There are lots of little audio doo-dads that make life easier, improve sound quality and reinforce a professional image. Of course, there are plenty of other items that fall more in the ‘frills’ category. This issue we’ll focus our attention on items all video producers should have at their disposal. No frills, just the essentials.
You do have a good set of headphones, don’t you? Headphones serve several functions in the video production process and are a necessity for the serious content creator. During a shoot, headphones let you monitor the audio as it’s recording, helping you fine-tune mic placement, spot bad cables, catch dead batteries and ferret out hum and buzz before it’s committed to the recording. They’re used for sound effects and Foley recording, along with dialog and voice-over recording. They will help you clearly analyze music choices, effects options and signal processing settings. You can also use them as a reference for the final mix and, if you have a few spare minutes, pipe some tunes through them to clear your mind.
A good pair of headphones should sound fairly neutral – no extreme bass or highs – and fit comfortably on your ears. If you work in high noise environments, find a pair of circumaural style ‘phones that fully covers and seals your ears. This will minimize outside noises and help you focus on the recorded sound. Look for durable constructions and make sure the included connector works with your gear. Find the appropriate adapter if needed. Circumaural (covering the ears) are the best, followed by over-the-ear types, that might let in some outside noises. If you have no other choice, use ear-buds that fit in the ear. The aren’t ideal, but are better than nothing. Headphones can be cheap or expensive but you’re going to spend some quality time with them, so pick a pair you can live with.
Cables and Adapters
As the old saying goes, you can never have too many adapters. Regardless of what you have in your audio bag, eventually you will run into a situation where you need another adapter. It’s not like the audio world doesn’t have standard connectors – it does – but there are just so many. For instance, your camcorder could have a 1/8″ mini-jack connection for audio input, or it might have a couple of XLR connectors. The microphone, mixer or other audio device you’re trying to attach might have either of these connectors or 1/4″ phone plugs, RCA connectors or some other bizarre connector you’ve never seen before. Audio adapters and adapter cables can get you from here to there whether it’s your normal hookup or some strange situation.
While you can find a few adapters and audio cables at your local Mega-Mart, you’ll find a much broader selection at the specialty electronics stores. These places have almost everything and usually know how to adapt just about anything. Don’t forget that there’s a specialty audio-for-video market out there with adapters designed specifically for common and not-so-common audio hookup tasks. Check the back pages of this magazine or your favorite online audio/video retailer. Special purpose adapters cost more up front but offer stability and flexibility that no combination of audio adapters and cables can provide.
Stands and Booms
If you’re going to use microphones, you’ll need stands to put them on. Mic stands come in many shapes and sizes. A basic model will have a weighted or tripod base attached to a tube. In the middle, there’s a hand-grip or clutch that controls the height of the upper adjustable tube. Simple enough, but there are other options too. You can choose from heavier bases, thicker tubing, black or chrome color and even wheels for mobility. One important mic stand accessory is the boom adapter. This is an adjustable cross piece that adds reach to the mic stand, allowing you to get into tight places or position a microphone in front of someone, just out of frame.
Boom poles are available without the stand too. These are typically for portable use on location. Made from fiberglass, aluminum or carbon fiber, boom poles let you get the microphone close to the talent while staying mobile. High-end models include the microphone cable inside the pole while budget models provide clips or straps to attach your cable to the pole. Operating a boom pole seems like a simple thing, but imagine holding your arms over your head for 20 minutes straight. Add the weight of the pole, mic and cable and you’re in for a real workout. The benefit is the ultimate in portability and control over the position of the microphone.
Windscreens and Pop Filters
If you use a microphone outside, you need some way to minimize wind noise. Windscreens come in just a few styles but all of them stop wind noise to some degree. Many microphones come with a form-fitting foam windscreen. If your mic doesn’t have one, they’re available in just about every size and shape. Foam windscreens work well in light breezes or up close for vocal work. If you work in heavier winds, consider upgrading to a fur windscreen. You’ve seen them – those fuzzy tubes that look like a stuffed animal on a stick. The fur breaks up the wind currents and keeps them from getting to the mic element, providing you with clean audio.
On a smaller scale, the micro bursts of wind coming from the mouth cause similar problems when recording dialog. While you could use a foam windscreen, the better choice is a pop filter. Most pop filters are hoops covered with a fine mesh cloth. When placed in front of the microphone, they stop most of the breath pops before they reach the mic. Other pop filters are made of metal or plastic mesh, but they all do the same thing. If you’re serious about quality vocal recording, invest in a pop filter. See our DIY pop filer article.
There are many sound accessories on the market. Most solve specific audio problems and are available from various manufacturers. Now you have a short list of the most important sound accessories available. Take an inventory of your audio equipment and find the accessories that will help the most with your specific production methods. The right sound accessories will improve the quality of your audio recordings, give you more flexibility and give your productions a professional edge.
Sidebar: DIY Shock Mount
Shock mounts minimize handling noise from boom poles and you can build one quickly yourself for about $5. Head to the hardware store and find a 1 1/4″ x 1/2″ PVC Tee connection. You also need a short length of 1/2″ PVC pipe. Next, buy or scrounge four elastic pony tail holders. With a hacksaw or Dremel tool, cut 8 equally spaced notches in each end of the Tee. Stretch the elastics around the outside and insert the short pipe section into the Tee. Place your mic inside and plant the whole thing in a mic clip. Not as pretty as the pro versions, but it works and you made it yourself.
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.