Essential audio recording – part two: microphones

Audio gear can add significantly to the cost of a filming rig; perhaps as much as 25 per cent of a budget can go on audio.

None the less, there is a lot of mileage in the saying “buy less, but buy well”. A few solid, high-quality items will prove to be the best value in the medium term. Don’t discount buying used equipment; do avoid most of what is on sale at high-street electronics stores and unbranded equipment. Most of it will not stand the rigours of news-gathering work. Stick to makes such as Shure, Beyerdynamic, Audio Technica, Sennheiser and Rode. This article looks at microphones.

Why the mic matters

Workhorse: Rode’s NTG-2 shotgun mic

The most important item in any reporter’s audio kit bag is the microphone. The built-in microphones on DSLRs, large-sensor compact digital cameras and even consumer camcorders are little better than useless. Even the built-in mics on pro cameras are best viewed as for emergency use only. So almost anyone’s first purchase will be a microphone. (The exception here is that there are several small audio recorders with very good mics, so if your assignments are primarily or only audio, it is worth testing the sound from your recorder before buying a mic too.)

Microphone types

The recommendation for a first mic used to be a general-purpose vocal mic, such as Shure’s classic SM58. This is still good advice.

It is a ‘dynamic’ mic, which means it does not need external power. This makes it suitable for recording voice as well as atmos or effects. It is not necessarily the best tool for an interview, but it will do that job well enough if handled with care. Mic positioning is critical, and it can be hard to keep this type of mic out of shot.

Another issue with dynamic mics is they produce quiet low output levels, which can stress the inputs on lower-powered cameras (the pre-amps have to work harder, and this can cause hiss).

You will also need a connector cable, either XLR to XLR for a pro camera, or XLR to minijack for a consumer camcorder or DSLR, unless you are recording separate sound or going via a converter box (see below). But the SM58 will do the job, and will withstand a lot of punishment, so it remains a good first mic.

Video mics
One way around some of the limitations of a general-purpose dynamic mic is to invest in a mic designed specifically for video. These are mostly condenser mics (so they need power from the camera or their own power). Most video mics are of the shotgun type, as this allows the film maker or reporter to focus on a specific sound source, especially an interviewee.

There are some cheap ‘video’ mics on the market, but these are best avoided. The industry standard broadcast mic is the well-regarded (but expensive) Sennheiser ME-66, but a lower-cost but very effective alternative is Rode’s NTG-2.

The NTG-2 uses a professional XLR connector but can be fitted with a battery for power. This allows recordists to use it with consumer cameras, DSLRs, or sound recorders. Even on a recorder with mic (phantom) power, using the mic’s batteries saves power on the recorder. Rode also makes a phantom power only version, the NTG-1, but the extra versatility makes the small additional cost of the NTG-2 worthwhile.

Another option, also from Rode, is the company’s video mics (Video Mic, Stereo Video Mic, Video Mic Pro and Stereo Video Mic Pro). These are not to be confused with some of the cheap generic ‘video’ mics on the market, even though the entry-level Video Mic now costs around £60. These are really designed for use with video cameras or DSLRs; their design, intended to go on a camera’s accessory shoe, does slightly limit how useful they are for off-camera or audio only recording. Similar types of mics are sold by Sennheiser, and even Nikon (the small but high-quality ME-1).

From Rode, best option, in price-performance terms, is probably the Video Mic Pro, and it is ideal for DSLR recording as it is designed with its own circuits to overcome some of the issues with DSLR sound, especially lack of control over levels (auto gain control). However, with the right cable and mounts, my choice would still be the NTG-2.

Clip (lavalier) mics
Clip mics are standard for interviews, discussion programmes, documentaries, or almost any situation that allows the subject to “wear” a microphone. Wireless mics give the most freedom, as the subject can move around. Wired clip mics are less prone to radio interference or flat batteries, and there are no issues with licensing (depending on its radio requency, a mic transmitter may need a licence).

Sennheiser’s EW-100 G3 series is a popular, lower end system, although at around £450 for the basic kit, it is hardly a budget purchase. For wired mics, Sony, Rode and Audio Technica are also options: Sony’s ECM-44B is a good all-rounder and has its own battery power, so it can be used on a consumer camera or DSLR with the right cable. The cheapest “pro” option is currently Audio Technica’s AT803B. Allow for buying a pair, and for cables.

Interview mics
Interview mics are slightly more specialist than general-purpose vocal mics such as the SM 58. The advantages of interview mics include better rejection of unwanted noise, isolation against handling noise, and usually a matte finish that stands out less on camera. Interview mics work best slightly further away from the subject than a vocal mic, but they are not designed to focus in on a sound in the way a shotgun mic can.

Some interviewers hold interview mics between themselves and the subject; mic positioning is of course a combination of personal technique, ambient sound levels, and the atmosphere you want to create. BeyerDynamic’s M58 is a classic “ENG” mic for interviews; there is also a condenser version (MCE58) with its own power, for lower power recorders. Audio Technica’s AT8004 is a slightly smaller, cheaper interview mic, and Shure’s VP64A is slightly cheaper still, but perhaps best suited to close-in work. Most interview mics are sold in standard and long-handled versions; buy the long-handled one if you can, unless do a lot of work in confined spaces (such as inside a car).

Condenser mics
Field interview mics are usually dynamic (although there are some exceptions). For studio work, condenser mics are an option. They are more sensitive, but they need phantom power, and a quite, and ideally, acoustically treated room. Condenser mics can also be more demanding on the speaker than dynamics, as their sensitivity makes them more prone to changing mouth position, and to popping. A condenser mic is a good option for voiceover work, but with care, an AT 8004 or even a SM58 will also do the job.

Anyone doing lots of voiceover work, radio, or podcasts, should look at either a large-format condenser, and some acoustic treatment, or a specialist broadcast dynamic mic such as the Rode Procaster or the Heil PR 40.

Any of the mics mentioned, though, or their equivalents, will add enormously to the quality of any production. The ideal way to judge which is best is to try it: borrow or hire some mics, and record some footage, and see what suits your work best.

  • A note on USB mics: there are some good USB mics on the market, including some that work with iPhones or iPads as well as computers. Most, though, do not have connectors for use with audio recorders or cameras. It is more flexible and more cost-effective over time to buy a general purpose, pro mic and a USB or Firewire interface for computer-based recording.The next article in this series will look at audio accessories: adapters and cables, headphones, mounting kits, and sound recorders (and maybe some software).

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