A good microphone, and proper recording techniques, will ensure quality sound for most types of reports. But there are other accessories and equipment to give sound that additional edge.
Windshields, shock mounts and stands are all recording kit essentials. Any mic should really be used with a foam windshield, and most good ones come in with one in the box. If not Canford Audio and Studio Spares stock a vast range of sizes.
The foam shield protects the most sensitive parts of the mic and reduces both wind and breath noise (popping). Ideally, keep the shield on the mic at all times.
For outside recording it’s essential to add some form of furry windshield, or “softie” (sometimes also known as rats or dead cats…) Rycote is one of the best-known makers and they have softies to fit pretty much any shotgun mic. But the basic manufacturer-branded shield for, for example, Rode’s NTG2 is perfectly servicable and simple to use; it just slips over the foam one.
For regular outdoor recording, consider investing in a ‘blimp’ mic shield. As used on the TV news, his fits over the mic and shockmount, with or without a softie. The main disadvantages, aside from the £100 plus cost, is size and on-screen presence. Having a blimp in shot can be more distracting than a mic on its own. A good compromise is Rycote’s InVision windshield. Rather like a mini-blimp, it slips over the mic (rather than putting the mic inside, like a case) so it works on camera as well as off. It is very effective at cutting out wind noise.
For DSLRs and other cameras without a fixed mic mount, a coldshoe mic adapter is essential (unless your mic comes with one built in, as some video mics do). Rycote again makes a very flexible mouting system, using robust ‘lyres’ rather than rubber bands. There’s also an adapter so it can be used with the on-camera mic holders on pro camcorders.
A more traditional design is Rode’s SM3 shotgun suspension. Sound isolation may not be as good as the Rycote but the design is simpler, and the base of the coldshoe adapter is pre-drilled for use with a mic boom (but also means it can be used on a spare tripod, mic or lighting stand). The mount can be angled, adding flexibility.
A boom poll is a good option for bringing the microphone close to the action, but keep in mind that it is not easy, or even always safe, to operate a camera and a boom.
For studio use
For studio or voiceover recording, pop shields are essential, as are foam mic shields (if your mic didn’t come with one, in the UK Studiospares sells good value generic versions).
For pop shields, the standard nylon mesh type works well enough, but the double layer ones are more durable; Rycote again makes a high-quality, but costlier type. The nice thing about these is the foam inserts are washable and replaceable.
For guest mics, a couple of heavy-based tabletop mic stands will do the job, but avoid the portable type for heavier mics. Or look at an anglepoise stand; they cost more at about £50, but are much more practical for voiceovers or interviews down the line or Skype.
Finally budget for quality cables and to replace them when they become worn. If you are installing cables permanently or making up custom wiring Canford Audio’s FST is a good choice, and Neutrik remains the standard for connectors. A cable tester (about £25) is another sound investment: check wires before each job!
It is well worth investing in quality headphones. For studio use the BeyerDynamic DT100 is a standard, but the only slightly more expensive DT150 is better for monitoring (or consider the more lightweight DT250s).
For field use, the standard choice is the Sennheiser HD 25 II (avoid the consumer-spec HD 25 SP II, which has less accurate capsules).
There are, of course, dozens of good headsets out there, including those from AKG, Sony, and Audio Technica. The important point is to keep to an impedance of at least 80 ohms for a field set and 80 or 250 ohms for studio use. Lower impedance headsets, with 32 or even 16 ohms designed for portable music players, will not deliver the full sound needed for critical monitoring. Higher impedance models are deisgned for use with studio comms systems and headphone amps; the main disadvantage of higher-impendance sets is they will not work as well with lower-power devices such as computers.
A headset’s frequency response should be at least 30-16000 Hz – a wider response is better.
Audio software is a vast topic, and can be a significant investment. Systems such as SADiE, popular in radio production, cost several thousand pounds in some configurations.
For basic audio editing tasks, the sound tools in video editors such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere are often good enough. Separate software comes into its own for standalone audio work (a digital audio editor, or DAE, will be quicker than a video package) and for correcting and cleaning up, or “sweetening” audio. Packages include Logic, Pro Tools, CuBase and the shareware app Audacity.
The best audio tool for cleaning up sound, short of some very specialist studio tools, is currently Adobe’s Audition (included with the Creative Suite or available standalone). Audition is a functional audio editor; the new CS6 version is said to be a real improvement over earlier versions for editing. But Audition comes into its own for tasks such as removing or reducing background noise, interference, and other audio problems. The application’s set of compressors also speed up preparation of audio for web encoding. (We will post a tutorial on Audition for cleaning up video soon).
