Choosing a Microphone for Video Recording – Your Guide from TheMicStore

Over the past few years, the increasing addition of video recording from within ‘standard’ DSLR cameras has seen a huge rise in photographers needing to learn all about audio capture for the first time. If this describes your journey then this guide is for you! 

Audio For DSLRs & Camcorders

Can’t I just buy a microphone?

Much like video capture, audio is also a multi-faceted beast. It really is not sufficient to just let your camera record the sound around the camera (or camcorder) and hope that you are going to receive great results. In video terms, this is the equivalent of shooting every frame in ‘Auto’ mode. Sure, you will capture the sound, but can you really say that your most professional results have been gained when pointing and shooting on auto mode? I doubt it!

Audio needs to be properly considered just like the video you will no doubt be already adept at capturing. 

And in the same way that you will often use a different lens for different shooting styles, the same is true for the audio side. In this article, I’m going to talk to you about the different types of mics you can use, and under which circumstances you would use each when on location. In future posts we’ll get into the specifics of how to get the best from each mic. But for now, let’s look at the different microphone types.

Shotgun Microphones

For the pacifists in the audience, breathe easily. I’m not going to start recommending that you need some sort of explosive device to get great sound. Shotgun mics, sometimes referred to as Boom Mics, are simply microphones that pick up sound from the equivalent pattern that a shot pellet expels as it leaves the barrel of a gun. When I’m explaining this to people in person, I usually equate it to the narrow beam created by a torch. As a rule of thumb, if a torch beam would light up the target subject, then the shotgun mic will pick up the audio.

But why would you want this type of narrow pickup? Unlike video, where often a cinematic wide view is required, with audio you will often just want to capture the audio from the subject you are recording (i.e. the person being interviewed). Most of the technique in audio terms comes when trying to minimise any unwanted sound from the audio recording. If you’re doing a shoot in an conference centre, yes you want to get some ambience of the environment to bring context to the recording, but not at the expense of what the person speaking is actually saying!

So a shotgun mic is designed to focus the sound pickup from the direction that the mic is pointing in, minimising its pickup from the side and back of the mic. Because of this, don’t expect any great results if you are behind the camera asking questions of the person being interviewed as it will sound like you are talking from the other end of a 1920′s telephone conversation.

Choosing a Shotgun Mic

Audio Technica BP-Series Shotgun Mics

There are a couple of considerations when choosing the actual model of the shotgun mic to use. The first is the length of the shotgun itself. In general terms, the longer the ‘barrel’ of the shotgun mic, the tighter the angle of pickup is. Think of it as focusing the sound although this is not 100% accurate as the sound is not so much focussed, just the amount of unwanted off-axis sound is reduced. For many DSLR owners, there are limited options here as you are unlikely to want to put a long-barrelled shotgun mic on top of your camera as it will end up in-frame when shooting your videos. But if you can find someone to help out, or set the camera to record whilst you concentrate on the sound, you can get the mic off the camera and hold it in position out of frame – then the length really doesn’t concern you. If you’re in this on your own and want to fix the microphone to the hot/cold shoe on your camera, then go for one of the compact versions on the market such as the Rode Videomic Pro which is the undoubted industry leader in this field.

You will also need to consider how the microphone will be powered. In order to be sensitive enough to accurately pick up sound from a distance, shotgun mics needs to be what’s known as a Condenser Mic. These mics are constructed with their diaphragm (their ear) made of a couple of very thin metal plates. In order to work, there needs to be a reference charge running between these two plates for the mic to work. This reference charge, sometimes referred to as Phantom Power, can be supplied either by the recording device (camera, portable recorder, etc) or by a battery. Let’s face it, for most, using a small battery is going to be the most convenient and give you the most options. Look for ‘battery-powered shotgun mics’ for a range of models to suit.

Choose a shotgun mic (a mono one which I’ll come to later) when recording monologue-style pieces to camera or 2/3-person group discussions. 

Lapel Mics (aka Lavalier, Tie-clip, Clip-On, Lav, etc)

Oh so many terms! But realistically I am talking about the same thing – a miniature microphone worn by a single person, which is either plugged directly into the camera (or portable recorder) or connected into a wireless system for true versatility.

Now before you get pedantic and mention that there are stereo lapel mics out there for recording multiple people at once, you should use these as very much a last resort. Dialogue should be kept as a mono recording. The person speaking has but one mouth so do yourself a favour and use one microphone; you’ll end up with a solid audio result, which is what you’re after isn’t it?

There are a few things to help you choose specific types of lapel mics, such as whether to get a cardioid or omnidirectional pickup, whether to get a wired or wireless one, and also that most will need to be provided with some kind of power. Let’s briefly cover those now…

Rode Lavalier Lapel Mic Kit

Pickup patterns

There are two main types of pickup pattern for lapel mics: cardioid or omnidirectional. Cardioid (sometimes referred to as unidirectional) is essentially a directional mic. That is, it will pick up sound preferentially from the front on the mic to that of the sides and back. You’ll mostly need this if you are in less-than-ideal conditions such as a busy workplace, built-up areas or conference halls.

