Using a boom mic may sound like a simple job. But the truth is, it’s a lot harder than it looks. It takes focus, stamina, and a little technical know how to get it right.
In this tutorial, we show you the right way to use a boom mic, including set up, operating techniques, positioning, choosing the right mic for the job, and achieving audio perspective.
By the time we’re through, you’ll have a whole new respect for what it takes to capture great audio on the set, and be able to tackle the task with confidence. Let’s get started.
Boom miking is an art form, and while there’s plenty of room for experimentation, starting with best practices will give you a great baseline for improvising when the time is right. When you’re in the field, you’re going to be making constant adjustments between takes, and a proper setup will help streamline the process. Extending your boom pole when it’s fully collapsed can be a bit tricky, so extend each section just enough for your hand to fit comfortably around the pole. This makes it easy to extend a new section of the pole.
Always extend the section closest to the mic first to keep the bulk of the weight at the base of the pole. You’re arms will thank you for it.Some boom poles will have a coiled internal cable that expands and contracts with the pole. This is great, as long as the internal cable doesn’t bounce around and make noise when you’re recording. External cables can be wrapped 2 to 3 times the pole, and your hand can hold the cable taught at the bottom. Some operators use simple elastic hair ties with balls on the ends to secure the cable in a couple places along the pole. The excess cord can hang from your field mixer bag, or a belt loop in a pinch. If you want to learn all about field mixers and you’re a plus member, you can check out a full video tutorial by clicking on the link.
Regardless of mic choice, you’ll want to have a mount designed to reduce handling noise. This can be a simple suspension unit, a full blown zeppelin, or a pistol grip. You’ll also want some type of wind protection around your mic, as shotgun mics are particularly sensitive. The zeppelin style mount with a dead cat works great for windy conditions, and a simple windscreen can work wonders in calmer conditions. You’ll also want to give your cable enough slack to adjust the mic angle, and attach the cord to the suspension unit when possible to reduce the risk of the cable creating noise.
Okay, you’ve got the boom pole ready for action, your cables are nice and tidy, and you’re ready to hoist the pole up. Holding the pole the right way will give you greater control over aim, and prevent your arms from being fatigued within a matter of minutes. Start with your arms shoulder width apart and take one hand and place it near the bottom of the pole with your palm facing toward your body. This hand can also hold the XLR cable in place. Now take your other hand, and grip the pole with your palm facing outward, making sure your arms are still shoulder length apart. Next, raise the pole directly above your head. It’s important to note that you don’t want to have an iron death grip on the pole. Instead, just grip it tight enough for it to be secure. With your lead hand, you can rest the pole in the junction between your thumb and forefinger or even grip the pole lightly if your shot doesn’t require a lot of movement. If you need to move back and forth between speakers, you can let the pole roll on the pads of your fingers for smooth operation. This prevents friction between the pole and your hand from making noticeable noise. With your arms shoulder width apart, you can easily move the mic position forward and backward, as well as change the angle for subjects that are in motion. Try not to lock your knees, so you’ll be able to move around smoothly.
If your subject is seated or completely stationary, you can flip your lead hand around and rest the pole behind your head on your shoulders. Now that you’ve got the holding position down, it’s time to think about where you’re going to stand.
There are three factors to consider. Keeping your mic out of the shot, preventing shadows from falling into the scene, and of course getting the best position to capture good sound. To keep out of the shot, you may have to extend the boom pole and angle it down toward your audio source, or get down low and angle it up. To reduce the risk of shadows, position yourself on the opposite side of the key light or sun, and always be aware of how the shot will be framed. For the best miking position, most audio operators prefer to mic from above the talent, as you can generally get closer while staying out of frame. Also, miking from below can pick up unwanted audio from props or hand movements. Whenever possible, face the rejection area of your mic pickup pattern toward the background noise or reflective surfaces if possible. If you want to know more about mic pickup patterns and you’re a plus member, you can check out a full video tutorial by clicking on the link.
So, the ten thousand dollar question is, what mic should you use? For outdoor shots, the mic choice will be largely dependent on the shot framing. For wider shots, you’ll need a mic with a more narrow pickup pattern. This will allow you stay out of the the frame, while continueing to minimize the ambient noise in the recording. Long mics with more cancelation ports tend to have narrower pickup patterns, but also require more precise aiming to get good results. Tighter framing like Medium shots and close ups allow you to get much closer to the sound source without getting the mic in the frame. This allows you to use mics with wider pickup patterns, while still minimizing the ambient noise you’ll pick up. Shorter shotgun mics with fewer cancellation ports tend to have wider pickup patterns, which are more forgiving when it comes to aiming the mic. While shotgun mics work great for outdoor shots, indoor shots may not yield the same results. Audio pros avoid them, because the reverberations from the walls and ceilings can create some undesired results. Instead, short hyper-cardioid mics are the preferred mic type for most indoor uses. In a pinch, a shotgun mic can give you decent results if the room is fairly large, or doesn’t have a lot of reflective surfaces. You can also try to dampen reflective surfaces with heavy blankets.
Once you’ve got the mic mounted, it seems like a no brainer to just point it at your subject and hit record, but actually, the best aiming position may depend largely on what you’re shooting. To understand this, we need to talk about mic axis and pickup angle.
The axis of a microphone is the area in the center of its pickup pattern. When you point the axis of a mic at a source, you’re going to get the fullest audio quality possible. The pickup angle of a mic is the area outside of the axis that gives a fairly consistent sound level and quality. Once you pass outside this area, the audio quality drops off dramatically. For scripted material with predictable movement, the goal should be keeping the mic axis pointed toward the source of sound you’re trying to capture.
However, if you’re a run and gun audio operator, the likelihood of being able to keep a moving target on axis is going to be a real challenge. In these scenarios, you can point the sweet spot of the pickup angle at your source to maintain more consistent levels and tonal quality.
Many of us don’t have an arsenal of microphones at our disposal, and that’s okay. The important thing is to know what your mic can and can’t do. Test your mic at various distances in quiet and noisy locations. These tests will tell you the minimum and maximum distances that your mic can handle. Also test how far off axis you can be before the quality drops off significantly to find the sweet spot for your mic.
As a general rule, the idea is to get the mic as close as possible to the source and maintain aiming position and distance from the source for the entirety of a shot. The closer you are to the subject, the less background noise you’ll pick up, and the further you move away, the more noise you’ll get. When switching from close shots to medium shots, you can enhance the viewer experience by introducing audio perspective. In the real world, sounds have a full tonal range when we’re close to them, while walking further away from a sound makes it more distant. Pulling your mic away slightly for wider shots and keeping it a bit closer for tighter shots can achieve this effect on your recording to enhance the realism of the scene. Let’s take a listen to an example. Notice that the wider shot allows a bit more ambient sound in than the tighter shot. When it come to recording two or more subjects speaking in a shot, you can either try to record each subject on axis by rotating the mic back and forth, or you can try to have a stationary position between the speakers that picks them both up in the pickup angle. Again, it’s important to remember that a mic with a wider pickup angle will make this a lot more doable than one with very narrow angle. Let’s hear the results in this example, the audio sounds better, but it’s a challenge for the operator to change the aim of the mic, especially when the audio isn’t scripted. this example may not sound as full, but the audio levels are consistent, and our audio operator isn’t trying to predict when each person will speak. As we said at the beginning of this tutorial, there’s a lot more to capturing great sound than you might think. Now you have the foundation for running a boom mic like a pro, there’s only one thing left to do. Practice, practice, practice. After all there’s no better teacher than experience. So grab your mic, get out there, and go for it! Thanks for watching.