You’ve worked long and hard on your video production, and the visuals have come out great. Unfortunately, when you show it to an audience, they keep cupping their hands to their ears and straining to hear the dialogue. Voices sound muffled; some parts are painfully loud, while others are too quiet to hear. All through the length of the production, the annoying hum of the camcorders motor drones on in the background. The overall impression is that you recorded the audio on a ten-dollar cassette deck that youve owned since grade school.
Poor audio brings down many excellent video production efforts. Good audio production techniques, aided by the accessories outlined in this article, afford any videomaker the ability to produce more powerful audio, and thus a more powerful, professional production overall.
What follows is a brief description of several types of audio accessories, each of which will help you to improve the sound of your videos. So lets get started with a discussion of the most important audio accessory you can purchase for your camcorder: an external microphone.
The easiest and least professional way to provide audio for a video production is with the built-in microphone on your video camcorder. While the built-in microphone is often a fine piece of equipment, it certainly is not located in the best place to produce quality audio. Though very handy, it is usually too far away from the audio source to be effective.
A mediocre microphone positioned near the audio source will produce more powerful audio than an excellent microphone located back at the camcorder. For simplicity, and to keep expenses low, I recommend an omnidirectional microphone. Omnidirectional microphones are generally rugged, have low handling noise and offer good audio quality at an affordable price. The Electro-Voice 635A, a rugged unit used by many TV news crews, offers good long-term value and professional performance at $178. Shure offers a similar unit, the professional SM63 at $151. Less expensive omni-directional microphones are also available.
More common and easier to find locally, a vocal microphone will do the job. Remember that the directional nature of vocal microphones makes them harder to use due to increased handling noise and bass frequency build-up when used very close to the subject. Look for a Shure SM58 ($188) or an Electro-Voice N/Dym series unit (perhaps the N/D257 at $180). Stick with high-quality professional vocal microphones for the best performance.
Expect to pay $100 to $200 for a good vocal microphone. There are some good products at or below $100, but they are not common. Usually, as the price goes down, the handling noise and other irregularities become worse. So be sure to try before you buy if you go below the $100 price point.
If you find yourself doing a video production involving lions in the wild, I don’t advise trying to put a microphone close to the source unless you are very stealthy and can run very, very fast. When getting close to the audio source is not practical, you need to use a very directional microphone, sometimes called a shotgun mike. Place the shotgun mike at some distance from the subject, aimed directly at the audio source. If the source of the sound isnt moving, you can put the shotgun microphone on a stand and aim it at the subject. Otherwise, you need a helper to keep the microphone aimed in the right direction.
Another option is to mount the shotgun microphone on the camera. When mounted on the camera, the shotgun mike will always be aimed at the subject on the screen.
Some manufacturers of shotgun microphones offer a camera mount as an option. Sennheiser markets the battery-powered model ME-66/K6 short shotgun microphone ($564). Electro-Voice also offers a short shotgun mike, the RE45N/D ($616), which has a handle for use in interviews. The RE45N/D is a dynamic microphone (no battery required), and has a rugged design that will hold up during on-location shoots.
Shure offers the model SM89 shotgun microphone ($927). To mount this or any other high-quality shotgun mike on a camcorder, AKG offers the KA-38 camera adapter ($69) and H38 shockmount ($99).
Any microphone used outdoors requires a windscreen. The internal windscreen on most mikes is not sufficient for use outdoors in a stiff wind. A simple, inexpensive windscreen made of open cell foam will usually do the trick. Otherwise, flapping, rumbling sounds that overload the microphone generating element will intermittently interrupt your audio track if there is any significant wind. If you plan to use shotgun microphones outdoors in the wind, a windscreen or blimp windshield is a necessary piece of equipment. Shotgun microphones are much more sensitive to wind noises, so take special care when shooting outdoors with them.
Even indoors, there can be wind problems. Some people tend to overload microphones with the excessive amount of wind that comes out of their mouths when they speak. Try telling a narrator he/she is full of wind, or better yet, hot air–on second thought, don’t. Instead, use the AKG PF20 external pop filter ($89) to control the problem and keep your comments to yourself. The PF20 pop filter mounts on a frame that you position in front of the microphone thats giving you problems.
