Choosing a Microphone

C’mon! Pick a mic.. any mic! Right!? Wrong! From pickup patterns to wired or wireless, there’s a confusing array of mics to choose from. Let’s narrow your focus a bit.

We’ve all heard them – videos that sounded like the mic was under a box in the next room. Can I let you in on an industry secret? Whether you’re shooting for the big screen or YouTube, the number one way to add professionalism to your productions is with quality audio. People will forgive all sorts of video shenanigans in the name of “art,” but if the audio stinks, the whole project is in trouble. This means choosing the right microphone for the job. But which one? There isn’t a single answer to that question, but some simple guidelines should make the decision easier.

Old Faithful

A good video producer should build a microphone collection that offers flexibility in any situation. However, if you have the budget for only one mic, it should be a shotgun. With high sensitivity and a narrow pickup range, a solid shotgun microphone works in almost any situation. A shotgun mic can pick up sound from two or more people in an interview, double as a handheld model, pick up sound effects and even record a voiceover. It’s a great overall choice and one that is used every day in news, documentaries, television and feature films.

Shotgun microphones come in short and long varieties. Short sizes are usually less than one foot in length, and there are several excellent choices under $300. Long shotguns can be very long; one very popular shotgun design measures over 18 inches! This isn’t the type of thing you strap to most cameras; however, it’s perfect for grabbing sound from a distance. There are two primary methods for mounting a shotgun: on-camera or using a stand or boom pole. As you shop, you’ll find several on-camera-only options. These are great for shooters who need a small, ultra-portable setup with a minimum of headaches. The downside is a lack of flexibility; the mic is always on the camera. For more options, consider a standard model. Many offer camera mounts, and you gain the ability to go fully mobile – even wireless if necessary.

The Intimate Approach

While shotgun mics can be big and bulky, lapel microphones offer a stealthy alternative. These little guys virtually disappear on clothing or, if necessary, hide underneath. Rarely bigger than a pencil eraser, modern lapel microphones are a technological wonder. The biggest audio benefit is getting the mic near the talent’s mouth. This maximizes signal quality while minimizing background noise. If you shoot news or interviews on a regular basis, you need a lapel microphone in your collection.

Back in the early days of television, announcers and other talent wore a microphone on a strap around the neck. These were called lavalier mics, and the name is often abbreviated to lav. Whether lav or lapel, there are many options today. Simple lapel mics cost less than $50 and include a short cable terminated by an 1/8″ plug. Professional models sport longer cables, rugged construction and XLR connectors, and they require phantom power. (Power from the camera, not a battery.) Optional colors are another professional option. Many lapel mics are available in white, black or tan to better match the talent’s skin or clothing. Wireless lapel mics are common today, since the transmitter packs are easy to hide, making a completely mobile subject. This increases the price, but it adds even more flexibility to the lapel microphone.

Stick It

A third microphone option is the handheld mic, often called a stick mic. You’ll see these mics most often in news-type interviews. They’re also great for recording sound effects, Foley and voiceovers. Most handheld microphones look similar to one another. Modeled after the venerable Shure SM-58, the handheld mic has a steel mesh ball on the business end and a handle and connector on the bottom. Wireless handhelds include a thicker handle to house the transmitter electronics.

Choosing a handheld mic is more a matter of taste today – even the inexpensive mics sound pretty good. Sound quality, clarity and handling noise are the major differences, and you’ll have to plug one in to find out. Cosmetic differences include color – ranging from gold plate to matte black – and texture. Several manufacturers offer softer, warmer grips on their microphones. These often minimize handling noise and make the mic easier for talent to hold in freezing temperatures. Almost all professional handheld mics terminate in an XLR connector, and very few require phantom power. Some offer an on/off switch, while pads and low-cut switches are available on other models. You can also convert a hardwired version to wireless with an add-on transmitter.

Outside the Box

Specialty microphones have their place too. While you won’t use them in every situation, they can be a real shoot-saver. Imagine you’re shooting a corporate board meeting with several people around a table. You don’t have mics for everyone, and a shotgun won’t cover all the participants. Why not try a boundary microphone? Available from all the major manufacturers, boundary mics (frequently referred to as PZM mics, even though that’s a trademark of Crown) lie on a table or other flat surface and pick up everything equally in every direction. It won’t have that in-your-face sound, but you’ll capture all the voices at the table, minimize setup and eliminate a dozen wires running across the floor.

If budget allows, try to purchase new microphones based on the needs of your current project. The client helps fund your collection, and you get a new mic that fits the production. Don’t forget, you can also rent microphones from production companies, music stores and other rental outlets. This is very common with wireless mics. The rental price buys you the chance to try different models, identifying features and options that suit your production style.

Spoiled for Choice

As you can see, there are lots of options when choosing a microphone. Multiply that by the dozens of models offered by each manufacturer, and the task might seem too daunting. Read the spec sheets and reviews, but trust your ears and your gut. The right microphone is waiting for you.

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

Side Bar: Mix Things Up a Bit

If you need more than one microphone on a shoot, adding a small mixer is a great option. Starting around $100, there are dozens of mixers that offer this flexibility. A mixer lets you match volumes from different types of mics and a variety of on-screen talent. You can also mix in other audio sources, like MP3 players or sound systems. As a bonus, you gain easy headphone monitoring and level meters. Several mixers will even run on batteries for extreme remote shoots. It may take an adapter or two to get the signal from the mixer to the camera, but this simple, inexpensive audio addition offers a lot of power and flexibility.

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

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