A Brief overview of Microphones for the Videographer
In the movie The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, legendary Howard Hughes spends 3 years of his life and a considerable amount of his fortune to create his aviation masterpiece Hell’s Angels. At the wrap party, while talking with a comrade, the course of the conversation takes him to a movie theater that is showing the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer. The incredibly dramatic and entertaining sound recording technology pioneered by Thomas Edison stuns Hughes. The audio is so much more than just a piano accompaniment, and the audience is overwhelmed with the dramatic sound effects and the actual spoken word. Another dimension of the cinematic experience has been created
As the story goes, right then, and there, Howard Hughes decides to scrap the film, 3 years of his life, and a lion’s share of his fortune, to start all over again. The result, Hell’s Angels earns the very first Academy Award for Best Picture and makes this maverick director named Howard Hughes a star. Such was the impact of sound.
From its genesis over eighty-seven years earlier, to today, we celebrate that impact with our annual Microphone Buyer’s Guide. Whether you are a seasoned video professional, a passionate video hobbyist, or merely a proud parent looking to record Junior’s very first words on tape, a solid external mic will make the very difference in creating sound with impact and images that last in the mind’s eye, and ears, of the audience. Let’s, then, take a journey of our own into the realm of microphone awareness.
Direction is Everything
Nearly every camcorder on the market nowadays comes with a mic that can do an adequate job of recording the sounds of the moment. But to refine your audio recording abilities and take your video project to the next level, you’ll eventually need to buy a mic or two and understanding what types of mics are available will help you make a better decision on your particular needs.
First, you need to start your journey recognizing the direction from which you want to record your sound. Whether the microphone employs an Omni-directional or Uni-directional pickup of that sound will send you closer to your destination.
Omni loosely means all, and Uni means one, so Omni-directional microphones, like lapel, boundary (A.K.A Pressure Zone Microphone or PZM) and hand held models, pick up sound from all directions. Whereas the one-way, unidirectional quality of the shotgun and parabolic microphones make for tighter, more focused recording.
Types of Mics
The handheld mic is the stereotypical mic we all know. The workhorses of broadcast journalism, reporters use these mics for man-on-the-street interviews and to deliver reports in a personal format, often surrounded by the classic station I.D. mic cube, showing off the station’s call letters or network affiliation. Vocalists also use handheld mics, using the mic’s dynamic range by bringing the mic closer to and farther from their mouth to dramatically convey the emotion beyond their dulcet tones. The Shure SM58CN is one affordable durable option that sells for about $200. Electro-Voice, the company best known for amplifying astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he first stepped on the moon, has the classic “Cobalt” series of professional handheld mics.
On the other hand, however sturdy and easy to use the handheld (or “stick” mic) is, due to its intrusive size, this microphone might not meet the needs of a studio interview, where a hand-held can cause the subject to be more tense, or ill at ease. For its more discreet quality, a lapel mic is casually held in place, and even out of view, by a clip to the lapel of a jacket or tie so that the subject is the primary focus of the interview, and not the medium by which it is being recorded. Some lapel mics are about the size of a button, or smaller, and some are wireless to allow for an increased range of movement.
Shooting industrial or dramatic style videos, one can accept nothing less than a shotgun microphone, which can either be held aloft just out of frame by a mic-boom, mounted on a stand and tilted toward the subject, or even hand held close by. Because of it’s dynamic range and flexible nature, the competition to make the best shotgun is fierce, with no one company really dominating the industry — although Sennheiser is one of the best well known makers with the popular ME66/K6 ($479).
The image of the studio-style “ribbon” microphone is legendary. We see classic photos from Frank Sinatra to Harry Connick, Jr. cradling one as they croon, or Robin Williams delivering countless punch-lines in voiceovers for an animated classic. Ribbon mics are perfect for recordings that require a complete range of audio control for voiceovers, narration, and even audio effects. Most ribbon mics are extremely sensitive, capturing even the softest sounds, so users will often speak on the side rather than straight into the mic. And again, the Electro-Voice has a hand on the famous pulse of recording, providing microphones like the RE20 series to the TV show “Frazier” for his radio broadcasts.
Cutting the Cord
Finally, for their total mobility factor there are wireless mics. But that convenience may outweigh the high maintenance required to keep the sound quality competitive with its wired cousins. And you really need to watch the distance to the subject for sound interference and listen closely for battery life.
In the end, the style of recording involved dictates the path the videographer must follow. And as such, a thorough understanding of needs should dictate the kind of microphone one should pick.
Hughes compulsion was legendary. However, there’s no need to feel compelled, like Howard Hughes did, to reinvent the wheel. Sound, thanks to the microphone, has arrived. All you have to do is decide your flight plan, and gather your tools to take that journey into quality audio acquisutions.
James DeRuvo is producer and editor for a broadcast production company.
Sidebar: I’ve Got the Power: The mystery behind Phantom Power
A whole article could be written about phantom power but the important thing to know is condenser mics need DC power (as opposed to dynamic mics that do not). Some condenser mics are battery powered, (ALWAYS carry extra batteries!), while others need phantom power, DC power from the camera or other source. Some cameras, usually the more expensive prosumer type can provide this phantom power, most camcorders do not.
Sidebar: How’s your balance?
Balanced cables, the three-pin XLR type, are preferred, due to their ability to avoid outside interference. This is especially true for running cable more than five to ten feet (from a stick mic to the camera for example). Unbalanced cable (1/8″ mini) is adequate for short runs such as from a shotgun mic mounted on the accessory shoe of a camera to the mic input of the camera. The longer the unbalanced cable, the more chance there is of receiving outside audio interference. Some mics come with balanced (XLR) connectors and others come with unbalanced (mini). Adapters cost between $50 and $300.