Omnidirectional mic capsules are favoured by the broadcast industry because they technically offer a more natural sound, and they have highly-controlled acoustically-treated studios to work in. Nice work if you can get it! In quiet environments though, especially out in the wilderness (one of our clients does fly-fishing videos) an omnidirectional pickup is ideal because it doesn’t suffer from large drops in sound if the person forgets to keep their head facing forward.

Wired or Wireless?

This is probably a reasonably easy choice on the face of it, but there are still some considerations here. Firstly, wired lapel mics should be fine where the presenter is within say 6 feet from the camera. Any more and certain mics are going to be susceptible to picking up noise or interference.

When looking at wireless mics, you’ll need to decide whether you need portability or not. Portable wireless systems will need a system that is entirely battery-powered to allow the system to be used wherever the camera is needed. For corporate applications, where the system will always be used indoors and mains power will be available, you can choose any of the wide range of mains-powered lapel mic systems.

Power requirements

The vast majority of lapel mics will need to be provided with some kind of power for them to work. We’re not talking about mains power here, but a small static charge to make the mic work (that’s about as technical as I’m going to get into here so no need to switch off). Sometimes this power will be provided by a battery, others by a thing called Phantom Power – some are Dynamic mics so don’t need power but these are typically less sensitive so rarely used. Just be aware that you need to make sure that you have the ability for the mic to work. In general terms though, if it comes with a battery, you’re good to go!

Interview Mics (aka Stick mics)

Pitch-Side Interview With Stick Mic

Next we’re going to cover interview mics. These are the ones you will no doubt have seen when reporters on the red carpet are interviewing c-rate minor celebrities, or sweaty dejected footballers who have just been beated by a lesser team. In either case, the interviewer (usually also on camera) will hold a microphone which is positioned towards whomever is speaking. It looks a bit like a stick, hence why it is sometime called a stick mic…

These mics are also available with either a cardioid or omnidirectional pickup (see above) depending on what your requirements are when filming. For those professional users out there, you may want to consider a modular mic that gives you the ability to to chance the capsule from cardioid to omni as needed.

There are a wide variety of interview mics available on the market. In general terms, you do get what you pay for here: higher-priced microphones will decrease the handling noise, improve sensitivity (how far the mic can be used effectively from those being interviewed) and the accuracy and depth of sound pickup (preventing your audio from sounding weak or ineffective).

A word about Mono & Stereo

You will note that in most cases above, I have been talking about using Mono microphones. In this world of HD, most people would assume that stereo is always best. But in the world of audio, in particular dialogue, mono is your friend. Think about it for a moment. Last time I checked I had one mouth: you probably do too. So your mic needs the same. If your trying to capture a soundscape however (such as ambience for your video), then stereo is definitely the way to go. In general terms, choose a mic that matches your audio sound source: Mono for single mouths, stereo for ambience, bands, ensembles etc.

For most professional videos to sound natural, you will want to mix mono and stereo to get the best results. Record your dialogue in mono, and record the ambience (or atmosphere) in stereo and mix the two together. It’s for this reason that surround sound systems often sound so much more defined when attached to your TV. That little centre speaker ‘locks’ the dialogue to the centre of the screen, whilst all the whizzy effects and Amazon rainforest atmosphere coming out of the front/rear left and right speakers puts you in the overall picture.

So What Do You Need?

You may have read the article above and decided exactly what you need for your current project. That’s absolutely fine. But the more work you get involved with, the more you’re going to want to consider your mics just like your lens collection. I doubt that as a stills photographer you’d even consider not having both a wide-angle and telephoto lens – so treat your mics the same way.

Most professionals will have a range of mics to allow them to pick up the sound the right way for all eventualities. This is a sound investment (if you’ll pardon the pun) as most videos are won or lost on the quality of their sound reproduction.

To make things easier for you, you may want to consider something like the Sennheiser K6-series mics which are modular. You start off with a suitable powering module (either phantom powered or battery powered), and then add the correct capsule for your needs. These include short- and long-barreled shotgun capsules, as well as cardioid and omnidirectional stick mic capsules.

One word of note for DSLR/Camcorder owners. If you want to add a microphone to plug into your device, make sure that you have one with an External Microphone Input socket on it. This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but at least half of all models don’t include such a basic requirement. It’ll usually look identical to a miniature headphone socket (think MP3-player, phone, etc). If you don’t have one of these, all is not completely lost however, as you may be as well just picking up a separate Portable Recorder and recording all your audio to this instead of the camera. Sound quality will be as good if not better than the camera itself, and you’ll end up with a more flexible solution in the long run.

So what are you waiting for? Take the step to improved audio today and I promise you’ll never look back!

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