Boom Op 101

The boom mic is the go-to microphone of choice for most television shows, documentaries and major motion pictures.

Boom mics offer flexibility, mobility and ease of use. There is virtually no setup and none of the hassle of hiding lapel microphones on talent. The gear is minimal and, in basic productions, the boom operator can also serve as the person monitoring the audio. Of course, there’s more to it than just grabbing a shotgun mic and pointing it at the scene. This month, we’ll look at the equipment and techniques you need to be a great boom operator.

Get the Gear

The successful boom operator needs the right equipment, but you don’t have to budget $5,000. Today’s video marketplace offers many excellent and cost-effective solutions. First, you’ll need a shotgun microphone. Audio-Technica, Azden, Rode and Sennheiser all offer a broad range of professional video mics. Look for a microphone with high sensitivity, low handling noise and a lo-cut switch. Battery power can be handy too, if your camera or mixer doesn’t supply phantom power. The sweet spot seems to be in the $250-$400 range. For this kind of money, expect a high-quality microphone that will work well on any shoot, from simple interviews to an independent feature film. Don’t forget to check with other manufacturers, vendors and even eBay, as you could find a serious bargain on a great microphone.

Next, you need a boom pole and some accessories. Boom poles can be expensive little monsters. A quick online search shows models ranging from $300 to $800! Search a little deeper and you’ll find boom poles starting at $50. These won’t have any name brands, fancy features or internal cabling, but they will work perfectly for most projects. Check several vendors for package pricing. They may have a bundle of mic, pole and accessories that suits your budget. If you’re the industrious type, consider adapting a telescoping fishing net or painter’s pole. With some tools and patience, this option could save you hundreds of dollars.

Of course, no boom pole setup is complete without a shock mount and a windscreen. Your shotgun microphone may come complete with these items, but forget the foam windscreen. Outdoor shoots require a heavy-duty windscreen called a zeppelin. You’ve seen them on DVD extras and TV: those furry covers that look like a small animal on a stick. The Rycote Windjammer is standard equipment for professional boom operators, but there are other options available. One alternative is the slip-on sock. Rather than a complicated shell and cover setup, these windscreens use a simple collar to lock the fur to the body of the microphone. It’s quicker and less expensive, but it might not survive hurricane-force winds. Shotgun microphones are very sensitive to sound, but sound can come from handling noise too. A shock mount mechanically isolates the microphone from the boom pole and will minimize or eliminate any sounds from your fumbling fingers. Many microphones come with a shock mount; if yours doesn’t, there are generic mounts available too. These are often bundled with zeppelins and poles to give you the complete package.

Hook Me Up

Once you have the basic mic gear, it’s time to consider how you’ll mix, monitor and record the audio. In a simple setup, the microphone cable plugs directly into the camera, and you’re done. Or are you? As the boom operator, you still need to hear the sound from the mic. This is critical for positioning and overall sound quality. In this simple setup, you can plug a pair of headphones into the camera for monitoring; an extension cable would be handy too. Headphone selection is important here. You’re responsible for high-quality sound, so you need a pair of high-quality headphones. $100 is a good starting budget. AKG, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Sony all offer full-coverage headphones to seal out the room, focusing sound on your ears. Headphones come with either coiled or straight cables. Coiled cables can be a tangled mess, and straight cables are either too long or too short. You’ll have to decide which works best for your system.

The professionals also use audio mixers before sending the sound to the recorder. There are several options here. There are many small desktop audio mixers that sound great and offer plenty of options for the boom operator. Unfortunately, few of them operate on battery power. Portability is also an issue, since you may have to wear the mixer on a mobile shoot. In any case, make sure your mixer has balanced inputs, phantom power, basic tone controls, a good headphone amplifier and several options for output. You can spend anywhere from $50 to $5000 here, so some research is in order.

Get Fit

For a simple sit-down interview, you can mount your boom pole to a stand and walk away. Have you considered how you’ll boom an all-day outdoor shoot? Boom operation in these situations requires focus and good upper body strength. Try this experiment: put your boom pole together and strap on any gear you need to get the audio to the recorder. Now, hold the pole overhead while pointing at the imaginary talent for five minutes. No drooping or shuffling allowed. Hurts, doesn’t it? I’m not qualified to recommend an exercise program, but anything will help.

There is a mental aspect to boom operation, too. First, you need the focus to concentrate on the scene being shot, following the action and talent as needed. Second, you need some sort of ESP with the camera operator. The microphone can’t dip into the shot, but you want it as close as possible to capture the best audio. You also have to be stealthy. Shadows and reflections will give away your position, so check out the shot, the angle of the lighting and any reflective surfaces before choosing a place to stand. It’s a real balancing act that improves with practice.

Finally, you need good ears and the ability to sort out the various voices and sounds. A good boom operator has to analyze the sound in his headphones on the fly. The position, angle and type of microphone determine the ratio of good to bad sound. Sometimes a simple twist of the pole or a change of angle is all it takes to transform the audio from beast to beauty.

Give It a Shot

Boom shots are needed for many shoots, but boom operation isn’t for everyone. With your gear and a few shoots under your belt, you can hire your services to other production companies. This is a great way to get more experience, a bigger resume and some extra cash. As always, you’ll have to do some research, but there are many excellent resources for equipment and training on the internet. Grab your gear and get busy!

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

DIY and Save!

If you don’t have the cash for name-brand equipment, don’t panic. With a few tools and a trip to the hardware, discount and electronics stores, you can build a shock mount, zeppelin and even a cable and audio interface for your boom mic rig. Search the internet for “DIY shock mount,” and you’ll find several home builders who have done the design work for you. There are tips on boom pole substitutes, modifications and complete parts lists for your project. Pick the one that suits your needs, and apply the money you saved to a really nice shotgun mic.

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

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