mics and stand as a visual distraction, and you’ll likely need to get permission to set up. To overcome any resistance, offer the musical director a copy of the finished video. Depending on the content, you may even be able to offer finished videos as a fundraiser for the music or theater program. This could open doors to a side business you never even considered.

Mics for Things

Whether you’re recording sound effects for your latest production, a voiceover or instruments for a music track, there are only two rules: use the best microphone you can find, and put it where it sounds best. That may seem overly simplistic, but the rules stand. It’s fair to assume that a $300 studio condenser microphone will sound better than a $25 lapel mic. While you may not own such an expensive mic, you may be able to borrow or rent one for a day or two for your recording session. On the other hand, the most expensive mic might not always be the best for a particular job. If you’re gathering sound effects in the wild, a more durable and battery-powered microphone is likely the way to go. And don’t forget the pickup pattern – the more directional the mic, the less background noise you’ll have to deal with in post.

As for sound, all I can say is trust your ears. For instance, when recording acoustic instruments, have the musician play as you move your head around the instrument. Listen closely for the best balance of tone and quality, and put your mic there. Odds are, it’s a pretty good starting place. When recording sound effects, consider the distance from which your on-screen talent will “hear.” If you’re recording a telephone ring, will it be heard up close or from across the room? Record both versions just to be sure. Everything sounds different depending on the distance from the source. Keep this in mind as you record. Some acoustic environments can be recreated with processing, but why not get the real thing the first time?

It’s Up To You

Our self-proclaimed music store guru had it wrong on just about everything he told his unsuspecting customer. Sadly, after reading this article, you probably know more about microphone choice and application than he does. You can read everything written about mics, but the best way to really learn is to do it. Use your newfound mic technique on a project, refining the process to fit your production style. The more you do, the better you’ll get. By the way, I did manage to slip the music store customer one of my business cards.

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

Sidebar: Stealth Audio

We’ve only touched on visibility in this article, but it’s an important issue for the video producer. There are times when microphone visibility is an absolute no-no and others when it doesn’t really matter. In fact, sometimes seeing the mic helps sell the shot. Then there are times when the mic, hardware and cabling are clearly visible, whether you like it or not. Concerts, church services and theatrical performances are common examples. In those instances, your only options are to shoot around the equipment as much as possible or simply embrace it as a part of the presentation.

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

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