Follow manufacturer’s recommendations on these items to assure the fit and performance, especially with regard to shotgun microphones. If you are bargain hunting, there are generic windscreens and blimps available from The Sound Catalog (10639 Riverside Dr., N. Hollywood, CA 91602; 800-228-4429). These products range in price from $30 to over $300, depending on the product and the manufacturer.
Another microphone option, and in practical terms probably the best option, is a wireless microphone. Now available at affordable prices, wireless microphones offer great flexibility. You normally position a wireless mike on or near the subject. By doing so, you pick up more of the intended audio source and less of the unwanted sound all around the location, providing better audio quality for your production.
Wireless systems are available with a handheld microphone or with a lavalier microphone that easily attaches to clothing. But be warned–wireless microphone systems costing less than $300, though readily available, might not be very reliable (as in, more trouble than they’re worth). Use only VHF or UHF wireless systems.
Vega sells their VX-20BPM (with bodypack) portable wireless system for $1371. Lectrosonics offers the M175 bodypack transmitter ($350, not including microphone), and the CR175 compact VHF receiver ($770).
The Azden Producer Series is a wireless system designed for video production. Products in this series include the 111R portable receiver ($380), which is small enough to mount on a camera; the 31HT handheld transmitter ($185); and the 31LT lavalier bodypack ($115). Azden also offers a plug-on transmitter for use on standard "wired" microphones.
The plug-on transmitter attaches to any handheld microphone’s XLR connector, offering a great deal of flexibility. This comes in handy when a wireless system just won’t work due to frequency interference or some other problem caused by your physical surroundings. If the plug-on wireless system has problems, you simply unplug the transmitter, plug in a cable and you’re back in business. Lectrosonics offers the model H187 (an updated model H185) plug-on transmitter at $595. Azden offers the model 31XT plug-on transmitter separately at a cost of $205, and a complete system with this plug-on transmitter, the 111XT, at $585.
In order to control the quality of the audio as the production takes place, you need to monitor your audio signal as in comes into the camcorder. Just as you look through the viewfinder to make certain the image is properly framed and in focus, you must also listen to the audio signal in order to make certain it is clean, well above the background noise and undistorted. To do this, you need headphones.
Open-cell foam headphones are the least expensive option. You can pick up a pair at Radio Shack, or any store selling personal-audio or hi-fi products, for under $15. This type of headphone, used on most portable cassette and CD players, has the mini-plug connector that connects directly to your camcorder. While handy, cheap and lightweight, this type of headphone does not seal around your ear and therefore does not block out the outside sounds that hamper your ability to hear the audio signal clearly. There may be times when you need to hear the audio signal and secondarily monitor your surroundings, such as when youre working in a hazardous area or near traffic. In this case, open-cell foam headphones will work fine.
Higher quality on-the-ear headphones offer high-fidelity performance while still being lightweight and comfortable. They do not seal around the ear, but they do offer better isolation because they cover more of the ear and fit close to the ear. On-the-ear headsets cost $50 to $100.
Around-the-ear or closed-cup headphones offer much better isolation for audio monitoring because they seal around your ear. This allows you to concentrate on the audio signal and exclude the noises coming from the outside world. They cost anywhere from $30 to $300, depending on the quality you desire. A comfortable, high-quality set will run $70 or more.
Ear buds or in-the-ear headphones are a more recent addition to this family of products. In-the-ear headphones offer the advantage of superior isolation while still being lightweight. They fit into the outer ear. In-the-ear units actually fit inside the ear canal, creating a good seal and therefore greater isolation.
Unfortunately, the high-quality in-the-ear units that entertainers now wear on stage are very expensive because they are custom fit to the user’s ear. However, for about $15, you can buy a simple pair of ear-buds. These are lightweight, have no headband and do not form a complete seal in the ear canal as in-the-ear units do. I think manufacturers are being very careful about selling true in-the-ear headphones because the seal makes hearing damage a possibility if the units are improperly used.
Miniature battery-powered monitor speakers are now available as well. If you need to let several people hear the audio, or you just want to listen to the audio without wearing headphones, they can help. Recoton, Sony, Radio Shack and many other vendors offer small monitors, typically used with portable tape and CD players, powered by AA or C cells, for under $50.
More elaborate AC powered monitors are also available from a variety of sources. Today, with the rapid growth of multimedia and CD-ROMs, a good source for these monitors is computer catalogs or computer retailers. A set of small battery-powered powered monitors cost between $30 and $300. Small monitors provide an excellent way to review your audio tracks without watching the video. The lack of visual support helps you evaluate the audio track purely on its own merits, and you are evaluating the audio on small speakers, which is what most TV sets use.
