Lots of filmmakers, especially when they are just starting out, focus on upgrading and learning new video equipment at the expense of audio equipment. I was certainly guilty of this in the early stages of my career but, I’m telling you, that was a big mistake.
In fact, despite writing this post after my post about choosing video equipment, I think choosing the right audio equipment is more important. The reason is simple: a smartphone can shoot decent high-definition video, certainly good enough to not be distracting to audiences, but their audio recording capabilities are very poor. Unfortunately, bad audio is the first thing that will distract an audience and cause them to lose interest entirely.
If you’re trying to tell an interesting story, the last thing you want is for the audience to miss it because they can’t hear the subjects clearly. My goal is to share some of the things I’ve learned about audio equipment and when to use what to help you upgrade your documentaries.
How to Choose Audio Equipment
Just like choosing video equipment, there are different categories and different levels that will help scale your documentaries up, improving their quality over time.
But, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when searching for this equipment, especially when you start to notice the exorbitant prices for some of it. The last thing you want to do, especially when you’ve spent a ton of money on a camera, is to turn around and spend a ton on a microphone, so I’d like to share a variety of ways to accomplish the goal of recording good audio to give you some high-value options that won’t break the bank.
Before we go down the microphone rabbit-hole together, I want to talk briefly about an important component of your audio gear: the hole your microphone plugs into and what your audio will be recorded to.
These devices range from the camera itself, to a small field recorder, to large multitrack recorders, so let’s talk about each option.
Camera Input. First thing’s first: you should avoid using your built-in camera microphone at all costs once you’ve moved beyond the smartphone or Canon G7 X stage. It is, by far, the lowest quality option for recording audio. That said, most smartphones and DSLR cameras have a mini-jack audio input that allows you to plug in some decent microphones, instantly upgrading the production value of your work. I’ll explore some of the specific microphones later, but I’d suggest prioritizing plugging a decent microphone into your camera as soon as possible, even above upgrading the camera itself.
Zoom H4n and/or Tascam DR-40. The Zoom H4n (and its cheaper competitor, the Tascam DR-40) has become a standard in small-scale film and television. It’s an external field recorder, which means that it operates separately from your camera, giving you another failsafe when it comes to your production. Even if your camera stops recording for some reason, the field recorder is recording separately and will keep picking up sound. The other big draw to these field recorders is that they have two XLR inputs, which allows you to record two channels of audio from two separate microphones at the same time. XLR is the industry standard when it comes to audio cables, and for good reason. The XLR inputs are incredible secure, which reduces the risk of something getting accidentally unplugged during production. There are numerous tools that allow you to mount these field recorders onto your camera rig, but the power of these field recorders really lies in their ability to move independently of the camera. Unlike your camera inputs, which require a microphone to be leashed to the camera (unless you are going wireless), the field recorder can be managed by a dedicated sound person or even be strapped to the subject. These field recorders give you a lot of flexibility in your projects and are a great addition to your arsenal — definitely a great first step when you’re ready to move beyond the basic camera-mounted microphone. Check out the Zoom H4n and the Tascam DR-40 on Amazon to see some of the deals (and bundles) currently offered.
Zoom F8 and/or Tascam DR-680. The Zoom F8 and its Tascam competitor are professional-level equipment, make no mistake about it. These things boast a whopping eight channels of audio and will record timecode alongside your audio. On the other hand, these things need a dedicated sound person to manage so, when you factor in the price of the equipment and the daily rate of your sound person, these things may not be totally practical for every project. When your project (and budget) warrant it, though, I definitely recommend using one of these devices and operators. I personally love having a dedicated sound person monitoring levels the same way a camera person monitors picture and a story person monitors narrative. It takes a lot of the technical stress away and allows you to focus on what is truly important: telling a great story. Check out the Zoom F8 and the Tascam DR-680 on Amazon to see some of the deals (and bundles) currently offered.
A good microphone is essential to a good production, but there are seemingly endless options and applications for these things, so I’d like to narrow the field down to just a few.
Camera-Mounted Shotgun Microphones. This is the most basic microphone option and will pick up the lowest quality sound in most settings. The reason is that, because they are mounted on the camera, they are as far away from the subject as the body of your camera. The further the microphone is from the subject, the less quality and clarity you get in your audio. I have to add a disclaimer here that, even though camera-mounted microphones pick up lower quality sound than boom-mounted microphones or lavalier microphones, they still pick up higher quality sound than built-in camera microphones by far. So, if all you can afford is one of these things, you’re still going to be upgrading your work in a significant way. And some of the options are very affordable. The Rode Video Mic Go is a great option for DSLR and proper video cameras, and the Rode Video Mic Me is a great option for smartphones. If you’re looking for even better quality, the Rode Video Mic Pro is the company’s best offering. Of course, there are about a million competitors in the microphone space, but Rode is standard among YouTubers and indie filmmakers because of their quality and reliability, and at such affordable prices it’s hard to doubt so many other creators.
