Here are answers to 10 common questions about capturing clean, clear audio at
weddings.

This month, we tackle the tricky issue of wedding sound. Why is it tricky? Because the sounds heard at a wedding are a huge part of the ceremony, be they whispered vows or musical solos. And, as anyone who has shot a wedding can tell you, the recording environment at most ceremonies is rarely optimum for capturing good sound.

What follows are 10 common questions asked about good wedding video sound, with ten
workable answers. Remember that there is rarely just one perfect solution to a sound dilemma. The key to
recording a perfect-sounding wedding is to stay flexible, be prepared, and rely as heavily on your
brain as you do on your ears.

Before we get to the questions, there are a few principles worth noting that will make any wedding
video shoot go much smoother. First, always try to visit the wedding site a few days before the ceremony.
Attend the rehearsal if possible. This will give you a good idea what you’re in for at the actual ceremony.
Likewise, always get to the location at least two hours before the ceremony to set up mikes, run and tape
down cables, coordinate with a sound person (if any) and test your whole system. If you need more time
than this, find a way to be there even earlier. Without adequate prep time, it’s easy to forget even simple
things.

Come to the ceremony equipped with an assortment of cable adapters, transformers, attenuators
and other goodies. There’s nothing worse than watching your setup grind to a halt for the lack of a $0.75
adapter. Bring extra batteries for wireless mikes and self-powered condenser mikes, as well as at least one
spare cable for every crucial link in your system. Have an extra pair of headphones on hand, even if they’re
cheapies.

Always wear your headphones, preferably the kind that block out at least some of the ambient
sound. Without headphones, you won’t know if a cable has come loose, if a lavalier mike is now hanging
between the groom’s knees, if a two-year-old is chewing on the end of your mixer’s now-unplugged power
cable… You get the picture.

Lastly, try to anticipate what’s going to happen next in the ceremony. If a printed wedding
program is available, have one near you at all times. All too often, we find ourselves reacting late to
situations we should have foreseen. The time to bring up the soloist’s mike at your mixer, for example, is
before the first line of the song, not after. Learn to think ahead, and very few situations will catch
you off guard.

Now let’s get into the questions.

Do I really need a bunch of stuff to record a wedding? Why can’t I just use the camcorder’s
built-in mike?


The camcorder’s built-in mike does a poor job picking up sounds from more than about 10 feet away.
The problem is one of simple physics–as you increase the distance between a microphone and a sound
source, the desired sound becomes a smaller part of the recorded mix. It’s like a camera with a fixed focal
length lens–move it back from the subject, and the subject gets smaller relative to the surrounding clutter.
If you want a clear view (or a clear recording) of your subject, get close.

At just 15 feet away from the bride and groom, your camcorder’s mike will pick up more room
echo, audience rustlings, passing traffic and creaking chairs than it will sacred vows. At 30 feet, you can
pretty much forget hearing any vows at all. If you can’t get your camcorder to within a few feet of the
couple, you’ll need to use an external mike or tap into an existing microphone/sound system. The
difference in sound quality will astound you.

Should I use wired or wireless mikes?

This is a difficult question to answer. Both types of mikes have their advantages and disadvantages.
Wireless mikes offer convenience and freedom from attached cables, but they can be somewhat
unpredictable when it comes to signal dropout and battery life. Low-impedance wired mikes with balanced
cables yield consistently high-quality sound. But if you use a high-impedance mike with an unbalanced
cable, the sound quality will plummet in proportion to the length of your cable run. In either case, the main
drawback is the cable itself. If you attach the mike to the groom, he must restrict his movements or risk
catching the cable on a piece of furniture, or even tripping himself or someone else. It’s relatively easy to
damage mike cables, and they can become disconnected at the most inopportune times.

Consider all these factors in your decision, as well as the specifics of your shooting situation. If
you do decide to go wireless, make sure you use a high-quality one with a long transmitting range (200 feet
or more). And make sure the batteries in both the transmitter and the receiver carry a healthy charge.
Finally, always have a wired mike ready to go as a backup if needed.

The celebrant doesn’t want to wear a mike, and neither does the bride or groom. What should I
do?


As insurmountable as this problem may seem, don’t resign yourself to just using the camcorder’s
built-in mike. Odds are, you can still get a mike (or mikes) closer to the key players than you could your
camcorder’s mike. You may be able to tape a hidden lavalier to the back of a kneeling bench positioned
between the bride and groom. Perhaps you can position a stand-mounted directional mike between them,
pointing straight up at about waist level. In one wedding, where the bulk of the ceremony took place under
a lattice arch, a resourceful videomaker hid a wireless lavalier mike above the bride and
groom.

In a worst-case scenario, you should still be able to place a directional mike on a table-top stand,
positioning it out of sight on the ground. Point it up at the bride and groom, and you’ve got a much better
aural “vantage point” to pick up the proceedings. Always think in terms of distance, asking yourself, “how
can I get a mike closer to the sound source?”

The facility has a sound system, but what if there are no available outputs?

There are several factors that may keep you from plugging into an existing system. These include no
available outputs, an output scheme you can’t decipher, not having the necessary adapters, inadequate
setup time and an uncooperative sound person. In any case, you still have options.

One solution is to simply carry on as if there were no sound system, using your own mikes and
mixer (if necessary). Another trick that often works is to actually mike one of the existing speakers. You
can do this with a stand-mounted directional mike, or a carefully placed lavalier (wired or wireless).
Ideally, you should keep about four feet between speaker and mike. This works better with some speakers–
plan on experimenting with mike placement to get the best sound.