When your video productions become more elaborate or involve interviewing more than one person at a time, youll need to mix the audio signals from several microphones or other sources. To do this, you need a portable, battery-powered mixer with at least four inputs that accept either microphone- or line-level signals. The mixer must have a headphone jack for you to monitor the "mixed" audio.
A bare-bones mixer is available from Radio Shack, the 32-1105 ($35). The Shure model M267 ($565) is a good value in a battery-powered professional mixer. The Shure FP31 ($1095) has all the professional features you might need in almost any kind of shooting situation.
There will be times when you need to eliminate a problem sound in the audio source. Maybe a piece of machinery is humming, or traffic is rumbling, or you have to put a microphone near a buzzing electrical transformer. With some form of equalizer, you might be able to eliminate the problem to some extent.
Without a doubt, bass roll-off is the most useful equalization for any type of audio-for-video production. Low frequency audio is usually just noise. The environment is full of low frequency audio noise from traffic and other machines; this will lessen the impact of your audio tracks if you dont remove it somehow. Many mixers include a roll-off switch on each input, and many electronic equalizers offer a bass roll-off switch as well.
If you are not using a mixer that has roll-off switches, you can use an in-line high-pass filter (which is just another way of saying "bass roll-off") attached to the microphone cable. This is a passive device (no electronics) that is inexpensive and very helpful. If you use no other accessory with your separate microphones, use a bass roll-off high-pass filter. Shure offers the Model A15HP at $47.
Most electronic equalizers are not battery powered and therefore not portable. You use them during the editing process when AC power is available. Graphic and parametric equalizers let you shape the frequency spectrum or selectively cut and boost individual frequencies. For example, you use a graphic equalizer to gradually taper off the high frequencies to subdue the sounds of crickets or birds. You use a parametric equalizer to remove AC power hum or a shrill noise produced by a machine. Graphic equalization shapes large sections of the frequency curve, while parametric equalization deals with narrow, individual sections of the frequency curve.
If you deal with audio and video devices for very long, youll begin to collect a variety of useful connectors and adapters. You use these handy items to connect device A to device B in a way that causes them to work properly. With all the different connectors found on equipment these days, its hard to be certain you can meet any request to attach any given audio device to your audio input. Fortunately, if you can adapt XLR to 1/4-inch (most audio gear), to RCA to mini-plug (most video gear) in any combination, you are usually able to function. But what about DIN, Lemo, Mini XLR, BNC and other special purpose connectors? Well, the list can get pretty long and complicated.
A good rule to follow is the Boy Scout motto–be prepared. My collection of adapters, connectors and adapter cables has grown to suitcase size, though many of the items inside I almost never use–but I might need them someday. What happens when a dance instructor wants a video of a public performance and the audio playback device is ancient? Suppose it doesn’t even have a headphone jack? Situations similar to this one are not uncommon. Here, you have two options: use a microphone in front of the speaker (OK audio, maybe), or connect directly to the speaker wires (direct audio, but requires an adapter).
University Sound offers a useful "connect-all" device called the MICKIT ($378) that converts essentially any audio source from any type connection to a microphone output; it even has a level control. The MICKIT, having a variety of connectors permanently attached, is an elaborate version of a direct box, used to connect a line-level source–such as the line out on a video deck, a headphone output or even a speaker output–to a microphone input.
Microphones, even the wireless units, will need a cable to attach to the mixer or directly to the camcorder. I suggest a standard fifteen- to twenty-five-foot cable and at least one extra fifty-foot cable for use with all the wired microphones. While a twenty-foot cable may serve most of your needs, you do not want limits on where you can place your video camera due to not having a long enough microphone cable.
Standard microphone cables have 3-pin XLR connectors on both ends. Don’t buy any microphone or microphone cable that uses a non-standard connector. If you are plugging directly in to your camcorder, use an adapter.
Wireless microphones need a cable to connect the receiver to the mixer or camcorder. This connection requires a special cable with either an XLR or 1/4-inch phone plug on the receiver end and the appropriate connector (XLR, mini-plug or RCA) on the end connecting to mixer, camcorder or recorder.