Boom-Mounted Shotgun Microphones. The next level when it comes to recording quality sound is to mount a shotgun microphone onto what is known as a “boom pole” in film and television. The boom pole allows you to drop the shotgun microphone directly over (or under) your subjects. Since quality and clarity improve as the microphone gets closer to the subject, these things deliver amazing results. Rode has a number of shotgun microphones built specifically for booms, notably the Rode NTG1, Rode NTG3, and Rode NTG8. Of course, as the quality improves in these microphones, the price goes up. There are a handful of options from other companies as well, including the Sennheiser MKE 600, Audio-Technica AT875R, and Azden SGM-1X. As a note, most of these microphones do not come with boom poles so those will need to be purchased separately. On the plus side, most of these microphones will mount to the top of your camera with the proper mount, which makes them a lot more versatile.
Now that we’ve narrowed in on microphones, specifically the distance at which the microphone is held from the subject, I think it’s important to touch on the closest, most personal option of microphone.
Lavalier Microphones. These things are great for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their distance from the subject’s mouth (since they are often clipped to the collar of or inside the subject’s shirt). Because of their proximity to the subject and their directional nature, they are excellent at picking up high quality sound from the subject while simultaneously isolating them out from the noise around them. They aren’t perfect, so if there’s a helicopter flying over your set or an ambulance speeding through your set, they’re going to pick some of the sound up, but these things are superior to boom-mounted and camera-mounted shotgun mics in their sound quality if you are using them correctly. The other huge benefit to these microphones is that they do not require a boom operator to hold. Clip the lavalier microphone to the subject, plug it into your transmitter, recorder, or camera, and let the thing do its job. It’s the kind of thing that, once you learn how to use it, operates itself.
As with shotgun microphones there are a million options out there, but I’d like to focus on a few selects to give you a good starting point. First, it’s important to understand the difference between wired and wireless lavalier microphones. Wired lav mics have to plug into a recorder of some kind, which means your subject is tethered to your field recorder or your camera (depending on where you’re plugging the thing in). Wireless lav mics plug into a transmitter, which clips onto the subject’s waistband, and the receiver is mounted to your field recorder or camera and plugged in there. Obviously wireless is the way to go if you have the budget to buy a nice wireless lav, but it’s a luxury that not all documentarians can afford, and that’s okay.
There are some great wired lav mics out there including the Rode smartLav+ and Sennheiser ME 2, which are higher priced, higher quality microphones, or the Audio-Technica ATR3350iS and Azden EX503, which are lower priced, lower quality microphones. You get what you pay for here, but even the cheapest options are going to produce better sound than a built-in camera mic, and may even produce better sound than some of the shotgun microphones depending on the environment. For wireless options, Sennheiser is the industry standard and perhaps their best offer is the Sennheiser EW 112P G3. Now, there are some cheaper wireless lav mics, but as I mentioned with the wired options, you get what you pay for, and using cheap wireless lav mics is a little risky. The Movo WMIC50 is an affordable kit, the Pyle-Pro PDWM96 is even more affordable, but buyer beware. With wireless microphone systems, you run the risk of getting interference on your wireless frequency, and the cheaper the system the higher the chances of getting interference. You may be better served by a more expensive wired microphone rigged to a field recorder than a cheaper wireless microphone system, but it’s up to you to make that choice.
There’s No Such Thing as Perfect Sound
I’ve worked on a wide variety of shows and in a wide variety of sound environments. When watching footage from these shows in post-production, the best sound always comes from an isolated lavalier microphone.
That said, it’s not always possible to get a lavalier mic on the subject, and that’s fine. I’ve worked on plenty of shows where the sound is only being picked up by a shotgun mic on the top of the camera. It doesn’t sound as crisp and clean but, honestly, as long as the viewer can hear what the subject is saying (with the occasional help from a subtitle), and the story is compelling, they will be forgiving about less-than-ideal sound.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should ignore sound completely. But, since story should be the focus, you shouldn’t dwell on imperfect sound if it’s going to take time away from thinking about story.
Most of the time, a shotgun mic mounted on the top of the camera will do the trick (as it does for YouTubers like Casey Neistat who get over a million views on every video they release). If you’d like to get a little more fancy, use a lavalier microphone for interviews so, at the very least, your exposition is nice and clear. If you can afford to get a lot more fancy, then you can hire a sound person to hold a boom microphone and properly record and mix your audio.
In general, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, there is only what is right or wrong for your specific project, and only you as the producer or director can know the answer to that.
I’ve exhausted what little knowledge I have about video and audio equipment at this point and it’s up to you to choose. Soon I’ll get into how to properly use all of this stuff to capture a compelling story but, before that, I need to explore one more set of tools.
In my next post I’ll explore editing software and help you choose the appropriate suite for your project.
In the meantime, none of this theory is going to help you if you don’t get out there and practice, so I have three final words for you: make more movies.
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