Another very useful – and free – tool is The Levelator from The Conversation Network. This is in effect a limitor/compressor which creates consistent sound levels across multiple clips in a programme.
It is not as accurate as adjusting clips manually in a DAE (and of course you record audio at consistent levels in the field anyway) but it is a good backup option. If you like The Levelator, you can donate to its development cost.
Pluraleyes is not a standalone software application, but a plug-in for video editors including Final Cut Pro and Premiere. Designed first and foremost for DSR film makers, Pluraleyes automates syncing audio and video from different devices. It is not infallible, and works best where sound has been recorded well in the first place. But it can pay for itself quickly if you use even moderate amounts of off-camera sound.
Finally, if you want to take audio to the next level, consider Pro Tools. Pro Tools is owned by Avid now but has been a mainstay of professional studios for years, but with a pricetag to match.
But Avid recently rewrote Pro Tools to make it “native”, or hardware independent. This means you can use ProTools with a huge range of compatible audio hardware — or for video makers especially, just with the audio in a PC or laptop.
The full copy of Pro Tools, version 10, costs around £399 but there are frequently hardware bundles which are cheaper. The most basic versions, either ProTools SE, or sometimes marketed under the older M-Audio brand, can cost under £100. But given the plethora of current and older versions speak to a reputable dealer to ensure you buy the right mix of features and upgradability. For older, hardware-locked editions, ensure the hardware is portable if you plan to use it with a laptop.
The advantage of Pro Tools is that it is industry standard, has powerful plug ins and very effective effects and other tools (such as EQ and compressors) which can lift an audio track, and it understands timecodes. The main limit on the cheaper versions is the track count, which again is less of a drawback for video shooters than, say, musicians.
A separate audio recorder was almost an essential second purchase for DSLR film makers. The latest DSLRs have much better audio, and the Nikon D800 and Canon 5D mk 3 have audio monitoring as well as control over audio levels.
For standalone audio recording, or cameras without separate audio inputs or outputs, do consider an audio recorder, with XLR inputs.
The need for pro mic inputs does limit the options (it is possible to use cheaper units with adapters but it can turn into a real limitation in the field.
One of the most popular choices with film makers is the highly flexible Zoom H4n. But Tascam’s DR-100 (and the updated mk2 version) have outstanding build quality as well as a combination of directional and omni mics – the latter are very useful for scratch recordings of group interviews or round tables.
The Roland R26 Is a similar device to the DR-100 and if anything chunkier. Some sound recordists prefer the Roland’s top-mounted audio input controls. It also has the potential to record six channels (by using both sets of internal mics), which is not bad for a handheld recorder.
Cheaper and less bulky is Tascam’s newer DR-40, which has XLR inputs but misses out on some features such as the ability to set left and right mic input levels separately (important for interviews where the questions will stay in the final edit). But if you mostly record one person at a time, the DR-40 is a good bet. And if you can live with the lack of separate left and right levels, the DR-40 records four channels.
For more specialist situations, there are the multi-channel recorders such as Edirol’s R44 4-channel solid state recorder and the hard-drive based R4Pro (expensive, but with the ability to lock to an external timecode such as a video camera, or generate timecode for other devices). Sound Devices make some amazing field recorders too, at a price.
A final mention should go to Tascam’s HD-P2 recorder. This is a 2-channel unit which is slightly larger than, and quite a lot heavier than, a netbook. It is really designed as a sound recordist or radio reporter’s field recorder: typically you would carry it over the shoulder and record using a separate mic.
The smaller recorders are now very close – perhaps better – than the HD-P2 in sound quality; this is an older recorder, with Firewire not USB and CF not SD cards. But it has a feature no other recorder has: the ability to sync to a non-timecode video source, over a simple composite video input (it has proper SMTPE timecode in too). Unfortunately it doesn’t have a timecode out, so it cannot be used as a master timecode controller for other devices, but it works well both to add two additional audio channels to a timecode-ready camera or capture in-sync audio for one without. Its bulk and cost make it a less obvious choice for DSLR users, but if you also work on audio-only projects it is worth considering.
For anyone recording speech or actuality , and that covers almost all journalistic work, good audio is important. Viewers make allowances for poor images — witness the use of smartphone footage on TV — but increasingly demand crisp, clear sound.
When budgeting for video kit it is a good idea to allow 20-25 per cent for audio, especially microphones. Within that sound budget, again allow a quarter to a third for cables and accessories. But also spend the time to understand how audio works in a range of real-world situations. The result will be a much better report overall.