Let Your Ears Be The Judge
All the audio accessories in the world can’t make up for poor equipment or poor audio production technique, but they can sure help. In fact, when combined with good technique, accessories can spell the difference between a shoddy, amateurish sound track and one that lifts the video production up to a professional level.
Don’t depend on accessories to make the audio work; depend on your ears. Use accessories when necessary to enhance your production efforts, and use your ears to determine which accessories help you get the kind of quality youre looking for. If you can close your eyes, listen to the audio by itself and be pleased with what you hear, you’re on the right track. If the audio stands on its own, without the video, it’s a winner. Your job is to make it so.
Special Microphone Accessories
In the never-ending quest to improve audio performance by getting microphones closer to the source (or by making them sound as though they were closer to the source), there are some special products worth considering. Included in this category are stands, fishpole booms, shockmounts and parabolic dishes.
Microphone stands are useful if you are working with static subjects. In a multi-person interview, when no wireless microphones are available, an effective technique is to put your microphones on boom stands and position them outside the video frame above the heads of your subjects. Boom stands, like the AKG KM275, cost around $80.
Getting the same results when the subject is moving requires a fishpole boom and an operator. A fishpole boom is essentially a lightweight (usually fiberglass or aluminum) telescoping pole with a microphone clamp of some type on the far end. In order to prevent operator meltdown, use a lightweight microphone on the end of the boom. The operator must follow the subjects around, trying to keep the microphone aimed at the talking subject while also trying to keep it just out of the video frame. This is not an easy job. Beyer offers a fishpole boom, the model MZA 716, at $299 list. The MZA 716 extends to 1.7m (5.5 ft).
Wireless microphones are easier to use and don’t require an operator, but several wireless systems would be far more expensive than a single microphone on a boom. If you want to try the boom technique on the cheap, try attaching a microphone clamp to the end of a telescoping pole; you can find the window-washing variety at your local hardware store.
Another useful microphone accessory is the shockmount. On a stand or handheld, a shockmount greatly reduces the amount of handling noise or rumble transmitted to the microphone pickup element by isolating it mechanically. A shockmount is almost a necessity on the end of a handheld fishpole boom. The Electro-Voice 313 shockmount ($64) is for microphones with diameters up to 3/4 inch. The Audio Technica AT8415 shockmount will handle microphone diameters up to 2 1/8 inches and costs $60. The AKG H30 universal shockmount ($49) is another possibility.
To better isolate a handheld microphone, you may want to try the ASC Soft Handle, available from The Sound Catalog. The ASC Soft Handle ($17) attaches to a standard microphone clamp, such as those found on boom stands and shockmounts. The combination of shockmount and Soft Handle allows exceptionally quiet operation of a handheld microphone on the move.
For very specialized applications, such as recording bird songs, surveillance or trying to pick out the play calls in a huddle from the sideline of a football field, a parabolic dish might work. Essentially a reflector that focuses sound waves originating directly in front of the dish, the parabolic dish/reflector is a great tool for increasing the apparent "reach" of a microphone. However, don’t expect high fidelity sound from a small dish. A very large dish is required to reproduce low frequencies.
Any professional parabolic microphone system will be very expensive, if you can find one at all. The cheap units will be toys, hardly worth your time to even evaluate. If you are mechanically inclined, your best bet is to buy an 18-inch parabolic reflector dish kit for $35 from Edmund Scientific (Edscorp Building, Barrington, NJ 08007; 609-573-6250). The parabolic dish has a hole in the center where you can rig an arm to hold a microphone at the focal point. The focal point is where the sound waves from the direction you are pointing the dish are focused.
Audio Accessory Companies
This list is only a sampling; it is not meant to be comprehensive.
AKG Acoustics Inc.
1525 Alvarado St.
San Leandro, CA 94577
1221 Commerce Dr.
Stow, OH 44224
147 New Hyde Park Rd.
Franklyn Square, NY 11010
56 Central Ave.
Farmingdale, NY 11735-6906
600 Cecil St.
Buchanan, MI 49107
46-23 Crane St.
Long Island City, NY 11101
581 Laser Rd. NE
Rio Rancho, NM 87124
1500 One Tandy Center
Fort Worth, TX 76102
P.O. Box 987
Old Lyme, CT 06371
222 Hartrey Ave.
Evanston, IL 60202
One Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
9900 Baldwin Ave.
El Monte, CA 91731