The advantage of this scheme is that someone else has already taken care of the hard part by
placing the mikes and maintaining the mix. If the house system fails, however, your sound goes down with
it. Have another strategically placed mike ready to go as a backup.

Will one lavalier mike pick up both bride and groom?

In most cases, a single lavalier mike placed on the groom will pick up both people. Sometimes, you
might have to adjust the mike level in response to who is speaking. You have to be quick on the fader or
knob, but this technique can achieve a more even balance between bride and groom. Though not optimum,
a single lavalier mike placed on the officiate may pick up all three people if they’re standing close
enough.

Most brides do not want a black microphone attached to their dress, a fact that makes the shared
mike a common technique. A handful of manufacturers have recognized the special needs of the wedding
videomaker, making a lav mike with a white housing and cable.

What happens if the church’s wireless microphone system is on the same frequency as
mine?


Depending on the type of system in use, this can be a good or a bad thing. If you find your wireless
receiver is picking up clean, clear audio from their transmitter, you’re home free. Simply attach
your receiver to your camcorder or mixer as usual, and leave your transmitter in its box.

If the two systems interfere, you have fewer options. One is to use wired mikes exclusively. The
second is to change the frequency of your transmitter and receiver, or, if possible, that of the existing sound
system. Most modern wireless systems allow you to select from between two and 10 different frequencies,
depending on the quality and frequency band of the mike. UHF mikes, though pricey, usually offer a good
selection of frequencies. Try a different setting, and see if the interference disappears.

Never try to operate two transmitters on the same frequency–the result is the electronic equivalent
of a train wreck.

Whenever I run mike cables more than about 30 feet, the sound gets “dull.” Why?

High-impedance microphones are among the least expensive you can purchase, and work well for
short cable runs. Unfortunately, high electronic impedance and cable capacitance interact to dissipate the
higher frequencies that make for crisp, intelligible audio. The longer the cable run, the higher its
capacitance. Attach a high-impedance mike to a long cable, and your audio might turn to mud.

The solution lies in using slightly more expensive low-impedance mikes. These mikes have less
interaction with cable capacitance, making them capable of driving a signal through hundreds of feet of
cable without loss. When buying a mike, look for the terms “low impedance” or “Lo-Z” (“Z” being the
electrical symbol for impedance).

Most professional low-impedance mikes generate a balanced signal, which will require a
transformer. These transformers, which match the mike’s signal to the camcorder’s input, are available at
electronics or musical instrument stores for under $40.

I tapped into the facility’s mixer, but the resulting sound was massively distorted. What went
wrong?


Most mixer outputs operate at what’s called “line level.” This is a full-strength signal, already
amplified by the board’s electronics. Your camcorder’s mike input, on the other hand, is expecting an
unamplified “mike-level” signal. In relative terms, the mixer’s output may be as much as several
thousand times too powerful for the camcorder’s input. The result is buzzy, distorted sound.

The solution is a tiny device called an “attenuator.” Nothing more than a passive resistor network,
an attenuator simply reduces the strength of the signal coming from the mixer. You’ll find attenuators
calibrated for various degrees of signal loss, and you can even daisy-chain them for greater attenuation.
Simple attenuators are available for just a few dollars from electronics stores like Radio Shack.

Do I need an audio mixer? If so, what kind?

In simple terms, a mixer allows you to combine multiple mikes into one signal. Most mixers also
allow you to alter the tonal balance of each mike individually, or of the mix as a whole. Most mixers have
signal meters, which can tell you about the health of your signal at a glance. If you need to combine two or
more microphones into one signal, and most weddings require that you do, a mixer is a must. A good mixer
will also combine mike signals and line-level signals, allowing you to blend your own mikes into a feed
from the house mixer.

Look for a mixer that has about half again as many input channels as you currently need–this
allows you room to grow. You’ll probably want to purchase a mike/line mixer instead of a DJ-style unit.
The former offers more control over mike signals, which are the kind you’ll be using. Equalization is a
plus, as is a headphone cueing circuit. Even with these requirements, a high-quality audio mixer will set
you back just a few hundred dollars.

What’s the best way to get clean audio when shooting the reception?

Because picking up the “vibe” of a reception involves capturing plenty of ambient sound, and because
you’re able to get close to most subjects, the on-camera mike usually works fine in this application. For a
noticeable improvement in sound quality, you might consider an accessory camcorder-mounted mike.
Some of these offer more directional pickup than a camcorder-mounted mike, allowing you to better hear
the subject when ambient noise is high.

A nice supplement to the on-camera mike is a handheld wireless mike. Handing someone a
microphone will often encourage him or her to speak to the bride and groom, and the sound quality will be
better as well. Having the best man or other member of the wedding party do one-on-one interviews with a
handheld mike gives the reception coverage a fun, professional feel.

If your camcorder has stereo mike input jacks, it sometimes works well to record the on-camera
mike’s signal to one channel, and the handheld mike’s signal to the other. This way, you can adjust the
relative balance during editing. Another solution is a passive camcorder-mounted mixer like that available
from Azden. This will allow you to combine multiple microphones (and even a music source) to a single
mike input.

The Getaway

Making good-sounding wedding videos is not for the faint at heart. You’ll find yourself shooting in
situations that almost seem designed to thwart your best efforts. But with the right tools, a little preparation,
a keen ear and a sharp mind, you’ll be sure to capture even the most intimate “I do.”

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